VOA's daily broadcasts are the only American programming besides Falcon Crest in Tibet. We don't read scriptures over the air; our script is the news. Our halfhour shows have newscasts and background reports from correspondents overseas on major news stories, or other human-interest features. But the more basic structure of the news itself is the flood of samsara—impermanence, suffering, selflessness—which informs reporters' working assumptions: First, any piece of news is precious today but worthless tomorrow. Second, good news that is not suspect or trivial is rare. Third, no piece of news exists in and of itself; it's a partial truth, a convention that conceals as it reveals. What the individual stories in a newscast say is important, but so is the selection and sequence of the stories. The worlds the news lineup leaves in the dark are larger than the worlds it illuminates.
Then, in unison, the mahabodhisattvas there asked the samyaksambuddha bhagavan tathagata arhat Ratnaketu, "Blessed One, this great light present here, from whom has this sign come?" The bhagavan Ratnaketu said, "Kulaputras, to the west of this buddha-sphere, past eighteen thousand buddha-spheres, there is a world-system called Earth where a samyaksambuddha bhagavan tathagata arhat named Shakyamuni lives, prospers, and teaches. The samyaksambuddha bhagavan tathagata arhat Shakyamuni, by emitting a ray of clear light from the urnakosha on his forehead, has caused this great light, having passed through eighteen thousand buddha-spheres, to appear in this world-system."
I'm traveling with a tourist group, carrying a tourist visa. On this trip I've often thought about Robert Ford, who operated Tibet's first radio station. After the Chinese invaded, they put him in prison. Nowadays, Chinese media call VOA the major weapon in a propaganda war being waged against China. But here I am anyway. Understandably, no one from Tibet has been reckless enough to write to us, so—as one of our listeners said in a letter from a refugee settlement in India—this is the only way to see "peacocks dance when they hear thunder."
The mahabodhisattvas asked him, "Blessed One, for what reason did that samyaksambuddha tathagata arhat send this ray of clear light?" The blessed one Ratnaketu said, "To signal Kumarabhuta Manjushri. Why? To make Kumarabhuta Manjushri go there."
Our tourist bus follows the road around the turquoise waters of a lake, and we drive up to a pass. We stop at 16,400 feet. Just beside us, a peak rises up to 24,000 feet into dark blue space. White crystal plumes of snow stretch into the wind at the top, blowing like silk scarves from the back of the black rock.
The bus driver lets air out of the tires so they don't explode in the thin air. I stumble off the bus to face the mountain. Its huge mass transfigures everything into its echoes and shadows. My touring companions take a few steps outside. They wheeze; their cameras whir and click.
The innumerable mahabodhisattvas and the many de vas, nagas, yakshas, and gandharvas who were collected around Kumarabhuta Manjushri looked at him and wished they could hear him teach the doctrine, but the tathagata Ratnaketu said to him, "Since the glorious bhagavan tathagata Shakyamuni and all those in his retinue wish to see you, go there to the world-system called Earth."
Far across the road, grazing on golden moss, are yaks, tiny dots at eighteen thousand feet. In the other direction, two black nomad tents are pitched a few hundred yards from us down a gentle slope. A leather-skinned woman walks up from the tents, carrying on her back a shirtless brown baby. Their hair shines with yak butter. The woman greets us, extending her flat tongue, and then speaks to us.
Manjushri paid his respects to him and said, "Blessed one, I pay respect to the source of this sign as well." Kumarabhuta Manjushri, along with ten thousand bodhisattvas, paid their respect to the feet of the tathagata Ratnaketu with the tops of their heads. Three times those powerful beings circumambulated the bhagavan tathagata arhat samyaksambuddha Ratnaketu. Then they opened their folded hands like lotus blossoms, and in an instant they came to the world-system of Earth. They arrived there, but were invisible.
She walks over to the bus. What is it like to live here? I wonder. Do her world and mine intersect at more than this one point right here and now? Does she have a radio?
As an act of respect to the bhagavan tathagata arhat Shakyamuni, they caused a beautiful heavy rain of fragrant, colorful flowers never before seen or heard of The three thousand worlds of this world-system were filled knee-deep with that heavy rain of flowers.
I realize she's smiling now, not at us but at the bus—or, rather, at something on the outside of the bus by the door: a large sticker picturing the head of a dog, a German shepherd. Until now I'd only barely noticed it, one of a bunch of stickers from the trekking groups that have used the bus. It's like the fish and deer stickers on pickup trucks in the States. It's completely unremarkable, except that this very remarkable being who lives up here in this awesome immensity has fixed her attention on it as if it were an augury. She touches the sticker-dog's smooth tongue. She says how much she likes the picture, how special it is. The bus driver guffaws-he's from the big city of Lhasa. The moment dissolves. We tourists get back on the bus and ride down the other side of the pass.
Everyone in the retinue, seeing the heavy rain of flowers, was amazed. They asked, "Blessed one, whose magical power has caused such a heavy rain of flowers, so pleasing to see?" The blessed one said, "It is Kumarabhuta Manjushri and his companions, ten thousand bodhisattvas from the world-system Ratnavati. They have arrived at Earth but are invisible, and they are paying their respects to the tathagata. This is the reason they have caused such a great rain of flowers."
In New Delhi a fortnight later, I have a dream in which she appears. She's a spirit, a protector of the pass. She gestures; each of her movements seems bursting with powerful but inchoate meaning. Our encounter is no longer a loose strand of fragmentary impressions but the turning point of my trip. The infinite details that aligned for me to come converge on that high barren point on the pass. She raises her dark hand into a circle of light and touches the sticker-dog's open, panting mouth. The grass, the bus, the mountains, the sky, and the stars wheel around in a vortex of significance. And their deepest significance is revealed to be that they signify nothing other than themselves; yet this seems wonderful. I wake up in my shabby hotel room and write down the dream in my journal.
Those in the retinue asked him, "Blessed one, we wish to see Kumarabhuta Manjushri and the mahabodhisattvas." Then Kumarabhuta Manjushri and the thousand bodhisattvas descended together from the illuminated heavens, and paying their respects with the tops of their heads to the feet of the blessed one, the mahabodhisattvas and Kumarabhuta Manjushri alighted in a demonstration of each one's own magical emanation.
On the street outside the VOA bureau in New Delhi at noon that day, I walk up behind a scooter-wallah who's just dropped off a customer at the street corner. With the few words we have in common, we agree on the fare from there to my hotel. I climb into the small compartment in the back of the scooter. He gets in and sits just in front of me. He grabs the handlebars and kick starts the engine. I look forward. There's darkness all around except for the rectangular windshield, like a lit TV screen. In the center of it, the driver's head, in black, takes up most of my vision; his head seems to be my own head in negative space. But on either side, stuck on the windshield, are stickers—German shepherds' heads, each turned to face the center. The dogs' heads, above the driver's, float in the light. The stickers are smaller but otherwise perfect echoes of the one on our bus in Tibet, except that a wedge is sliced out of each of these, where the dog's mouths and tongues should be.
I lean forward and yell over the engine's roar into the driver's ear, "You like dogs, eh?" He smiles, uncomprehending. For the moment, he's as mute as his tongueless sticker-dogs. But the banality of his expression, like the absurd banality of the stickers themselves, only deepens my sense that, well, some other meaning is beaming itself into this world.
John Buescher is chief of Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. The selection from scripture is composed of the opening passages of The Teaching of the Conventional and Ultimate Truths from the Peking edition of the Tibetan canon. The views expressed in this article are the author's own, they are not necessarily those of the Voice of America.
Original art by Joan Jonas.