The Publishing Industry and the Western Construction of Buddhism: Marketing the Dharma By Bonnie Brereton
It‘s not just Hollywood and the American media that are infatuated with Buddhism these days. For publishers too, the study of Buddhism "is a field that is alive in a way that many other areas of religious studies are not," notes Alan Thomas, an editor at the University of Chicago Press. "In a crude way you could say that the value of Buddhism to any publisher is that Buddhism is hot. Its non-academic enthusiasts are well educated and well heeled — and they buy books. Scholars also buy books because they are energized; they are in the thick of debates that are fresh and intellectually consequential."
Thomas and representatives from a spectrum of other publishing houses along with a slate of Buddhist scholars exchanged ideas and information at a one-day symposium, "Marketing the Dharma." The symposium focused specifically on the relatively new phenomenon of North American Buddhism, rather than on the Buddhism of ethnic communities transplanted here from various places in Asia. "The evolution of North American Buddhism is complex and historically significant," explains Robert Sharf, a U-M specialist in Japanese and Chinese Buddhism, and one of the symposium‘s organizers. "It can be likened to the transformation of Buddhism as it moved from India, the land of its birth, to China, a country with its own well-established norms and forms. While the meeting between these two civilizations was initially awkward, and marked by misunderstanding, in the end it gave rise to new forms of Buddhist doctrine and monastic life that were as sophisticated as anything seen in India."
The history of Buddhism in North America is only a few decades long and is still in its formative stages. Here, too, the encounter with local norms and forms has been awkward. A process of selection is taking place: certain aspects of the tradition are being emphasized because they are familiar from other traditions known to North Americans, such as Reform Judaism, or a general kind of mysticism.
Buddhist influence began to appear in the 1950s in the works of a number of Beat Generation writers, such as Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. The tradition entered a more widespread public awareness in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was a significant component of the counterculture that flourished alongside the anti-war movement. A visible outgrowth of this development was the establishment of numerous dharma centers across the continent. Inspired by diverse Asian traditions, these centers offered courses on meditation techniques and Buddhist teachings, as well as opportunities for retreats, often led by recognized Asian teachers. The emphasis on meditation, the importance of individual teachers, and the lack of an institutional framework are some of the most distinguishing features of North American Buddhism. In Asia, by contrast, the religion exists within hierarchical structures, and most Buddhists generally do not meditate — although the practice is becoming more popular.
Previous attempts to examine North American Buddhism have focused on the role of these dharma centers, the Asian traditions they incorporate, and the Asian teachers they look to for inspiration. Sharf believes, however, that the publishing industry and the books it produces are having an impact on North American Buddhism that is at least as significant as that of the dharma centers. Moreover, throughout Buddhism‘s history the sutras, or religious texts themselves, as well as their production and distribution were integral components in the religion‘s dissemination
"As Buddhism moved across Asia, its survival in a new region was dependent, at least in part, on the successful movement of its sacred scriptures or sutras," says Sharf. The sutras were the primary source of religious authority, and control over the reproduction, circulation, and interpretation of sacred texts was firmly in the hands of the monastic community. North American Buddhists, by contrast, have little patience for traditional scriptures—the purported discourses of the, Buddha—preferring instead the words of living Asian teachers, such as the Dalai Lama and the late Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as the teachings of their senior Western disciples. The transcribed talks of these twentieth-century Buddhist leaders play a far more significant role in the transmission of Buddhism to the West than do Buddhist sutras translated from dead Asian languages. In addition, there has been a deluge of "popular" introductions to Buddhism with titles like Buddhism Without Beliefs, and Stumbling into Enlightenment. The dissemination of such materials in the West, as well as the publishing of scholarly translations and expositions of traditional sutras, is no longer under the control of the Buddhist ecclesiastical institution, but has passed into the hands of the commercial publishing industry.
These factors propelled Sharf, U-M Tibetan specialist Donald Lopez, and Shaman Drum Bookshop owner Karl Pohrt to organize a symposium bringing together scholars of Buddhism and representatives from the various publishing houses that specialize in books on Buddhism.
The symposium‘s title and organizing assumptions, as described in a publicity flyer (see sidebar) put together by Sharf and Lopez, elicited a strong negative response on the part of the publishers. Some were offended by the slightly controversial tone of the flyer and interpreted it as a criticism of the modern publishing industry. Although Sharf, at the symposium‘s opening, emphasized the fact that scholars considered pre-modern Buddhism no "purer" or less concerned with its own institutional, political, and economic viability than any modern publishing house or university, a certain defensiveness colored some of the publishers‘ remarks throughout the day.
The symposium organizers were also accused of confusing the history of the movement of Buddhist canonical texts with books published about Buddhism and its practices. However, Buddhist scholars agree that no one knows what the Buddha actually said and that both sutras and texts explaining sutras were written by individuals in order to promote their particular understanding of the tradition. The difference between the two categories of texts is a matter of framing, and not content or authority. Buddhist sutras typically begin with the phrase, "This I have heard…" to suggest that what follows is a sermon preached by the Buddha and recorded by one of his disciples.
