The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Clapping HandsAccording to my favorite online dictionary, a koan is “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.” And the most famous koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The idea is that there is not a rational answer—the monk must come to an intuitive answer to the question.

As the best monks will tell you, this is pure nonsense. I thought about the sound of one hand clapping for a couple of decades and I came to an answer that is both rational and spiritual. The most common answer to the question is that it is (with apologies to Paul Simon) the sound of silence. The idea has something to do with hearing the sound of no sound. Again, as the best monks will tell you, this is pure nonsense.

According to the Zen Community of Oregon, “It asks us to undertake deep listening, to listen as we never have before, to listen not only with our ears but with our entire being, our eyes, our skin, our bones and our heart.” Wisdom or nonsense? You decide. But first consider this: what does the word “sound” mean?

This brings up the old (and boring) philosophical “riddle,” “If an Oldsmobile backfires and no one (human, squirrel, whatever) hears it, does it make a sound?” This is no riddle. The backfire creates compression waves—not sounds. Sounds are things that ears and brains turn compression waves into. So no: no hearer, no sound.

Similarly, there is no sound of one hand clapping. The question would be better posed: “What is the effect of one hand clapping?” Ah! This is a question I can sink my teeth into. To understand, however, we must first acknowledge that there is no reasonable question here. It is very much like asking, “What is the orange of one apple?” It is a nonsense question—but one that raises important sensical questions.

There is no sound of one hand clapping, because one hand cannot clap. What does this say about clapping? It requires two or more hands. The essence of the question is that clapping is a form of communication—an act or instance of transmitting. Because a hand is a complex thing, it can do many things alone. It can pick objects up, for example. The clapping question reduces the hand to a single function—this is helpful for the purposes of this discussion.

Just as a lone hand cannot clap, a lone person cannot live. It is only through our interconnectedness that we exist. We are both separate and inseparable. Without this interconnectedness, we are alone—we are our own universe. Thus, it is only through our interconnectedness that the universe exists. The sound of one hand clapping is loneliness. The sound of one hand clapping is nihilism. The sound of one hand clapping is nothing.

If this answer makes no sense, take two aspirin, and call me in two decades.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.