by Leanne Ogasawara
About five hundred miles north of Saigon lies Vietnam's old imperial capital city of Hue. Famous for its walled palace set along the shimmering Perfume River, it stands as a 19th century Vietnamese emperor's imperial dream of China.
In days past, the beautiful palace moat was filled with tall, fragrant lotus blossoms. In those days, emperors would cross the bridge into their celestial palace ~~as if floating above a sea of pink flowers.
A symbol of spiritual purity and spiritual detachment, the Vietnamese revere the lotus. In addition to the flowers that once filled the palace moat, there were also lotus ponds within the palace walls. My favorite is the small pond that lies behind the old throne room. I spent a lovely afternoon there nearly 20 years ago relaxing on the wooden veranda overlooking the lotus pond, where I was enchanted by a cool breeze that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the torpid Vietnamese summer.
My enchantment with Vietnamese lotus flowers would continue too. For it was there where I learned that the emperor's servants began their mornings every day collecting the dewdrops that had collected overnight on the lotus leaves in the pond.
It sounded like a difficult job. How did they gather the dewdrops? And why? Well, a nearby tour guide was explaining to her group that the servants used the dewdrops to make the emperor's morning cup of tea. Can you imagine? Tea made from the water of dewdrops collected on the leaves of the lotus flowers? Now that is something I would very much like to try someday….
It's a wonderful story anyway.
That evening returning to the French villa where we were staying in Hue, I told the elegant lady who ran the place all about the lotus and the emperor's tea.
Taking both my hands into hers hands (something that caused her jade bangles tinkle so musically– 玲玲), she said,
Closing at night, the flowers in the lotus pond ever so slightly sink back down into the muddy water. But the moment the sun comes out the next morning, the flowers turn to face the sun. And there, facing toward the morning sunlight, they open up and blossom. They do this each morning at dawn. So if you really want to hear it, you have to be there early, early in the morning.
"Hear it?" I wondered. "I have never heard of flowers making a sound when they blossom. What do they sound like?"
She laughed and told me she had never heard the sound herself but that old people claim it sounds like a great pop!
I went back at sunrise the next morning. But didn't hear a sound.
Several years later back in Japan, my tea ceremony friend Nobue invited me to go on a picnic with her. It was also a blisteringly hot summer day. We set out by car to a local temple with a well-known lotus pond. Happily eating rice balls and drinking tea in front of the beautiful blossoms while Nobue was being amusing talking about some book she was reading, a very old and stooped woman sneaked up on us ~~and without a word of greeting looked at us and said (pointing at the flowers),
You know, you can hear them open in the morning. Pop!
The elusive sound of flowers blossoming was an idea I would never forget. Fast forward two decades later. I had just told a friend about this experience of trying to imagine what flowers sound like when they blossom, when I came across a wonderful essay by Japanese scholar and eco-humanitarian activist Kumi Kato. Appearing in the middle of my Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, her essay was about deep listening and the sound of lotus flowers blossoming. I was so surprised and amazed.
A few years ago, I wrote a post in these pages about listening. In the post, I suggested that Western culture has long prioritized the sense of vision over that of hearing. Just think how much video technology has advanced in the past two decades, while sound technology is not going anywhere. In fact, I would bet that most people are listening to super-digitally compressed music that doesn't sound nearly as good as what they used to listen on those systems they were using ten or twenty years ago. How is this possible? Not only can we no longer send men to the moon but are music sounds awful too?
The post was inspired by an Entitled Opinions podcast that Robert Harrison did with Slavic literature specialist Gabriella Safron. After discussing ancient Greek philosophy in terms of vision and the Hebrew Bible in terms of listening, Saffron considers "how difficult it is for us to even imagine a time when information was taken in mainly by sound." She was, of course, hearkening back to a world where there was a shared calendar and liturgy that was repeated every year round and round like a clock and people let information sink in over time by listening over and over again. Harrison and Safron discussed the way that "ritual listening" has all but disappeared from our modern lives. Nowadays, we prioritize new information –and that is almost always taken in through independent reading. In contrast to this, Saffron imagines the pleasure people must have had in repeated listening. To hear something again and again. For Easter, she described the Orthodox tradition of greeting one another with the paschal greeting: Christ has risen, truly He is risen…
Similarly, Kumi Kato believes that ritual listening is under-prioritized in Western societies and explains that in Japanese kiku does not just mean listening with one's ears but conveys the idea of an attentive appreciating of something with all of our senses (聴く). That is why the verb is used for more than just "hearing" and includes broader acts of aesthetic discernment, such as judging the clarity of sake (きき酒) or picking out the various fragrances in an incense blend（"hearing the scent" 聞香）. These acts are all conveyed by kiku, "to listen by heart."
