Titles about the 2,500-year-old Eastern tradition are among the hottest sellers in religion books, attracting readers who once wouldn’t have known a lama from a lamp. At Chicago’s Transitions Book-place, Buddhist books “fly off our shelves, we can’t keep them in stock,” said co-owner Howard Mandel. At Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood, California, books from longtime Buddhist publishers like Wisdom and Dharma share shelf space with titles from imprints like Putnam’s Riverhead and BDD’s Broadway Books, which launched its first Buddhism title two years ago. At least two new players will soon join the game, with Seastone, a new imprint from Ulysses, and White Cloud Press offering its first Buddhist titles in the next year.”
Buddhism is coming of age,” said Arnie Kotler, president and editor-in-chief of ten-year-old Parallax Press, a small nonprofit publisher of 100 Buddhist titles, thirty by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Parallax now has a mailing list of 100,000. “Every year there have been more people reading these books. Even the blue-haired ladies on my block know who the Dalai Lama is. Buddhism is mainstream now.”
None of the publishers who spoke with PW could pinpoint exactly why Buddhist titles have enjoyed such success in this country in the past five years. Some attribute it to the Dalai Lama’s charisma and Tibet’s status as the cause du jour, and some to the general millennial hunger for religion and spirituality. Still, most said the current crop of Buddhist titles is not driven by the embrace of a few Hollywood actors or the appearance of a few movies, but by a long fertilization of Buddhism in this country that has recently blossomed into a truly American brand distinct from its Asian roots. And all publishers and editors agreed that Buddhism’s greatest strength here lies in its ability to adapt to any culture it finds itself in. “Buddhism hasn’t spread throughout Asia because it is rigid, but because it is flexible,” said Bryce Willett, sales and marketing manager for Ulysses Press, which has seen Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings sell 10,000 copies in the past year. “You can find many ways to apply it, and that is true in America, whether people are actively seeking spiritual guidance or just looking for a way to make their day go better.”
Leaving aside the many scriptural translations, art and photography books, spiritual biographies and memoirs, volumes of poetry and humor and gift books, the real boom in Buddhist books has been in titles from American Buddhist authors. “Thirty or forty years ago the major teachers were not American born,” noted Trace Murphy, senior editor at Doubleday, where The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment and Sitting Still—American Style, by Dinty Moore—first published last October—will appear in paperback next spring. “But as more and more Americans experience a full lifetime of Buddhism, we are seeing more of an American voice coming through,” he added. Robert Thurman’s Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness (Riverhead), released this June, is the Columbia professor and former monk’s current bestseller, with more than 30,000 copies in print. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace (May, Bell Tower) is Bernie Glassman’s description of how Buddhism has helped him face everything from addiction to Auschwitz. Another recent hot seller is Awakening the Buddha Within(Broadway Books) by Lama Surya Das, the Long Island-born “Deli Lama.” The book has sold 55,000 in hardcover since its spring 1997 release, and the paperback version, released this June, has 54,500 copies in print.
Peter Turner [newly appointed Executive Editor at Shambhala Publications], which publishes a variety of Buddhist traditions, said one reason American authors are popular is because they show it is possible to be a Buddhist without trading in a bank account for a monk’s robes. “These authors are establishing a middle path that brings together traditional meditation practices with their everyday lives with spouses, children, political beliefs. This approach to Buddhism isn’t that common in Asia, but it is essential to what is happening to Buddhism in this country,” Turner said. Indeed, many American Buddhist authors apply meditation, mindfulness and compassion to problems associated less with Tibet and more with twentieth-century American life-work, stress management, alcoholism, addiction, weight loss, money. “There is no area of life that is safe from some form of Buddhist treatment,’ said Tim McNeill, president and publisher of Wisdom. Next February, Lewis Richmond will look at careers inWork as a Spiritual Practice: How to Attain Spiritual Fulfillment on the Job (Broadway Books), as will Gail Sher in One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writing(Penguin/Arkana, April 1999). If the Buddha Dated: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path, by Charlotte Kasl (Penguin Putnam, Feb. 1999), offers a Buddhist balm for lonelyhearts. The recent Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation, by Larry Rosenberg (Shambhala, April 1998), describes how breath awareness can lead to well-being. Meditation Made Easy, by Lorin Roche (Harper San Francisco, Spring 1999), spells out how Buddhist practices can lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
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