The non-sound of one hand clapping

Posted on August 4, 2020Comments Off on The non-sound of one hand clapping

Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? (隻手声あり、その声を聞け)

Hakuin Ekaku

Perhaps the most well known Koan. In this post, we will do what we’re not supposed to do: discuss koans!

What is a koan?

Koans are phrases, questions, scenarios and riddles from Zen Buddhist practice meant to jar your mind. Before benefiting from koans, your mind should reach a state of calmness. Quiet your thoughts and emotions, ones both fleeting and deep. When your mind becomes still like a lake, the truth is reflected clearly and simply.

Don’t think about them

The more you think and frustrate about a koan, the more it disturbs your thoughts. The more the water of your mental lake ripples, the less clear the truth becomes.

Koans are like the last rung of the ladder. If you’re almost there, can kind of see over the top, they help you to reach that next level. But if you’re not there yet, if it’s out of reach, it does not help much. You should keep your focus to the present state.

Why are we talking about one hand clapping then?

Because I like this koan! I am going to share the wisdom behind this koan. Please stop reading if you do not want to hear the spoiler. You may one day understand on your own and that is a beautiful experience on its own. But there are a lot of koans and a lot of wisdom out there. So it’s okay if you read on and miss out on this self-revelation.

I leave it up to you whether you read on or not!

The sound of two hand clapping

The sound of two hand clapping can be characterized in a few ways:

  • Is a reverberation, a wave rippling through air
  • Created by two hands clashing
  • With a beginning and an end

The non-sound of one hand clapping

You’ve probably considered that one hand cannot clap. It cannot make a sound. The non-sound is characterized in a few ways:

  • Is the absence of sound, a stillness
  • Created by one hand, or rather, is not created
  • With no beginning and no end

The second point is a good point to start our understanding. Clapping is in essence the result of two things clashing. When there is not two, when there is just one, there is no clashing, there is harmony. In an universe where there is just one hand and not two, the universe is filled with the non-sound of one thing, the silence of one-ness, the non-sound of harmony. This harmonious non-sound reverberates through every corner of the universe, without beginning or end.

When we are focused on ourselves, we distinguish our self from everything and everyone else. We are one of many hands. When your mind is able to let go and look away from yourself, we can perceive the infinite immensity of this koan and of existence. There’s a profound beauty to it. The poet Rumi states it well.

You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.


I hope you enjoyed this koan. I love the deep and calm beauty of it. Do you have a koan, or a moment of insight that helped you improve your life? Share it in the comments below!

Comments Off on The non-sound of one hand clapping