Here’s a bit of a Zen koan for you: 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 us journalists to meditate. The trouble is, journalism thrives on events and stories; the more the better. But even today reporters find themselves overwhelmed by their Twitter feeds or social media profiles; the deluge of information is too much for any human being. This is one question among many that we don’t have conclusive answers for. In the fledgling field of Buddhist-themed or Buddhist-informed journalism – Tricycle was founded in 1990 and Buddhistdoor Global and Lion’s Roar (formerly Shambhala Sun) in 1995 – there have been many musings, but probably not a widely accepted formal theory, about how Buddhist leaders and commentators should approach the discipline of the Fourth Estate.
I’m open about the fact that I’ve learned much from how the Catholic press has done things (dirty secret: I subscribe to the newsletter of Inside the Vatican, just to see how their editor presents the magazine’s content). Generally, religious publications aren’t First Amendment free-for-alls: I don’t expect The Catholic Herald to publish a columnist who questions transubstantiation, or the primacy of the Pope in interpreting Catholic dogma (although in the age of Pope Francis, I daresay there are those who might use the hashtag #notmyPope…). Much like theology, religious journalism takes certain things for granted: of course we’re looking to make our website, magazine, or paper as accessible as possible, but we also assume that the reader already is of an inclination to engage with our tradition in good faith: they’ve read what’s on the tin.
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 (both Asian and Western conceptions) 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 reporting of movements within Buddhist institutions, the elevation of new leaders, or even unhappy events, as Lion’s Roar’s reporting of the Sogyal Rinpoche incident last year demonstrated. 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 inevitably feel bound (Latin: religare) to their faith as much, if not more, than to their industry. The written word or mass media is a tool for the lay practitioner or householder (ju shi) just as the monastic life is the conducive environment for the monastic to meditate and preach. The good news for scholars is that there really aren’t that many years to Buddhist journalism. There aren’t just giant gaps in the literature about this religious-cum-media phenomenon worth at least a few studies, but these gaps could well be filled in relatively easily.
30 or so years of Buddhist journalism – it might be easier to unpack than 2,500 years of Buddhism, no?