The State of Buddhist Publishing
My longtime friend Lama Wangmo asked if I would pen a few words on the state of Buddhist publishing, wearing my hat as the president of Shambhala Publications since 2010 and Snow Lion Publications since we acquired them in 2011. Given the audience of Vajrayana World, my emphasis here will be on works specifically of interest to Tibetan Buddhists, but will stray a bit where appropriate.
Below I will touch on the state of publishing in general and then dive into the specifics of the Buddhist book publishing world. I will talk about what it means to read a Dharma book and how this might be substantively different from how we consume other types of books. I will then get into some of challenges of Buddhist publishing such as authentically transmitting the Dharma and how it can contribute to the building of an English-speaking Buddhist culture.
You will find no shortage of my personal opinions and perhaps some over-generalizations below—some of which you may agree with, but hopefully all of which you will find thought-provoking. They do not necessarily represent the views of Vajrayana World or Shambhala Publications as a whole.
The State of Publishing
First a bit about the state of publishing in general. When I started at Shambhala in 2010—which incidentally is not related to the Shambhala International organization nor the Shambhala Sun magazine, now known as Lion’s Roar—there was a lot of industry-wide doom and gloom echoing around. E-books would kill print, piracy will be publishers’ undoing, Amazon will ruin publishing, and bookstores will disappear. That pessimism was mostly overwrought; book publishers of all sizes are, overall, doing OK. E-books are just another format, and a shrinking one at that, with about 15% of books like ours being read digitally. While it’s true that piracy does have a negative effect, the experience of reading a scanned PDF is pretty unappealing for most readers. The fact that it is taking what is not given deters many Buddhists, and that the likelihood of contracting a virus from a pirate site is just not worth it.
The relationship between Amazon and the publishing industry is a complex one. By making close to every title available to anyone, readers around the world can absolutely benefit—and that’s great for publishers, too. At the same time, supporting an organization who sees precious Dharma books in the same light as laundry soap, light bulbs, and Legos, and whose might and vision afford little room for the cultural touchstones that enrich communities—from publishers to bookstores—may have its consequences.
Still, I remain quite optimistic and feel things look positive for publishers in general. The enduring attraction of the book remains, perhaps even growing as exhaustion from screens and the barrage of disparate information wears on people. Publishers have, with varying degrees of success, also found ways to diversify through apps, online learning, and more. And despite the infatuation with screens, people realize the final product of authors’ and publishers’ labors can be a beautiful, reliable, accurate, immersive object that can be a more fulfilling experience than many of the alternatives.
When I first started reading deeply into the extant Buddhist works a little over a quarter century ago, choices were really limited. Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher and Tsongkhapa’s Lam Rim Chenmo had yet to come out. Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation only existed in a translation that was nearly impenetrable. There was almost nothing from the Sakya tradition. Now it’s a different world.
Buddhist Publishing in many ways right now is the golden age of Buddhist publishing in English.
In 2016, Shambhala alone published 35 titles for Tibetan Buddhists (and a bunch more for Zen and Pali traditions), bringing us to 530 Tibetan Buddhist titles in print. While we have by far the largest list, the other Buddhist-centric publishers add a bit over two hundred more to the total. Some of the greatest works of the Indian and Tibetan traditions are coming out on an almost monthly basis.
There are many experienced translators who have good retreat experience and who work closely with lamas who have traversed the path. Vast, multi-volume works are available for many traditions, such as the ten-volume Treasury of Knowledge, the Complete Nyingma Tradition (eventually seven volumes and by far the largest work on a single tradition), the Treasury of Precious Instructions (eventually eighteen volumes) and the Library of Tibetan Classics series (Wisdom Publications). There are multiple translations and commentaries on the five Maitreya texts, the core of the Mahayana. There is the 84000 project (84000.com) committed to translating the entire Kangyur (the words of the Buddha) and Tengyur (the commentaries from India), even if few teachers teach those texts and few people read them.
Other publishers including Wisdom, Rangjung Yeshe, Padma Publishing, KTD, Vajra Books, Dharma Publishing (despite nothing new in years), and a few others have very dedicated people producing some important books. Even some of the university presses (Oxford, Columbia, Chicago, SUNY, and Hawaii in particular) are making some great contributions beneficial—or at least of interest—to practitioners, not just academics. There are also some very important behind-the-scenes organizations that really enable a lot of the important works coming out to happen—the Tsadra Foundation, the Hershey Foundation, the Khyentse Foundation, the Ho Foundation, and more, as well some private donors supporting translators and publishing projects. Tibetan texts are also widely available to translators and readers thanks in particular to the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center online library.
