The sound of one hand clapping

Koans are stories and questions that are commonly used in the Zen tradition in order to trigger a particular insight into the nature of the mind. They are paradoxical and are not meant to be understood by rational thinking. A well-known example is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”.

The question is not whether or not there is a solution to the koan. Like we said, the koan is just a tool. Once it has done its job, there will not remain a problem to be solved or a question to be answered.

There are books that talk about solutions to koans. The goal of this post is more to try to convince the reader to actually try sitting with koans and stop thinking that they are impossible to get. When approached with an open mind, patience and good practice, koans can be extremely helpful for seeing into the nature of our minds. Although we have to admit that this practice may not be for absolute beginners.

To solve a koan, first of all a state of high equanimity is very useful. Depending on the person’s level of practice, this can be achieved in a few days of silent retreat. Then one is to sit with the koan, meaning that he or she will repeat the koan a few times and then just be quiet and sit with whatever experience comes from it. Whether it is confusion, frustration or nothing in particular. Have an open mind, let go of expectations, and be okay with not being able to solve it. The worst case is you have meditated and you might have other insights even though not the particular one you were looking for.

Trust that the koan is solvable, set an intention in your mind to solve it, and be curious, kind and receptive in your approach. One thing we can say for sure is you will not conquer it. The insight in the koan will arise by itself when the right conditions are there, some of which you can make available by following the guidelines above.

There is no time-line or recipe on how to make it work. You will know when you have got it. Maybe you will go “ha”, maybe you will smile, or maybe you’ll just start laughing.


Want to try? Try working with the last two lines of this poem:

Empty-handed I go and yet the spade is in my hands;
I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding:
When I pass over the bridge,
Lo, the water floweth not, but the bridge doth flow.


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