Friday, November 27, 2015

WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING -- MINDFULLY?

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Shinjuku and Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.
Photo taken by the author.

As a lawyer I was trained to think logically and rationally. Part of ‘thinking like a lawyer’ is being able to draw appropriate conclusions and inferences from objective facts. Later, when I taught law for many years--I still do—I tried to instil in my students the importance of fact-finding, logic and reason.

Yet, after many setbacks and failures in my life, I am compelled to say this --- real, lasting happiness and peace of mind require the exercise of an altogether different type of mindset. Indeed, the logical and rational mind, and education itself, can be a real stumbling block on the path to satori (‘waking up’, ‘awakening’). The real problems in my life have never been solved by the application of logic and reason alone, and in some instances I am convinced that the problems were made worse by their application.

One real problem with applying logic and reason alone is that one is still working on the same level of the problem itself. As Albert Einstein pointed out, ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.’ What is needed, at least at times, is something supra-rational-- not irrational, but supra-rational. The ‘key’ to solving many problems in our lives transcends ordinary reason and logic. Many advocate the use of intuition, but uninformed intuition can be a real stumbling block as well. What are the characteristics of the supra-rational mind? Please read on.

Now, most of you would have heard of the Zen kōan, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ The full version of the kōan goes something like this. The much-respected master of the major Kyoto temple of Kennin-ji was Mokurai (1854-1930) [pictured left]. He had a young protégé named Toyo who was only 12 years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit Mokurai’s room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen (personal guidance with a Zen master) in which they were given kōans to stop mind-wandering. Toyo wished to do sanzen also.

‘Wait a while,’ said Mokurai. ‘You are too young.’ However, Toyo insisted, so the teacher finally consented. So, 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. So, 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. That also was refused.  The sound of one hand was not the locusts. And so it went on.


For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year Toyo pondered what the sound of one hand might be. At last Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. ‘I could collect no more,’ he explained later, ‘so I reached the soundless sound.’ Finally, Toyo had realized the sound of one hand clapping.

So, what is the sound of one hand clapping? If you say, ‘There can be no clapping with only one hand. It takes two hands to clap. Thus, there is no sound of one hand clapping,’ you are using your rational and logical mind. Yes, you are right in a sense, but you are ‘dead’ right as well … with the emphasis on that word ‘dead’. The purpose of kōans---if 'purpose' be the right word, which it probably isn’t---is to still the active, rational, intellectual, analytical mind. The mind then finds itself (note those words, ‘finds itself,’ for that is the way it happens) in an existential cul-de-sac of sorts where there is no way out but enlightenment. That is the only way we will ever be able to experience a direct, immediate and unmediated apprehension or realization of truth.

As I’ve said before on this blog, a kōan is not a method or technique. It is the complete absence of any method or technique. It is the absence of any meaning or purpose as those terms are ordinarily understood. It is seeing and experiencing things-as-they-really-are---without any filters, beliefs or conditioned thinking of any kind. It is waking up to what really is, and that can be an earth-shattering experience.

There is a ‘sound’ that is not even a ‘no-sound’. It is not merely the absence of sound, it is the active presence of stillness, quietness and tranquillity. You can ‘hear’ this ‘no-sound’ when the active, rational and logical mind is stilled. In such a state of heightened awareness there is no analysis, comparison, judgment or interpretation. The kōan has done its work. Remember, there is never a logical, rational answer to any kōan. However, a kōan can be solved, but never from the same level of consciousness that created the kōan in the first place.


When you know and ‘hear’ the sound of one hand clapping---mindfully---you have come to experience a veritable awakening. There is a peace that passes understanding, and a power that makes all things new. It lives and moves in the one who ‘hears’ not just with their ears but with their whole be-ing-ness … and also their whole no-thing-ness, that is, pure, unadulterated, unconditioned consciousness.

Yes, when we come to know the no-thing-ness underlying and interpenetrating all reality, we can truly say that we have experienced an awakening, for the latter is not a ‘thing-in-itself’. Indeed, it is a ‘no-thing’, that is, the complete absence of thought, conditioning, materialism and all other limitations of time and space. It is living with choiceless, unadorned awareness.

I am reminded of what Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, had to say about mindfulness. He said, ‘Mindfulness is about falling awake rather than asleep.’ Falling awake. Yes, and also staying awake. That is mindfulness. And that is enlightenment. It is also the ‘sound of one hand clapping’ ... mindfully.


Calligraphy: Ensō by Mokurai. The ensō or Zen circle symbolises absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe and mu (the void, no-thing-ness). 



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