Thanks to our many teachers, translators, scholars, and sponsors, we have so much Buddhist material at our fingertips. There is a lot to feel very hopeful and positive about, not just about the books, but about authentic Dharma being made available both inside and outside of Asia.
Yet, as I survey the landscape of Buddhism in the West through the lens of Buddhist publishing in English, at times I have a lot of trepidation—as a publisher and also as a Buddhist. We have a long way to go. My concerns focus on how we read, what we read, and who is reading—or not.
How We Read
I was recently talking to Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche, and he described to me the curriculum at Larung Gar, the Buddhist center of learning and practice founded by the great Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche. The way many of us read Dharma books in the West would be regarded as pretty superficial and foreign to them. There, they are introduced to a text in a teaching context that may last for weeks or months, and still they revisit parts of it again and again. Every year, for three months the entire community of thousands would study a particular section of Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher and, of course, put it into practice. Then there are those on a particular track who are presented texts and topics—by authors such as Asanga, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Longchenpa, Tsongkhapa, Mipham Rinpoche, and many more—and spend months or more on each one, studying and practicing, often returning to the same text the following year. Consistent, repeated, in-depth attention and application allow the students to thoroughly internalize the works. I think of how many teachers trained in Tibet could recall and recite quotes at will, appropriate for the topic at hand. Not many can do that here, but perhaps that will change. During a recent event at Shambhala in Boulder, Anyen Rinpoche talked about how he encourages some of his students to read the Way of the Bodhisattva 108 times. This is encouraging.
What Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche discussed above comes out of a Buddhist culture that has been gestating in Tibet for 1,400 years. While we do not have the institutional and social constructs that can instantly support something like this, it is still important to study the authentic texts ourselves in a format that fits our culture (perhaps like Bible reading study groups). It is my opinion that we don’t emphasize that enough in our developing Buddhist culture—actually reading the foundational texts. Of course many teachers recommend to individual students that they focus on practice and not studying, and that advice, of course, is primary. But as a Buddhist subculture forming within our society, I still think it is vital for this to happen.
What We Are Reading
There is no shortage of great books available and the list keeps growing, from translations of Indian and Tibetan foundational texts, commentaries both new and old, and contemporary approaches that try, often very successfully, to speak to the modern-day needs of readers from the experienced to the curious. But, it is this last category of reader I worry about. There is so much other material out there that I think many reading this would agree may not be beneficial for someone predisposed to a particular tradition, whether the Pali traditions, Zen/Chan, or Vajrayana. Go into any bookstore with a decent Buddhist section (assuming of course it is not mixed up with new-age and other wares from the spiritual marketplace) and we see plenty that would likely raise eyebrows among those reading this—from the “Secular Buddhist” works whose earnest Humanist approach may depart from what many consider authentic Buddhism to the works of the “New Kadampa” organization. There is a lot of material someone without much guidance can get lost in.
An extension of this confusion of what to read is around restricted texts. The word “restricted” is a bit tricky—it’s sort of a flashing light saying READ ME, whereas the intention is the opposite. The point, as most readers here will know, is that those kind of texts are not beneficial unless the reader has the appropriate transmission, initiation, permission, and fulfilled any practice prerequisites. I am disheartened to see some translators go the self-publishing route with texts that should be handled in a more considered manner. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing, but what I worry about is the plethora of works now on tantra, Dzogchen, etc., many of questionable quality that have been rejected by publishers, available to anyone without any warning or context given. This is not sour grapes from a publisher—if they were done well and care was taken, more power to them. After all, publishers generally cannot take on even a great work if the readership is only a few hundred. Rather, this is concern from someone who has tried to absorb the teachings about samaya [sacred commitments], etc. and is worried about this trend and its effect on sincere, well-intentioned readers who may not yet have the background to fully appreciate the implications.
I do think we publishers can try to do more by directing people. Assuming we can get people to our websites, we can provide better guidance for people at various levels of interest and commitment for where to go deeper. A lot of “bedside table” Buddhists who like what they read and are gaining familiarity with practice would like to explore further but do not know where to start. While the best approach is to follow the guidance of a dependable teacher, many Westerners do not have that option in their present circumstances and books are their primary resource.
