Zen Koan One Hand Clapping


An adept asks his Roshi, “What is the secret of Zen?”

Roshi quickly replies, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

The adept takes his leave considering the case of ‘One Hand Clapping.’


The audacity of this student to accuse Zen of secreting itself like a criminal!

With lightning speed and great consideration, Roshi slaps his charge across the face showing the answer. However, for the answer to have meant the charge must do his part of the work. Roshi takes the insult of mistaking Zen for a criminal onto his own shoulders, showing his charge great compassion.

The adept takes his leave, yet he cannot hide.


‘One Hand Clapping’ is an ancient koan or paradoxical case given to beginning students of zazen meditation. The first answer that the new practitioner blurts out is “The sound of silence.” This, of course, is always wrong. Any case and thousands of them exist – can have multiple correct answers, however, answers can also be wrong. If a correct answer is given by a student who has not fully accepted the answer and allowed it to accomplish its inside transformative work, Roshi will dismiss the student to go and continue the work; the answer is still wrong. The bottom line is not so much finding a “correct” answer, as it is to deeply transform the Zen adept’s existential perception. These cases are lived with for hours, or years – it takes what it takes!

‘One Hand Clapping’ is the case of Zen’s understanding deeply and fully one’s true face or original self, and one’s natural virtue.  In this case, “virtue” is used in an Eastern philosophical context, not in a Western religious moral sense. Virtue is nature’s direction. From the seed to the sapling, from the sapling to the tree, from the tree to the forest, the virtual direction of our existence is from the simple to the complex; each raindrop contains the virtue to become a rainforest.

Great Chain of Causation

We more descriptively call this the Great Chain of Causation; each cause is a result of an antecedent cause. A flower is not just a flower; it is the entire field, which is inseparable from the entire cosmological design of our universe. Buddha once said when discussing humanity, spirit, and the universe, “The one in the many, the many in the one.”

This is a statement of emptiness. The universe is essentially empty – but empty of what? Existence is empty of selfless though filled with relationship! The world is dynamic proceeding in a direction from the simple to the complex and with every element an expression or aspect of the whole. No separation exists – there is no one.

Beginning his speech at Madison Square Garden, His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama said to the record crowd, “You would all like me to give you something when essentially I have nothing to give.”

In ancient times, the historical Buddha faced a similar crowd waiting for his words, for something. He picked up a flower and sat holding it in silence.


The Zen adept faces his Roshi in an interview called ‘dokusan’. Roshi is fierce giving his charge the fish-eye. “Why have you returned? Did you not understand the case? What is the sound of one hand clapping? Speak!” Roshi swings back his hand ready to strike. “Speak!”

“Not so.” The student must not utter one more word.

Roshi’s hand settles in his lap and a smile barely plays across his face.

Glossary in order of appearance:

Case / Koan = A paradoxical statement or question designed to bring the Zen student into direct experience of truth.

Roshi = Teacher.

Zen = A school of Buddhist practice structured on pragmatic, direct methods and ideology.

Zazen = Sometimes referred to as ‘shikantasa’, zazen is a meditation technique.

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