‘Buddhism In The Media’ (1997)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

During the first Buddhism in America Conference in 1997, a panel discussion was held on ‘Buddhism in the Media.’ The full report can be found here. Editors Rick Fields and Helen Tworkow reminisced about the early years of the magazines Vajradhatu Sun (now: Shambhala Sun) and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review:

“The only place I could write about Buddhism was the alternative media, because my tone wasn’t cynical enough for the mass media at that point. I was able to have this open, yet skeptical view of the subject and also be a participant in the subject, which to mainstream journalism is kind of like the thing with LSD: If you don’t take LSD, you can’t really write about it because you haven’t experienced it. But if you do take it, you can’t write about it because your brain dead! Or if you go to a workshop and have some experiences and write about it, then you’re brainwashed. But to me, as a journalist, if you don’t have the experience, it’s just not as much fun or as accurate.

So I worked with New Age journals off and on and then I became the editor of a newspaper in Boulder, the Vajradhatu Sun, which was run by my root lama, Trungpa Rinpoche. The Vajradhatu Sun was trying to report on Buddhism in general and Rinpoche hada particularly wide view and appreciation of various forms of Buddhism, which is one reason I studied with him. The Vajradhatu Sun was, in his mind, going to be like the Christian Science Monitor of Buddhism. The Christian Science Monitor has a viewpoint of Christian Science, but at different times it’s a trustworthy, real newspaper. I took the job because I felt that it was one way that I had of working with him as a teacher, as the normal way of being a good student and doing the things you were supposed to do didn’t seem to work for me too well.

After a couple of years of working with that newspaper, I know I published some of Helen’s first writings that became her book, Zen in America. I think there was a piece about Kwong Roshi and we weren’t paying anybody anything at all. I decided that since we could only pay people ten or twenty-five dollars an article, that this was just an insult, so it was just cleaner to say we don’t pay. This is merit. This is pure merit you get for writing for us.

After about five years of working there and freelancing at the same time, the situation arose where there was a kind of scandal in the Vajradhatu community and I felt that we had to publish something about it because I was going on this Christan Science Monitor model and I was a journalist. It turned out that the publication was published by the Vajradhatu board, and so I had my first experience of an editor-publisher situation. Basically, they kept stalling and I said I’ll wait for x-amount of time before doing something because it’s a very difficult situation and I agree we have to figure out what we’re going to say. And while that was going on the New York Times came out with a story and so I said, Well, you know, now it’s out there and you really have to say something, but they still didn’t want to. So I said that in that case I have to resign; it’s the only professional, ethical thing I can do.

After this a small newsletter grew up in our community, called Sangha, that started publishing other stuff. At that point, Helen and I became involved in discussing putting together an independent Buddhist newspaper.

Helen Tworkov: Well, there were a couple of journalists talking about an independent journal from the early eighties—Rick and myself and Andy Cooper, who’s at Ten Directions. But somehow the timing wasn’t night. Rick [Fields] had just finished [How the] Swans [Come To The Lake] and he wanted to go back to Boulder to be close to Trungpa Rinpoche, so he went to do the Vajradhatu Sun. And so it didn’t come up again until Rick separated from the Vajradhatu Sun. It really brought home the lack of any forum for Buddhists to be writing about dilemmas in their own communities. There was simply not anyplace to do that.

The mainstream media has actually done a pretty good job in many cases and in particular around this. We have not seen, for example, revengeful, malicious views that we might have at some point expected. But what we did see was Buddhism being talked about in a context that was not particularly sympathetic, so what are we going to learn from this? We’re committed to Buddhism. It’s here to stay. We’re not about to say I’m never going to practice again because this bad thing happened or whatever happened. How are we going to investigate it? How are we going to learn from it? How are we going to use it? And there was really no place to do that because there was really no discussion going on.

Now, something else curiously happened in the eighties because in addition to the problems of Trungpa Rinpoche’s community, there were problems in other communities—a situation with Baker Roshi at San Francisco Zen Center; Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles; some problems in the Vipassana community. So the sex, money, alcohol—whatever they were—scandals were hitting across the board. I think until that happened people didn’t know a whole lot about each other’s communities, but there was a sense that they had the best one, that Vajrayana students would interpret the perfect teachings in the most literal way; the Zen people always had a sense of being very special about being Zen students; Vipassana students thought perhaps that theirs were the earliest Buddhist teachings.

So one of the things that happened during the eighties with all these scandals was that things really got leveled out. Suddenly, we were all in the same boat and it didn’t matter whether we were Tibetan students, or Zen, or Vipassana. It was pretty much of a mess and none of us knew what was going on.

One thing that happened is that we understood that as Americans new to Dharma, the obstacles that we were confronting gave us a lot in common with other Buddhist sects. And what that allowed for was the possibility of a magazine that could be addressed to Buddhists of all different kinds. Until then I think perhaps you couldn’t have made it work. Just financially, there wouldn’t have been enough people to buy it. So I feel that the scandals were a great kind of leveler. I think they allowed for the possibility of having a nonsectarian journal, which may not have happened until then.

In 1990, when we started talking about Tricycle, there were two possibilities or intentions: One was to create a forum where Buddhists from different lineages could talk to each other and be in touch with each other, and the other was that, by that time, it seemed as if we could successfully create a common language. Sometimes a Vajrayana student cannot read Zen language or a Zen student cannot read English Vajrayana language. So if we could create a way of talking through a nonsectarian Buddhist communication medium, we could create a language at the same time that could also address non-Buddhists in the world at large. The risk was whether it could work financially or not because we’ve never had any foundation or institute or major funder behind us.

When we started, we certainly counted on drawing subscribers from the Buddhist community. In our case it meant people new to Buddhism, who were involved in some exploration, some investigation, of what this tradition was about and what it meant to them and the practice community. The first reader survey we did showed us, much to our surprise, that 50 percent of our readers were not Buddhists and were not calling themselves Buddhists. So we see that there’s a tremendous amount of interest in Buddhism that’s not necessarily coming from practitioners, that there’s a great deal of interest in Buddhism as a view, as a philosophy, as a kind of a fresh perspective on one’s own life in the society and that it’s possible to be interested in these things without necessarily being engaged in practice.” (pp. 531-535.)

Buddhism in the Media-A Panel Discussion (1998) B&W

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.