Recently following Nembutsu Chanting at the Tao Sangha Healing Centre, I gave a Dharma talk regarding a Zen koan that has been with me for over 25 years: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The following is an excerpt from the talk and my book to be published soon, with a chapter devoted to the pursuit of Zen and enlightenment, and the relation to Tao Sangha.
The Sound of One Hand
What is the sound of one hand clapping? This Zen koan or paradoxical riddle, composed by the Japanese Zen Master Hakuin, has been the source of many interpretations with even Bart Simpson adding to the list of possible answers (proceeding to close and open his hand quickly, thus creating a slight clapping sound at best). Since the age of 16 when I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I have been knowingly following the patterns and parables, paradoxes and possibilities that Zen offers. Yet I believe that my true interest started at a much, much younger age. Suffice it to say, this particular koan puzzled me greatly from very early on, and even when I had secretly read the ‘accepted answers’ students had given their teachers after sometimes 3 years of meditation on the koan, my ‘acceptable answer’ has only recently come to being, due in a big part to the teachings of Tao Sangha and my teacher, Ryokyu Endo.
There first needs to be an understanding that no one can read an ‘accepted answer’ and totally understand; the true answer lies in the effort and determination one puts towards meditation, as in my case, Buddhist Nembutsu, and more specifically, the recital of the Heart Sutra. For it is in the Heart Sutra that one recites phrases over and over with the Japanese word MU, or ‘nothingness’. Phrases, for example, such as “having no form, no sensation, no thought, no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object,” etc. repeatedly use MU because MU refers to the questions that arise and cannot be easily answered when one speaks of such ‘nothingness’. Naturally all this nothingness leads us down the path towards Emptiness or KU.
Trusting our scientific, logical side, we generally first examine the situation in a dualistic manner. For example, when we look at a cup without tea in it, our eyes see the cup and the ‘nothingness’ inside. Our mind easily interprets this ‘nothingness’ as emptiness. We see a cup, and we see it is empty. But if the cup is moved, does the same emptiness follow? And if the cup is emptied, or taken away, what happens to the emptiness? Where does it go? Or what if there were no cup to begin with?
Similarly, the hand, open, with fingers pointing forward: does it exist on its own? Is it just surrounded by an empty, ‘silent’ space? With a dualistic view of your hand, the big picture is lost to separately viewing the subject and the object, one hand and the space surrounding it, just as with the cup and emptiness inside of it. Dualistic thinking prevents us from seeing the world as one, and creates a separation between all things, including ourselves from other beings. We do this because it’s an easier way of not having to deal with the problems of others and our society. On the other hand, no pun intended, if we can acknowledge that emptiness cannot exist without the cup, and the cup without emptiness, we can then continue to accept that we exist because others exists. The sound of one hand clapping does not exist without the other hand! And we begin to understand the oneness of subject and object, we begin to feel responsible for other’s happiness, because our own happiness is linked to theirs, and we feel responsible for the future of our world!!!
Now, we can confidently proceed to understand Emptiness as that which it truly is, ANY form. It is that which can be projected to create any form. This means that depending on your consciousness, the objective world can be changed into any form. Meaning we can all change our future and the world through our conscious mind!
And so we come back to MU; it is no longer ‘nothingness’. It transcends towards infinite possibilities. It is, infinity itself!
This leads to a huge freedom from the constant suffering that plagues us trying to qualify and quantify everything into neat little boxes to make our own little world perfect. And once this freedom arrives at our door, effortlessly gracing our every breath, the great potential of our heart opens for a brighter future. It is here that we can find some relief from the sights and smells, tastes and other sensations that confuse our mind and stimulate our judgement.