'The Sound of the One Hand': Ancient Mysteries (Sort of) Revealed

Can a religious text be revolutionary if it's also inscrutable?

The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers

Publisher: NYRB Classics
Length: 304 pages
Author: Yoel Hoffmann
Price: $18.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-12

The Sound of the One Hand is a subversive book. Its very existence is controversial. If you want to become a Zen Buddhist monk, you’ve got to spend between one and five years in a monastery learning from the masters. The study of Zen is a highly complicated endeavor that for centuries has been accomplished solely through direct one-on-one conversation with one’s master. You can take notes, but these notes are extremely private and not to be shared.

In 1916, a student of Zen published a set of these notes, which represent basically the entire complicated curriculum map of Zen Buddhism. This process of how an aspiring monk would be questioned by an elder master through koans was a closely guarded secret; the nearest Western equivalent might be the release of the Church of Scientology’s byzantine map of all the requirements for its levels of spiritual ascendancy, although Scientology is a very young American cult compared to the thousand years that Buddhism has been in comparatively respectable circulation.

When the manuscript by an unknown authors was first published in Japan, it went by the title of A Critique of Present-day Pseudo-Zen, strong words from someone who had clearly graduated to the status of master but was simultaneously unsatisfied with the loose, more rock star, modern Zen pedagogies that began to proliferate in the early 20th century. This critic was hoping to restore a sense of accountability to 300 or more years prior, to the proper ancient way of educating subsequent generations of monks, and knew he would be considered a sort of whistleblower.

Of necessity then, the manuscript was published under a pseudonym, Hau Hoo. In English, that’s “The Arch-Destroyer of the Existent Order”, and indeed, that’s how the book was greeted. In the last hundred years or so, those interested in Judaism have often sought to augment their own spiritual practice with elements of Buddhism. In 1975, this yielded a Hebrew translation of The Sound of One Hand by Yoel Hoffman. In 2016, Hoffman additionally provided this English translation.

That alone is quite a bit to think about. But now, why might someone read this book? Without the aid of direct instruction from a master, there's simply no way that the text itself contains enough wisdom to carry forward a novice’s quest to advance far along the path of Zen. If this book cannot produce a master of Zen, who else might want to read it or what else might it accomplish? This is where we must examine the contents of its four parts, which are each meant to serve a distinct purpose.

Part One contains two differing translations of the two most important koans, the sound of the one hand and the nature of mu. The sound of the one hand is essentially a proof of what Westerners might call transcendentalism, or the interconnectedness of all things. Mu is nothingness, or emptiness, or death. These are not one-question-one-answer koans, but an extended meditation that digs increasingly deeply on the concepts of the one hand and mu as the master proceeds.

The two slightly different but generally parallel methods of questioning come from the Inzan School and the Takuju School, which Westerners might think of along the lines of differing sects of Christianity, like Presbyterians and Baptists. Monks raised in one school do not necessarily agree with those of another school, and so examining the most essential two koans side by side from two schools may be valuable to get a feel for the concreteness of these differences.

For example, Inzan says, “It’s said that if one hears the sound of the one hand, one becomes a Buddha. Well then, how will you do it?” But Tajuku says, “If you’ve heard the sound of the one hand, can you be absolutely delivered from life and death, or can’t you?” These questions have the same answer, but their differences in tone and even in instructional content are hardly insignificant.

Part Two contains miscellaneous koans. Frankly, I found this part quite useless. Based on the half dozen Eastern philosophy courses I took as an undergrad and the half dozen books on Buddhism I’ve read since then, I was not able to make anything but the barest sense of the meanings behind these koans. Here are two random examples from page 45:

15. Master: Without using your hands, make this old monk get up.

Answer: “Ahhh.” With heavy sigh, the pupil imitates an old man getting up.

18. Master: In the middle of a duck egg, grind the tea mill.

Answer: The pupil walks in a circle around the room.

The idea of koan 15 is that the pupil and master are one, so making the master get up is free to mean that the pupil can get up. No hands are required. The idea behind koan 18 may be similar, in that the room is meant to be of one interchangeable piece with the tea mill and the duck egg, so grinding the tea mill is free to mean that the pupil can circle the room. No actual tea mill or duck egg is required.

But do the duck egg and the tea mill have a special significance? Why not a chicken egg? Why not a pepper mill? Can this lesson be given outdoors, or must it be contained within a room? I have no clue. I am untrained in the details and this book is not interested in providing commentary on the humor here, or the rules and procedures that govern these answers, or their cultural context. Does it matter when the master references Kyoto instead of some other city? Must the mountain always be Fuji? Western readers likely won’t have an instinctive connection to the symbolism or baggage of many specific references in these koans, which necessarily limits their instructive power.

Part Three contains 144 more well-known, standard koans. For example, the world is a grain of rice, the mind as it is, use the air as paper, and which one is real. These koans tend to be a little longer in form and somewhat more oriented toward story-telling in their scope. This section reads more like mythology, where the meanings may generally be discerned with more ease than in the second section.

Part Four provides notes and commentary on the previous three sections. Here are the notes on koans 15 through 18 from above:

The pupil disregards the condition of ‘not using hands’ and simply refers to his or the master’s ‘getting up.’ He disregards ‘Mt. Fuji’ and simply ‘walks’; he cannot ‘grind a mill in a duck egg’ but he can do the grinding. The four questions are of the same pattern -- demanding an action yet posing an absurd condition. The pupil performs only the desired action. Through the immediacy of his response, he makes the absurdities vanish” (202).

What?! This explanation poses perhaps just as many questions as it answers. Monks may spend their entire lives in conversational contemplation of the wisdom contained within these 300 pages. Serious English-speaking practitioners in the West will no doubt be pleased by this written companion to their formal study. I found some value, some interest or insight, some Zen surrealism as I turned each page. The Sound of the One Hand is filled with answers -- just not easy ones.

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