The Sound Of One Hand Clapping

In my life I’ve found it very useful to muse upon Zen Buddhist koans. No bear with me. Please, don’t go…

I know it sounds wanky and/or pretentious but these little, seemingly nonsensical riddles can be very good for you. Today, children, I’m going to discuss one of the two most famous ones (it’s there in the title).

The other being: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, does it make any sound?

Bart becomes a zen master whilst considering this koan

Some people think that these koans are deliberately nonsensical. You muse upon the contradictory nature of the question to clear your mind of daily troubles and thus reach a clear headed “zen” state. This clear minded state is shone above in the classic Simpson’s episode “Dead Putting Society”; the one where Lisa gets  Bart to play golf perfectly with the profundity of the tree-falling koan.

So is this what koans are for? To clear your head, make you do stuff better? Partially, maybe. I’m no expert but I think they do have actual answers, and have read as such. But they’re ones you have to find yourself.

So, that being said I’m going to share my understanding of the sound of one hand clapping.

Firstly, ask any class of children this question (I have) and someone will bring their fingers down to their  palm in a kind of mini wave. Case closed. One hand claps.

An answer, which seems flippant, but may be in the actual spirit of the question. It used to really irritate me when people would say this but it’s a valid answer as any other. And what’s more it’s actually practical. You can hear the sound of one hand “clapping”. There’s a zen saying that when a monk is asked how to live one’s life to achieve enlightenment you should ‘first, get up; second wash one’s bowl; third make breakfast…’

But there must be more to it than that? For a long time I was struck by the paradoxical nature of the question. It is understandable, we all get what it’s saying, but it’s impossible in reality. One hand is always involved in clapping but makes no noise on it’s own. So muse upon this and get the Bart Simpson Clear Head (BSCH).


This lead me to the idea that what the koan was really saying was that the sound of one hand clapping was defined by the other hand. Taken as a metaphor it would say that we ourselves are defined by what is around us; how we relate to others and the world. That we are not a single hand making a noise but a hand reacting to another…

The more I thought about this the more I felt a sense of wellbeing, an endorphin rush perhaps. I found it very easy to think about this subject but very hard to express clearly. As the above paragraph probably show.

So I figured I had it worked out… But something bothered me.

In the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, this koan is not presented as a simple sentence but as the tale of a simple monk who is asked the question and goes to find the sound. Just before he dies he finally hears every sound in the world and achieves enlightenment.

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones - good book

This seemed to be the exact opposite of my understanding of the question! The sound of one hand clapping can’t actually exist so why tell the tale of the monk trying to find it? And why the hell would he become enlightened after listening to all the sounds that couldn’t possibly be the sound of one hand clapping? But they said he understood and became enlightened. And this was written thousands of years ago. By real zen people.

I considered this for a long time.

I eventually decided that one explanation is that the act of considering the koan was the important thing. To question and to look. The monk carried on searching for meaning in the koan, turning over every possibilty, and finally “got it”. Just like when me and Bart considered them and felt at peace with the world.

I’m sure that there’s far more in the koan than that and lots of  that I may understand but not be able to verbalise. That’s fine. I’ll just carry on considering the question, turning it over in my mind and hopefully it will carry on being good to me.

Even when it seems done, it probably isn’t. I can always ask more questions… “why do people clap?”, “why does every society do it?”, “how can so much be contained in one sentence?”, “does every sentence contain so much?”, “why are so many people happy with the flippant answer?”, “Am I wasting my time considering such things” and on and on and on…

Another zen saying,

“If something seems boring for 10 seconds, do it for 20…”


2 Comments on “The Sound Of One Hand Clapping”

  1. […] The Sound Of One Hand Clapping – The value of meditating and “Dead Putting Society”. […]

  2. Karl says:

    Your answer and the monk’s in the story are (nearly) the same. You are defined in relation to the people and things around you. But, so are all other things. The notion of distict entities is an empty description, like the sound of one hand clapping.

    And, further the empty-sound can only be understood as the compliment to all sounds, including the sound of silence.

    Once you heard all sounds you in then (in theory) would know the empty-sound. Just as when you comprehend the whole of all things you comprehend the empty-phenomena that is our individual selves.

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