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.

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.