The Art of Listening


“Knowledge comes out of speaking. Wisdom is from listening.”
        -  Duth Kimsru (one of two on-site directors for BY Cambodia), possibly referencing a Jimi Hendrix quote

To listen and to understand — are they distinct? Or are they intrinsically linked, two sides of the same coin? In English, they’re unmistakably separate; listening happens at the ears, understanding in the mind. But in Khmer, oftentimes, ស្តាប់ [sdap] (to listen) and យល់ [yol] (to understand) are used interchangeably; saying, for example, “I listen to Khmer” means “I understand Khmer.”

View from Rishi's seated perspective of classical Khmer music being played on an outdoor raised area in the dark at Banteay Chhmar Temple

Listening to classical Khmer music in front of the Banteay Chhmar Temple (ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយឆ្មារ)

The beauty of Cambodia is unparalleled, its ancient temples and vast nature and growing cities a feast for the eyes, but my ears have been just as active — listening to the ideas and experiences of my homestay family, friends, colleagues, and OSDs and to NGOs explaining their vastly varying work. I’ve listened to Khmer Rouge survivors recount haunting experiences. Hearing Khmer funeral music echoing from kilometers away is a staple, as are roosters that decide to declare morning at 3 am. As I meditate, there’s the whir of a fan and as I bike, there’re my bike’s creaks of pain; even now, I’m taking in bits of surrounding conversations coupled with a backdrop of instrumental Christmas music as I write this in a café.

Holding my tongue and just listening certainly isn’t always easy for me, but it’s how I’ve come to appreciate the life I’m experiencing and understand Cambodian culture and life. I’d say the Khmer language’s take on listening and understanding is right, because they are entwined, interdependent. And so, inspired by my experiences in Cambodia, I want to share a few pieces of my writing centered on these themes.



Hearing Colors

I last remember finishing dinner at the dining table with my homestay mom.

Flashes of color dart across my eyes,
But wait — my eyes are closed shut.
Then how am I seeing, why am I seeing — no, where am I? I’m
            selling beer to Thai and Viet and Malaysian men, 
            swatting off an intimidating, though tempting, marriage proposal,
            now drinking alongside them (ABC is stronger than Tiger); then
                        blank, floating in a void, endless, black;
            racing down the highway on my motorbike to the capital — but no, I’m
                        walking to a pagoda, under the shade of palm trees
                                    — no, I’m stuck, I’m chained to the tree, it’s 1976,
                                    I shouldn’t have misspoke, I’m sorry, I’m sorry
                                    This country is bad; please let me go away, but where am I?
                                                The tree, it’s just outside home, yet
                                                I’m so far away, I’m
                                                            Lost, scared, helpless;
                                                            Where am I, how did I end up here,
                                                                        Whose life am I watching?
I grip my chair. It’s real; I feel it,
So how am I floating in a void?
My eyes see, but they also don’t;
They’re just glazed over, I’m alive, I’m awake
I must be awake, or at least alive; there’s Ma’s voice I hear — oh!
Maybe that’s the cause of all…

            Back on the other side, I look down and find
            Those hands, that body, all of it — it’s not mine.
            Those hands, that body, all of it — they belong across the table.
            The world still storms around me
                        Rich hues laden with navy blue,
                        Yellow brushes of light against dark,
                        Green dreams, muddled by heavy blue,
                        That in turn hold specks of green hope, a cycle,
                        And blots of black, of mystery lost in translation.
            Welcome to my mind.

The scenes are newcomers, and I didn’t paint them, only heard them.
But the colors — they’re regulars.

I glimpse into Ma’s life, and understand; we live
apart, but we paint off the same palette.

Dipping into another’s life,
in a film on fast-forward and reverse
is an art — no less than paint.
But to dance it is to lose oneself, step into fear,
Free fingers, eyes, mind’s wise; 
and unshackle ears.

Rsihi standing next to his host-mother in a food line, both wearing white and holding plates in their hands

Learning about Buddhist and Khmer traditions from my homestay mom at our family’s pagoda.



There’s a diamond in me.
It lights up the world I see.
And everyone around — the grown-ups and big kids and ones like me —
Are mirrors pointed at me.
They make the world and me shine so brightly.
Of course! Diamonds are special and pretty.

But I don’t think I’m a diamond — not lately.
I’d settle for quartz; ugh, those past years were so shiny;
Now I feel like a pebble, really.
The mirrors are gone, replaced by those theatre masks: comedy
For the ones who smile at me, and for the ones who don’t tragedy.
But their faces are all hidden alike; this feels like an eternity.

I don’t know what I am (not a diamond!); it’s been a few years.
The fog’s lifted from me eyes, cotton dissolved from my ears,
But now there’s only more masks to see — and hear.
Oh I miss when things weren’t so clear,
I’m ransacked with fear,
I wipe away a tear.

