By Samuel Bercholz
Shambhala Publications, one of the biggest publishers of spiritual books in the world, was built on the foundation of ethics, and is inextricably interlinked with its founder’s own journey into Buddha dharma
As a young man, I was interested in Democratic Party politics. I was a precocious teenager—at 13 I become part of the American political world by actively working in the campaign for the election of John F. Kennedy for President. After graduating high school, I went to university in Washington D.C. While I was there, my idealism was smashed by the reality of politics. It was 1965—the Vietnam War era—and I could see that my idealistic heroes were involved in backroom antics that were both deceptive and greatly damaging.
In the Beginning
I was an avid, young reader and my political reading changed to spirituality. Buddhism looked most promising. I was able to find an old Ch’an temple in Chinatown in San Francisco, with a master, Abbot To Lun, and an American teacher, Joe Miller. They were teaching on the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. I found a home and learned how to meditate. Mahayana Buddhism just made a lot of sense to me, and meditation also made sense. I was an extremely disillusioned and confused young man. Dharma provided an antidote to my confusion.
Around that time, a Korean Zen master, Kyung Bo Seo-sunim, visited the Ch’an Temple and, in a flurry, declared my friend and I as disciples of the Sixth Patriarch in a ‘previous lifetime’. Who knows if any of that is true. But he immediately made us Zen priests in the Korean Chogye Order. He took our measurements, sent off to Korea for robes, gave us certificates and the right to teach Dharma, perform weddings, and so on. It was a little bit of a joke: we were barely 20 years old!
At that time I was going to university in San Francisco. I was a book maniac. I became interested in spreading information about Buddhism and other contemplative traditions, so I started a bookstore called Shambhala Booksellers right next to the University of California. I was still 20. I had no money, of course. There was a large bookstore in Berkeley and the owner allowed me to open an offshoot in his back annex.
In early 1969, I became interested in publishing books on Buddhism because there weren’t enough good ones. By circumstance, a manuscript came my way when I was visiting London, called Meditation in Action by Chogyam Trungpa. I thought it was absolutely the most wonderful Buddhist text I had read. Shambhala Publications was started by publishing that book with a small edition of 1,000 copies, mainly for sale in our own bookstore.
Trungpa Rinpoche told me later that he was extremely surprised when he received a copy of this book because it said ‘Trungpa Rinpoche—Meditation in Action—Shambhala’ and he happened to be the holder of the Shambhala lineage. When he saw ‘Shambhala’ on the spine of the book, he thought he might be hallucinating! We had this interesting auspicious coincidence that brought us together.
Later, I received a phone call from one of his students saying that Trungpa Rinpoche had arrived in America, and asking if I would sponsor a talk in San Francisco. Of course, I said ‘yes’. He came and we immediately became good friends. Gradually, over the next couple of years, I became his student and a practitioner in the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.
Trungpa Rinpoche was a rather unbelievable person. For me, it was too good to be true that there was someone from this tradition who was so well versed in the ways of the Western world. Meeting him that first time at the airport, I was expecting someone in flowing robes with pidgin English. However, I met someone in a tie and coat who spoke Queen’s English. My preconception of what this Tibetan lama would be like was totally blown away. There was a kindness and softness to him that was incredible. He was artistic, soft-spoken, and a lot of fun. In the early days, I was just his friend. I didn’t have a relationship with him as a teacher. Later, when I saw how he taught, the power of his message, I began to see him as someone who embodied the qualities of the Buddha.
At Shambhala Publications, we work hard and try to apply principles of Dharma in our business
Actually, I remember the exact time when my mind changed. Trungpa Rinpoche had been giving a poetry reading with poets Robert Bly, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Nanao Sakai at the University of Colorado. That evening, he was totally outrageous. While the other poets were reading seriously, he was making faces and, at one point, he put the meditation gong on top of his head and was pretending to bang it. He was apparently making a statement about the smugness of the poets and their presentations.
Afterwards, Rinpoche invited the poets and a couple of his friends, including myself, to his apartment. All the poets were mad at him for causing so much laughter in the auditorium, and told him he was just like Jack Kerouac—a brilliant poet, but a drunk. Contrary to them, I saw this person as a spiritually realised being. I think I cried during the whole evening. I fully became his student at that point. I think Allen Ginsberg had a similar experience later.
The shift from friend to student is extremely subjective. In the books, it is said that it is ‘entering the mandala of the guru’. Suddenly, I was in that sphere and it was unmistakable. There was no question in my mind: this person was my teacher, my Vajra Master. This was the equivalent of meeting the Buddha in person.
Life with Rinpoche
I was very close to Trungpa Rinpoche for the 17 years he spent in the US, arriving in America in 1970 and passing away in Nova Scotia in 1987. In addition to teaching Dharma to thousands of students throughout North America and Europe, he established Naropa University in Colorado, which is now a fully accredited university, and various art programmes for his students, like photography, tea making, ikebana, and archery. He established Shambhala Training to present meditation in a secular manner. He also developed a Dharma language, a way of using English so that Dharma could be presented, and which was translatable into other European languages.
He taught unceasingly and worked with so many different students to establish a basis for Dharma, especially Vajrayana, in the western world. It is hard to imagine that all of that could be done in 17 years. I’ve heard that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said that if Trungpa Rinpoche hadn’t done what he did in the West, it would have taken at least a hundred years longer for the Dharma to be established as firmly as it is now.
