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The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Everybody who's never practiced Zen knows, or thinks they know, the koan, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" In popular culture it typifies the paradoxical riddle-like side of Zen. Most people try to puzzle out the answer or come up with some clever "Zen" response without bothering to ask what the question means in the first place. So let's begin to investigate what this koan is actually about.
As you probably know, this koan was invented as a teaching device by Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (1686-1768), who many consider the greatest, and certainly most influential teacher in the recent history of Japanese Zen. Virtually all the koans that Zen students normally study date from the heyday of Chinese Zen, a period a thousand years before Hakuin, and which were compiled in the 11th century into the two great collections most studied today, the Mumonkan and the Blue Cliff record. Hakuin's "sound of one hand" is unique in modern times in taking it's place among the sayings of the old masters like Chao-chou and Yun-men and Lin-chi. Unlike the koans attributed to those old teachers, which were words or phrases that latter generations singled out from among the collected dialogues between master and student, the sound of one hand was specifically devised by Hakuin as a teaching tool to give students in place of the traditional beginner's koan "mu."
Hakuin came up with this koan only after many years of his own arduous practice. He has left us a rather unique document, a spiritual autobiography entitled "Wild Ivy" (Shambala 1999; translated by Norman Waddell) that recounts all the tribulations and triumphs of his journey.
He tells us that as a child, his mother took him to hear an itinerant Nichiren preacher who frightened his audiences with graphic descriptions of the torments awaiting in each of the "eight Scorching Hells." (Evidently it isn't just Christian fundamentalists who preach fire and brimstone!)
Hakuin tells us that as a result he stayed awaked all night sobbing miserably, quaking with fear. He developed a phobia about going into hot baths, which reminded him of the cauldrons of hell. Although we don't know just why young Hakuin was so preoccupied with his own sinful nature and the prospect of eternal damnation, his fear led him to be ordained as a monk at the age of fourteen. He hoped that Zen would provide a release from torment. He idealized what he knew of the old Chinese masters. One day however, he heard the story of the great master Yen-t'ou who gave a great shout as he was murdered by a band of bandits. Hakuin was thrust back into despair - if a master like Yen-t'ou could not escape a painful death, what hope did he have?
Hakuin practiced with great intensity trying to find the answer to his problem. His autobiography is filled with accounts of the determination and austerity with which he practiced - going to such extremes as sitting on a plank suspended over a well - if he fell asleep he'd fall in and drown!
Eventually, his practice culminated in a series of what he thought were great satoris. What is remarkable in Hakuin's record is his honesty with which he recounts how he nonetheless kept falling back into confusion or despair. After his first breakthrough, he felt that his body and mind had completely dropped away.
"Overwhelmed with joy, I hollered at the top of my lungs "Old Yen-t'ou is alive and well!"
It sounds magnificent doesn't it, but what happened after that? Hakuin admits "I became extremely proud and arrogant. Everyone I encountered seemed to me like so many lumps of dirt." Fortunately, he soon encountered a new teacher to whom he tried to display his enlightenment. "How do you understand the koan about the Dog and the Buddha-Nature," the master asked him. Hakuin confidently shot back, "No way to lay a hand or foot on that." Whereupon the master grabbed him by the nose and said, " Got a pretty good hand on it there!"
Well, Hakuin went through all sorts of great satoris and great relapses into despair for another twenty years or so before finally curing himself of his various Zen sicknesses.
Looking back, it became obvious how preoccupied with his own mind, his own subjectivity, he was during all those years of practice. Finally at long last, he realized that true enlightenment is a matter of endless practice and compassionate functioning, not something that occurs once and for all in one great moment on the cushion.