Many sutras, however, are known to be apocryphal — disguised as translations of nonexistent Sanskrit originals. In China five out of the ten most significant texts are such apocryphal sutras — written in China by Chinese to fulfill local doctrinal and institutional needs. Moreover, according to Sharf, the Chinese often treated these locally written works as more "true to Buddhism" than "authentic" Indian sutras, "some of which they castigated as provisional teachings for those of inferior capacity." In a similar way, many North American Buddhists seem to have a disregard for ancient canonical texts. "My own undergraduate students hate to read them, " he says. "They find them alien, arcane, and impenetrable."
Sharf‘s remarks laid the foundation for juxtaposing pre-modern versus contemporary methods of disseminating the Dharma. Editors described the processes involved in soliciting, selecting and transforming manuscripts into readable texts that speak to various readerships. The editors represented both "dharma presses," like Parallax, Wisdom and Tricycle Magazine, which were founded for the express purpose of making Buddhism more accessible to Westerners, as well as the country‘s largest academic publisher, the University of Chicago Press. Their descriptions suggest that, despite differences in the publishers‘ size and audience, networking and the individual sensibilities of the editors are common factors in the screening process.
"You first look at the quality of the work and then how it‘s vetted in a network," explains Tim McNeill of Wisdom Press. This network includes, first, Asian meditation teachers, such as the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan tradition and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu in the Thai tradition. It can also include Westerners who, after having studied with Asian teachers, have devoted their professional lives to making Buddhist teachings accessible to Westerners by writing, teaching and establishing dharma centers. Finally, the network extends to faculty in top-tier Buddhist studies programs at universities like Michigan, Harvard, and Berkley. McNeill admits, however, that there are no hard and fast guidelines to determining authenticity. "It‘s kind of like saying how do you become a Buddhist," he said.
Economic factors, like the need to produce money-making books and pressures of publishing deadlines — keeping ahead of the game, with a supply of "ripe manuscripts" — are other ingredients that can determine whether a manuscript will be selected for publication. "That beast known as publishing has to be fed," said McNeill. "If anything, there‘s not enough good stuff our there to choose from."
McNeill was the only publishing representative to concede that "there is a lot of power around in this position of making decisions about what you publish." This point is underscored by the fact that Wisdom‘s logo, a drawing of a stupa, or pagoda, functions as a "kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval." But the authority conferred by a logo or company imprimateur can also be problematic. Thomas Cleary‘s translations of Chinese texts, which many scholars find questionable, nevertheless have a certain authority because their publisher, Shambala, stands behind them.
Descriptions of the editing process itself also suggest that the editor‘s role introduces still another variable absent from pre-modern book production. Jan Johnson of Tuttle Press explained, "Editing is aimed at clarity — making the writer sound more like himself than he sounds on his own." While such an accepted part of modern-day editing may sound rather innocuous, in the case of editing the talks given by non-native speakers of English, the effort to publish a book from a transcript of a talk can result in major transformations in the text. According to Arnie Kotler of Parallax Press, a book developed out of a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh might go through 40 to 50 rounds of editing. "The effort is to have the book have the quality of being spoken to directly. If you read the transcript you wouldn‘t believe that‘s what you just heard. But after about 40 rounds of editing, people say, ‘I was there and that‘s exactly what he said.‘"
Prior to the twentieth century, however, such preoccupation with capturing the individuality of the author in the wording of the text was alien to the process of producing Buddhist books. As Donald Lopez pointed out, traditional Buddhist societies were largely illiterate, and reading was one of the less important functions that books served. Books were sacred objects that were placed on an altar to be worshipped, and portions of sacred texts were sometimes encased within a Buddha image to enhance its spiritual potency. The very sound of certain sacred texts was (and among certain Asia communities today still is) held to have a powerful quality. The act of copying was itself a form of religious practice, an act that produced merit or blessings, an effect quite apart from economic gain.
While these functions might seem foreign to many practitioners of Buddhism, books still continue to hold a place of significance and new titles are continually being published. Publishers‘ Weekly lists some 1900 titles in print. Several symposium participants reported that they had tallied up 500 titles in the Buddhism section at Borders during a lunchtime visit. These numbers brought up the question not only of who is reading these books, but also of whether they are actually being read, or just carried around as a kind of fetish.