But it’s a blessing, I know, to see in at least some I hold dear
Rich ruby reds, electrifying topaz, even jade’s sly leer.
I won’t ever truly know if it’s the truth I see right here,
So what? Better than ignorance’s cave; it’s my life I steer.
Into the unknown for year on year,
Searching and seeking, a pioneer.

Sailing for years amongst the fog, it’s my ear’s domain.
To parse masked words from truth, the gems that don’t feign.
I had prized my new sight to my aural demise; oh, I was vain.
It’s not the sights but the words beneath that share every triumph and chain,
            What compressed him to obsidian,
            What scars run along her amethyst,
            Which gems their forefathers bore, and how those came to reign.
The world is at my fingertips (earlobes) — how could I have ever cursed my brain?

The world is a shining place, that much is plain.
I see: it shines bright and shines dark and shines with every color’s stain,
But that’s but the gem’s surface, what sight ascertains.
To ask and to hear — the glittering moments and numb pain —

            Welcomes a world of breadth
                        And of infinitely more depth
                                    Where diamonds and gemstones and pebbles remain.

Six flags atop balcony pillars with a sign in Khmer and a view of Pailin province behind

Pailin province (ខេត្តប៉ៃលិន) is most well known for its gemstones.



A paved bath lined by large, green trees and a blue sky above

The Baha’i House of Worship


One bit I’d like to share are the sounds — and sights — of a special place in Battambang: the Baha’i House of Worship. I’m not a Baha’i, but they welcome people of all faiths and cultures to reflect in their temple, and in terms of listening to nature, it reigns supreme. So come step into my shoes…



The trees that hug the outskirts road to the temple sway gently in the breeze. Your bike’s wheels rub slightly against the road. Together, the trees and your bike create a soft drone in the background. Besides that, all is quiet.

Temple in the distance down a paved path with cloudy skies above and a canal to the left



Arriving at the temple, you don’t hear the chatter of people. In fact, there is scarcely anyone at all. Instead, birds’ chirping dominates the air as you walk around and sit inside the main building.



At times, the birds’ songs are cacophony; other times, they’re harmony. Either way they create an atmosphere in which to meditate, relax, and breathe.


View flanked by a tree with flowing weepy branches with a blue sky and sunny green area ahead


Stepping away from the main temple and towards the sidewalk’s end, you land in gardens and fields and find that the birds sing quieter. The trees’ swaying has returned, which meshes with the rustling of bushes and tall grass. On occasion, you can hear the faint sounds of an insect fluttering nearby. Everything around is tranquil.







At the Top of the Stairs

“Look how far I’ve climbed, who I’ve become!” the follower proclaimed. He stood at the summit of a flight of stairs, chin high and chest proud. Above the stairs, he stood a cut above the rest, a true follower amongst a sea of frauds and fakes. It was he who climbed the path, he who stood beneath the Gate of Self, a testament to mastery over his own being. Feeling every sensation, recognizing every thought, acknowledging every feeling — it is no small accomplishment. Mayhaps the feat took a day, or perhaps a year; he knew not, for he had directed his focus wholly upon himself as he ascended. Yet now, in knowing himself truer than ever, he knew that there was a hollow emptiness within. After all, he still had nothing to fill his self with.

476 days, or 41,126,400 seconds, passed; the acolyte knew that as certainly as he now knew many things beyond the infinitesimal realm of self. He knew of the passage of time and of the motion of planets, of the beauty of nature and of every one of her children on Earth, of the nature of human and of its every act in history, and above all he knew the fundamental truth that one’s eyes and ears must not be trusted. Indeed, the acolyte might have been the most knowledgeable of all his peers. As his mind’s breadth grew, he climbed further, step and step until he reached the Gate of Knowledge. He saw and heard no one around; clearly, no one else had climbed so high. But when he turned back around and saw himself but two steps above the Gate of Being, he knew one thing more: he had fallen prey to his own eyes, blinded by a thirst to climb higher without understanding what he already stood upon.

And time passed once more. The sage could’ve counted it — and perhaps he did — but he did not speak it, or anything for that matter. He simply listened — to the echoes of followers' voices and acolyte’s confusions, to the rustles and gusts and other words of nature, to the faintest murmurs from the world’s edge so very far from where he stood. He listened, unmoving. As he did, steps appeared before him, slowly and with long pauses between, and still he listened, unmoving. For however much he knew, he sought to understand; he accepted that he did not understand where the stairs led, so he waited and observed, all until a door appeared at the steps’ summit. No, rather a door frame appeared, empty, with nothing beyond. But upon the first whisper’s emergence from the object above, the sage began to climb once more. Whether the frame took him higher or returned him back to Earth mattered not; there were new voices and sounds, and every voice and sound needs listening to.

View upward from the bottom of the temple to a sky with wispy clouds and a rectangular frame at the top

Summit of Baphuon Temple (ប្រាសាទបាពួន) of Angkor Thom in Siem Reap.

Rishi Subramanian