The Sound of One Hand Clapping
Updated: Sep 25
I recently wrote an article for the October issue of Wellness Magazine which is an attempt to demystify and define the term mindfulness. But there is another word which I feel could also do with some clarifying. A word used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective, which has seemingly been embraced by popular culture. But also an ancient word. Zen.
A couple of years ago I walked into a Zen Pilates class at my local Virgin Active wondering whether we might start by chanting the Heart Sutra in Korean. We didn’t. On my way home that evening, I spotted a fitness magazine which referred to the tank-top-clad-cover-model as being “so Zen.” Hm ... There are all sorts of funny cartoons out there like the one I’m attaching to this post. Then there is a classic Robert Persig book called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and I bet that if I were to ask the next person I meet in the street, that they would at least be able to offer me something of a definition.
My sense is that whatever the word evokes is valid, and that all possible definitions somehow point towards an answer. But since I regard myself as a devoted Zen practitioner, I might like to try to unpack the term, even just for my own clarity. Historically, Zen is the lovechild of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Taoism which finally arrived in Japan via the Koran peninsula. But I’m not a 14th century monk. Nor a scholar. So how is this so called practice, still appropriate to someone living in Africa, or anywhere else for that matter, in 2020?
I have heard it said that Zen means to find the heart of moment. Or perhaps to find one’s heart within the present. Or maybe more simply to identify one's genuine and sincere response to a situation. Does that make sense? Or does it make it all even more obscure? Perhaps that obscure clarity is part of the process. New word: obscularity — and it sounds very Zen, you know. Zen practice is meditation practice in many forms, and on the topic of obscurity, it is sometimes also koan practice.
Koans are stories of ancient Zen Masters teaching their students through parables, and quirky questions, like the classic one which has also made it’s way into western culture: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Actually, the koan reads: Two hands clap and there’s a sound. What is the sound of one hand? It’s the sort of absurd and impossible-to-answer-question which stops the mind. But then it is also a real question.
How would you answer?
And that is really the ask of Zen practice the way I understand it, to move beyond right and wrong, and enter a space of being away from polarising extremes. I once sat with that koan for some time. And one morning, while holding it in awareness during my routine sitting meditation, my cat surprised me by brushing herself against my knee. My response was to reach out and stroke her back. And there it was: the sound of one hand. A point of direct contact and intimacy with nowness. The appropriate response to the realness of being.