The Sound of One Hand

“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

The opening line is a famous koan; something of a riddle in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. It is not so much a question to be answered as something to make you step out of your mind. In this piece, however, I shall do exactly that which any Zen nerd (yes, there really exist people who take Zen literally) doesn’t want to be done: reflect on and write about a koan. I’ll do it in the spirit of Zen however; unstructured, free-flowing and spontaneous. I advise you to read this text slowly, and before starting, breathe deeply through your diaphragm three times.

For there to be any way to tell one is alive, there has to be contrast—that is to say, there must be a way in which one’s own state differs from something other, radically enough for one’s existence to be recognized as different from that which it differs from.

For example, when you hold your hand under still water entirely motionless, you will after a while stop feeling anything on your hand, and consequently it begins almost to feel like you don’t have a hand anymore. Your hand doesn’t go anywhere: in water there’s just no need for you to rest it on a hard surface that would, in strict contrast to the softness of your skin, signal a message to your brain about there being a hard surface external to your hand.

In other words, you are not conscious of your having a hand whenever it is in an environment free from signals of differing qualities, and more so, rapidly changing signals. It is in the recognition of these differences that consciousness arises.

Unconsciousness is a curious thing. Due to the nature of consciousness, one can never be aware of being unconscious—because that would mean to be conscious.

Consciousness, then, seems to be precisely about there being two different things: a signal and a recipient. How could you tell there is a signal going on somewhere when you have no means of receiving it; no way to transcribe its energy and information into something conceivable?

Knowing there are radio waves all around you is useless unless you have a radio transmitter to transcribe those energy waves into something you can perceive—otherwise, you are not aware of there being radio waves. See: the radio waves are all around you all the time, you just aren’t aware of them! They become radio waves, though, only when someone is able to transcribe them into a coherent source of information (being the sound released through the speaker) with a radio receiver—before that, they’re just wandering energy waves vibrating at a frequency of 3 kHz-300 GHz. Or, actually, they’re direct parts of the whole entire energy in the universe—radio waves are on that specific frequency only because radio transmitters are wired to receive precisely that part of the spectrum. This quote expresses the idea quite well, too:

“The camera does not see things as they are; it sees things as it is constructed to see them.” — Alan Watts

Similarly, we theoretically know that there is a default amount of energy in the universe all the time. But this energy does not have a form until there is someone able to perceive it and turn it into a form—this someone being you. See, your sensory perception is very analogous to a radio receiver, or a camera, in that it has developed to turn the otherwise free-flowing and wandering waves of energy in the universe into something which has a form: your eyes transform the waves at the particular frequency of light into what you see, your ears transcribe the vibrations to which they’re sensitive to into sound, the nerve endings on your skin turn all the signals of similar frequencies it receives into touch… and your brain then works to transform all these different sensory experiences into the coherent, synergistic perception of reality that is your life this very moment.

So, we can conclude that despite our ability to theorize about there being energy all around us, it can be said to have a “concrete reality” only when there is someone to give it one; to bring it into life in a sense.

What would it be like to observe a totally unconscious state?

You will never know, since knowing is only the form given to observation. But this doesn’t mean that there is never an unconscious state — it only means that there will not be you around to turn it into anything, since then it’s not an unconscious state; nor will you be able to remember anything from this unconscious state since nothing was perceived to begin with. But just as the shadowy side of a mountain on which the sun does not shine does not disappear when it is not illuminated, neither do you (the real you) disappear when you are not conscious of yourself — in deep sleep, or after death.

Now, this is what it means when two hands clap and there’s a sound.

Not only do you need two hands to clap together to produce (or release) the vibrations of energy to be transcribed into sound by your eardrums, but you also need yourself—or someone else—to give a form to those vibrations; to turn them into sound, or recognize them as sound.

Then, what is the sound of one hand?

It is the silence out of which the sound of two hands would arise—the immensely substantial silence that births and receives all sound; the emptiness, śūnyatā, out of which all forms arise and dissolve into. This silence is not actually silent, just like the void out of which all life arises and dissolves into is not actually empty—for they both contain all sounds and all forms.

What makes this a koan is that you are not supposed to give it a definite answer, because answers given in language are confined to the duality of thinking and language, and as I said in the beginning, the initial use of koans is to make you step out of your mind—to make you realize that in reality, the mind’s dualities are arbitrary and largely unnecessary, and especially that reality does not depend on the mind’s interpretations about it. But it is most curious how afraid people are of going out of their minds; after all, that’s basically the definition of insanity. However, as Alan Watts so delightfully put it: when you go out of your mind, you come into your senses. And that, then again, is one expression for sanity.

You could think I’m fooling you by giving you an answer to this koan, that I’m not supposed to do so because it breaks some holy Zen doctrine (there’s no such thing), but consider: Considering the fact that everything arises from this silence, what difference does it make what arises from it? My musings came from it, and they will surely dissolve back into it. My writing about it does not make it go away—my writing is but a trail marker for those interested in experiencing it. If you wish to experience it, just be still and allow yourself to listen to silence.

As you learn to listen to it, it will eventually dawn upon you that there is actually no difference between silence and sound, just as there is no difference between life before and after death—for they are two sides of the same, one, mountain. One side is always illuminated by the sunlight of consciousness, while the opposite, unperceived side falls under its shadow; but the mountain always remains.

And remember: when I (or anyone else) point at the moon, do not get stuck at the finger—look at the moon.

“As the ignorant grasp the finger-tip and not the moon, so those who cling to the letter, know not my truth.” (Lankavatara Sutra, translated by D.T. Suzuki)

Thank you for reading.

Photo by Andrea Caramello on Unsplash



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