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What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Dear Cecil:

We were having a heated argument the other day that it's impossible to clap without using both hands. But then someone piped up that the Chinese have found a way of clapping using one hand only. Can they do it? Can anyone?

Frank N., Baltimore

Cecil replies:

I notice, Frank, that you hail from Baltimore, a city whose residents fall into one of two categories, in my observation: (1) persons of exceeding wit and ingenuity, and (2) complete idiots. Your letter, quite honestly, lends itself equally well to either interpretation. Let’s start with the latter.

(1) You’re an idiot. There’s this thing called a joke, Frank, that you should become acquainted with. A joke is a display of cleverness intended to engender yux. Some people, however, require advance warning if they’re to recognize a joke when they see one, e.g., a siren, large firecracker, or gong. Clearly your so-called friends could stand a lesson in thoughtfulness. For further insight, see (2) below.

(2) You’re a person of exceeding wit and ingenuity, and your letter is actually a coy recasting of a famous Zen Buddhist koan, or riddle, such as Zen masters use to instruct their pupils. The koan in question, devised by the Japanese Zen master Hakuin (1686-1769), is as follows: In clapping both hands, a sound is heard. What is the sound of one hand? (In casual discussion this is usually corrupted to: What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

Unsophisticated persons are generally inclined to answer with something like “half a clap,” which signifies that they have not yet achieved Buddha nature. After several years of dedicated meditating, however, they learn the correct response, which is to face the questioner, assume an appropriate Buddhist posture, and without a word thrust one hand forward. I learn this from The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans With Answers by Hau Hoo, which is my idea of an admirably no-bullshit approach to cosmic enlightenment.

I realize the allegedly correct response in this case is on the enigmatic side, but that’s Zen Buddhism for you. It’s by ruminating assiduously on such mysteries that we learn to free our minds from the strictures of linear thinking and grasp the essence of the void. Other effective methods of combating linear thinking are Quaaludes and old Magnum P.I. reruns, two excellent examples of the way modern technology enriches ancient religious practice.

The other Zen koan you may want to take note of is said to have been composed by the Japanese Zen master Joshu (778-897), and goes as follows: Does a dog have Buddha nature? The correct answer is Mooooo, uttered in a sort of plaintive bellow. In the interest of technical accuracy I should mention that the conventional spelling is Mu, which is Zen Buddhist for “a question too dumb to be worth answering.” However, Mooooo works better for us midwesterners. Anyway, Frank, I’m glad you brought up the subject. We cannot learn about foreign cultures unless we ask.

Further insight from the Teeming Millions

Dear Cecil:

Re your recent discussion, the sound of one hand clapping is, as any true friend of Jimmy Rockford can tell you, the sound of a slap in the face.

— Evelyn M., San Quentin, California

Cecil replies:

Once again I marvel at the subtle ways in which Westerners assimilate the wisdom of the East.

Cecil Adams

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