Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), the father of Rinzai Zen, reportedly asked his students: “What is the sound of one hand?”
However, in modern practice, the question is often asked in the following manner:
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Apparently, Hakuin would have been happy with a simple demonstration of a hand being thrust out in front of the practitioner, as an appropriate response.
But in regards to the modern version of the question, I have my own less esoteric thoughts on the subject:
The sound of one hand clapping is not the sound of two hands clapping, because the movement of one hand can't be described as clapping at all. Clapping is the sound produced by smacking or slapping two objects together. Thus, one hand making a clapping motion in space is not clapping, but rather it is waving.
So the real question is:
What sound does a waving hand make?
And this is the answer: Well, depending on the vigor of the waver, a waving hand making a repeated waving motion can sound like anything from a soft pulsing heart-like beat or breath; to a slow moving fan blade; to a helicopter propeller chopping through the air.
None of these sounds are audible from afar. However, if you make these motions with your hand next to your ear, you will certainly detect them for yourself.
Call it clapping if it humors you, but it’s not.
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Click on any link below to read all the articles in the three-part Spring/Summer 2003 AUDIO KOANS series exploring the relationship between zen wisdom and sound:
1. If a Tree Falls In The Forest...
2. Sound of One Hand Clapping?
3. Zhàozhōu's Dog