Here’s a bit of a Zen koan: how do you keep still in the Colorado rapids?
How do you maintain that mental gap in between events – the gap that allows you to respond to those events in a considered way, with compassion and insight, rather than reactively or habitually? Thich Nhat Hanh once advised journalists to meditate. We need our gaps because journalism thrives on events and stories, the more the better. This is especially so since reporters these days find themselves overwhelmed by their social media profile: the deluge of 24-7 information is far greater than at any point in the history of the press. This is one question among many that we still don’t have conclusive answers for.
Although religious beliefs and practices have been around for as long as human life, the activity of covering them is a very recent activity. While the mass printing of religious information by churches in Europe could probably be traced back to the 16th century, post-Luther and Gutenberg, the specific discipline of religion journalism probably kicked off in the mid-19th century and continued to develop into the 1920s, in both China and the US. Buddhist-themed or Buddhist-informed journalism is very young if one doesn’t count the Buddhist sutra houses of late Qing or Republican China.
Despite the fact that religion drives so much of the world’s most significant news agendas, from Middle East conflicts and Islam to climate change activism to American evangelicalism, journalists of religion have been relatively low-key. One might access a religious news publication expecting to learn only about religion, but emerge enriched by coverage on culture, politics, the arts, and much more. Religion might seem superficially narrow but its values touch everything. In politics, for example, a thorough understanding of the values and beliefs guiding and influencing those in power is critical to covering them.
There have been many musings, but probably not a widely accepted formal theory, about how Buddhist leaders and commentators should approach reporting, editing, commentary, and information dissemination. Buddhist editors and reporters have tended to focus on three broad themes in their magazine. There’s firstly personal development according to Buddhist teachings. Guided writings on meditation and personal experiences qualify as such literature, although the newspaper equivalent of such writing might be relegated to the lifestyle corner. Engaged Buddhism entails a broader look at social, political, and environmental issues and how Buddhism might inform citizens to think and act in one way or another.
Then there are Buddhist trends, that is, things happening within the Buddhist world itself, and this might often involve tactful (skillful speech) reporting of sub-movements within Buddhist institutions, the emergence of new leaders, or even unhappy events. The last component no doubt provides the material with the most potential for head-turning and gossip. That’s when Right Speech is doubly critical. Within these three thematic branches proliferate all the wonderful genres: the interview article, the columnist op-ed, the news report, the editorial, the human interest feature, and so on.
In religious journalism, spiritual service is as important as public service. Indeed, reporters and editors who take their Dharma seriously can feel bound (Latin: religare) to their discipline. The written word or mass media is a tool for the lay practitioner or householder in a similar way to how the monastic life is conducive for the monastic to meditate and preach. The good news for religious studies scholars is that, as mentioned above, Buddhist journalism is relatively new. There are giant gaps in the literature about this religious-cum-media phenomenon worth at least a few books. 30 or so years of Buddhist journalism – it might be easier to unpack than 2,500 years of Buddhism, no?