That a book called True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart (Shambhala, 2004), written by Thich Nhat Hanh, an 80-year-old celibate Vietnamese Buddhist monk, would be a popular gift on Valentine's Day, the commercialized holiday for lovers, says a lot about the assimilation of this ancient Asian religious tradition into contemporary American culture. There are enough Buddhists, fellow travelers and just plain curious to write, publish and buy a growing list of titles in a modest yet thriving niche served by specialty and major trade houses. Buddhist publishing today is steady and healthy, with some hot areas. Title output is quietly growing at specialty houses.
Yet even while publishers aim for the new, broadly appealing title that will storm out of the niche all the way up the bestseller list, a few decades' worth of backlist still draws new readers, and old hands are buying deeper material.
The growth in sales of advanced books for more serious readers represents something like a "market correction" in publishing for the Buddhist market, according to Tim McNeill, Wisdom Publications' publisher. He says that after laying out some big advances in the 1990s, bigger publishers have grown more cautious, and major authors are now approaching smaller houses. Wisdom, for example, will be publishing Joseph Goldstein, one of the pioneering American meditation teachers. Adds McNeill, "We're driven by our mission to make things available; we keep things in print. That's a strong competitive advantage we have against the bigger guys."
Hardcore Texts Sell
A mature Buddhist market has progressed to more and deeper study of Buddhist sacred texts, as retailers will attest. At Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Pali canon, Mahayana sutras, koan collections, the work of Japanese Zen master Dogen—all key for various Buddhist traditions—sell well, says owner Karl Pohrt. Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood, Calif., which draws a less academic clientele, maintains separate sections for books on sutras and on the Dhammapada, a key Buddhist text. "I was told by a Tibetan Buddhist monk and scholar who grew up in Tibet that we now have better access to a number of important texts than he would have in Tibet," says Jim Culnan, the bookstore's "resident Buddhist," who works in the receiving department.
Tibetan Buddhism is a treasury of texts. Some early Buddhist works from India are only known through their Tibetan translations. "When we started back in the 1980s, people said, 'How many books can you publish on Tibetan Buddhism?' " Snow Lion publisher Jeff Cox recalls. "Tibetan Buddhism really is a book tradition."
The high profile of the Dalai Lama means that books by him or connected to his wide range of involvements always attract readers. He is a serious teacher of Tibetan Buddhism as well as a charismatic author, so some of his teachings go deep. The title Mind in Comfort and Ease: The Vision of Enlightenment in the Great Perfection (Wisdom, May) doesn't have the accessible ring of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, the Dalai Lama's 1998 bestseller, but Tim McNeill discovered at the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair that this book about advanced Tibetan teachings appealed to foreign markets, despite clocking in at nearly 400 pages. Rights have been sold in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, with more to come. "People are looking for more than entry-level Dalai Lama books," says McNeill.
Studying the Mind
Other Buddhist books land squarely on contemporary issues. One hot topic has been slowly simmering for years: Buddhism and science, specifically neuroscience. Since 1987, the Dalai Lama has been participating regularly in conferences with Western scientists through the Mind and Life Institute in Louisville, Colo. Meanwhile, advances in neuroscience research have led to exciting discoveries about the brain's abilities to change throughout life. Parallel lines of interest in the relationship between mind and brain met in the 2004 Mind and Life conference, one result of which is Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley (Ballantine, Jan.)
Begley was the Wall Street Journal's science columnist until she recently returned to be senior editor at Newsweek magazine, where she had previously been a science writer. The book has been excerpted in the Journal and in Time magazine and has hit the New York Times extended bestseller list. It joins a number of new books about neuroscience and Buddhism, among them The Dalai Lama at MIT, edited by Anne Harrington and Arthur Zajonc (Harvard Univ., 2006) and Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge by B. Alan Wallace (Columbia Univ., 2006). A Buddhist, translator for the Dalai Lama and prolific author, Wallace has been writing about Buddhism for more than two decades for both popular and academic audiences.
Unsurprisingly for a science writer, Begley emphasizes the science half of neuroscience and Buddhism. At the same time, she professes respect for the 2,500-year-old Asian tradition, seeing it as a philosophy that promotes insight. "The more you learn, the more you do respect it," Begley tells PW.
One of the monks whose meditating brain has been studied by scientists writes about the changes meditation brought to his life in The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness (Harmony, Mar.). Author Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche says he meditated his way out of youthful panic disorder. Born in 1975, he is one of the rising stars of a new generation of Buddhist teachers who are more familiar with the West and can better transplant the considerable body of Tibetan Buddhist teachings into new cultures, even as Tibetans themselves have been transplanted from their homeland. Like many Buddhist teachers, Mingyur Rinpoche has a U.S. teaching center (in Milpitas, Calif.) that will also promote his work. Harmony is reaching beyond the core Buddhist market, promoting to medical schools and organizations.
Andrea McQuillin, executive editor of Shambhala Sun magazine, thinks Begley's book and similar titles represent a "critical mass" in publishing about Buddhism and Western science. "The kind of 'secularized' meditation or science of the mind stuff that Buddhism is good at seems to be more palatable to publishers these days," she says.
