DHARMA AUDIOBOOKS: THE READERS

IMG_0004.JPGBy Nicolas Soames

DHARMA AUDIOBOOKS: THE READERS

The first titles under the new Dharma Audiobooks banner were published in September 2015. As we settle into 2016, there are now 15 recordings available, the most recent being The Rainbow Road, the autobiography of the early life of Urgyen Sangharakshita (read by Ratnadhya); and one of the oldest sections of the Pali Canon, the Sutta Nipāta in the K. R. Norman translation (read by Jinananda).

As it happens, both Ratnadhya and Jinananda are Dharmacharis with the Triratna Buddhist Order founded by Sangharakshita. But the intention of Dharma Audiobooks to throw a wider net over the multi-faceted sangha can be seen by the two releases that came out at the end of 2015 – The Life of Milarepa (the extraordinary biography of one of Tibet’s greatest Buddhist figures) and Buddhism Plain and Simple – the cogent, informative and highly approachable introduction by the American Zen teacher Steve Hagen.

These were both read by William Hope, the established Canadian-born actor (Aliens, numerous TV programmes, The Lady, about Aung San Suu Kyi etc), who has himself maintained an active Buddhist practice for decades, following a close connection with Chogyam Trungpa’s tradition.

My meeting with Bill, as he is generally known, was rather fortuitous. We have know each other professionally for some 20 years, when he recorded The Great Gatsby and Walden as I was building Naxos AudioBooks (which I started in 1994). His calm delivery, full of depth, made an impression from the start, but somehow, very curiously, the word ‘dharma’ was never mentioned despite many days in the recording studio.

In the early autumn last year I went to a launch party (for the new studio) at Audible’s new offices in London. Dharma Audiobooks was growing steadily, but I was beset with the question of readers. Of course, I knew many readers from my Naxos AudioBooks days, and not surprisingly some featured on the first Dharma Audiobooks releases. Neville Jason, the great Proust and Tolstoy reader, recorded the classic Pali compilation Some Sayings of the Buddha, (one of his last recordings before he died in December). Sean Barrett, another outstanding reader of classics (and just about everything else) read Govinda’s The Way of the White Clouds; Jonathan Keeble read Gautama Buddha, Vishvapani Blomfeld’s ground-breaking biography (the previous time we worked together, Jonathan read Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy!) etc.

The question was and remains – would it make a difference if a practising Buddhist reads dharma texts, rather than a widely experienced and highly-trained actor. I remember, many years ago, making a recording of an introductory account of Buddhism with an outstanding and award-winning reader and working hard to get it to sound right. He was doing a fine professional job, but I had to say, on quite a few occasions as the tone wandered into heightened ‘Dickens’ territory (more drama than dharma) – ‘Imagine you are wearing a yellow robe, have a shaved head and sandals.’ If this occurred during an ‘introductory’ text, what would happen when we approached canonical texts!

The challenge is to produce a reading that not only has a Buddhist heart, is true to the spirit of the words, but is also engaging and alive! I am afraid I found many of the ‘free’ recordings available on line worthy, even dull – and not truly engaging!

With his background as writer, teacher, and with some experience of the stage, I knew I could turn to Jinananda with confidence, and he has been active in the Dharma Audiobooks studio, recording a number of titles – most recently the Sutta Nipāta. And I have come across other English readers. Howe
ver, what about American/Canadian readers? Dharma should not be identified solely with vowel sounds from England’s green and pleasant land. Dharma-The Life of Milarepa 2400pxREVISED (Large)And on my immediate horizon were two important books that required an American voice: After all, The Life of Milarepa came in a sparkling new translation by Andrew Quintman, – the Tibetan specialist from Yale University; and the Buddhism Plain and Simple author, Steve Hagen, hails from Minnesota.

So there I was, at the Audible party, explaining to many ‘audiobook’ people (publishers, editors, readers) who knew me from Naxos Audiobooks (which I left in 2014), that I was starting Dharma Audiobooks.

William Hope

William Hope

And as the evening drew to a close and I began to leave I bumped into William Hope, whom I hadn’t seen for a while. ‘Hi, what are you doing?’ we said, full of bonhomie. He was just back from Pinewood Studios or somewhere, and I explained my new path. He stood in momentary silence. ‘I have been practising the dharma for 40 years,’ he said quietly, ‘and I would love to read dharma.’

What serendipity! How we managed not to mention the subject over all those years was beyond us – but we now looked forward. With a fortunate gap in his diary he had time to prepare The Life of Milarepa – which in any terms is a challenging task. The story of the 11th century yogin is presented by the 15th century author Tsangnyön Heruka in a flashback and requires a multi-layered reading – complex but totally entrancing when well done. And I must say that Bill rose to the challenge: this is a highly absorbing reading by a top reader –  but from a dharma heart. We had three exhilarating days in the RNIB studio.

And then, with 10 days to change tack and settle into a more relaxed American Zen / Western Buddhist mode, Bill was back in the RNIB studio to record Buddhism Plain and Simple.

To a newcomer to Buddhism, there could hardly be a greater contrast between the highly colourful, emotive, even wild Tibetan Kagyu practice and the more austere, restrained, collective Zen approach. But that is the glory of the dharma and I have always wanted Dharma Audiobooks to reflect that range: the many languages, the different emphases and approaches, the colours, the styles – even the incense!

It is also reflects, I hope, the particular contribution the West is making to 21st century Buddhism. The West has attracted and is absorbing the many traditional forms the dharma has taken around the world, but it is also emerging in new guises, reflecting the changes to society over the recent centuries.