Media

Sunrise in the East

Halifax’s Buddhist magazine uses fame to enlighten as well as sell

JOHN DeMONT April 19 1999
Media

Sunrise in the East

Halifax’s Buddhist magazine uses fame to enlighten as well as sell

JOHN DeMONT April 19 1999

Sunrise in the East

Media

Halifax’s Buddhist magazine uses fame to enlighten as well as sell

Three days after putting the current issue of the Shambhala Sun to bed, editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod still looked groggy slumped behind his cluttered desk, three floors up in a run-down Halifax office building. With a staff of just nine full-time employees, the glossy bimonthly Buddhist-oriented magazine is always a scramble to put out, but the June edition was worse than most All the editorial copy was ready to go to the printers when McLeod learned in early February that a long-sought interview with actor Richard Gere, America’s best-known adherent to Tibetan Buddhism, had finally come through. The editor flew to New York City and spent 60 minutes with Gere. Then, McLeod returned to Halifax, ripped the issue apart and rebuilt it around the interview with the actor—who also contributed an essay and his own photographs of Tibet “It took two years of abuse at the hands of the Hollywood system to get this,” McLeod exults. “Gere is smart, articulate, a serious spiritual practitioner. Our hope is that people will pick up the magazine because there is a movie star on the cover and get a very good introduction to Buddhism out of it.” At the Shambhala Sun, fame is meant to enlighten as well as sell. In addition to Gere, its 41 cover subjects have included novelist Alice Walker, poets Maya Angelou and Allen Ginsberg, singers Leonard Cohen and Patty Smith, as well as Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. The magazine lands interviews with such celebrities—who would normally ignore a publication of its size and obscurity— because they support the Sun’s Buddhismoriented and pro-Tibet message. But, McLeod is quick to add, the Sun’s growing reputation for sophisticated spiritual commentary is also a help. The magazine may sell just 35,000 copies per issue. But 32,000 of those go to readers in the United States, most of whom pick it up on the newsstand, making it the best-selling Canadian magazine south of the border. And in January, the Minneapolis-based alternative bimonthly Utne Reader gave the Sun its 1998 award for general excellence among magazines with circulation under 50,000. ‘Wherever spirituality and society intersect,” Utne declared, “you’ll find enlightened coverage from the Shambhala Sun.”

That coverage appears every two months in a hip, intriguing blend of compelling art, strong writing and provocative opinions—

often by prominent authors. The March issue, dedicated to travel, included an article on Haitian Vodoun by Governor General’s Award nominee Wade Davis and a piece by American Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman, on Tibet’s Mount Kailash. It may seem odd that a magazine with such elevated concerns and so distant a readership thrives operating out

of threadbare offices on Canada’s East Coast, but to staffers it makes perfect sense. Halifax, after all, is where the community’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, wanted them to live.

The Sun’s mission is to reflect the vision of Trungpa, who, soon after his birth in eastern Tibet in 1940, was reputedly discovered by monks to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist abbot. After the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, Trungpa fled, eventually landing in Boulder, Colo. Followers flocked there from around the world to soak up his teachings on Tibetan Buddhism—with its goal of attaining enlightenment through meditation—and the secular program he developed called Shambhala training, which he hoped would bring meditation to a wider audience. (Shambhala is a Central

Asian mythological kingdom that Trungpa used as a metaphor to illustrate his belief that society—as well as individuals—can reflect enlightened spiritual values.) The Tibetan guru saw Nova Scotia for the first time on a car trip in 1977. Nine years later, he decided to relocate there—a decision Trungpa left his disciples to explain. “It’s clear he wanted to find a place where Buddhism could have a real home,” says Moh Hardin, a director of the Halifax Shambhala Centre and one of Trungpa’s 575 adherents now living in Nova Scotia. “He liked the elemental quality to life here and the fact that the people were basically good and human and decent and were not caught up in the speed and aggression of modern society.” The spiritual-seeking newcomers—who, since the death ofTrungpa in 1987 and a successor two years later, now take their lead from their original teacher’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche —have certainly enlivened Halifax. Members own art galleries, bookstores and a funky café. Many are accomplished artists and luminaries of the local cultural scene—like jazz drummer Jerry Granelli, classical composer Peter Iieberson and This Hour Has 22 Minutes star Cathy Jones. Together they run their own schools and a temple.

Editor McLeod, on the other hand, is a former national CBC TV correspondent. That background came in handy seven years ago when the Montreal native and a few other Halifax Buddhists decided to transform the Shambhala community’s internal newsletter into a magazine that could spark interest among non-Buddhists. It was a struggle: at first the publication’s revenues could support only one employee. So McLeod held on to his producer’s job at CBC Newsworld and worked for free. And none of the staffers who later joined had any journalism experience.

From the looks of the finished product, though, they were naturals. Today, the nonprofit publication has an annual budget of $600,000 and generates enough cash flow to provide livable salaries for its staff. “What we are trying to do is begin from a Buddhist or contemplative point of view and reflect upon the issues of the day,” says McLeod. “This is a Buddhist magazine, but not a magazine about Buddhism.” The Sun’s readers are discovering something the followers of Trungpa already realize: Halifax may be no one’s idea of a mythical Tibetan paradise, but the search for spiritual enlightenment is thriving in this salty, out-ofthe-way city.

JOHN DeMONT