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What Is The Sound of One Hand Clapping?

By Edited Sep 21, 2016 2 9

Frank asked ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping? You have philosophy fu so this should be easy’.

Ok ‘Philosophy Fu’ aside, this is not an easy question. It is a Zen Koan of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, a Koan is a sort of unanswerable riddle that forces you to think things through from many angles. As far as I know, there is no real answer to this question but from what I know of the Rinzai school of Buddhism I would say that the answer is a slap across the ear from the Zen master.

Hand reaching
Credit: Pennywise

This is because part of the Zen training a Rinzai Zen practitioner goes through is responding appropriately to inappropriate behaviour. Rinzai Zen practitioners will often do the most horribly rude things in order to elicit a response from their peers, but a Rinzai Zen practitioner with sufficient training should be able to twist the situation into something appropriate without getting upset. Effectively training them to brush off even the gravest insult.

Alan Watts writes in ‘Zen and the Beat Way’ of how a Zen priest who suspected a geisha girl had Zen training tested her by offering her a gift of a coal from a brazier with his chopstick. She accepted the gift by wrapping her sleeve around her hand but she burned her kimono however she was polite and well mannered so she immediately left and changed her kimono, but when she returned she offered the monk a coal from the brazier with some chopsticks. The Zen priest responded by removing a cigarette from his pocket saying ‘that is just what I wanted’ as he lit his cigarette.

It is my suspicion that the answer to the question of ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Koan is that when a student finally gives up and asks the master what is the sound of one hand clapping? The student gets a cuff around the ear. Until they learn the basics of the Rinzai games. This would also be consistent with Hunter S Thompson’s one hand clapping anecdote, which culminates in him basically slapping an obnoxious Buddhist monk in the ear.

http://smartinshort.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/one-hand-clapping-hunter-s-thompson.html

My Personal Thoughts

I am aware the above answer is sidestepping the issue - something my philosophy tutor tried to beat out of me but I always ended up twisting it somehow - so when I tried to engage with the conundrum myself these were my initial thoughts:

It really depends on how you define the terms: Sound, One hand, and Clapping. For example a hand can clap with its own fingers against its palm, and make a clapping sound. The sound of one hand clapping could be a whoosh of air. Or it might be construed as silence. If you were deaf the sound of one hand clapping would be silence, at least to you.

A possible approach is to take the question as a whole ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Not to interpret the question as ‘What does the sound of one hand clapping sound like?’ but to interpret the question as what the sound of one hand clapping actually is. What does it means to you? For instance If you were a child and you wanted to play a clapping game but you had no friends to clap against but you practiced the game anyway. It could mean loneliness, or conversely being self-sufficient and not requiring someone to clap against you.

I also imagine a child with one arm who is enjoying a concert and is desperately trying to make a sound to show his appreciation of the music. So he drums on his lap with his remaining hand.

I don’t want to continue listing my random musings on it because I think a definitive answer from me will be a long time coming. However, the basic idea is that you continue with this line of questioning until you figure out a different or unique perspective on the Koan. Just thinking about it or turning it over in your mind. Then one day you just ‘get it’ but the answer is personal to you, I do know that by now my eventual answer won’t be straightforward and will probably not have any logic to it at all.

 

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Comments

Aug 4, 2012 5:17pm
adragast
Interesting question and nice thoughts. I especially like the interpretation "being self-sufficient", someone who does not need approval from others. I would never have gone so far in the interpretation of the question.
Sep 28, 2012 11:45pm
dantheron
Your "random musings" were quite interesting. I never considered such possible interpretations such as you listed. I am usually too impatient to know the correct answer. Getting a slap on the ear is probably the most universal answer to the question.
Oct 2, 2012 11:24am
PinewoodPaladin
That sounds like a good answer to me. Lol, a "slap to the ear." #Funny
Oct 2, 2012 11:17am
PinewoodPaladin
I like this article a lot! I think you'll find my articles to be a riddle of illusions by themselves. I think riddles a great tools used to quiet the mind at a much faster and smoother pace. For example this question is also meant to help a person reach a level of equanimity in the moment of hearing this question. Hence "The Now."
Oct 2, 2012 11:20am
PinewoodPaladin
Oh yeah, now that I think about it...my first time hearing this question was on a tv show called the Simpsons. This riddle is just like asking "If a tree fall in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound." Equanimity in Action. (^_^)
Oct 2, 2012 11:00pm
rufflesal
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"...well to me it could be interpreted as the fact that we need others to define us. A single hand clapping (in the traditional sense not the Bart Simpson answer) makes no sound at all really. So one hand clapping needs another hand clapping to define it and to have purpose. So perhaps the zen koan suggests that we need others in our lives otherwise what is the purpose of existing? Existence without others would feel purposeless I guess. Here's another: "What's the point of writing articles on IB without readers?" Great article!...thought provoking.
Oct 3, 2012 1:17am
dantheron
"So perhaps the zen koan suggests that we need others in our lives otherwise what is the purpose of existing?"
That is another interpretation that I have not thought about but I agree with it as a possible answer.

"What's the point of writing articles on IB without readers?"
Practice?
Mar 13, 2013 9:17pm
Marlando
I loved this article and my only regret is that there wasn't more of it--I did a lot of ZEN in my younger days and still meditate. I like your insights concerning the question of one hand clapping: To me, it is the sound of of being or, in other words, the sound of existence with all else becoming illusion. In anycase, two thumbs up from me and you've gained another follower.
Mar 13, 2013 9:17pm
Marlando
I loved this article and my only regret is that there wasn't more of it--I did a lot of ZEN in my younger days and still meditate. I like your insights concerning the question of one hand clapping: To me, it is the sound of of being or, in other words, the sound of existence with all else becoming illusion. In anycase, two thumbs up from me and you've gained another follower.
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