the zen koan hoax
CLAP YOUR HAND
ROBERT J. LEWIS
As long as you're subject to birth and death,
you'll never attain enlightenment.
in my early 20s – code for young and foolish – it
was very trendy to take an interest in Zen Buddhism. Both the
mercurial curious and blinkered zealous were lured by the promise
of enlightenment (satori) -- being at one with the universe.
the doctrinal methods and means employed to achieve enlightenment,
the Zen Koans held a particular fascination, since the answering
of them, especially the difficult ones, promised instant enlightenment
-- not to be confused with instant Karma.
1,700 Koans, the most difficult and most widely known is “what
is the sound of one hand clapping?”
my one-and-twenty status and hard-wired idealism, it struck me
as incredulous that answering a single question correctly could
result in enlightenment. If I was ever tempted to dedicate my
life to Zen in hot pursuit of satori (bra size 36), that corny
question and its outrageous promise quickly disabused me of all
things Zen: such as, “for the arrow to hit the target,"
Zen master says to bewildered student, "become the arrow.”
That dollop of wisdom put an end to both my archery career and
the hospitalized instructor for whom there was no n-arrow escaping.
And in consideration of my then rabid hormone count, hitting the
target (any vagina) by becoming my penis turned out to be a meditation
in futility. In point of fact, until I turned 30 I was never anything
but my penis.
major objections from friends and the unpremeditated wrath from
the meditation crowd, I regarded the Koan and the society it engendered
as a ploy of the con-man, and its misfit-devotees the raw material
cults prey on. That on Monday, I’m a nostril excavating,
cannabis wrecked hippie devoted to the path of least resistance,
and the next day an enlightened Buddha, registered as incredulous
as Corpus Christi rising from the dead. On top of which I had
come to know several enlightenment chasers
whose motives were highly suspect on the way to their tryst
with satori: one took to the ashram circuit for free room and
board and to prey on vulnerable women. Closer to home, Montreal,
required unconditional surrender from students who were obliged
to turn over their entire weekly salaries while the female contingent
were repurposed as sex slaves. Other masters were outright sado-masochists,
obliging their disciples to submit to (in order to transcend)
extreme physical pain: below-zero meditation, whipping and caning.
came to regard the Zen enterprise as nothing more than an excuse
for the smart and strong to exploit and abuse the weak and dumb.
the promise of enlightenment and transcending duality, in another
article I have already expatiated on that fatuous undertaking
and will copy/paste a couple of choice paragraphs from that original
Om is the vegetative state raised to the highest eminence,
om is lobotomy, om is non- being, om is anti-being, om is
dereliction, om is abdication, om is inauthentic, om is dumbness,
om is rap, om is Indian drone, om is minimalism, om is drug
addiction, om is sports addiction, om is games addiction,
om is danger addiction, om is any activity that (by design)
keeps you imprisoned in the present where there is no past,
no future, no self-consciousness, no judgment. Omers are cowards
and like Nietzsche’s Christians and priests, they are
the antithesis of life, of the will to power. Om is pure cop-out,
and the gurus and Zen masters are the great escape artists;
and, taking liberties with the Beatles lyric, yes indeed "living
is easy with eyes closed oming all you see." When an
evolved omer claims his eyes are open but he doesn’t
see because he’s not separate from the world, he has
willed himself to occupy the lowest rung on the chain of being,
which is a mere syllable away from non-being. Behind every
om ever uttered lurks a closet suicide looking to out himself
on the end of a rope.
Why would anyone who doesn’t harbour a death wish want
to transcend duality? I love duality. I love -25 Celsius because
it enables me to appreciate + 25. If there were always and
only 25 Celsius, the very concept of temperature would disappear,
along with the four seasons. Viewed from afar, all human endeavour
-- doctrinally frowned upon by the oming fraternity -- implicitly
aims at cultivating an appreciation of duality: we work hard
to play hard, we travel far to better appreciate what is near.
The difference between metaphysics and the philosophy of oming
is that the former encourages us to dwell in the sacred nexus
between being and nothingness while the latter is a death
if I grant that my somewhat jaundiced view of Zen and beggar-cup
carrying saffron robed monks hasn’t changed since those
heady days of my youth, I have to confess that I have never been
able to totally disentangle myself from Zen doctrine, in particular
the Koan that asks: what is the sound of one hand clapping?
IS A ZEN KOAN?
is a puzzle, or riddle, or paradox Zen masters employ to help
initiates unravel the great truths about themselves and the world.
They are encouraged to “abandon ultimate dependence on reason”
which facilitates sudden intuitive enlightenment. The Zen master
knows the meaning of all the Koans because he is enlightened.
1,700 Koans, “what is the sound of one hand clapping”
is regarded as the most difficult, and when answered, it results
in enlightenment. To wit:
Hakuin (1686-1769) attained satori (enlightenment) with the
answer "I have heard sound without sound!"
his master’s feet with one hand resulted in enlightenment
for Wang Xiang in the early 19th century.
student allegedly thrust out his one hand and attained enlightenment
(became a Buddha).
there is no single answer to a Koan, each student will find his
way to the answer according to his nature and the unique circumstances
of his life.
is where I begin, with the here and now, and this essay, whose
sole mandate is to revisit, without pride and prejudice, the one-hand-clapping
Koan with one goal in mind: to exorcise my remaining Zen demons.
