Undoubtedly, you’ve heard the expression ‘Talk to the hand”, a sarcastic gesture meant to redirect verbal abuse away from your face and towards a more indifferent extremity, namely the hand. And while we in the West thrust our palms at each other to thwart criticism, Ancient Eastern cultures have been ‘listening to the hand’ instead, and what they’ve heard is worth a listen for us all.
Zen Buddhists in particular have pondered the ‘sound of one hand’ for centuries, a practice known as koan study. Simply put, a Koan is a paradoxical anecdote that is meant to push logical reasoning to failure.
The entire koan is just two lines long and reads as:
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? – Hakuin Ekaku
This philosophical riddle is what the Monk uses as a device for meditation, however trying to find what ‘the answer is’ is not its purpose. Its purpose is to lead your intellection to failure. The failure is the point. The failure is the demonstration of the limits of thought. The idea being that thought is conceptual, is illusory, in an ultimate sense and not ‘the thing itself‘.
And so letting go of conceptions and illusions of reality is the insight it wishes to impart. For a monk then, this is an enlightenment experience, a glimpse of the true nature of reality. Not a transcendence of reality, but a transcendence of deception, of illusion. It is meant to reinforce that reality is right here, in the most fundamental sense.
The effect of a Koan is very much like how a good joke operates, where the setup of the joke and its punchline give an experience of laughter. Here’s an example of a joke;
“When I was young, I used to pray to God for a bike. But then I realized that God doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness.”
A joke is more than its words. It’s ‘jokiness’, or humor, is inside of us. The narrative setups up the potential for humor, and the punchline creates a surprise by turning the idea upside down. The joke’s function is to overturn conventional thought, which triggers a psychologically reaction, a spasm into laughter. Essentially, a joke affects a state of mind.
In Zen practice, a Koan also uses words to affect a state of mind but instead of being funny, a Koan creates a blockage. The blockage tries to thwart conventional streams of thought – it plays with your intellect. The catalyst to this is the paradox, or ‘double-blind’. This is as much the barrier to understanding as it is the pathway to understanding, once properly realized.
But how to do it?
Actually, we’ve all had this experience. Take for instance being out at night under a clear sky, looking up at the stars. You’ve undoubtedly confronted the fact that the cosmos is beyond comprehension. If you try to intuit its immensity, or rationalize your existence in relation to it, you thought process comes up against a boundary. No amount of mental capacity can break through to any acceptable understanding. And so, we are led to a moment of awe, of udder astonishment, reverence, maybe even sadness, or fear. This has driven people to evoke ideas of God’s or Goddesses, of many or one, to attempt to have some sort of intuition towards the unknowable. But this is delusion. The answer is not an answer, further conceptualization is not reality, no matter how much you feel it is.
Yes, not knowing can be uncomfortable. It is because we are thinking beings. Humanity is based on learning and sharing knowledge, it is what we are at our core. To see apart from this is difficult. However, to consider that reason and logic are relative forms of attention, is to break through a little. It allows you to reach out a little further into that starry night. It allows you see that the universe is much more than what we can know, and that’s ok. More than the sum of all possible knowledge. This makes the intellect subordinate to the entirety of it.
Science has actually demonstrated the limits of knowledge in its own discoveries. Take for instance the atomic world; the strangeness of quantum theory points to an essence of reality that is not applicable to determinism, or the products of human perception. It has uncovered an irrational feature of the cosmos. Despite this, mathematical modelling has given us an extremely accurate understanding of this micro-world, enough that you might be tempted to believe that we can know the unknowable, but this is not correct. The atomic world is not fully determinable. Quantum theory is based on probabilistic functions. Any ‘determination’ is always with a range of tolerance.
To determine is a human endeavour, not a feature of reality. It is the impetus of knowledge. The poignant fact being, the atomic world is not this. Instead, it is based on uncertainty, not determinism. Science then floats on a human level. It represents a thin surface of knowledge, that is extremely expansive, impressive, pragmatic, but lacking depth. I don’t wish to be disparaging towards scientific achievements however, they are certainly remarkable, but they must be considered one side of a coin.
And so, after marvelling at a starry night, marvel again at the unfathomable nothingness (and everything-ness) there is within the atomic world. Here then we are given a scientific koan; to know precisely is to not know fully. And to not know, is knowing best.
This notion is not new however, many people throughout history have come to the same conclusion. Here is a famous quote:
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
A koan is an innovation to the mind, a tool to open your consideration. Of course, knowledge is important, we use it to live after all, the message here is just don’t short change your scope of thought.
Ok, we covered some big ideas here, and some ungraspable ones as well, and before it gets any further out of hand, let’s bring it back in hand.
Sound of One Hand
Let us return to the idea of ‘the sound of one hand” and try to tie together all that has been discussed. Firstly, I am not a Zen practitioner by any means, but let’s look more closely at the famous Zen Koan named ‘One hand clapping’.
One hand Clapping – If two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?
Right away you can feel the impulse of our intellect wanting to tackle the challenge. The mind instinctually prepares our force of perfected reason and logic, but this is the wrong course of action. And as much as it is, strangely I am going to proceed to rationalize the idea anyway. My approach then is literal; I am going to consider the nature of sound itself rationally.
Sound is big part of our perception of the world, yet we don’t consider what it actually is. Strangely, sound is not a universal idea. Sound does not exist on its own apart from our perception. Sound is our perception. Sound requires an ear to hear it. Without an ear, sound is not sound, but rather slight vibrations of air molecules and nothing more.
Sound is a subjective experience that we mistake as being objectively ‘out in the world’, but it is not. ‘Sound’ is just how we interpret vibration. In our heads. If no living creature had the ability to hear, sound wouldn’t exist. It is a product of the mind, the idea of it resides between the split of subjectivity and objectivity.
This split introduces another big idea—recall the famous philosophical question:
If a tree falls in the forest, and if no one is around, does it make a sound?
I conclude there is no ‘falling tree sound’, based on the fact that if there is no ear present at the time of felling, then there is no subjective experience to be had, hence no sound.
We mistake vibrating air molecules as ‘being sound’, but it is not. Vibrating air molecules is the incidental environment. Sound is our experience. This is the difference.
Does an apple have flavour if nobody is around to eat it?
An Apple sitting on the kitchen counter certainly has the potential for taste, but obviously a taster is needed for the experience. The apple doesn’t ‘have’ flavour, its molecular structure is interpreted as flavour by our taste buds and brain system. Simply put, the sensory data we collect, and the interpretation of that data, is not ultimate reality, it is second hand…
Whoa! stop right there!
We have mention of a ‘second hand’, and so perhaps the ‘one hand’ is related. We’re getting closer…
Perhaps a ‘one-handed sound’ isn’t a conventional sound, like what we feel a falling tree creates. Perhaps the ‘sound of one hand’ is meant to mock the objectivity of sound, negate it as being apart from us. Perhaps the sound of one hand is an allegory, the soundless sound, that which is outside of subjectivity and objectivity. That which exists prior to sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch. It is what is prior to, during, and after all experience. What ‘it is’ has been and will always be despite any idea you wish to attribute to it. No matter how you wish to measure it. Ultimately, no hand can grasp it, like no-mind can conceptualize it.
The sound of one hand is a distraction, it is like staring at a finger that points; the finger doesn’t show you what it’s pointing at.