“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
I don’t know. And be honest. Neither do you.
I assume there’s not supposed to be an answer, not one we can put into words anyway, that the point of a koan is to frustrate ordinary consciousness so that it gives up and gives way to enlightened consciousness. But like I said. I don’t know.
I do know that I awoke at four o’clock Thursday morning, that this question soon appeared in my mind, and that outside it was snowing.
I lay in bed for a while and meditated, you might it call it that, on the koan.
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” It’s a spiritual question, an enlightenment question, and it points to sound. It points to other things related to enlightenment, too: One, symbol of unity, non-duality, wholeness. Clapping, gesture of delight, encouragement, gratitude, or joy. Even the first word, what, representing curiosity, the opposite of prejudice.
But what grabbed me was this part about sound, sound we don’t hear with our ears, and the notion that spiritual living has something to do with listening for it, or to it, or with it. I recalled that in the Hebrew Scripture, it’s sound that makes creation happen. The divine vocal chords vibrate, God says “Let there be,” and the ripple and quake from that sound brings the whole world into being. And not just the Creator, the creation makes sound, too. Of the heavens and the firmament, the Scripture says: “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19). I also remembered something the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once said, “[t]o some extent, I always listen with my throat,” and how much of my own listening to others involves a vibration I feel throughout my body.
And then I heard, in my body, the call of the snow, the trees, the silence, the sky. I felt energy in my chest rising to that call and pulling the rest of my body upward. I slipped downstairs, dressed, and went outside.
We live in the woods at base of a mountain (Swan Mountain, if you want to see it on Google Earth). Our front door is a trailhead. I walked by the pasture next door, up a logging road, and into the woods. It was dark but I knew the way. There was no hurry.
My ears heard sounds, but only a few: the crunch and squeak of boots in snow, the swish of jacket arms brushing against my side, breathing, the ringing of tinnitus, a little wind. No dogs, no birds, no squirrels, no engines.
I stopped often and listened with my body. Or better to say, I rested my body and gave it space to join with whatever was vibrating humming pulsing radiating breathing singing whispering groaning growing dying smiling praising as the earth that is but a speck turned around a star that is but a speck in a galaxy that is also but a speck in a multiverse that is expanding. I offered attention softly, in the manner of snow. My breath met the air around me as a feather touching a feather.
After a while, after a thousand years, in the twinkling of an eye, I turned down the mountain, towards home. I walked through my brother- and sister-in-law’s farm, grabbed a sled from their garage, and headed to the pasture. I said a wordless hello to the cows, Molly and Annie, in the barn. I climbed the steep slope to the top of the pasture, sat on the sled, and took in the bluish grayish whitish snow, the mountain across the way, the clouds caramelized in the sky. I lifted my feet onto the sled and slid to the bottom. There I waited in the snow, in the sound, before I stood and climbed again, and at the top I waited more, sitting, listening, vibrating, soaking, allowing, before riding again like a child, down a mountain, to the sound of one hand clapping.