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

“Our Greater I”: Teachings of Zen unity for divisive times

For many around the world, 2016 was a turbulent year of political and social unrest that brought into the limelight issues of rampant nationalism and ethnocentrism: the refugee crisis, Brexit, the “alt-right” white supremacist and nationalist movement in the US, and the election of Donald Trump are just a handful of examples. The hierarchies of difference and the rhetoric of divisiveness that give power to these issues reflect the danger of an I-versus-the-world dialectic that insists the lives of the citizens of one nation[1] are more important the lives of another. Against the divisiveness of these times, the re-issue of Yoel Hoffman’s The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers provides a breath of fresh air with poetic teachings from Zen masters on the universal one-ness of all existence.

While it may sound like a paradox, the sound of the one hand in fact illustrates the Zen notion of a universal one-ness that stands against divisions of any sort, be they nationalist, linguistic, ethnic, gendered, racial, or other. Resistance to the idea that the self is separate from the other, that the individual is separate from the world, rests at the core of Zen Buddhist philosophies. As Dror Burstein explains in his introduction, the individual in Zen is nestled in a network of interconnected actions, reactions, and processes. The individual in such an existential view resembles what the twentieth-century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki called a “revolving door,” where inner and outer, the internal world and the external, are at all times connected. An understanding of the self in such a way, Burstein suggests, “can define our more expansive self, our ‘greater I,’ as opposed to the “I” circumscribed by our national, social, professional, and ethnic identities”.

The koan, or riddle, from which the book takes its title is a lesson in universal harmony. It begins with an exchange between master and pupil when the master demands, “In clapping both hands a sound is heard; what is the sound of the one hand?” According to the Inzan school, the correct answer is, “The pupil faces his master, takes a correct posture, and without a word, thrusts one hand forward”. Various Zen schools follow this same discourse, but for the Takujū school, the pupil’s answer may be “The sky is the one hand, the earth is the one hand; man, woman, you, me are the one hand; grass, trees, cows, horses are the one hand; everything, all things are the one hand”. Both the insistence of the non-verbal one hand thrust forward and the eloquence of the voiced response embrace the same notion of universal connectivity and one-ness. The one hand thrust forward represents the essence of all hands, one being no better and no less than any other hand, so that the sound of the one hand is also the sound of every hand. The hand’s representativeness of a universal hand-ness is akin to the cosmopolitan spirit of humanist universalism while also upholding diversity through the uniqueness of the one hand.

The transcendence of universal values, over the divisions between the self and the other, permeates not only the koans, but also the conditions surrounding their selection and publication. Out of these conditions, the act of translation emerges as a participation in trans-cultural teachings and as a method of transcending national, cultural, and linguistic divides. The original koans, which were written down in Japanese and selected by the Japanese Zen Master Hakuin–who also devised the riddle of “the sound of the one hand”–drew upon thousands of Chinese-sourced Zen koans. Many of the teachers who appear in the book are Chinese teachers known by their Japanese names. When Yoel Hoffman translated the Zen teachings that Master Hakuin had written down, they became available to Western audiences for the first time. The act of translation, and the trans-cultural sharing of wisdom, are thus embedded in the text itself and even precede its conception. Translation pervades The Sound of the One Hand, and the cross-cultural connections and understandings of the so-called other provided by translation are also at the very heart of the book’s dissolution of the I-world dialectic.

But there is also something of the Zen that resists translation and that makes the act of translation resemble an act of subversion. As the Zen master Hirano Sōjō describes in his foreword to the book, “When the Japanese edition of this book, Gendai Sōjizen Hyōron (A Critique of Present-day Pseudo-Zen”), was first published in Japanese in 1916, it caused a great sensation” (5). Zen masters of the time felt it inappropriate to publish the koans, which had been guarded as secrets passed down from master to pupil. The author who compiled and published the Zen teachings had done so in a defiant act meant to undermine the authority and separation of the Zen masters over and above their pupils. The author, Hauhōō, whose pseudonym translates to “The Arch-Destroyer of the Existent Order,” railed against the sequestering of the koans, and his wish was that anyone who had the interest could study the book and become a Zen master. The scandal of the publication persisted in the Zen community even into the 1970s, in the time of Yoel Hoffman’s translations.

