In the cacophonous world of audio publishing, a sixteen-year-old Coloradobased company, Sounds True, is a clear voice of dharma. Its list includes nearly every English-speaking Buddhist teacher of note and this fall, Sounds True is offering its entire Buddhist inventory in a new catalog, Dharma Talk, that mixes feature articles and staff recommendations with product descriptions. The handsomely packaged audio sets include new programs by Stephen Batchelor (Buddhism Without Beliefs), Mark Epstein (What the Buddha Felt), Tara Brach (Radical Self-Acceptance), and Natalie Goldberg with her Zen teacher, Dosho (Zen Howl).

Sounds True distinguishes itself from other spoken-word audio publishers by its approach. It neither records books on tape, nor reproduces unedited dharma talks. Instead, each tape set is conceived as a complete learning experience—what the company’s founder and publisher Tami Simon calls “a whole curriculum”—combining teachings, stories, meditations, and other practices.

Simon records teachers live in the studio or—less frequently—on site, often before an audience. No scripts are allowed, though an outline is agreed on in advance. The tapes are then edited to eliminate the extraneous and to preserve the you-are-there immediacy of a workshop or meditation retreat. Not enlightenment in a box, perhaps, but about as close as you can come to sitting at the feet of the masters without getting out of your armchair or your car.

“A magazine article or a sixty-minute cassette does not create a transformed life,” Simon points out. “Real transformative practice requires a major commitment of will and time and desire. Sounds True sees its tole not as ptoviding the candy that will bring people in the door but as giving them tools to make an ongoing commitment that actually changes their identity structure.”

A worthy goal, but can a set of audio tapes deliver on such a promise?

In Simon’s experience, it can. “Audio captures that magnetic presence of a teacher through the voice. And that’s what you’re communicating with when you listen. On a vibratory level, a resonance level, you’re being changed.”

Simon’s passion for oral teachings inspired her to start Sounds True in 1985, when she was JUSt twenty-three, though the seeds were sown earlier, in her sophomore year at Swarthmore. A philosophy major, she became increasingly disillusioned with the analytical thrust of Western thought. A course on existentialism and Buddhist philosophy, taught by Gunapala Dharmasiri, a former monk visiting from Sri Lanka on a Fulbright fellowship, changed her life.

“When he first wrote on the blackboard anicca, anatta, and dukkha, and explained that Impermanence, No-self, and Suffering were the three cornerstone ideas of Buddhism, I felt a relief like you never would believe,” Simon recalls. “I became so intoxicated with that class I started critiquing all my other academic work from a Buddhist perspective.”

Simon began to spend evenings with Dharmasiri and his family, feasting on Sri Lankan dinners and Buddha-dharma before heading to the college radio station, where she broadcast poems, music, and random musings well into the night. At year’s end, she dropped Out and headed east, to India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. “You don’t study mysticism, you live it,” she says.

Simon’s first meditation experience was a ten-day intensive in Sri Lanka led by the Burmese teacher S. N. Goenka. “He was very strict, but it was a terrific way to be initiated into a practice,” she says. “There I was, twenty-one years old, looking for the meaning of life. I fell in love with meditation.” She sat three more retreats with Goenka in India before returning ro America.

Simon moved to Boulder, Colorado in late 1983, ostensibly to take courses at Naropa. Instead, while waitressing at night, she volunteered at the local public radio station, hosting an afternoon interview show. Ram Dass and Stephen Levine were among her first guests.

When Simon’s father died the next year and left her $50,000, she fretted over where to invest it. A successful local entrepreneur advised her: “Wherever you put your money is where you’re putting your energy. Why don’t you put it in yourself?” By the time she left his office, she realized that her mission—”to disseminate spiritual wisdom”—had been percolating all along. “My entire journey, in college and through India, was about spiritual ideas. That’s what had sustained me. The idea was to put out those SOrts of life preservers for other people.” Audio was the logical medium.

As Simon was already taping workshops led by the teachers she interviewed on her radio show, launching a recording service was a natural segue. By 1988 she had amassed over a thousand tapes, and put together her first catalog to distribute them. Now, Sounds True ships over 1.5 million catalogs a year, in addition to selling through bookstores and the company’s website.