Which brings us back to our koan, "The sound of one hand." First of all, what does "one" hand imply? Obviously, we usually clap with two hands - let's take that as a metaphor for our usual dualistic functioning. "One hand" therefore asks us to put aside duality and manifest oneness. How do you do that? What is an expression of reality before we divide it up into subject and object? A koan asks us to manifest oneness by becoming one with the koan itself. What is Mu? Totally become Mu. To become one with one hand, we do what? [Hold up one hand] There's a wonderful scroll by a turn of the century master named Nantembo where he's inked his right hand and impressed a hand-print right onto the scroll!
To be one with the sound of one hand is to be one with what? What expresses undifferentiated reality? [SILENCE]
Silence is one kind of genuine of presentation, when it is the silence of being fully present, yet fully emptied of self, body and mind having dropped away into that bottomless silence. This is a silence that manifests itself only after years of practice. Don't confuse it with the silence of simply not knowing how to answer!
[WHAT!!!!] is another presentation - in the midst of a shout - or getting hit - we can't help but be fully present, there's no place for a thought or judgment to intrude. So Lin-chi and a lot of old teachers liked that kind of presentation: the shout or the slap that obliterated any thought, any duality. What is Buddha? Come closer and I'll tell you! WHACK! When Lin-chi first asked his teacher Huang-po that question, he got hit - only later did he realize he wasn't being punished - he had been given the answer. Of course, such behavior can quickly become stereotyped and over the years became a caricature in many people's minds of "Zen" behavior. I don't know any teachers who think that sort of thing has much teaching value anymore - the freshness and immediacy have gone out of it and it all too easily becomes a caricature of spontaneity. How can you make it new? I just came across a scroll by a 18th century master named Daikuku Seppou ( ? - 1761 nicknamed Datsue-Seppou; the "Nudist Buddhist??) who apparently was known for taking his clothes off in public. Now, there's a presentation of Naked Reality for you!
The Soto tradition has cultivated a different expression of non-separation, the kind manifested in the wholehearted attention to the details and rituals of everyday life. It has more in common with the subtle Zen of master Chao-chou, who quietly offers newcomers and old-hands alike a cup of tea. We should recall that Chao-chou's didn't shout "Mu" at the monk who asked about the dog and Buddha-nature. In fact, in another version of the story, (Case 18 in The Book of Serenity, Lindisfarne Press 1990), two different monks ask him the same question and he answers, "no" to one, and "yes" to the other. This is the Zen of "being just this moment" Nothing special, nothing even to call "Zen."
All of these are ways we can express "oneness." Funny, in a way, isn't it, that there are so many? ! So far, we're treating "the sound of one hand" as a koan like Mu and indeed Hakuin used the koan as an initial concentration device to push beginning students to have that first experience of oneness. Actually, you can't "answer" Mu or any initial koan - the only "answer" is to have a certain kind of experience. Then you just show yourself - but your "self" is no longer in the picture the way it was before.But Hakuin doesn't stop there. The next level this koan addresses has to do more specifically with another sense of the word "sound." Having achieved oneness, what is its sound? In other words, how does it reverberate? How does it go out into the world and function?
If we're just being "one" with our own hand, what have we accomplished? If it's all about our own private experience, it's nothing but a hand job! The hand of oneness has to reach out and become the hand of compassion. An extended hand, not a silent, impassive hand. Further, once the right hand realizes it is part of one body along with the left hand, the two function together as one. Then clapping itself can be an expression of the functioning of the one hand. Our two hands do not function separately, but each act as part of one body, making one sound. "Oneness" no longer is something we achieve as the result of our practice, some special state we enter into through sitting, but rather is the way things already are in their natural state of interconnectedness.
Hakuin himself finally came to understand that after all his impressive satoris, if they amounted to nothing more than cultivating his own private experience, he would end up being "no different from a sleepy-happy old polecat drowsing away down inside his comfortable den." Teaching became the vehicle for Hakuin to finally get outside of himself, to travel, to lecture, to go wherever he was asked on behalf of others. All of us have to find our own realization, and our own expression, our own sound, our own voice. His style is not mine and won't be yours. What is the sound of your one hand?