The anti-hierarchical attitude of Hauhōō, coupled with the teachings of egalitarianism and unity conveyed by the koans, is suggestively appropriate following the political tumults and nationalist fervor that was rampant throughout 2016, but this is not the first time these poems have served as philosophical counters to the dangerous rhetoric of imperialism and division. The first edition of The Sound of the One Hand appeared in 1975, the same year as the end of the Vietnamese War. The publication was likely a timely one for contemporary readers, given the violence and disruption to social and political order that the world had witnessed as a result of the clash of two conflicting ideologies and nations, the one still a neo-imperial power despite having lost the war while the other was only just emerging from the ashes of French colonization. Even in the period of their original publication in 1916, it is possible these thoughtful and provocative riddles appeared as timely and poetic didacticisms to counter the nationalist and imperialist climate as Japan moved to expand its imperial powers through the aggressive Twenty-One demands to China, which would have diminished China’s status to that of a Japanese protectorate. These koans seem to materialize in times of intense political distress against the threats of nationalist ire and imperialist ideologies. The Zen notion that the one hand and the universal are the same defies the very idea that human beings are divisible along geopolitical and linguistic borders. Needless to say, the reissue this past December with New York Review Books Classics feels due.

As didacticisms, these koans have much to impart to readers about social responsibility. In “The World of a Grain of Rice,” Master Seppō says, “The whole world, when gathered with the fingers, is no bigger than a grain of rice. Throw it before us, it will be impossible to find. Strike the drums for summons—let us all come together and look for it”. In our world, every action has a reaction, and the sphere of consequence is so small that any action one takes will come circling back in a given amount of time. Since the world is so small, the wise thing to do is not to fill it up with greed and selfish values. The world, as we call it, is ours to protect, and that requires the joint efforts of all its inhabitants to come together and care for it. The correct response of the pupil to the master’s summons is to feign being on a high perch and name the regions in various cardinal directions, a demonstration of the “Kongōkyō (the Diamond Sutra) which says, ‘The world is non-world; upon this it is named world’”. In other words, the world exists without need for human validation, and only becomes loaded with value as human beings name and order the world as they see it. Divisive rhetoric points not to any pre-existing, actual divisions, but to ideas or values only recognized as different and vile because people have so named them. The overarching theme in Zen teaching is that, as human beings, our world is so small and our actions so profoundly consequential that we have a social responsibility to one another.

While the koans give rise to profound contemplation, they are presented as simple lessons, untethered by excessive explication, making The Sound of the One Hand accessible to any type of reader. Readers might enjoy immersing themselves entirely in the Zen teachings and reading straight through, or alternately, reading one or two riddles at a time to think about the rest of that day. Whatever way one approaches these lessons, they will make you stop and think – they’ll pull you out of the here and now and the news and social media updates – and hopefully provide some reassurance by focusing on a larger picture. For scholars and students of Zen, inquiring readers, or anyone seeking relief from the rhetoric of division in the current political sphere, The Sound of the One Hand offers helpful didacticisms and poetic reflections that are truly timeless.

[1] Sub nation for ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ideology, political view, class, etc.

Nozomi Saito is an executive assistant at Asymptote. She holds a master of arts in Anglophone literatures from Boston University. When she is not immersing herself in books, she is writing, whether for work, scholarly development, or personal creativity. Her work can be found in Word and Text: A Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics and The Vassar Review.  


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  • sye

    Yoel Hoffman’s The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers … but answers aren’t equal to solutions plus more new problems of the same old trouble? Thanks. will check out that book.