Today, most programs are recorded in the company’s state-of-the-art studio in Louisville, Colorado, near Boulder, but maintaining the spontaneity of live teachings is essential to Simon. ‘Tve always made tapes as if I were a radio producer,” she explains. “You want that quality of interactivity. You want it to be ‘hot: to be exciting. As soon as you introduce reading, it’s more of an entertainment than a pure learning experience. I want to hear people tell me what they know. Great orators speak from inspiration, from a sense of almost being taken over by a spirit of truth that informs their speech.”

After Sharon Salzberg published her first book, Lovingkindness, Simon invited her to record. “Instead of having her read the book aloud, I said, ‘Okay, Sharon, I want to learn metta practice. You have three hours. Teach me,”’ The result was a kit with two cassettes and a study guide.

Later, she asked Salzberg, “If you wanted to teach as many people as possible to meditate, how would you do it?” Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein came up with a twelve-cassette, self-guided
course, Insight Meditation. The $199 price includes a year-long e-mail correspondence with a mentor from the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Realizing that not everyone is ready for that level of commitment, Simon recently worked with Salzberg and Goldstein to edit the course into a more accessible, $29.95 program, with a study guide and six meditations on two CDs. Developed for One Spirit Book Club, it will be released next spring.

Even when Simon fashions programs from pre-recorded, archival materials, she uses the same dynamic process to keep the teachings fresh. To create the experience of being on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, she edited thirty hours of tapes from three different retreats into a nine-hour program, The Present Moment. She culled dozens of tapes from Pema Chadron’s archive to make Noble Heart, a series on bodhicitta, the awakened heart-mind.

Though Buddhist teachings are Simon’s first love, they represent less than a fifth of the Sounds True list of over four hundred titles. “The mission was never to be a dharma company solely,” she notes. “It was to look for direct wisdom and offer that to people through whatever faith, tradition, method, or source would be helpful.”

Simon enlists experts from the far-flung corners of health, human behavior, and the arts, as well as nearly every spiritual tradition. “In the future,” she says, “we will have to have an integral spirituality that includes our work life, our community life.”

Sounds True also produces videos and music, but audio remains the heart of the company. “To me the tone and quality of somebody’s voice tells me a lot about whether or not I can trust what they’re saying and, consequently, whether I will learn something from them,” Simon explains. “That’s why the idea of transmitting dharma through audio is so important. When somebody is a truth-teller, it’s as beautiful as music.” ▼

Sounds True’s Top 10 Buddhist Tapes

1. The Present Moment—Thich Nhat Hanh (8 hours, 6 cassettes, $59.95). Meditations and teachings to cultivate mindfulness.

2. Noble Heart—Pema Chodron (9 hours, 6 cassettes, study guide, $59.95). Self-guided meditation retreat on befriending obstacles.

3. The Inner Art of MeditationJack Kornfield (8 hours, 6 cassettes, $59.95; video, $19.95). Introduction to mindfulness meditation; excellent for beginners.

4. Insight Meditation—Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg (18 hours, 12 cassettes, 88-page study guide, $199). Comprehensive insight meditation (vipassana) course, including a full year of personal instruction from the Insight Meditation Society.

5. Tibetan Wisdom for Living and Dying—Sogyal Rinpoche (9 hours, 6 cassettes, $59.95). Meditations and teachings on enlightenment, the bardo, and more.

6. The Jewel Tree of Tibet—Robert Thurman (9 hours, 6 cassettes, study guide, $59.95). Meditations, practices, and core teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.

7. Natural Perfection—Lama Surya Das (5 hours, 4 cassettes, $29.95). Dzogchen teachings for discovering one’s Buddhahood.

8. The Science of Enlightenment—Shinzen Young (17 hours, 12 cassettes, $99). Meditations and methods for testing the world’s enlightenment teachings.

9. Mindful Living—Thich Nhat Hanh (7 hours, 5 cassettes, $39.95). Collection of three popular tapes: Teachings on Love, The Art of Mindful Living, and Touching the Earth.

10. The Roots of Buddhist Psychology—Jack Kornfield (9 hours, 6 cassettes, $59.95). Advanced instruction on the maps of consciousness.

For a free copy of Dharma Talk, call (800) 333-9185.