At Shambhala we feel this is a responsibility we need to take seriously given that we have published the majority of English-language Buddhist books. We want to make sure that the rich depth and breadth of quality authentic books are accessible and discoverable.
We are currently developing material to give more guidance to people—not just for our books but for everything that is available in English. For a few recent though simple examples, see our Reader’s Guides for Jamgön Kongtrul the Great and Dudjom Rinpoche, as well as the immersive online workshops on The Way of the Bodhisattva and the Treasury of Precious Instructions, available to the public for free. Stay tuned for lots more coming soon.
Recently I was asked who our biggest competitor was. This is an easy answer. It’s not another book publisher. On the contrary, having a healthy ecosystem of publishers passionate about the kind of books we do is good for all practitioners. And it is not self-publishing, which is a great way for works that have a very small, specialized, or sangha-specific audience to be available. It’s also not Amazon (at least for now).
The real competition is the host of distractions we are all bombarded with constantly. Before I ended up in publishing I was a technologist, so I am not speaking as a Luddite. But with the barrage of information we subject ourselves to and with the universe at our iPhone-gripping fingertips, focus and immersion are rarer, especially to younger people. We all have so many demands on our attention, a deluge of distractions that is really unprecedented. It’s hard to practice lojong [mind training] slogans or keep the four thoughts constantly in mind, let alone have pure vision when we are bombarded by the world around us in a way that is harsher and louder than any time in the past. While the flow of ceaseless concepts is nothing new to human beings, somehow now it seems harder to turn the volume down.
And with all this noise, younger students may not have the habit of reading books and people who grew up reading a lot may do so less now. So now we have a situation where many of these key translations, as close to canonical as there can be in a tradition without an agreed-upon canon, for one of the world’s largest religious traditions barely sell 1,000 copies in total. These works would be impossible to publish without support from organizations like those already mentioned. A couple decades ago, I felt that the roots of Dharma in the West were growing wider and deeper. At that time, I would have thought that by 2017, when something like our recent translation of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi or the Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sutras—one of the most quoted of all Buddhist texts—or Wisdom’s recent Stages of the Buddha’s Teachings came out, thousands would leap at the chance to immerse themselves in these incredible works. But currently these kinds of projects have pretty limited audiences. And they do not seem to be growing.
While there are many younger sanghas and lamas, as well as Western teachers with a lot of young students, the preponderance of grey hair at many Dharma centers indicates these are exceptions rather than the norm. I believe that if we published twenty years ago much of what we published today, they would sell 3–4 times more than they do now. This is partly due to the sheer quantity of great works available. No one can read it all, and “reading it all” is not the point. But to me—and yes, I am over-generalizing—it seems interest in really learning the Buddhist textual traditions has waned.
How Teachings Become Books
One challenge we have as publishers is the stream of submissions we get by dedicated students of excellent teachers who have been tasked with creating a book from oral teachings. This is not a simple matter. Invariably, a transcript from an oral teaching has a long way to go before it can be a coherent, impactful book. Transcripts require an immense amount of work, eliminating what is extraneous or repeated (which works in a teaching context, but less so on paper), moving things around, changing the sentence structure. It can work, but those involved have to have a clear vision and be a little brave.
The elements that make it work are people who understand this, have the mandate from their teacher—alive or not —to have some latitude, and have the ability to really channel the teacher’s voice. This is a tradition that goes back to the Buddha of course. A recent excellent example of this is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Profound Treasury, a three-volume set that his student Judy Lief brought from many teachings and stitched together. It’s 100% the teachings that were presented, missing nothing, but orchestrated in a way that works as a reading experience—as a transcript really never can.
The Future—Sustaining Buddhism for Generations
I also want to address another area where I feel we—publishers, practitioners, parents, and sanghas—have failed. Rather miserably. And that is providing good training and resources for children. I remember being at a tsok [feast offering] some years ago where at the end there was a group of young children exuberant from a rush of sugar in their blood, behaving wildly. A friend leaned over to me and whispered, “Good lord, these are the people who are going to be doing phowa [transference of consciousness at the time of death] for us”. Good lord indeed.
But of course this is about a lot more than phowa; this is about fostering our own version of Buddhist culture based on the wisdom passed down to us and sustaining the tradition for generations. And training our children is at the heart of this.
