Sound of One Hand Clapping

Sound of One Hand Clapping

This riddle has been a popular teaching tool of Zen masters for centuries. Teachers told their disciples to meditate on the sound of one hand clapping and month after month, year on year they did what they were told. Very rarely did a disciple finally hear the sound.

A young boy came to learn from a teacher and was told to go and meditate on the sound of one hand clapping. The student went to his quiet room and meditated for several hours every day. After about a year, one day, he thought he had heard that sound and ran to the teacher to declare his success. He said to the teacher, “I heard the sound of a cuckoo way out in the distance, and that I think is the sound of one hand clapping.” The teacher listened with full attention, and then with his stick tapped the disciple lightly on the head. “No,” he said, “it is not. It is merely the music produced by air pushed through the bird’s vocal cords. Go back to your room and continue the meditation.”

Six months passed, the disciple returned to the Master and said, “Master, at last I have heard the sound of one hand clapping. In far distance a thin stream falls on a rock; that it seems to me is the sound of one hand clapping.” After hearing with rapt attention the Master picked up his stick and rapped the boy on the head. “No,” he said, “that is the sound produced by water falling on the rock. Go back and continue working.”

Then one, two, five, ten years passed. The master went over and he saw sparkle in the disciple’s eye. Subtle smile was on his lips and his face was aglow with indescribable joy.

The question about the one hand clapping had vanished; no answer was needed. He had heard the sound of life ticking and of the pulsing in the very core of the smallest particle of which the universe is made. The source of all sound, all knowledge and wisdom had been revealed to him. There was no more to be heard, learned or sought.

The Master knew what had happened. His stick fell from his hand; it was no longer needed.

The disciple recognized and welcomed the Master, but he could not describe what had happened. For it is beyond words. Words are limited in time and space. They cannot encompass what is boundless, timeless, and immeasurable. But he tried and said something like the following.

“I meditated on the meaning of every word in the mantra you gave me. Take for instance the word sound; there is more and more subtle meaning as you delve into its meanings. One goes on exploring; the search is long and arduous. It is something like peeling an onion. You take peel after peel and a new layer is revealed every time. On and on you go. Finally, nothing remains. You encounter nothingness. That is the sound of one hand clapping. You hear it; you are transformed, you are filled, but you cannot describe it; you are muted. The Rishis call it the anhat nad, the sound of silence. You hear the sound of total silence; the silence of a mountain peak or of the thick forest may possibly give a mild hint of it.”

The master understood. He could relate the disciple’s experience to his own. A rare sense of joy inundated him. The Master and the disciple embraced each other.

The disciple was now a Master ready to break his own path.

March 25, 2006