Thursday, August 20, 2009

Listening to the sound of rain

Most Chinese would say that the social atmosphere they most enjoy is rènao 热闹, "bustling with noise and excitement, lively". The first character, rè, can also mean "hot", "feverish" and "restless".

Rènao is the kind of atmosphere you find in a Chinese restaurant when the establishment is fully packed: Every table is seated with ten chattering people, each one happily eating and socializing; waitresses and waiters scurry about, the hostess shouting into a walkie-talkie that "table 9 is ready!" and the loud speakers pumping out shrill pop music. Only then can a Chinese feel relaxed, surrounded by food, people and noise, a comforting mayhem that seemingly creates a sensation of much-needed security and inclusiveness.

But if you look closely you might see that actually not every guest is talking; some people are sitting quietly, letting others do the talking. Amidst the tumultuous hubbub of everyday Chinese life there are actually people who seek quiet and solace, seemingly not needing to constantly fill their existence with noise.

Chán fáng tīng yǔ  雨, "meditation/zen", "chamber", "listen", "rain" is an expression that epitomizes the ideal of quiet and solitude. The quiet that is found when listening to the sound of rain drops falling on the roof of a temple when meditating in a separate space. A Zen monk, of course, should be able to find his or her own "inner chamber", even amidst the nosiest, maddening crowd.