BG 081: The Inevitable Tension: Going Deep vs. Spreading Wide

Episode Description:

Melvin McLeod, Editor-in-Chief of the Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma magazines, concludes his conversation with us, this time discussing the inevitable tensions that arise in Buddhist media. These tensions center primarily around going deep vs. spreading wide. Listen in to hear how these magazines find the middle ground between condemning Buddhism to the irrelevant on the one hand (too much depth) and selling out on the other (too much breadth).

Also at the end Melvin shares the specific ways that their publications are looking to integrate new media technologies into their projects. Exciting times!

This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, Peering Under the Hood of Buddhist Media.

Episode Links:


Ryan: Melvin, have you found that that adds something unique to the Western dharma? That this sort of thing is actually happening here? Because I don’t think that has happened in any other culture, has it? With the tradition where all these traditions come together, and not only that, but they’re being presented in one publication, you know, for people to experience.

Melvin: I think this has been widely noted going back to Joseph Goldstein’s book One Dharma a number of years ago. One of the things that is unique about Buddhism in the West is that for the first time there is this simultaneous availability of the teachings of a number of traditions. I have no personal experience of being any other kind of Buddhist, so this seems completely natural to me as a Westerner, but I guess if one does look at the other traditional Buddhist countries, there’s obviously some communication that takes place, but pretty much each tradition is self-contained.

Ryan: Right.

Melvin: I mean the potential trap is that one simply becomes a spiritual shopper who picks and chooses among the different traditions in order to create a personalized dharma that fits one’s own proclivities. And of course the very purpose of the dharma is that it not fit your proclivities, also known as ego. I think the trap is that one does not, in the end, make the kind of commitment to a single tradition that is really going to challenge ego. By remaining floating above, picking and choosing, I think you can create a kind of apparent Buddhism that could be a very comfortable nest for ego.

Vincent: Right. This is a question I’ve been wondering about too, reading Thomas Tweed’s work on a night-stand Buddhist, which is this sort of sociological examination of American Buddhism, and he called night-stand Buddhists the ones who have The Three Pillars of Zen on their night-stand and every once in a while they’ll do some Zazen, but they wouldn’t necessarily call themselves Buddhists, and they probably haven’t really gone into the depth and the vastness of those teachings. And like you say, that creates a trap. I’m wondering, because you guys are a broad outlet for this sort of thing, and you know instead of The Three Pillars of Zen someone might have Shambhala Sun or Tricycle on their nightstand, and I suspect that’s something you guys have to deal with a lot. Are people using this just to enhance their identity in some way? Or are they using it to really deconstruct that identity and find out what’s beneath identity.

Melvin: I don’t think I could put either of them down…I think the person who has got the Three Pillars of Zen on their night-table, and who is looking at it is where they’re at, and that fine. That’s better than not having Three Pillars of Zen there. What we can’t do is tell them that they’re doing a bad job and they need to go deeper into it. Certainly in the Shambhala Sun, we do our best to provide entry-points and material that will be immediately helpful to somebody in their life. No matter whether they call themselves a committed Buddhist or they go to a Buddhist centre or what. If just reading the article is all they do, and that’s a help to them, I’m happy with that. I really am. At the same time, the key is that article itself should have a profound quality to it.

Vincent: Right.

Melvin: If it’s genuine dharma and if it itself has got some challenge in them to their ego, then that’s fine. The real problem becomes when that one article that they read basically is some form of what Chogyam Trungpa calls spiritual or emotional materialism.

Vincent: Right. That makes a lot of sense. We’ve often played with a metaphor of a funnel on this show, and talked about marketing the dharma in terms of a funnel. I don’t know if it holds up, but it seems like it works some of the time, where you imagine this funnel and you have people on the wide end who are picking up maybe publications or they hear something even in the mainstream media about the Dalai Lama, and kind of being exposed to the Buddhist philosophy and teachings no matter how superficial or not. And then, that’s the spark. If they really connect to it and they find value in it, like you say if they read an article and they’re like “Wow! This is really important!,” and then find themselves falling down the funnel like water wood, and going deeper and deeper. But then some don’t. And it seems like that’s just a natural thing.

Melvin: Not only that, but I think that we have to approach it from the point of view that that’s okay. I think this is something that a lot of Buddhist communities also deal with when they say that people will come and they’ll learn meditation, but they’ll leave and they won’t come back and they won’t become members.

Vincent: Right.

Melvin: I think it’s important to say that that’s also okay. If they’ve come and they’ve learned meditation, and they’ve gone off, then that’s fine in and of itself. And so I think in a way we could hope that people will come and read something in the Shambhala Sun and it’ll draw them deeper and deeper interest and practice of Buddhism. But if all it does is help them in and of itself and they don’t go any further with it, then that also is a contribution. I don’t think that we should feel like we or they have failed in that case.

Vincent: Right, right. That’s a great point. It gets even more interesting when you take into account the economic structures that we operate within, and that these people actually are supporting Buddhism as an institution of sorts. The people that just pick up one of your magazines, but they don’t really come back, they do support somewhat financially what you guys are up to and allow you to continue to offer that. So it’s really interesting.