As for transcending duality, that is a non-starter or the unique
dispensation of all non-living matter and vegetable life.
will be straight forward: pry open the question with one arm,
that is rip it out of its mystical underpinnings and expose its
bogus indices and outright silliness (measured by frittered away
question at hand, the obvious first answer is that one hand can’t
clap, that is make a sound, but since that response doesn’t
result in satori, we have to grant the question its specific gravity,
which means the student must address the key word in the question,
which is sound, or the absence of sound, which is a duality that
has to be transcended. In my circumstance, since there is no short
answer to the Koan, the question suggests a method, or process
or gradual unveiling which might require a lifetime before it
yields its fruits. Again, it depends on the person: Einstein reports
that he understood relativity in a flash; for most everyone else,
a lifetime isn’t time enough. If the proper measure of a
good question is its ability to endure over time, the hand-clapping
Koan deserves top ranking since it hasn’t disappeared into
possible answer is that there is no answer, which could very well
be the correct answer especially (presumptively) since there is
no such thing as enlightenment or higher being, or being at one
with the universe. Master Eliot concluded: “We shall not
cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring Will
be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first
dedicated students who have sacrificed their selfhood to a ‘presumed’
higher being, to finally recognize that the Koan is an exercise
in futility, or someone’s sorry pretext to exercise absolute
command and control, must surely constitute an epiphany of sorts.
While Zen initiates sign up of their own free will, once enrolled
they are anything but free: body and soul belong to the institution,
its directors and financial planners.
possible approach to the question is through the method outlined
in Martin Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking?
Since one hand clapping cannot yield an actual sound, silence
becomes the necessary condition for thinking to assert itself
and ask what in life asks most to be thought about – which
of course will result in the immediate dismissal of the Koan and
others like it (Where is the pulse located in a petrified tree?).
can a thinking person defend the one-hand-clapping question against
philosophy’s timeless queries: Why is there something instead
of nothing? What is the purpose of my life? What constitutes a
the key to objectively determining the appropriate status of the
question, that is situating it taxonomically in relation to all
other questions, is to “reculer pour mieux sauter”
(step back in order to better advance), or to examine and interrogate
the Koan from outside the box.
this long view in mind, what can we say about the question and
its world? After all, the question didn’t arise in a vacuum,
and has been around for more than 300 years, which speaks more
to the kind of species we are than the question proper. From time
immemorial man has shown himself to be incurably
vulnerable to almost any idea -- no matter
how far-fetched (injured subject avenges a wrong by sticking a
pin into a doll).
that someone, presumably a Zen master, is asking the question.
We also assume that since he is asking the question, he knows
the answer even though the answer will be unlike his own. Secondly,
the question is being directed to someone or a group. Today, 300
years later, with the aid of satellite and fibre optic communication
technology, the question is now being asked simultaneously everywhere,
addressing anyone who encounters it. At a very basic level, the
question implies a relationship between the one posing the question
and those endeavouring to answer it.
implicates a student-teacher relationship, or bond, or nexus,
which wouldn’t exist if one or the other didn’t participate.
In other words, prior to the content of any Koan, 'the other’
is implied. Without the other there is no world, which directly
speaks to the rationale or teleology activating the question whose
first purpose is to serve as a bonding mechanism that allows for
the exchange of ideas. That there must be ‘the other’
is the non-negotiable, the sine qua non of the human
condition, and the Zen Koan is one of the many means employed
to satisfy that set-in-stone desideratum. And whether
he is cognizant of it or not, the student engages the question
in order to satisfy the primordial need to be in community with
others. The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty, from "Man and
Adversity," observes how words "suddenly swell with
meaning which overflows into the other person when the act of
speaking binds them up into a single whole." And from that
same extraordinary 1951 essay, he writes: "Sometimes one
starts to dream about what culture, literary life, and teaching
could be if all those who participate would give themselves up
to the happiness of reflecting together." To finally seize
upon that insight and its philosophical implications is to invest
a previously dark area with radiant light.
answer to the Zen Koan: "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"
is: You and I, or existentially (ontologically) being-in-the-world-with-others.
Lewis wishes to announce that he is now accepting students for
meditation classes. Prior to arrival, all initiates will be required
to visit the Lewis Enlightenment Foundation to facilitate the
disburdening of all material entanglements.
macjoven via /reddit
In the second scroll of Wen the Eternally Surprised a story
is written concerning one day when the apprentice Clodpool,
in a rebellious mood, approached Wen and spake thusly: "Master,
what is the difference between a humanistic, monastic system
of belief in which wisdom is sought by means of an apparently
nonsensical system of questions and answers, and a lot of mystic
gibberish made up on the spur of the moment?" Wen considered
this for some time, and at last said: "A fish!" And
Clodpool went away, satisfied.-- (Terry Pratchett, Thief
of Time). But seriously a koan is for you, the satori,
the insight, the a HA, is for you not your teacher.
also by Robert J. Lewis:
ALT-CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR GUITAR
Nature: King of the Hill
Trouble with Darwin
Life & Death of Anthony Bourdain
Identity and Natural Law
Cares versus the Care-nots
Musk: Brilliant but Wrong
the Corporation Feasts, the Earth Festers
Wilde and the Birth of Cool
Party - Parting Ways with Consciousness
- Constant Craving
Broken Feather's Last Stand
Art or Artifice II
is Smarter Than the West
Divided by Two
Me With That Music
Sinking of the Friendship
The Great Escape
on a Hot Tin Roof
A Line in the Wilderness
Rooms & Infidels
Idea Will Travel
Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
The Eclectic Switch
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger
and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of
Love & Hate
Divine Right and
the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene
& Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the
Library and Archives Canada.