In 1976, I accepted Trungpa Rinpoche’s invitation to move to Boulder, Colorado, to become more closely associated with him and his activities. With most of his closer students, there was an intimacy in spending endless hours and days with him. In fact, we thought it would go on forever, it had that sort of flow. By circumstance, I was extremely fortunate in helping establish his various centres. I just was one lucky guy. His passing was a shock, even though he had described many years before how he would do things in the end. He said he would appoint a successor and then just watch for a few years without interfering, and leave us to sort things out for ourselves.
There is hope that people can make their lives better. For it’s real individual actions that change things
Some of Shambhala’s books, including those by Trungpa Rinpoche, started becoming popular in the early 1970s. The turning point was in 1973, when we published a little cookbook from Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre, Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen monastery in California (the first Zen monastery in America). The head-cook there, Ed Brown, had written The Tassajara Breadbook that spoke of Zen in a unique way and it became a runaway bestseller, selling something like one million copies and putting Shambhala Publications on the map.
Then, Trungpa Rinpoche’s books started doing well, particularly Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. The company, which had started on a shoestring, literally three people investing US $500 each, began growing. By a set of good circumstances, almost every major publisher in New York became interested in distributing Shambhala Publications. We entered into a good arrangement with Random House, who is now the largest publisher in the world, and they have distributed us for over 30 years. So, this tiny thing became a major force in publishing. We have published well over a thousand titles and nowadays we sell over a million books a year, and it is still growing. A lot of it was simply hard work and another part of it was just being in the right place at the right time.
In the beginning, the quest was really quite personal, because the co-founder, Michael Fagan, and I were pursuing our own interest in eastern spiritual traditions, and then helping others discover what we had found. A lot of our publishing went along with our personal discoveries. Then it began to have its own life. Earlier we used to publish mainly translations into English from Oriental languages; we were really ploughing new ground with Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. Now we also publish a lot of things by people who were just learning about Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism and so on back in that era, and who are now teaching it. So now we publish the classics as well as contemporary understandings of them. That’s been the biggest change.
It might seem as if there is a resurgence of interest in spirituality today. I wasn’t around in the late 1800s, but from the histories I’ve read, what is happening now is similar to what happened then, with the founding of the Theosophical Society, the Vedanta Society, Christian Science, and so on. So in a way it’s a repeat rather than being unique.
There have always been these waves of inspirational books with some sort of spiritual basis. But now the spiritual basis, instead of just being Christian, can have a Hindu or Buddhist flavor. I don’t see it as any big revolution. People have always been interested in spirituality from one point of view or another. There have always been genuine things and crap. You see, the more genuine stuff that’s published, the more crap is also published. Because if something genuine sells, then—it’s just human nature—someone says: “Oh, that’s easy enough to do. I’ll just make something up like that and sell it the same way.”
I think there is some hope that people can make their lives better. And if they can make their lives better, then that can extend to many other people. But there’s a lot of wishful thinking that there are huge changes happening socially. I think it’s the things that people think that bring change, and not the things themselves. It’s real individual actions that change things, rather than paying lip service to some sort of mass movement of consciousness. I think it’s too much to think that any country can really be fully actualized. That’s wishful thinking because then you forget about what’s really involved.
Dharma & Business
Shambhala Publications could be seen as a combination of business and Dharma. This was one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings—how to live in the world in a dharmic way. At Shambhala Publications, we worked hard and tried to apply principles of Dharma to the way we dealt with people—whether they were employees, suppliers or authors. It’s just basic—don’t cheat anyone, respect others’ situations, and so on. It is no big mystery, but it does work. We had times when we were totally, financially strapped, but our intention was always to be fair to everyone and I believe we always are. Shambhala has grown to be a very solid company over the past 34 years.
We try to be careful about what a Shambhala book stands for, the most basic criterion being that it’s helpful; that at worst it’s not harmful, but at best that it’s helpful. And that it’s genuine. Most of our books come from tried and true traditions. But we are also willing to publish revolutionaries.
The backbone of our company is, in fact, the classics translated from Chinese, Sanskrit, Japanese, Korean, ancient Persian, Arabic and so on. But we are always willing to add modern—not just interpretations—but modern versions. There is a standard we try to keep. However, it’s an unstated standard because there’s no way to articulate it. It’s partly intuitive. Partly there’s some objective standard—it’s not exactly academic, though we don’t have anything against the academic standard. We try to keep a good spiritual standard.
Each book that is published has to go through an entire editorial committee. Standards come first, money comes second, or third even. There are many things that we have been offered that we haven’t published even though we could have made millions of dollars publishing them. Personally, I’ve turned away knowing I could have had millions of dollars in my pocket. But I feel no regret, never will feel any regret.
Even when we were in financial trouble, the way we chose to get out of it was to publish blank books, beautiful books with literally nothing in them. That was our response to financial problems: instead of publishing crap, we published the ultimate Zen books, books with no words in them. And actually it started a trend, but we were just doing it because we needed to survive.
The only worthwhile plans I have for future are trying to put the teachings of my teachers into practice. I have simplified my life; I only work occasionally at Shambhala Publications. I am mainly trying to put the teachings further into practice and learning how to practise properly. I am still very actively involved in teaching in Trungpa Rinpoche’s centres and in other venues. I feel a certain responsibility to teach, because Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged that so much.
Acharya Samuel Bercholz is co-founder of Shambhala Publications and a teacher of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. He has worked closely with Trungpa Rinpoche and other Tibetan masters, writers and translators in developing, publishing and disseminating their teachings. US-based Shambhala Publications, of which he is chairman and editor-in-chief, is a leading publisher of Buddhist books worldwide.
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