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
Speakers and other pundits who delight in offering the absurdity, "the sound of one hand clapping," 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 a ludicrous phrase that merely spouts an impossibility. Simply, 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."
Misquotation Leads to Absurdity
The idea of "one hand clapping" is an absurdity that leads only to confusion. While the koan is absolutely a paradox, 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."
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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.
- Fritjof Capra. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. New York: Shambala Press. 1976. Print.
- Yoel Hoffmann, translator. The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans With Answers. New York: Basic Books. 1977. Print.
- Paul Reps, compiler. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. New York: Anchor. Print.
Brief Sketches of the Five Major World Religions
In order of origin, the five major world religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each major religion has many branches or denominations that focus on certain aspects of the main religion.
"If God after making the world puts Himself outside it, He is no longer God. If He separates Himself from the world or wants to separate Himself, He is not God. The world is not the world when it is separated from God. God must be in the world and the world in God." —D. T. Suzuki
According to Paramahansa Yogananda, all religions serve the same purpose: to reunite the individual soul with the Supreme Soul or God. The differences that seem to split religions from one another result from the use of different metaphors that portray concepts.
Also use of different names for the Supreme Deity causes confusion; for example, Allah, Divine Mother, Ultimate Reality, Supreme Intelligence, Emptiness, Absolute, and Over-Soul represent some of the terms used to name the Unnameable.
A common misunderstanding of Hinduism emerges from the many Hindu names for God or the Supreme Soul. But instead of actually signifying different "gods," the names merely signify different aspects of God. Hinduism is monotheistic, just as Christianity and all other religions are.
All of the five major world religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have in common a basic faith, even though each religion describes the nature of their faith differently. They each have a prophet, or prophets, who interpret God's ways, and scripture in which the interpretation resides.
Hinduism’s scripture is the Bhagavad-Gita, and major prophet is Krishna. However, Hinduism is probably the world’s oldest religion, and, therefore, it also has other ancient scripture that was not written down for many centuries or perhaps millennia. These are called the Vedas.
In more recent history the important scripture that contains the explanation for existence and the guide back to God is the Bhagavad-Gita, whose central narrator is Bhagavan Krishna.
Buddhism’s scripture is the Dhammapada, and its major prophet is Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha. Buddhism began around 500 B.C. in India, when the prince Gautama abandoned his young wife and child and took up the life of an ascetic.
It is said that he positioned himself under a banyan tree and determined to remain there until he had attained enlightenment.
Buddhism is very similar to Hinduism in that they both focus on meditation to achieve “enlightenment,” which is called “nirvana” in Buddhism and “samadhi” in Hinduism. Also both religions describe the nature of God, or the Absolute, pantheistically.
Judaism’s major prophets are the Old Testament prophets, especially Moses; thus, its scripture is the Old Testament or Torah consisting of the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Because Judaism does not recognize the New Testament, it does not recognize the “old” testament as such, but simply as the Torah.
The name "Judaism" originates from the fourth son of Jacob, who was the father of the tribe of "Judah." The name "Judah" means gratitude in Hebrew.
It was the tribe of Judah that resided in Jerusalem during the reign of both David and Solomon. Later the Judaic kingdom included all of the southern tribes of Israel. Thus, the religion of the Jews is called "Judaism.
Christianity’s major prophet is Jesus Christ, whose major scripture is the Sermon on the Mount, which is part of the New Testament. Like most prophets, Christ appeared at a time of history when there was great turmoil and strife.
Humankind had lost its knowledge of its divinity within the soul, and the Christ appeared to remind people that “the kingdom of God is with you.”
Islam’s prophet is Muhammad, and its scripture is the Quran (Koran). In addition to the Quran the devout Muslim studies the Sunnah, which is an account of the prophet's life and the activities and traditions he approved.
The prophet Muhammad was born April 20, 571, to a wealthy family of the tribe of Mecca. His father had died a few days before his son was born, and his mother died when he was six-years-old.
His grandfather, who was caring for the boy, then died when Muhammad turned nine, at which time he was cared for by an uncle. The world in which the young boy lived was a chaotic one, sometimes described a "barbaric.” It is said that Muhammad was a gentle boy, sensitive and compassionate in his dealings with others.
At the age of twenty-five he entered the caravan business owned by a wealthy widow, Khadija; their relationship grew from deep respect to admiration and love, and they married.
Their union proved successful. Fifteen years later the man Muhammad transformed into the Prophet, but such a transformation did not happen overnight. According to Huston Smith,
There was a huge, barren rock on the outskirts of Mecca known as Mount Hira, torn by cleft and ravine, erupting unshadowed and flowerless from the desert sands. In this rock was a cave which Muhammad, in need of deep solitude, began to frequent. Peering into the mysteries of good and evil, unable to accept the crudeness, superstition, and fratricide that were accepted as normal, "this great fiery heart, seething, simmering like a great furnace of thoughts," was reaching out for God.
Tangible Evidence of God’s Love
According the renowned spiritual leader, Paramahansa Yogananda, when an individual develops an intense yearning for God, then God sends that individual tangible evidence of His love. Also Yogananda has explained that when evil seems to be overcoming good in the world,
God sends a prophet (guru or spiritual leader) to help people turn back toward God. Muhammad, being a gentle, compassionate soul, developed his latent soul qualities and by intense meditation in the cave at Mount Mira touched God's heart and God spoke to him, not only to satisfy the individual soul of Muhammad, but God also used Muhammad to inform those crude, superstitious, fratricidal brothers of a better way of life.
All of the great religions have suffered distortion at the hands ignorant interpreters. In the name of Christianity large scale devastation was visited upon the world during in the Middle Ages during the Crusades, then later in the Spanish Inquisition, and even in the colonial America during the Salem Witch Trials.
Hindu zealots have misappropriated and turned the Caste system into an oppressive ordering of society that was not part of Hindu scripture. Many adherents to Buddhism in the West are attracted to that religion based on the misunderstanding that Buddhism is an atheistic religion.
Again the misunderstanding results from failure to grasp the basic metaphors used to make sensible the Ineffable.
And, of course, the extremist Islamists who distort the meaning of jihad demonstrate the horror that can be fostered from erroneous understanding of the metaphor of scripture.
Much fantasy has grown out of the facts of religions, and much mayhem and destruction has been and continues to be carried out in the name of religion.
But all of the great religions teach compassion and love, and even though certain misguided zealots try to conquer others immorally in so-called holy wars, they do not represent the vast majority of the devout who understand and practice their religions as they are meant to be practiced.
- Paramahansa Yogananda. Self-Realization Fellowship Official Website.
- Huston Smith The Religions of Man. Harper & Row. 1958.
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:
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.