What Is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?
by Richard Diedrichs
“We all know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
This confounding question might be the only way most of us know about Hakuin Ekaku. He created it. What does the question mean, and why did he ask it?
While Hakuin’s life experience in eighteenth century Japan might not seem relevant to us today, his example of leading a vital, engaged life, caring about others, using physical discipline and energy for the good of all, and excelling artistically after the age of sixty is worth our attention.
When he was a boy, Hakuin heard a preacher talk about hell. Specifically, the preacher described the Eight Hot Hells. The prospect literally scared the hell out of Hakuin. He thought the only way to escape, as the preacher painted it, bursting blisters, chattering teeth, a body breaking into pieces like a block of ice, being crushed into bloody jelly, and being impaled by fiery swords for up to 3.39738624×1018 years, was to go into a Zen monastery. Hakuin entered monastic life at age fifteen. Three years later, he gave up hope of saving himself from hell when he heard about an accomplished monk being murdered by bandits. Hakuin took off, traveling the country learning about literature and poetry.
Back at the monastery, Hakuin told the master of his fear of falling into hell. The teacher called him “self-centered” and assigned him an inscrutable mind puzzle, called a koan, to meditate on. These koans were designed to create psychological tension and doubt in the student. Hakuin wrote that his experience revealed that, “At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening.”
Hakuin was presented with a collection of classical koans to solve, such as two men arguing over a flapping flag. “The flag is moving,” one said. “The wind is moving,” said the other. A teacher walked by and said, “The flag does not move. The wind does not move. The mind moves.”
Another: “A buffalo comes through a hole in the wall. The whole buffalo passes through, the head, the horns, and all four legs, except the tail. Why doesn’t the tail come through?”
A teacher held up a spatula and said, “If you call this a spatula, you give offence. If you say it is not a spatula, you break the law. What do you call this?”
“If you have a stick, I will give you one. If you do not have a stick, I will take it away from you!”
“You are at the top of a 100-foot pole. What is your next step?”
When Hakuin was given one of these sizzling mind puzzles to solve, he meditated on it. Then, he went into a one-on-one interview with his teacher. He declared his koan and was expected to give his response. If he passed, he was given another. If he failed, he was sent back to work on it.
Hakuin passed through this style of koan study, and felt he could do better. He made up his own koans for his students. The most famous, the one that everyone knows: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Hakuin encouraged deep and prolonged meditation, with real commitment and diligence. Through his own work, he realized that the purpose of life was to benefit others and help everyone to wake up to their own truth. He instructed his students to be ethical and live a virtuous life.
Later in his life, near the age of sixty, Hakuin took up painting. For the next quarter century, he completed over a thousand works. He became one of Japan’s most famous artists.
One story sums up Hakuin’s legacy: There was a young girl who lived in Hakuin’s neighborhood. Her parents found out that she was pregnant. The girl did not want to implicate her lover, so after much intense questioning from her angry parents, the girl said that Hakuin was the father. The parents confronted Hakuin with their accusation. All he had to say was, “Is that so?”
After the child was born, they brought the baby to Hakuin, who had gained a spurious reputation because of the accusations. Hakuin took the child in and cared for it. A year later, the girl relented and told her parents that a young man who worked at the local fish market was the father. The girl’s parents rushed to Hakuin to apologize and ask for forgiveness. As they took back their grandchild, all Hakuin said was, “Is that so?”