She then tells the wonderful story of the sound of lotus blossoms.
One early morning in early summer, during the early Showa period, a group of people gathered near a pond in a central parkland to listen to the sound of a lotus flower opening. As the sonic frequency of the lotus opening (9-16 Hz) is much lower than the normal frequency range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz of human capability, it was clearly impossible for humans to actually hear the sound of the blooming. The gathering, however, was attended by people, who brought to the event their aesthetic appreciation of the lotus flower's subtle color, the softness of the petals, the reflection on the water, the pleasant experience of the early morning breeze and the fact that the flower opens for only four days. In fact, it opens only for a few short hours in the early morning, and on the fourth day, the petals fall, ending the flower's short life. Lotus flowers in Buddhism are regarded as sacred and the sweet fragrance wafting in the gentle breeze is considered heavenly.
It would be hard to imagine a world without lotus blossoms.
I guess I am a kind of accidental environmentalist. Always considering myself something of a city person, I never really seriously thought much about the issues until I came back to the US. It was only when I returned to this country that the level of thoughtless waste and consumption bowled me over. Especially compared to Japan. Not to say Japan was perfect by any means about the environment– but in Japan, I think it is safe to say that nature is not held as "standing reserve;" not seen merely as a resource to be used, but rather nature is understood as something alive and something that needs to be attended to –and indeed listened to.
Kato writes that:
Deep attentive listening is an act of honoring–honoring the other who speaks to us, telling stories of their being in various voices and sounds Listening is a humbling act, for the ephemeral and transient quality of the sound demands a degree of attention and focus.
I think it is absolutely true that real listening demands that one stop and show a form of humble hospitality to the other. A Canadian friend who has spent his life in Asia recently remarked that in the US he sees anything to do with the environment as being utterly politicized –or worse associated with obsessions over certain personalities, like "liberals" or "climate deniers" or Al Gore or whatever. He sees this as further evidence of a kind of 3rd-worldification of America. People who are reasonable will inherently understand that to decrease their environmental imprint is a good thing. He explained to me that,
When I was growing up, among people who hunted, it was considered a no-brainer that ecological footprints should be minimized, for a large number of reasons, climate patterns being just one of them.
It is a no-brainer, if only you stop and listen.
Reading Kato's essay, I was delighted to learn that she is a proponent of Japanese water harps, or suikinkutsu 水琴窟. A Japanese invention, suikinkutsu are often found in traditional Japanese gardens and especially in tea ceremony gardens. Made by burying an inverted terracotta bowl with a small hole in the top in the ground, water then drips into the bowl from the top creating a pleasant sound, similar to a Japanese zither, or koto 琴, from which the suikinkutsu derives its name.
It just so happens that in Japan I lived in a town full of these water harps.
Many of the older temple gardens had them. My tea teacher also had one installed in her garden, next to the stone basin used by guests to rinse their hands before stepping into the tea hut. But in addition to these traditional water harps in gardens, I had a friend in town who belonged to an ecological group, and as part of their activities these gentlemen paid for several new harps to be installed here and there around town. Because our town hadn't suffered any bombing during the war, it contains a great many historic buildings and gardens. The town is also full of scenic splendor and so the idea behind installing these water harps around town was to get visitors and locals alike to stop for a moment in their busy day and engage in mindful listening. To allow for a meditative pausing to be more able to fully appreciate the beauty of the town. I have to say, it was really charming to see children or families pausing around a harp to take turns listening. I always loved watching the people smiling and listening to the music of the world.
I think if I had to choose one explanation for how I have come to feel in America, it is that people have lost their ability to truly listen. Hunkered down in nuclear family units and plugged into what seems like some pretty serious echo chambers, I don't feel that Americans are much capable of listening to each other anymore–much less listening to non-human animals and the environment.
When did our lives become so isolated? Everything has become so terribly one-way (embodied best by the expression of people "doing what works for themselves.")
I think Kato is spot-on when she says that being embedded in a "soundscape" demands a certain two-way, give-and-take hearing –or to use the philosophical word– it demands an atunement of oneself to the local environment/community and to place (terroir). That is because when you stop and listen, you thereby come to belong to the land as much as the land belongs to you–even if just in that moment. The world is no longer a resource to be efficiently consumed but instead becomes lit up and embodied with voice and with sentiment. To be more inter-connected, so as to be better able to heed Pope Francis' call to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. [To be continued…]