Eye, ear, nose, mouth, tongue and body, these are the five ways for us to take in the outside world, and there is proportion among them.
In Ancient Times, smell and hearing were certainly more developed: these are closer to our animal side and more primitive instincts. Vision was of course very important, but it was not out of proportion with the other senses. From the agricultural age, however, as civilisation and crafts developed, touch and taste gained importance, vision also became more important, while hearing gradually lost its preminence. Then later, as the industrial and commercial era came, vision became the dominant sense, the main channel for taking in information, while touch, taste and heating began to decrease, The visual representation, visual intuition, direct image of things became the essential way for us to take in information.
If we look at history from a distance, we can note adjustments and changes to the way we use our five senses. But if we look at a smaller range, and compare the nineteen eighties and nineties to today, we can also observe interesting changes.
In the nineteen eighties and nineties, many people had the experience of listening to the radio, especially in the dead of night. Turning on the radio was like opening a window to a world far away, yet very close. But for people today, except those in certain industries or in certain special times, listening to the radio is very rare, and taxi drivers may be the most loyal radio listeners.
Today, our experience of hearing, and our use of hearing in order to take in information form the outside world and weave them with our own inner self, is proportionally much on the decline, the auditory pathway is degrading, while the visual pathway increases. Because transport increased, because vision technology developed, our activities have expanded to a broader radius, we experience more, and as we experience more, we get to see more. If we hear songs from the 90s today, we will easily feel nostalgic, as if we’d just been briefly exposed to whatever happened that year.
I often joke that, the only thing developing in our sense of touch is our fingers, because we’re typing on the keyboard and playing with our phone. Our bodies’ sensory abilities have been alienated by technology: one part is on the rise, one part is on the decline.
I really envy music lovers – I sometimes even envy blind people – because their hearing is so powerful. I used to watch a TV series called ‘The way to Heaven’. The hero, Ding Yuanying, has supernatural hearing, and derives most of his pleasure from sounds. His biggest dream is to buy a house in Germany, put in the best sound system, and then put the sound as loud as he can bear it, and just let the waves of sound sink deeper and deeper in.
Among humanities five senses, the most abstract, the most difficult to grasp, will surely do better than the most intuitive, the easiest to use, at reaching those things close to the heart and soul. On this point, there will always be an inversely proportional relationship between medium and volume.
For instance, we often say that ‘seeing is not as good as hearing’, but hearing is actually a way to stimulate out imagination, and create an internal impression from imagination: we can mobilize all of our life’s experience, and make up things based on what we are hearing, while sight does not allow this kind of imaginary construction – the mountain we see is a mountain, the river is river, and if we try to compare this landscape with the previous ones we saw, it will be very hard to be satisfied. One thing is listening, one thing is seeing, and their role for the spirit is widely different.
Another example is monks meditating, they can escape from their body, and in one instant, contemplate the vastness of the universe and the minuteness of a fly. I think this is not necessarily a supernatural power, but during meditation, all perceptive systems are closed, and as they close down their five senses, they open the door to another mode of perception, this is understanding from the heart, this is a return to deep understanding, it’s a form of perception akin to a superpower, and allows them to have direct insight into the changes of the world outside, from the passing of clouds through the wind, to the great state of the world’s affairs.
Beethoven is also like that, as a composer who cannot hear, after he became deaf, the quality of his compositions was not affected, but could there be greater works than those composed after he became deaf, like the Destiny or the Pastoral? His ears could no longer hear, but his mind could hear, and so the works were the effect of his previous auditory experience and auditory imagination, just as he said: ” Why do I write music? – there are things in my mind that have to be released, and that is why I compose.”
One year in Tibet, a friend drove me back to Lhasa from Yadong county. At midnight, we passed the Ka Ruo La glacier, the bottom of which is 5400 meters above sea level. It was already midnight then, my friend was the only driver, and tired, so we lay down in the car to rest.
This was a really profound experience of silence. Apart from our own breath, we could hardly hear any sound at all: a small car parked by the glaciers of the roof of the world, and a few tiny people, like little blades of grass, gently snoring, this absence of sound was like hearing a million sounds. We felt as tiny as ants, and as large as the mountain and rivers. After sleeping, I went down the side of the road to pee, I looked up and saw the starry sky, the whirring of the wind in my ears, it was like returning to the beginnings of the world.
We’re different from Beethoven, we’re different from old monks, 或许就在于他们能时刻停下来，处于一种听觉和心觉转换的状态，一种关闭感觉而有大觉悟的状态，we normal humans can only for a short moment, when fireworks explode in front of us, come close to that kind of divine feeling.