Zen Koan 3: The Sound Of One Hand Clapping

“Two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?” This well-known Japanese koan has evolved colloquially into simply: what is the sound of one hand clapping?

A koan is question a Zen master would ask a student to help the student see beyond the illusory nature of conventional thinking and realize the nature of reality as they progress towards enlightenment. Often students struggle mightily, sometimes for years, before they move beyond a koan. When they do, it’s like exiting a house their mind has built to shelter them but which has also imprisoned them, limiting the sunlight that enters the house.

For many years Victor considered possible answers to the question of the sound of one hand clapping. Again and again, Victor would enthusiastically embrace an answer but only to soon realize it was inadequate. Yet, it was clear that the answer was a key to exiting the house and seeing the light. At some point, Victor put aside the question and went on with his life in Act 2, the Earth Experience, in the play of life.

At the beginning of Act 3, the Transition from finite bodily form to oneness with the eternal soul, the answer arrived: The sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping; it is what it is whatever it is. As well, the sound of one hand clapping is the sound of laughter; as it’s funny seeing the mind grappling with an absurd concept, like a dog chasing its tail.

We cannot experience the universe directly; doing so would be overwhelming, like living without housing shelter. Hence, our mind makes sense of the inputs our senses provide it by organizing, categorizing and rationalizing the inputs. As we describe and compare things, we reflect the perceptions of our mind. Our mind aside, there are no words to describe a purely sense-based experience of the universe. It is what it is whatever it is. The experience dispenses with subject and object as both are simply one. This is being in the light.

When we are in the light, our karma is revealed as an illusion. Karma is a function of memory (our mind) and affects how we perceive our experience in the now. In the light, in a sense-based experience, we realize our memories are not real. Thus, Zen students who seriously reflect on what is the sound of one hand clapping are funny. They seek the key to escape from the prison of their mind, yet they engage with the mind which keeps them prisoners.