Some sanghas have summer retreats where children get plopped into a kids’ retreat with some level of instruction, but I’m not sure how deeply the Buddhist basics—let alone deep faith and devotion—get instilled at many of these. While there are a lot of great books with Buddhist-ish lessons or morals, the options for Buddhist parents who want to really help their kids understand and learn dharma in-depth are quite weak. So much of what is out there is just cultural baggage—-bouncing cherubic monks may not be the easiest to relate to. Or the art is unappealing. Or there is too much text for little kids to be able to connect. Or the kids need a ton of context or they won’t “get” what the books are trying to convey.
It's an Uphill Journey
How can we change this? How can we help create the circumstances when instead of going to summer camp or soccer practice, our thirteen-year-olds want to complete their ngöndro [foundational practices] Given social pressures, a lack of institutional support, and cultural norms, it’s an uphill journey.
On the publishing side, there is plenty we can do. We now are very focused on producing some really excellent children’s books that have meaningful lessons, good art, foundational concepts, and are complementary components of a larger vision. It will take a while but we are moving in a good direction. Ultimately, all of us Buddhist publishers need to have a comprehensive list of books that build on each other: great board books for little ones up to three years old, chapter books for six–ten-year–olds, and young adult books for ages twelve and up. And these need to be generated as a group—not just one-offs, or it becomes too hard for the kids to relate to, connect with, and assimilate into their milieu, culture and value systems.
While publishers obviously play an important role in this, for this to really have an effect requires the concerted, sustained efforts and long-term vision of teachers, writers, sanghas, and parents to create the resources and structure that parents can use with their kids day-in and day-out throughout the year. I was encouraged to see the Khyentse Foundation is turning its attention to this area and I have spoken at length about this recently with several lamas who also are concerned and have aspirations to change this. But we are at the very beginning of this endeavor.
Publishers are, more and more, looking to other areas to engage with people, and connect them to the wisdom and teachings. We started in 2013 developing online courses and have been expanding that branch of our company ever since.
Everyone and their mother-in-law are putting a form of these online now, with a wide variety of quality. Done well, these can be such a great resource for people, for example those in remote areas where teachers or even sangha are not easily accessible.
We have some exceptional courses with excellent lamas filmed and in production for 2017. But we have taken a conservative approach—the Buddhist courses that we have for 2017 are foundational. These are not only for beginners (though I expect they will find them excellent) but are from the likes of Kilung Rinpoche and Anyen Rinpoche that, in different but complementary ways, really are meant to invigorate viewers’ practice at whatever level they are at.
So those are some of my views as I see the world of Buddhist publishing from my desk. My aspiration is that many of the good works that present-day authors, translators, and publishers have been dedicated to producing and are serving us well and will find the wider audiences they deserve: wave after wave of generations of committed, accomplished practitioners.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to help keep the Buddhist publishing ecosystem vibrant:
- Support Buddhist publishers directly or your local bookstores when possible. If you call your local bookstore, they can generally get a book they do not have within a day or two.
- Join Goodreads, connect with your friends, and share with others the works that had an impact on you.
- Start a reading and study group—in person, at your center if you have one nearby, by phone, or online using Skype, Zoom, or another tool. Here is one way to do it online.
- Share what you read on social media.
- Sign up for newsletters from Buddhist publishers. Here is ours. You can set it up so you only receive books about Tibetan Buddhism if that is all you are interested in.
- Review books you like on Amazon, even if you did not buy it there.
- Read more and practice it!
I’ll conclude with this passage, included in The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech, from Patrul Rinpoche’s biography by Minyak Kunzang Sonam:
Thanks to the kindness of Patrul Rinpoche, the entire region became filled with the explanation and study [of the great texts] and very many people, down to ten-year-old monks, were able to adorn their mouths with the recitation of the Bodhicharyavatara . . . As a result, the whole land was gloriously transfigured through the enormous numbers of people who, from being complete beginners, aspired and turned their minds to the systematic implementation of the practice of the complete Mahayana path . . . And the members of the black-clothed laity, both men and women, by attending for just a few moments the explanation of the Bodhicharyavatara, came to understand that the good heart and bodhichitta are the living roots of the Mahayana teachings.
Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below. I may not be able to reply to everything but I will read it.
Nikko Odiseos, President
Shambhala Publications | Snow Lion Publications | Roost Books
From Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo: Thank you Nikko. I very much appreciate that you wrote from such a wide and long term perspective, taking more into consideration than "just publishing" and making it obvious how Buddhist publishing plays a vital role on many levels. Yes, we will always need qualified teachers and effective sanghas but your assessment makes me realize how much we need Buddhist-minded enterprises. Thank you for your service..