The Sound of One Hand Clapping

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Nearly everyone has heard this one. Maybe you heard it somewhere and didn't know it was a koan. A lot of you may have even seen Bart Simpson "solve it" by folding one hand over and allowing the fingertips to smack his palm causing a mild clapping sound.

But what is this really? What is trying to be taught or revealed by presenting such a puzzle? Let's start by looking at one of the basic Buddhist teaching methods; using words/concepts. One way to teach is to use words and concepts. Yet words and concepts are something we are taught to abandon in favor of gaining pure experience. Because they get in the way of obtaining enlightenment. Yet it's difficult to teach without words or concepts so they must used to attempt explaination of true experience.

Think about the old saying about not looking at the finger pointing to the moon, just look to the moon itself. The finger pointing to the moon is the tool. The moon metaphorically is the enlightenment itself. It can be attributed to modern day like this. You have a favorite restaurant. You can recite everything on the menu. You go there once a week sit down and read the menu. But you never ate there! You didn't experience it. You've only looked at the tool, the menu. You never abandoned the menu to eat the food.

Think about how words and concepts can cause trouble such as the label "Hammer". You have a hammer in your hands. It's wood. The wood is part of a tree. That tree is in the ground. It's a product of the soil, rain, the Sun. The hammer head is most likely an alloy. The metal was mined from rock. The rock was formed long ago. At what point does it become "Hammer"? Is it when the wood is cut and shapped then affixed to the head which was purified and formed? Now the handle is broken. You replace the handle. Is it still a hammer? Is it still the same hammer? Now the head is cracked and must be replaced, but the new handle is still good. You replace the hammer head. Is it still a hammer? Is it still the same hammer? now it's old and worn out and fell into pieces. Both pieces are thrown into the garbage. Is it still a hammer? Is it still the same hammer? Is it a new label now? Is it called trash? The fundamental materials haven't changed. The condition changed. What we call it changed. Think about that for a bit before moving on.

I bring up the connundrum of labels/concepts/words as I feel it relates to the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" I believe I have solved it in a way that makes sense to me. It may not be correct. There may be many ways of solving it that is satisfactory to the individual. I might call my solution trash while you call your solution a hammer. Fundamentally, both might even be the same.

A little background on my solution:
I have an audio recording of the book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by Shunryu Suzuki; read by Peter Coyote. His voice is very pleasant. This is an audio book that I listen to over and again. Each time, I find something new as my mind will wander at points and next time it might not wander at a spot where it previously wandered. Then I get what is being conveyed. Well there is a place in the book where Shunryu Suzuki discusses briefly the koan in question. I will post the text here giving all credit to Suzuki-san then we can discuss further:

Zen Mind Beginner's Mind - Shunryu Suzuki
p.60 under section titled "Right Effort"

We say, "To hear the sound of one hand clapping."
Usually the sound of clapping is made with two hands, and
we think that clapping with one hand makes no sound at all.
But actually, one hand is sound. Even though you do not hear
it, there is sound. If you clap with two hands, you can hear
the sound. But if sound did not already exist before you
clapped, you could not make the sound. Before you make it
there is sound. Because there is sound, you can make it, and
you can hear it. Sound is everywhere. If you just practice
it, there is sound. Do not try to listen to it. If you do not
listen to it, the sound is all over. Because you try to hear it,
sometimes there is sound, and sometimes there is no sound.
Do you understand? Even though you do not do anything,
you have the quality of zazen always. But if you try to find it,
if you try to see the quality, you have no quality.

OK so there is the part at the end where he asks "Do you understand?". I usually sarcastically say "Nope!". I'm usually listening to this audio book when I'm working in the yard or reconstructing my damaged deck. I was on vacation and as normal for the past several years, I spend my vacations in my back yard building that damaged deck.

But this time I got it!

When the audio gets to "Sound is everywhere." I could heard a backyard party with loud music, I could hear some screaming kids on a trampoline. I have big problems with loud parties in my neighborhood and it's really been eating at my nerves. So when I heard in my noise-cancelling headphones outside, "Sound is everywhere." I was like "Duh, no kidding" or something to that effect.

And I got it! I once read when you "Get it", you will slap your knee and say "I got it." I think that might have been from the book "The Three Pillars of Zen", but I'm not certain as I've read a lot of books by now. So I ceremoniously slapped my knee and said "I got it."

My understanding, right or wrong, is this:
The sound of one hand clapping is nothing more than a red herring. The "one hand", the "concept of sound", all of it. It's all a red herring. I think it is because one tends to divide and group things. When one does this, they cause concepts, and labels to occur. I'm looking for a very specific sound, one that is made by hands and the expected clapping noise it makes. The red herring is, OK you have one hand, and not in the Bart Simpson way. Is it making sound? I think the answer is yes. It makes sound because it does not make sound! But I think it's the concept (a concept again!) of two sides to a coin. If you don't have two sides, you have no coin. When you abandon the idea of duality, you have coin. If you have nothing but happy, how do you know what happy is without sad? When you abandon the idea of happy and sad, you have emotion.

How do you have sound without no sound? When the part of the audio book said "Sound is everywhere" and I sarcastically said something about "Duh" or maybe I said "No kidding", without thinking about it I actually solved it. Sound is everywhere, and is identifiable because no sound also exists. The sound of one hand clapping is the noisy loud parties, the screaming kids on the trampoline, me working on the deck in the back yard, the silence whenever I can find it, the breathing sounds when I think I am experiencing silence. ...and so on.

So I suppose I should ask the same thing as the audio book, Do you understand?