In Shambhala Sun, the pages turn East

By Mary Lee Grant, Media Life Magazine, Aug 29, 2005

Buddhism as a way of life, in real-life terms

Nova Scotia, Canada -- Twenty-five years ago a Tibetan teacher named Trungpa Rinpoche started a spiritual community on the windswept shores of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Rinpoche, an Oxford graduate whose followers believed he was a reincarnate lama, was one of the most important Tibetan teachers in the Western world. He had founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., the only Buddhist-inspired university in North America, and the group that followed him to Canada was to become the largest Buddhist community in the Western world.

Early on the community began circulating a publication among its members, offering teachings, meditations and advice. It was called Shambhala Sun. In 1991, the magazine had a circulation of 1,700 and a full-time staff of one.

These days, Shambhala Sun serves a far wider audience, with circulation of 65,000 and a staff of 19. It's still published in Nova Scotia, and while it is no longer affiliated with any particular Buddhist group, it has become one of the premier magazines about Buddhism and spiritual life in North America.

In the 1980s, there weren’t many titles published about alternative religion and spirituality. The Sun stood out as a cutting-edge publication at a time when many Americans didn’t know much about Buddhism.

Now newsstands are awash with publications that address the spiritual life and non-traditional ways to achieve happiness. Even Martha Stewart has gotten into the religion business with Body+Soul. And mainstream magazines more and more are taking on spiritual topics.

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"Spiritual magazines are huge," says Melvin McLeod, editor in chief of the Sun. "But much of what we call ‘spiritual’ ends up packaging baby boom values, and I say that as a baby boomer myself."

The Sun dares to go against the current of popular culture, now no less so than when it was a tiny paper serving its religious community.

"We have a pretty tough message," McLeod says. "‘You are going to die, you won’t be eternally youthful, disease is part of life.’ The first premise of Buddhism is that life is marked by suffering. Buddhism is not about denial and avoidance. Many of these spiritual magazines, and much of modern culture, is."

The Sun did much to pave the way for alternative spirituality magazines. Many of the ideas it advocated early on are now mainstream. Buddhist approaches to healthcare, art, and poetry are part of the dominant culture, while the hospice movement arose largely out of Buddhist thought.

Although the Sun has more than doubled its circulation in the past five years, its editors struggle to keep their bearings against the glitzy new order, as expensively produced magazines like Real Simple and Breathe gain so much attention.

Sun's focus remains firmly fixed on Buddhist teachings on how to cultivate the heart and soul to deal with the harsh realities of life.

While another magazine might feature an article breathlessly praising a new form of yoga popular with the star of the moment, the Sun laughs at yoga chic, in which a bejeweled anorexic model assumes poses in a comely Lycra bodysuit. What could such a person teach about contemplative practice?

"As any good yogi will tell you, suffering, old age and death don't automatically vanish when you finally can arch back and touch your head to the soles of your feet, any more than loneliness vanishes when you've finally made the cover of People magazine," writes Anne Cushman in one article.

One of the advantages that the trendiness of Buddhism has brought to the Sun is that many famous writers and artists are Buddhist or have Buddhist leanings. Alice Walker and Richard Gere, Maya Angelou, Patti Smith and Pema Chodron, Pico Iyer and Natalie Goldberg all contribute to its pages. And Buddhism isn’t the only topic addressed, although all articles fit in with the Buddhist world view.

"Travel articles are as likely to be about inner journeys as outer ones," says editor Andrea McQuillin.

Or they might be about global problems, such as the article "The Future of Ice" which chronicles novelist Gretel Ehrlich’s year of traveling to the world’s coldest places, meditating on the experience of winter and exploring the effects of global warming on the polar regions.

Writers address work and its place in Buddhist life with stories like "Buddhists in the Boardroom," which explores the question of whether Buddhism and big business mix. A recent feature entitled "The King We Need" discusses the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and how they can be incorporated into daily life today. Another article talks about what is right with Islam. Yet another explores women’s role in Buddhism.

Many stories are about other contemplative traditions--a feature on St. Francis of Assisi, or an article on Islamic Sufism. Others deal with art and the creative spirit, with writers like Julia Cameron discussing how to tap creative potential. Some of the stories take unusual and innovative forms, such as a reflective interview with composer Phillip Glass in which he posed the questions to himself.

McLeod and McQuillin both are Buddhists, as are half the magazine’s staff. McLeod has a journalism background and was a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when he began to volunteer with the magazine. McQuillin’s background is in technical writing.

Advertisers include book publishers, meditation supply companies, Buddhist event organizers, and purveyors of natural products and health foods.

We could get a lot more advertisers if we just expanded our editorial a little, to take in things like household decoration,’’ McQuillin says. "But we aren’t willing to compromise. We are about Buddhist teaching. "

McLeod says he doesn’t really compete with the other Buddhist magazines, because they are all working for the same end. The only other national Buddhist publications are BuddhaDharma, a quarterly which McLeod also edits, and Tricycle.

The Sun has its largest circulation on the two coasts, in the Pacific Northwest and in Florida and Texas. It generally runs about 104 pages, and 40 percent of those pages are advertising. Its readers are highly educated, and more than half have some post-graduate education.

"We are more like Harper’s or The Atlantic than like Body+Soul," McLeod says. "Our readers truly are readers."

The magazine’s design reflects the creative feel of the editorial. Says McLeod: "We try to make the art and the art direction so beautiful that the design of the magazine becomes a teaching in itself."