Sound of One Hand - Zen Koan

What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a Japanese Zen kōan (riddle) given to novices starting Zen training, The novice meditates on the meaning of the riddle, the nature of the answer is intended to invoke a paradigm shift in the novices understanding of Zen.

The novice is not expected to solve the riddle since it is an exercise in contemplation and the novice will in time be given the correct answer by his Zen teacher.

The acceptable answer is for the novice to face this teacher, take a correct posture, and silently extend one hand forward. This symbolizes an accepting of reality as it is, the mind has become a tranquil lake, perfect in its lack of understanding. See also Understanding Zen in tale of the Samurai and the Tea Masterfor a deeps understanding of perfect Zen

Zen koan – The Sound of One Hand Clapping

The master of Kennin temple was Mokurai, Silent Thunder. He had a little protege named Toyo who was only twelve years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit the master’s room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen or personal guidance in which they were given Koan to stop mind-wandering.

Toyo wished to do sanzen also.

“Wait a while,” said Mokurai. “You are too young.”

But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.

In the evening little Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of Mokurai’s sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.

“You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai. “Now show me the sound of one hand.”

Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. “Ah, I have it!” he proclaimed.

The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.

“No, no,” said Mokurai. “That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You’ve not got it at all.”

Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. “What can the sound of one hand be?” He happened to hear some water dripping.
“I have it,”imagined Toyo.

When he next appeared before his teacher, Toyo imitated dripping water.

“What is that?” asked Mokurai. “That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.”

In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.

He heard the cry of an owl. This also was refused.

The sound of one hand was not the locusts.

For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.

At last little Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. “I could collect no more,” he explained later, “so I reached the soundless sound.”

Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.


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