Hello everyone, including old friends, and goodbye, or semi-goodbye to a lot of you. Since I’m about to become something of a virtual figure, I’m taking this as a chance to say a few words while I’m still more or less “real” about the generation that Shambhala spent putting down roots in Boston and to express my gratitude for having been part of almost all of that 30-plus years.
When I first walked into that office in Horticultural Hall in the autumn of 1987 to interview, I had no idea that I’d end up spending nearly half my life within those walls. I certainly didn’t expect to. Hell, I was just thrilled to get an interview at Shambhala, though I tried to act nonchalant about it. I’m not sure how well pulled that off. Anyway, I ended up becoming the first intern in the company’s history (many others also later came in that way, including Peter Turner and Liz Shaw). Since I’m not generally an ambitious person, I have to chock up to karma the fact I ended up staying and against all odds building a career.
I remember my first impression on walking into that office 28 years ago was surprise at how neat and orderly everything was—it was hard for me to believe a publisher operated out of that pristine space. What I soon learned was that they’d made the move from the transitional office on Dartmouth Street just a couple months before that. That explained the zendo-like appearance, which, of course, didn’t last.
In those days about half of the much smaller staff were folks who’d come out in a caravan from Boulder a couple years previously. It was something like 15 people in house, if I’m remembering correctly. Preparations for the twentieth anniversary, which was coming up in 1989, were underway, and old-timers were being grilled to come up with an origin myth that would appear as an article in the commemorative catalogue. Twenty years ago seemed an impossibly long time ago to me back then. Today, twenty years doesn’t seem long ago at all.
Things operated differently in that mostly pre-electronic age. There was one small MacIntosh computer that the whole office used—you had to sign up for time on it—everybody was assigned a single floppy disk, which had your name on it. You couldn’t have a second one without a very good reason. Apart from that---we typed. We communicated with each other via self-duplicating paper memos that were peeled off by the originator and stuck in the appropriate mailboxes. Editing was done on paper, using pencils and Post-It notes. Typesetting was done by hand from an actual manuscript, often by a guy in North Carolina named Bobby Coghill, and that human-based composition resulted in the sort of hilarious typos we don’t see much anymore. Interior proof still came in long galleys that had to be cut to size with Exacto knives, pasted on boards, and the page folios glued in by hand. Cover mechanicals and interior design both involved a lot of tissue paper. Some people smoked, even in the office, and there was a lot more drinking of course.
Back then, a couple pages of our catalogue we still devoted to the Gurdjieff Work, of which we were a major publisher. We had just published a money-making book on Native American wisdom by a woman who was about as Native American as I am, and we were just beginning our Jungian psychology phase, one of several phases I watched arise and subside, learning an awful lot in the process.
There have been so many changes in the past thirty years that if I had been able in 1987 to time travel to the Shambhala of 2015, I wouldn’t recognize the place. We’ve done books of profound value, books that move people toward the cessation of suffering and separation, and we’ve also done a few books so silly as to be embarrassing. I’ve participated in both kinds. We’ve watched subjects that were fringe go mainstream. We’ve watched the original vision expand to include things that Sam and Michael would never have dreamt of back in 1969. Shambhala’s corporate behavior changed too, a natural result of the growth that made the mom-and-pop-store model difficult to maintain. Boston is the place where a lot of these sea-changes happened.
As much as the books that live so vividly in my memory from the past three decades live the scores of people with whom I worked, laughed, and co-suffered at Horticultural Hall. Some are here tonight, but others have disappeared. Every one of them has a special place in my heart. To name a few, in no particular order other than stream-of-consciousness there was: Jean Stewart, Jacquie Giorgi, Peter Borodin, Jennifer Devine, KB Mello, David Deitz, David Cox, Carin Allen, Jane Ryken, Leonard Jacobs, Jay Sullivan, Tom Bonoma, Jonathan Sainsbury, Eden Steinberg, Deborah Hodgdon, Anne Seidlitz, Amy Calkins, Steve Dyer, Laura Shaw, David Smydra, Kelly DuBeau, Megan Pallai, Peter Turner, Emily Bower, Emily Betsch, Kevin Gendreau, Peter Bermudes, Glenn Gaetz, Lynne Newdome, Judy Caldwell, Miro Davis, Hans Gundersen, Jimmy Yu, Douglas Anderson, Jan Voogt, Ron Suresha, Laure Stevens, Jennifer Pursley, Mary Vanderwicken, Darlene Cassaw, Jael Riordan, Nandini Lee, Carolyn Allison, Barbara Dietz, Graciela Galup, Vicky McDonald, Emily Sell, Miwa Messer, Chloe Foster, Jennifer Campagnolo, Dan Barrett, Katie Keach, Ginny Chang, Deborah Smith, Jenn Brown (the first one), Helen Martineau, Clarke Fountain, Colleen McCaffrey, Rinchen Lhamo, Laura Stone, Trish O’Hare, Joel Segel, Scott Lesnewski, my mentor Kendra Crossen, and my very dear, late friend, Brian Boland, whom I think about just about every day. These were the people—along with those of us presently working here—that built Shambhala Publications in Boston and sustained it, mostly beautifully. I get emotional just calling to mind some of those names—and I know there are a good number I’ve forgotten. Some of them evoke for me whole eras, full of stories that would take days to tell (so, don’t get me started).
