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Shambhala Sun

Circulation: 75,000
Date of Birth: 1993
Frequency: Bimonthly
Price: $5.95
Natural Habitat: In a Whole Foods canvas bag next to the organic kale and a pint of Chunky Monkey ice cream

By Zeb Esselstyn

As with meditation, don’t expect to get much out of Shambhala Sun instantaneously. The heart of the publication is in the articles by respected Buddhist teachers, thinkers and authors. When I picked up a copy of the March issue, I hesitated. It had been years since I had looked at the magazine. For me, turning inward is easily postponed. But when I flipped past the cover and read, I felt wonder and sometimes revelation, and I also felt impatient and restless—a lot like meditation.

In that issue, Diane Ackerman writes about the meditation and mysticism of two heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto; Natalie Goldberg has an excerpt from her new book, Old Friend from Far Away, on the writing of memoirs; and the editor in chief, Melvin McCleod, interviews k.d. lang on her Buddhist practice and its influence on her new album, Watershed. The Dalai Lama is featured in two articles, and Brad Warner, the ex-punk rocker turned Zen Buddhist teacher, has a piece on how he responds to the comment “That’s not very Buddhist of you.” Warner, a fresh voice in the Buddhist world, was referred to as one of the “young Turks” among teachers in a recent book review in the magazine.

The publication does not cater to the uninitiated. Articles mention ideas like “Your enemy can teach you tolerance whereas your teacher and your parents cannot” and “There is no present moment that we can locate (try it) and therefore no future or past” and “We don’t exist for the sake of ourselves but for the sake of those we serve”—all provocative notions for those new to Buddhism. However, the issues are not presented in a heavy-handed way, with dharma terms, and most articles can be understood without knowledge of the Buddhist path. For the committed practitioner, Shambhala Sun publishes Buddhadharma: A Practitioner’s Quarterly, tailored to those with an existing Buddhist practice.

Shambhala Sun has existed in its current incarnation since 1993. Founded by the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1978, and known then as Vajradhata Sun, it served as the in-house newspaper for members of his organization, Shambhala International. Trungpa Rinpoche was one of the first lamas to bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West, and his influence is still present in the magazine—his students compose much of the staff.
“We hold a broad, open and respectful view of all schools of Buddhism,” said McCleod, when I asked how the magazine relates to other Buddhist traditions. The magazine publishes articles on the other traditions, but skews toward the Tibetan lineages.

It has the widest circulation of the several Buddhist magazines, with the nearest competition being Tricycle. The layout is elegant, spacious and calming, although the inescapable peace and serenity aesthetic might make you sleepy. Like a city with no garbage, crime or edge—it’s refreshing, but a little monotonous. The wide two-column text demands a slow drinking of the prose rather than a gulping speed-read, and the articles come with color photographs and art that make the pages feel generous and uncluttered.

In the back of the book, sandwiched between pages of ads, the magazine briefly plays with today’s cult of celebrity and material insanity in a section titled “From the Worst Horse’s Mouth.” There’s a picture of Sharon Stone on YouTube hawking the Dalai Lama’s 1966 Land Rover (the winning bid of $82,100 includes attendance at a teaching by the Dalai Lama and a meeting with Ms. Stone), and a brief snippet on a Buddhist-inspired line of ladies’ underwear—Dharmagrrl.com, which also sells “girlieboy-shorts.” The layout of the section is plain and nondescript. The editors seem unsure of whether it’s acceptable to visually poke fun at the absurdity of today’s market-driven contradictions in a Buddhist magazine.

The advertisers promote personal transformation in the form of books, dates (Dharmamatch.com), products and retreats. There is also the Shambhala Sun Network at the back of the book, a paid classified section listing retreat centers by region. Unsurprisingly, California gets its own listing.

I asked McCleod about the apparent tension between an ad-based magazine and Buddhism, a non-proselytizing religion, ideally taught and propagated for free. “Buddhism doesn’t deny the necessity of the material world,” he responded. “In fact, the material world is good. Materialism is the problem.”

The magazine effectively delivers its editorial content. Recognizing that Buddhism is not part of the fabric of American culture, it is devoted to helping its readers stay committed to practicing Buddhism.

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