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.
Another indication of American Buddhism’s maturity is the trickle of books on Buddhism’s history and expression here and in the rest of the West. Need to find a sangha in Morristown, New Jersey? A temple in Port Arthur, Texas? Shambhala’s The Complete Guide to Buddhist America, edited by Don Morreale, is almost as thick as the Yellow Pages. Buddhism in the West: Spiritual Wisdom for the 21st Century (New Dimensions, March 1998) is a compilation of essays by both American and Asian teachers. There is also Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism in the West, by Donald Lopez (Univ. of Chicago Press, May 1998). Due this coming spring is Richard Baker Roshi’s Original Mind: The Practice of Zen in the West(Riverhead, April 1999).
Death has been a strong topic in Buddhism since Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper San Francisco, 1992). Amy Hertz, now a senior editor at Riverhead, worked with Rinpoche at Harper San Francisco and said the Buddhist take on dying has hit a nerve with American audiences. “No one wants to talk about it in this culture, so Rinpoche’s book filled a need.” The trend continues with The Zen of Living and Dying: A Practical and Spiritual Guide, by Philip Kapleau (Shambhala, April 1998) and Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die, by Sushila Blackman (Weatherhill, 1997). Lessons From the Dying, by Rodney Smith, is Wisdom’s newest take on the subject (May 1998).
Asian Buddhist authors remain popular here, too, and pick up new readers with each round of speaking tours and teaching engagements, their publishers noted. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh lead the top sellers at smaller, Buddhist publishing houses and the general trade houses. Parallax Press has The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (July 1998), and Riverhead is planning the Dalai Lama’s Ethics for the Next Millennium (March 1999). Wisdom offers Lama Thubten Yeshe’s The Bliss of Inner Fire: Heart Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa (June 1998), and Dharma Publishing has Teachings from the Heart: Introduction to the Dharma by Tarthang Tulku (March 1998). Shambhala releases Dainin Katagiri’s You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight this month, and Being Good: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life, by Master Hsing Yun, is due from Weatherhill in November.
Rima Tamar, director of sales for Dharma, said American Buddhists often find a deep connection to the tradition through Eastern teachers who have lived the faith for decades. Many of the Asian teachers’ older books are perennial sellers, with Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970) leading the pack at 30,000 copies a year, with almost one million in print. The Dalai Lama’s Kindness, Clarity and Insight (Snow Lion) has been through thirteen printings since it appeared in 1984, five years before he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace (Parallax Press, 1988) has sold a quarter of a million copies. Broadway Books hopes Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, by David Chadwick (October 1998), will appeal to the monk’s early readers and find new ones as well.
Some publishers say, as Americans continue to grow in Buddhism, so will their curiosity about forms other than Zen and Tibetan. “There are still many other flavors out there, particularly in China,” said Murphy of Doubleday, which offers its first overview of one form of Chinese Buddhism in River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism, by Taitetsu Unno (May 1998). Next month, Shambhala releasesComplete Enlightenment, by Master Sheng-yen, about China’s Ch’an Buddhism, and Doubleday plans its own Ch’an title next year. Polishing the Diamond, Enlightening the Mind: Reflections of a Korean Buddhist Master, by Jae Woong Kim (January 1999), will be Wisdom’s introduction to Korean Buddhism.
In spite of the apparent health of the category, not everyone is bullish on Buddhism. Harper San Francisco axed plans for a Tibetan library series in 1997 and now plans a major marketing campaign to move its hefty Buddhist backlist. Senior editor John Loudon told PW there has been a “shakeout in the Buddhist market,” with significant sales sticking to introductory titles or to well-established teachers. Another publishing executive, who wished to remain unnamed, said too many titles by one author, or on one subject, may confound would-be readers. “They might want to read a Dalai Lama book, but they are overwhelmed, and I imagine the stores are overwhelmed, too. You can’t stock 100 Dalai Lama titles.” Some booksellers also see the market cooling a bit. Stan Madsen, co-owner of Bodhi Tree, which carries 1,900 different Buddhist titles, said there is a slight decline of interest in general Buddhism titles, with the exception of those about Tibet, Zen and books by established teachers. “There just seems to be a movement away from Eastern studies,” Madsen said. “In the books that we are bringing in from India”—Buddhism’s birthplace—”the quantities are down.” But at Transitions, sales associate Roberto Sanchez said many Buddhist books, especially those by Americans, sell well because they are easily digestible.” They don’t have to buy the religion, they don’t have to buy the culture, they just have to buy the book and explore it for themselves,” he said. Where Buddhist books go from here depends on the stamina of the established audience, said Riverhead’s Hertz. “Either it is going to take root and people are going to want still more on specific topics, or Buddhism will become just another flavor of the month.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your five free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.