Acoustic Awakening: Sound and Sonic Imagination in Tibetan Buddhist Tantra

Liddle, Adam, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Germano, David, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia

This dissertation brings attention to the sensory and sonic worlds of Tibetan Buddhism in the 11th and 12th centuries. The senses are fundamental tools for how Buddhists have historically made and been affected by religion. We find a wealth of such sensory engagement in Nyingma tantric literature of the foundational Tibetan Renaissance period. This study focuses on two textual traditions that are at the core of both the Mahāyoga and Great Perfection lineages, divergent schools of philosophy and practice within the larger Nyingma tradition: The Secret Matrix Tantra (guhyagarbaha, gsang ba’i snying po) and one of its Mahāyoga commentaries, The Sun’s Quintessence; and The Unimpeded Sound Tantra (sgra thal ‘gyur), considered the root text of the Seventeen Tantras of the Great Perfection tradition, along with its main commentary, The Blazing & Illuminating Lamp.
I argue that sound is a central component for both traditions at this time, though the ways they use it differ significantly, echoing core and under considered divergences between Mahāyoga and the Great Perfection. Sound is a canvas on which to imagine Buddhist visions of both our mundane world and the possibilities of transcendence. This sonic focus further informs their core contemplative practices, the soundscapes of which become infused with their imaginations of the mundane world and transcendence. The Secret Matrix’s imaginations and contemplative practice of Deity Yoga encodes the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet with a range of Buddhist meanings and arrays them across a divine maṇḍala, transforming sounds into Buddhist deities, enacting Buddhist activities, and turning the practitioner into a Buddha. The Unimpeded Sound tantra organizes its imaginative and contemplative projects around the practice of Listening to the Elements, in which a Buddhist meditator goes out into the wilderness to listen to the rush of a raging river, the clinking of stones, the roar of a bonfire, or the whistle of the wind on a mountain peak – elemental sounds that give way to transcendent soundscapes and sonic transmissions.
In this dissertation, I present accounts of these previously untranslated texts according to their own systems of organization and logic. I also interrogate the deeper meanings and processes of these complex, esoteric texts through engaging with contemporary discourses. I argue that both traditions make ontological, epistemological, cosmological, and soteriological claims in their efforts to establish sonic imaginations of the mundane world and transcendence, and in their mobilizations of those imaginations in sonic and aural contemplative practices. Finally, I turn to the theoretical tool of affective atmospheres to draw together the many pieces of imagination and contemplation, and to better comprehend the broader sensory and affective processes at play for these traditions. In the end, I find that sound is a key sensory metaphor and pathway for these traditions’ production of Buddhist forms of religious meaning and affective transformations, all leading to acoustic awakening.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Tibetan Buddhism, Sound, Contemplation, Affective Atmosphere
Issued Date: