Liberation Through Hearing

John Buescher

         “If one hears it, one is
liberated simply by not disbelieving. . . .”

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Each day we broadcast to Tibet. This past spring the Tibetan Information Network said, “A major political education campaign now being carried out in Tibet is reported by some sources to be an attempt to counteract the effectiveness” of our Voice of America Tibetan-language broadcasts. “ Scores of Chinese and Tibetan officials,” it was said, “have been sent to rural reigons to spend up to four months giving political education on the benefits of socialism.”

Reportedly, officials complained that the villagers didn't listen to Chinese TV and radio news, but knew VOA's broadcast time and frequencies and, not surprisingly, knew “all about the activities of the Dalai Lama.” Commenting on the villagers' backwardness, one Chinese official said they “fold their hands while listening as if someone is going to give them something.”

There is irony in this. The official's communist ideaology is an outdated scientism, a cargo cult awaiting unseen historical forces. Yet he ciriticised the Buddhist villagers' reverence for the radio. Where in the views of Marx, Lenin or Mao is there anything like the cosmological flights of the ancient Buddhist scriptures? The Perfection of Wisdom contains wild seeds of imagination that resonate within modern scientific ideas-relativity, space travel, recursive structures, lasers, holograms, virtual reality, telecommunication, signal encryption. That is one reason why Tietan villagers fold their hands in front of their shortwave sets.

On the transmitting end, radio is a technology of replication and dissemination, a step beyong printing (which was invented in China perhaps to produce multiple copies of the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures). But on the receiving end, radio is a way to draw down other worlds, to capture and encase knowledge. Radios are like portable reliquaries. At Tashilhunpo monastery, the golden-varnished body of the late Panchen Lama sits in a glass case. Among the folds of his brocaded robes is a white Bakelite radio.

Thus I have heard: Once, the Blessed One [Shakyamuni] was staying on Vulture Peak at Rajagriha accompanied by eight thousand monks from the mahadangham seventy two thousands bodhisattvas, and devaputras from the Kamadhatu and the Rupadhatu. The Blessed One was surrounded by a retinue of many hundreds of thousands who had come to receive teachings.

Then a devaputra named Prashantaviniteshvara, in the assembled retinue, paid his respects by touching the tip of his head to the bottom of the Blessed One's feet. With palms of his hands together he bowed to the Blessed One and said, “Blessed One, where is Kumarabhuta Manjushri? All of us in your retinue beg you to teach us this.”

On this day, I am somewhere in Tibet, listening to my portable shortwave set. Our program this morning includes a report on the Dalai Lama's current trip to the United States. Our interview of him the last time he came to Washington had been the first media interview he'd given in which both questions and answers were in Tibetan. Our broadcast of that interview had been the first time since 1959 Tibetans inside Tibet could hear his voice speaking about political bondage and political liberation. It's another reason why listeners might hold their hands as if expecting a gift. I've been surprised on this trip to hear so many Tibetans, knowing only that I'm an American tourist, say, "The Dalai Lama is in America now. We all listen to the Voice of America. America is great." I dismiss a suspicion that they've been planted to draw me out. But do they even know where America is?

The Blessed One said, "Devaputra, east of this buddha-sphere, past eighteen thousand buddhaspheres, there is a world-system called Ratnavati, where a samyaksambuddha tathagata arhat named Ratnaketu lives, prospers, and teaches. This is where Kumarabhuta Manjushri is."

On my Panasonic, I hear jamming on three of our five frequencies. One sounds like an electrical motor; a second is an overmodulated wheeoowheeoowhee. A third is VOA submerged under co-channeled Radio Beijing Spanish. Two frequencies are clear. I stand here in the sunlight on the dry Tibetan plateau and hold up a little black box to my ear and hear my staff speaking at this very moment at night in our studio in Washington. I plug in a tiny cassette recorder into the radio and tape a part of today's show on each frequency so our engineers will be able to hear how well the signal gets through.

Then the devaputra Prashantaviniteshvara made a request of the Blessed One: "With your knowledge of all signs, it would be good if you would send a kind of signal to the mind of Kumarabhuta Manjushri such that he would come here. For we do not hear; Blessed One, from the supporters of any of the shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, or bodhisattvas, the teaching of such doctrine as we hear from Kumarabhuta Manjushri. Besides tathagatas, there is no one else who can teach the doctrine in such a way. . . ."

After our interview in Washington with the Dalai Lama, he had said how glad he was that VOA was beginning to broadcast in Tibetan. It would be very different from the Chinese-controlled news media, he'd said—no censorship. Then, smiling, he said as a kind of question, "Instead, some would say self-censorship?" We laughed. I thought of it months later when we were reporting on Congressional testimony that VOA was insulated from political interference from our colleagues at the State Department. There was a firewall, it was said, between VOA and State. I heard our translation as it went out over the air. There was a me'i rtsig pa between VOA and the State Department, we said—a "wall of fire." Ouch.

On the state-controlled radio and TV news in Lhasa, everything outside of China seems to be falling apart, and everything at home seems to be at peace. The TV news shows geriatric Party leaders at meetings and dinners, raising their hands in assent, toasting moments in the progress of Socialism. Drama is added by a shot of welding sparks on a truck assembly line, or a shot of a convoy of the People's Liberation Army on route "to help the minority peoples." Programming is produced in Beijing and sent via satellite to Lhasa for broadcast. This includes episodes of Falcon Crest dubbed into Chinese.

Then the Blessed One, having fully understood the request of the devaputra Prashantaviniteshvara, emitted a ray of clear light from the umakosha on [the center of his forehead. Brilliantly illuminating the three thousand worlds of this world-system, this great light passed through eighteen thousand worldsystems to the world-system of the samyaksambuddha bhagavan tathagata arhat Ratnaketu in the buddha-sphere called Ratnavati, and enveloped it.

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