The great Zen koan:  What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Koans can be like a tune you can’t get out of your head.  This one has long stuck in mine, and here is an attempt at understanding it.

When we clap, a sound comes forth, and it takes two hands to make the sound.  So we could think of one hand as a question, the other hand as an answer.  Together they make what in English we could call “a report,” like the sound of a gun, and a perfect word here because the sound “reports” what has just happened, two hands coming together.  But what if there is only one hand moving back and forth, looking for its partner; a question looking for its answer?  There can be no report then, no sound.  There is no answer.  Then the sound of one hand clapping might be the sound of—-questioning, unanswerability, the awareness that there is no answer, open-endedness, openness.  (Enlightenment?)

This is a wonderful theme.  American composer Charles Ives wrote a work called The Unanswered Question.  Leonard Bernstein used the title for his 1973 Norton Lectures.

Here, from a different musician, are the words to David Crosby’s song, Laughing:

I thought I met a man                                                                                           Who said he knew a man                                                                                    Who knew what was going on

I was mistaken
Only another stranger
That I knew

And I thought I had found a light
To guide me through
My night and all this darkness

I was mistaken
Only reflections of a shadow
That I saw

And I thought I’d seen someone
Who seemed at last
To know the truth

I was mistaken
Only a child laughing
In the sun

There is no closure, the singer learns.  Only the beautiful image (no matter how cliched from overuse) of a child jumping in joy in the sun on a spring day.  Total openness.

To feel this kind of openness there is a requirement:  One must feel no need, or one must abandon the need, to protect oneself.  Against what?  Against loss of this very experience.

Why can many kids feel joy so much more easily than most post-early-youth humans?  Because they are ignorant (blissfully) of loss.  Everyone soon enough and to some extent learns the reality and therefore the pain of loss.  Self-proctection is the instinctive response to it, which takes many forms, but perhaps most of all the form of HOLDING BACK in our pleasure in experience.  If we hold back, the logic of emotion says, we don’t have as much to lose.

On this understanding, the koan is a question which, in order to answer, we have to break with our normal way of experiencing life.  It is a different universe that the question comes from, and we have to change our universe in order to converse with it.  What is that universe?  One in which we wouldn’t need the closure of another hand.  One hand is pretty useless for protecting ourselves, besides.

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