Through these years in Boston, I’ve also observed several distinct Shambhala cultures arise and pass away. The culture I came into was one where the recent arrivals were in the process of getting acclamated to this New England thing. The move to Boston had been in some ways about moving into the Eastern publishing mainstream, and they were just getting their feet wet in the mainstream, with a certain amount of concern about acting like they belonged there. They pretty much did. I’ve always wondered if another impetus for the move from Boulder (whether it was conscious or not) was an effort to dissociate the company from the religious organization with which it was becoming too closely identified. But whether that was true or not, in those early days enough of staff was of the Shambhala sangha that we had Losar as a paid holiday, and those of us who weren’t part of that community inevitably had a different identity than the insiders (we were sometimes actually referred to as “non-sangha,” a term that cracked me up back then and still does). Buddhist or other spiritual practice didn’t matter, as you were given the impression it wasn’t really the right kind. I remember being told—very sincerely and without a hint of irony--by one young colleague (a “sangha” guy) that the Zen practice I was embarking on was “better than nothing” (maybe some of those who were around will have a guess as to who that was…). But that was the culture then, and it was OK, and it was really interesting to observe. That culture subsided, others arose and passed away too. Each of them was interesting in its way.
The new culture shift that is now happening, and that’s resulting in this major uprooting, represents the most radical shift so far, affecting far more people lives than any other business decision in the 46 years. And to gloss over the hardship and uncertainty this change is bringing about would be to ignore the elephant in the room. I won’t dwell on it—other than to acknowledge the elephant’s presence—but I’ll rather take this shift as an opportunity to reflect on the Shambhala enterprise and to try to articulate why I’ve found it valuable--because through the years I’ve continually seen people take offense when Shambhala behaves like a business rather than a benevolent organization—something that exits for the sake of the employees, to supply us with a pure and prestigious dharmic livelihood with lots of elegant dinner parties. It’s never been that, and I believe the temptation to see it that way should be avoided, because if you envision Shambhala as something other than a business at heart, you risk missing the point about why that business has been remarkable.
To say what’s been remarkable about it, I’ll rely on someone who says things infinitely better than I do, Dogen Zenji. Dogen, in his mini-classic Genjokoan, says something that’s one of the most wonderful things I think I’ve ever heard: he says that enlightenment happens in the midst of delusion. Waking up isn’t a stepping out of delusion and becoming separate from all those supposedly still sleeping. To wake up isn’t to leave the delusion behind, and those who strike a pose of having done so are really just pretending. One of the illustrations Dogen uses is that of a fish in the ocean. The fish who wakes up to the fact that he’s swimming in the sea doesn’t leave the sea. He keeps right on swimming, keeps doing all the stuff that fish do. He doesn’t jump to dry land—awakening doesn’t make the function of his gills irrelevant—and he doesn’t come to regard himself as something essentially different from his fellow fish. Dogen’s fish strikes me as a reasonable symbol for Shambhala Publications. Whatever elements of awakening have infected the Shambhala enterprise, and they certainly have, it never stopped being a fish. It never stepped out of the sea of book publishing to pretend to be something other than a book publisher. And if it had, I don’t believe those elements of awakening would’ve amounted to much, or that the enterprise itself would have amounted to much.
Dogen would have understood this move to Boulder to be delusional. But then, he’d also have understood that my anger about it is delusional, that the joy someone else might feel about it is also delusional, and that every feeling in between is also part of the delusion. None of our reactions, whether they’re justified or not, matter as much as recognizing the fact that it’s happening within the delusion—within the sea in which all of us fish are swimming.
Taking Dogen’s view further, the move to Boston a generation ago was delusional too--I could give you my own view of the details, but the details don’t matter much. I personally benefited greatly from that delusional move, as my own delusion to take up a career in publishing was enabled by it, and what a challenging and rewarding career it has been. I can only be grateful for it.
The earlier move to Boulder from Berkeley was delusional as well— I could give you my own view of the details, but the details don’t matter much.
And the origin of Shambhala out of that little Berkeley backroom, that was delusional too. I could also give you my own view of the details, but the details don’t matter much. I was still in high school at the time, across the hill in the redneck California Central Valley. My hometown didn’t even have a bookstore for many years, so Telegraph Avenue was like Valhalla to me. The delusional aspect of my adulation of that book-wonderland is revealed to me now whenever I go back there and register how tedious the whole scene feels.
Shambhala is a fish in the sea of the book publishing business. That it never jumped out of that sea to pose as something else is a good thing. What distinguished it from other publisher-fish in the sea were the seeds of awakening that set the direction way back in that Berkeley backroom, the aspiration to do something about the suffering cosmos through the medium of words on a piece of paper. The aspiration came in the midst of all sorts of delusions about the culture and prestige of publishing, and of making money, and of God knows what else. And that’s appropriate. Denial of that would have been nothing but a pose, and the self-righteous enterprise that arose out of that pose would have been insufferable. And probably unsustainable. This fish woke up in the sea, and had the good sense to keep on swimming. The aspiration that set that fish’s direction has inspired me through the years of this company’s actions, both good and bad, skillful and unskillful, unkind and compassionate—and of my own comparable actions. The original aspiration, mixed in with all that, is what set this course. That aspiration, put in motion 46 years ago, has the potential to survive us all, and I sincerely hope it does. It’s what made it all worthwhile.
As Shambhala completes this move, my first wish is for those who are now displaced or thrown into uncertainty by it: may the change ultimately be for your good, may it offer fresh perspectives, new opportunities, and may you have wonderful and surprising consolations along the way. May the seeds sown in you at Shambhala sprout better in other worthy venues. And if we don’t stay in touch, may we at least wish each other well forever. My second wish is for Shambhala Publications, itself. May this big fish continue to swim in the sea of delusion, farting out bits of enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, including ourselves, and not taking itself too seriously in the process. And as Diane McCormick likes to say, “Peace in the Middle East.”