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In Session: Reflecting on Buddhism in South Asia
The Sound of Liberation: Design and Experience in Tibetan Buddhist Tantric Practices of Listening
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Adam C. Liddle
University of Virginia, United States
Listening to a stream on a warm summer’s day might sound like a relaxing time, but in 11th-12th century Tibet, it may have been an intense religious experience. In the foundational texts for the Tibetan Buddhist Great Perfection tradition, The Unimpeded SoundTantra and its commentary, the sense of hearing is foregrounded as a primary means for contemplative and spiritual practice. The Great Perfection tradition of Tibet famously utilizes visual and mental stimuli as the main focus of contemplative practice, but earlier texts make clear that this has not always been the case. The Unimpeded Sound promotes practices of listening to the sounds of the natural elements, musical instruments, and chanted syllables to help one reach spiritual liberation. In this paper, I will explore the role of sound in these practices across two major methodological axes: acoustic design and aural experience. The Unimpeded Sound designs specific settings for these listening practices that prescribe criteria including the landscape, season, sonic object, and individual practitioner. It then describes the variety of aural phenomena that practitioners will experience ranging from natural sounds to mantric particles, other-worldly voices, and divine melodies. I will analyze these practices to highlight both the principles of acoustic design that are deliberately deployed to create such aural effects as well as the insights these experiences provide into the nature of Tibetan Buddhist religious experience. Finally, I will discuss the significance of these listening practices to the history of the senses for the Great Perfection tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.