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Lions Roar : January 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2009 64 then an editor at HarperSanFrancisco and now a freelance writer and editor-at-large at the Penguin Group, told Sogyal Rinpoche that, as she recalls, “The audience buying Buddhist books is being well-served by Buddhist publishers. You need to write a book that people can buy in shopping malls. My mother buys her books in shopping malls and she needs to hear this.” The book was carefully edited to ensure its message would be understood by a broad audience, and sales of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, published in 1994, exceeded all expectations. But, Hertz says, “As well as it did, it was still a very complicated book, and a lot of people weren’t getting access to these teach- ings.” Not long after, Hertz came across a manuscript of the Dalai Lama’s teachings being worked on by psychiatrist Howard Cutler, who was trying to put them into an easily understandable form. Hertz bought the book, which after reworking became The Art of Happiness. It came out in 1998, Cutler promoted it tirelessly, and it became a blockbuster. For a while, mainstream publishers thought Buddhism a very hot property. Hertz recalls the buzz: “On Monday Night Football, the sports- casters were talking about Kurt Warner, the quarterback of the L.A. Rams, who had just won the Super Bowl, and mentioned that he’d told them that a book called The Art of Happiness was on his nightstand and that’s what he reads for inspiration every night. Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel on Friends was sitting at a cof- fee bar reading it. Charlotte on Sex in the City was reading it in the opening shot of one of the episodes. It was all over the place.” Eventually, both Lisa Simpson and Carl Carlson, Homer’s co- worker, would be revealed as Buddhists. By the end of the de- cade, the Dalai Lama’s next book, Ethics for a New Millennium, would join the Art of Happiness on the New York Times bestseller list. Around this time, Buddhist scholar Thomas Tweed coined the term “nightstand Buddhists.” It was not only TV characters on the Buddhist bandwagon. Celebrities themselves, including Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Tina Turner, and k.d. lang, were openly known to be Buddhists and referring to it in public. Hollywood capitalized on the popularity of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama with the re- lease of Kundun, directed by Martin Scorcese, and Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, both in 1997. (In 2003, Bernardo Berto- lucci’s Little Buddha completed the trio of Buddhist movies that have stuck in the public mind.) Around 2001, the wave of Buddhist popularity would start to tail off, but the surge of interest in Buddhism was “more than a phase,” Jack Kornfield says. “By the turn of the century, many of the central principles of Eastern dharma, both yogic and Buddhist, had penetrated the culture. You could find a yoga stu- dio or meditation group in almost every community.” Celebrity and fame are not such a bad thing, he adds, since they “demystify that which seems foreign. What is a fad or fashionable turns into something that is simply more available to people.” 4. Beyond Buddhism The phrase “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” is heard so of- ten these days that, as the trademark lawyers would say, it’s gone generic, like Kleenex and Xerox. That doesn’t bother Jon Kabat- Zinn, its founder, one bit. That was what he was aiming for. At the end of training sessions for MBSR teachers, he tells them, “You can go back and teach and call your program Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction. I don’t want to trademark this. I want you to take it, innovate with it, make it your own practice, so you can teach what you know.” Kabat-Zinn was one of those people for whom Buddhism provided an opportunity in the late seventies, in Mel Weitsman’s terms, to “drop-in”—in a very big way. The son of an immunolo- gist, Kabat-Zinn trained at MIT as a molecular biologist but also practiced yoga and meditation, starting in the mid-sixties. He had been inspired by a talk at MIT by Philip Kapleau Roshi and went on to become a student of Korean Zen master Seung Sahn. When he took some time off from his job in the gross anatomy lab at the UMass Memorial Medical Center to do a meditation retreat, it occurred to him that patients in a hospital could use some mindfulness. The first MBSR program began in 1979. It worked. Combining simple mindfulness techniques, such as paying attention while eating a raisin, with yogic techniques, such as lying down and scan- ning the body mentally, reduced patients’ stress and thereby their overall pain. Kabat-Zinn avoided using explicit Buddhist terms; he felt they would be off-putting and carry baggage that already burdened people did not need to bear. “People are just suffering,” he told me, “They’re not looking for enlightenment or meditation or to become Buddhists or to give up their culture or any of that.” The principle that buddhadharma—the discoveries attribut- ed to the Buddha and propagated since by a wide variety of tra- ditions—is inherent human wisdom that can be discovered and applied by anyone, free of a religious context, is at the heart of a movement that has been gaining strength for the last thirty years. In the view of Mirabai Bush, one of the founders of the Cen- ter for Contemplative Mind in Society, there has been a tipping point in the last few years in this movement. She’s reluctant to point to a “Berlin Wall moment,” but she feels that when “medi- tation” was emblazoned across that great barometer of popular culture, the cover of Time magazine, in August, 2003, it was clear that “demand for practices that originated in Buddhism, which you could say are simply basic human practices, has increased dramatically.” In its signature breathless prose, the Time story confirms Kornfield’s thesis that fashionability gives birth to availability: “Meditation classes today are being filled by mainstream Ameri- cans who don’t own crystals, don’t subscribe to New Age mag-