With the current popularity of Buddhism now in its second generation, longtime Buddhists are graying, so teachers and publishers are reaching out for younger readers and writers. Mingyur Rinpoche is only one of many younger teachers whose work is attracting publishers, followers and readers. "There are next-generation teachers who have a certain buzz about them," says Dave O'Neal, senior editor at Shambhala, which has specialized in Eastern wisdom traditions since its founding in 1969. What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Shambhala, Jan.) is another book that reflects the sensibility of a Tibetan master familiar with Western culture. Born in 1961, Khyentse is also a filmmaker who directed The Cup, a sleeper hit about Buddhist monks crazy about soccer.
Another popular and bicultural Tibetan teacher, based at the Nalandabodhi Center in Seattle, is Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. His book Mind Beyond Death (Apr.) is a lead title for Snow Lion Publications, the specialty publisher in Ithaca, N.Y., devoted to preserving Tibetan teachings and culture. The lama has developed a teaching program, for which Snow Lion publishes books. The press does significant business supplying study texts for Buddhist centers—publisher Cox estimates that about 35% of his business comes from such centers. He guesses that 500 centers have developed in the West, "and we are often the people supplying the texts for those courses of study," Cox says, making special market sales crucial.
Even as Tibetans gain Western cultural fluency, other young Buddhist teachers are native-born Americans. Wisdom is targeting youth culture and popular culture, and has high hopes for One City: A Declaration of Interdependence (Sept.) by Ethan Nichtern, 28, a second-generation American Buddhist and founder of the Interdependence Project in New York City, which offers meditation and political discussions. Nichtern makes his talks available as podcasts; that material has been downloaded 200,000 times. "This guy has an acumen at reaching out and speaking to younger people," says Rod Meade Sperry, who handles media and publicity at Wisdom.
In 2003, Wisdom had a hit with Hard Core Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth about Reality by Brad Warner. Warner, a former punk rock bassist from Ohio, is now a Zen priest in Southern California who works for a Japanese production company. His new book, Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, & Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye (New World Library, May), comments on a text by an influential 13th-century Japanese Zen dude, as the author might describe him. Warner says he wanted to get the Zen master out from the glass case where scholars have enshrined him. Like many longtime Buddhist students, Warner, who lived in Japan for 11 years, seeks depth. "I want to break Buddhism open," says Warner, 43. "I thought Dogen's stuff was relevant [to today]."
Popular Teachers Write On
The Buddhist book market is dominated by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, whose popularity has justified mass market editions of her work from Shambhala. Marketing director Julie Saidenberg says the publisher had developed mass market editions in 2005 to try to get into a wider range of stores, but around that time mass market contracted. Still, even though mass market and trade editions are now available in the same stores, they don't seem to be competing with one another. "We have to assume we are getting new consumers," she says. For top authors, audio editions also grow the market.
Even as the Dalai Lama, who was born in 1935, continues to write for beginning and advanced Buddhists, he also is written about. Dalai Lama: Man, Monk, Mystic by Mayank Chhaya (Doubleday, Mar.) is an authorized biography of the Tibetan leader written by an Indian journalist who is not a Buddhist, but is familiar with Asian politics. Another bestselling Asian teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, maintains a steady schedule of talks that yields books, with three coming this year: Buddha Mind Buddha Body (Parallax Press, Apr.); Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are (Parallax, Oct.)—a commentary on the ninth-century Chinese Zen master Lin Chi—and The Art of Power (Harper San Francisco, July). "I think he's been re-energized by his return to Vietnam," says his editor at Parallax, Rachel Neumann. Nhat Hanh visited his native country in 2005 after 39 years in exile.
Not a Buddhist but someone who has helped build the Mind-Body-Spirit market, Deepak Chopra takes on the early years of Siddhartha Gautama in the novel Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment (Harper San Francisco, May), with an announced first printing of 100,000. The book, which tells the story of how a young Indian prince became the enlightened Buddha, is aimed at those curious about Buddhism, at Buddhists and at Chopra fans, "which may be the biggest of the three groups," says HSF publisher Mark Tauber. The house focuses its Buddhist publishing on top authors and is less topic-driven than previously because "our Buddhist sales grow in accordance with the authors we publish," Tauber says.
Interest in Buddhism has so grown and matured that Buddhist themes now show up in fiction, even if no one wants to claim the mantle of "Buddhist author." "Nobody wants to be a Buddhist novelist," says Shambhala senior editor Dave O'Neal. "You want to be a good novelist." Shambhala's Trumpeter imprint is publishing Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence (Apr.) by Buddhist practitioner David Guy.
Buddhism has also permeated parts of the culture enough to become relevant to novels that have nothing to do with it. Shaman Drum owner Pohrt suggests that the National Book Award—winning novel The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006) explores the Buddhist understanding of the self. "I'm surprised that some smart Buddhist literary critic hasn't written about The Echo Maker," Pohrt says.
And then there are books with great popular potential. Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Saint by Maura O'Halloran (Wisdom, May) is an expanded edition of a memoir by a 27-year-old Irish-American Zen student who attained Buddhist enlightenment, only to die in a bus accident in Thailand six months later in 1982. Now venerated by the Japanese as a Zen saint, O'Halloran's dramatic life has inspired musicians, artists and a documentary filmmaker. "There is no book that wants to be a movie more," says Wisdom's Meade Sperry.