And the people who come to a center, likewise they might give a little donation, support the teacher, and I guess where it gets a little tricky is where (or I could see it getting a little tricky) is if these Buddhist centers, or publications, or ourselves as Buddhist geeks, we don’t really make that much money, we certainly want to attract more people sometimes because that would support us financially, but we don’t know where the line is of making accessible versus watering down in the hopes of bringing in money. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that, and I’m sure you guys have had to deal a lot with that as well.

Melvin: Yes, undoubtedly it’s an important question. I don’t think we’ve ever been tempted to water down the dharma to make money. I think the only place where we face the challenge is that the newsstands are highly dependent on the cover image, and if we put the Dalai Lama or Thich Naht Hahn photograph on our cover, well we’ll sell quite a few more magazines. So, there’s obviously a connection between content and sales, and making money and surviving. I’d look at it more that we’ve never really sold out. I suppose since I’m the one defining whether we’ve sold out [laughter] is completely circular logic. Nonetheless, I look at it more as having a kind of porous membrane where the distinction between ego and non-ego, between pure dharma and spiritual materialism, are porous and hard to define. I think we all have come to the dharma initially for mixed motives that have ego involved in them. I can certainly speak from personal experience that many of us still do. So, I think there are certain kinds of material you can present to people that are an amalgam of things that are profound dharma and other things that are simply helpful to them in their day-to-day lives in a real way, not in a destructive way, but if we can provide some material that is straightforwardly helpful to people in their personal relationships without being the most profound dharma in the world, I think that’s okay. And it becomes that top end of the wide funnel that you were talking about…

Vincent: Right.

Melvin: I certainly don’t believe we can be purer than pure and holier than holy; otherwise we condemn Buddhism to be a very tiny, sort of elite cadre. On the other hand, I don’t believe that all that we should be concerned about is getting the most people to do something that they would call Buddhism either. I know that the Japanese teacher Ada Roshi? has had a strong effect on me on this question. He pointed out when I was talking with him, talking as I was at the time more about how we can get Buddhism out into the broader society, and he made the point that it was probably a project of at least 100’s of years before the full depth of genuine Buddhism would be established in the West. There’s always a tension between going deep and going wide.

Vincent: Right.

Melvin: And you can do both, but there are trade-offs involved. I would have to say that he helped me to see that the deep, the building of genuine, strong foundations for Buddhism in the West should be emphasized more than they have been as opposed to the dissemination or the widening side. So, I think we need to do both and I guess you could argue that our magazine Budhadharma is devoted to the deepening side, the building of the solid foundations, and that the Shambhala Sun is more at the widening side. But I think if we go the extreme of either, we are in trouble. If we go completely to the widening side, you have to sell out by definition. That’s what complete widening is! The converse is if you go complete with the deepening side, you are condemned to esotericism and irrelevance.

Vincent: That’s great.

Melvin: To me, that’s where the tension is; not a tension between commercialism or purity.

Vincent: Got ya. That’s great. I really appreciate the overview. That’s really helpful. It makes a lot of sense. Finally, I wanted to ask where you see the future of the work you guys are doing there going. Obviously one of our main interests is technology and the younger generation of Buddhists. Both Ryan and I are in our 20’s, at least for another couple of months. [laughs]

Ryan: Thank you.

Vincent: Ryan will be 30 soon. I’m sure this is on your radar, and I’m interested in hearing how you guys will be engaging with—I mean, already you are; I mean you have a website with different things online—but I’m wondering what the future looks like.

Melvin: Well, there is our future, the future of Buddhist media, and there’s the future of the media in general. There’s no doubt in my mind that paper will cease to be a widespread form of communication. The newspapers are already under serious assault from electronic media. The future is clearly electronic. There’s no doubt about that.

As well, it offers all kinds of advantages of two-way communication, of social generation of content. So, we’ve never particularly been early adopters of things, among others things because we’re a bunch of Babyboomers, and also we don’t have a lot of resources. It’s not like we could ever have had hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw at the generation of a new media operation, but I think we’re now at the point where we’re ready and want to jump into having a space on the web where the community of Shambhala Sun and Budhadharma readers as well as the broader community of practitioners in the West, can really start to get daily, topical links and information, discussion, forums, and you know all the things that really make that whole medium—your medium—so exciting.

Vincent: That’s great. Thank you so much Melvin. Is there anything else you wanted to say, or mention, about this whole topic that wasn’t covered but you think is relevant?

Melvin: Well, that’s a rather open-ended question!

Vincent: Yeah, we like to leave it open at the end [laughs]. Just in case there’s any pearls of wisdom waiting to spring forth there!

Melvin: Well they are not going to be mine, but I think one of the things that’s interesting is that at sitting here working on these publications, concerned I would say exclusively about the progress and growth and development of genuine dharma in the West, sometimes it’s possible to wonder whether things are going to work or not. Whether Buddhism might turn out, for example, to be condemned always to be a marginal phenomenon, or some sort of 60s Babyboomer phenomenon aside from a few 20 something weirdos like you guys! [laughter] Or the Babyboomers actual biological children is just going to turn out to be a one-generation wonder.
I guess I would say that just as a matter of faith—we’re loathe to use it in Buddhism—but I think we should have complete faith in the strength and integrity of the dharma, and that it will successfully be planted on Western soil. I think that in some way we can’t screw it up actually, try as we might. The dharma will successfully be planted on Western soil; we will have a profound and accurate and complete and great American Buddhism.


Melvin McLeod