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The Sound of a Hand

Eastern & Western religious philosophy is one of my areas of interest about which I write essays exploring the nature of reality and being.

Use of the Koan

The famous Hakuin koan featuring the phrase "sound of the one hand" is often misquoted as "the sound of one hand clapping," resulting in an absurdity that renders the koan logically meaningless and thus spiritually useless.

The speakers who delight in offering this absurdity do it with the purpose of showing the lack of logic in language and/or linear thinking. But the original, correct koan shows that lack while the misquotation renders it an absurdity that merely spouts an impossible function.

The simple fact is that one hand cannot clap, because the definition of “clapping” requires two hands or objects.

When a student approaches a Zen master for training, the Zen master gives the student a koan, something like a riddle that the student then reflects upon. The student's answer to the puzzling koan provides the master with knowledge of the student's mind-set.

The master uses this knowledge to design the appropriate course of instruction for the student.

Since koans often seem to make no sense upon first encounter with them, the uninitiated mind deems them divorced from logic and language, and mistakenly concludes that their solution belongs only to those who have reached “enlightenment.”

But the koan is only a first step and an aid in the journey to enlightenment. One need not have attained the goal of enlightenment to solve the puzzle of a koan.

In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps provides a scenario of a student, twelve-year-old Toyo, approaching Mokurai, the master of Kennin Temple, for acceptance into zazen, guidance in meditation.

The master asks the “The Sound of One Hand” koan. Toyo retires to his quarters to contemplate, and hearing through his open window the music of the geishas, he thinks he has the answer. Of course, he does not. Master Mokurai sends him off to think again.

Toyo returns next time, claiming that the sound of the one hand is dripping water. No, again. The master bluntly tells him, “That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand.”

Toyo persists, returning with such suggestions as the sighing of the wind, the hooting of an owl, the hissing of the locusts; in a year's time the student finally realized the sound of one hand: “I could collect no more, so I reached the soundless sound.”

Examples of Correct Quotations

Fritjof Capra, in The Tao of Physics, quotes the koan correctly: “You can make the sound of two hands clapping. Now what is the sound of one hand?” As Capra accurately states, the question is, “What is the sound of one hand?” Not “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”— as it is widely misquoted.

Yoel Hoffmann, in The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers also supplies the correct answer to the question: “In clapping both hands a sound is heard; what is the sound of the one hand? Answer: The pupil faces the master, takes a correct posture, and without a word, thrusts one hand forward.”

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Misquotation Leads to Absurdity

The idea of "one hand clapping" is an absurdity that leads only to confusion. While the koan is mildly paradoxical, it seems illogical only upon first encountering it. As with any paradox, sufficient reflection upon it reveals its logic. No amount of reflection can bring any logical understanding to the phrase, "one hand clapping."

To the mind set in the notion of two hands clapping, the idea of one hand having a sound seems like nonsense, so to make sense of it, that mind inaccurately adds the same verb form to the one hand that accurately works for two, and the absurd misquotation, “one hand clapping,” results.

But that error destroys the usefulness of the paradox.

The sound of one hand is simply that one hand thrust forward or as the student in Reps example put it, “the soundless sound”—and if one pushes it a little further, that hand probably does produce sound waves, though the human auditory nerves perceive it as soundless.

For instance, is well known that dogs are capable of hearing sounds that humans cannot. One might wonder if there is a being that can, indeed, hear that sound of the one hand, perhaps the enlightened being "hears" it.

In any case, it is certainly difficult enough to arrive at an appropriate response, as little Toyo gives evidence, but when one meets the added obstacle of misquotation of the original koan, the absurdity renders an appropriate response impossible.


  • The sound of one hand.” Ashida Kim. April 1, 2010.
  • Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism . New York: Shambala. 1976. Print.
  • Hoffmann, Yoel, trans. The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans With Answers. New York: Basic Books. 1977. Print.
  • Reps, Paul, compiler. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. New York: Anchor. Print.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


John Hansen from Gondwana Land on January 28, 2016:

Haha, yep

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 28, 2016:

Good one, John. Only clicking fingers is not the sound of one hand, it's the sound of clicking fingers.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on January 28, 2016:

Interesting that this koan is so often misquoted. If I was asked to demonstrate the sound of one hand, I would click my fingers.

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