Some of these questions were addressed in the following remarks made by Shaman Drum bookshop owner Karl Pohrt:
"I make my living by selling scholarly books in the humanities, including Buddhist studies. You could say I‘ve been marketing the Dharma or selling the Western construction of Buddhism for almost a quarter of a century now. Thirty years ago the people who wrote the cover blurbs for many of the Buddhist books promised their readers that they would reveal the secret teachings. Today the general reading public and some of the publishers are tacking in the opposite direction. We might think about what‘s going on now as the domestication of the Dharma, or the psychologizing of Buddhism. The conversation between psychology and Buddhism is certainly an interesting and fruitful arena for dialogue, but sometimes it feels like an immensely rich and multifaceted tradition (Buddhism) is being trivialized.
"Over my desk I have a reproduction of the famous monochrome ink painting of the disciple Hui-K‘o, carrying his severed arm as an offering to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk reputed to have introduced meditation to China. Hui-K‘o, the tradition holds, committed this act of self-mutilation to prove his se
riousness, in the hopes that Bodhidharma would take him on as a spiritual apprentice. What would the psychologists who are soft-pedaling Buddhism as a kind of spiritualized therapy make of this? I keep this picture to remind me that there are people for whom enlightenment is not just a metaphor. Buddhism is a religion, and it is meant to engage all of one‘s core values. What are the larger issues here? Who owns this material? How do you honor it? How should it be disseminated?"
The discussion that followed called attention to the gap existing between Buddhists and Buddhologists. The profusion of titles, repetitious nature of the content, and staggering sales volume of popular titles as opposed to scholarly ones were phenomena that most of the Buddhologists present found puzzling.
An analogy for both the phenomenon and the resulting frustration on the part of Buddhologists was offered by Luis Gomez, founder of Michigan‘s Buddhist Studies Program who sees a parallel with the field of psychiatry and the competition psychiatrists feel with practitioners of alternative therapy, which is sought by an overwhelming majority of psychiatry patients. Alan Thomas sees the difference as generational: the popular books are being read by younger people or those who are new to Buddhism. Nearly all those on the panel, when asked, were able to trace their early interest in Buddhism to an encounter with a particular book, some popular, such as Three Pillars of Zen, and some classical, such as The Bhagavad Gīta. Moreover, most had been drawn to a profession involving Buddhism in some way through a personal engagement with its traditions, teachings and values.
On the othe hand, as Berkeley‘s Carl Bielefeld pointed out, "you‘d have a very hard time getting any academic press to accept a book that is openly sympathetic to Buddhism. Translations fall somewhere in between. The most popular books — the books that catch the acquisitions editors‘ eyes — are the ones that are suspicious, that use new techniques of the humanities to undermine the authority of the tradition." In the 19th century, he added, "scholars sought to report what the Buddhists had said. The present style is to tell the Buddhists what they really meant."
Alan Thomas argued that academic presses don‘t want to undermine the dharma, but that Buddhist studies at this point needs to develop a discourse of theology that can be read by those outside the Buddhist community. In Christianity "there is a style of academic theology that overlaps with philosophy. In ethics there is also a tradition of secular ethics that shades over into theological ethics."
"The fact that this is not a Buddhist society colors Buddhist scholarship in a way that it doesn‘t color Christian scholarship," noted Gomez. He pointed out that there have been at least six books published on St. Teresa of Avila recently and while all are critical of her in certain respects, "in the end, she‘s great. I would like to see one book on Buddhism that ends with that conclusion!"
The movement of Buddhism through Asia was in many ways a movement of texts. Texts moved physically from India to the rest of Asia, and then moved conceptually from Sanskrit into languages as disparate as Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan. The task of translation was a monumental one: it involved making the literary products of India accessible to distant cultures. The painstaking task of translation was typically performed by small teams of scholar-monks with a lifetime of training in the languages, thought and institutions of Buddhism.
The scriptures were then laboriously hand-copied by monks fortunate enough to gain access to them, monks for whom the very act of copying was an act of piety, producing merit for them and all sentient beings. Once produced, the texts were objects of obeisance as often as they were objects of study. Even with the advent of block-printing some one-thousand years after the death of the Buddha, the task of duplication remained time-consuming, and production, dissemination, and access remained the prerogative of the clerical elite.
Now, some 2500 years after the death of the Buddha, everything has changed. Anyone can walk into a bookstore and for a modest sum purchase a small library of Buddhist books. Writing and publishing is no longer the work of monks, or indeed of those with a commitment to Buddhism. The very notion of what it means to be Buddhist is now determined not by learned monks, but by publishers who decide what gets published and how it is marketed. The modern publishing industry has transformed sutras into best-sellers, monks into media icons, and disciples into consumers. How does this process shape our understanding of Buddhism, and what is the role of traditional Buddhist sources of authority in the process? The symposium will look to the past, the present, and the future to reflect on the role of the publishing industry and the global marketplace in the construction of what we have come to know as "Buddhism."
Bonnie Brereton has been interested in Buddhism since 1965, when she first went to Thailand. Since then, she has returned numerous times to teach and conduct research on Thai Buddhist art and literature. She received her doctorate in Buddhist Studies from the U-M in 1992 and is one of the editors of the Journal