Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More




The Sound Of One Hand Clapping

Napa, California, USA

July 30, 2020



"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
... Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (1686 - 1769) who almost single-handedly revitalized Zen after three hundred years of decline

"What is is, what isn't isn't."
... 
"Of all the disciplines that I studied, practiced, learned, Zen was the essential  one. It was not so much an influence on me; rather, it created space. It allowed those things that were there to be there. It gave some form to my experience. And it built up in me the critical mass from which was kindled the experience that produced est. Although the est  training is not Zen, nor even anything like it, some features of est  resonate with Zen teaching and practice. It is entirely appropriate for persons interested in est  to be interested also in Zen."
... 
sharing his experience of Zen with Professor William Warren Bartley III, Werner's official biographer, in the account titled "The Zen Art of Bookselling" in the chapter called "Quest" in part II, "Education", of "Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man - The Founding of est"
This essay, The Sound Of One Hand Clapping, is the eighteenth in an open group on Zen: in that order.

It was written at the same time as If A Tree Falls ....



Werner Erhard had just said something extraordinary as he was setting the foundation ie the ground rules  at the start of the final session of a course he was leading in which I was participating. I've been listening Werner for over forty one years now, and just when I think I've heard it all, just when I think I know his entire repertoire, he'll come up with something that reminds me there's no end to and no predictability in his being a powerful, expansive source. He said (I'm paraphrasing):

"When you get to the end of this session, you'll be able to answer the question 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?'".

"Wait a minute!" I said to myself, "That's that famous Zen koan, isn't it? Isn't that the question people commit themselves to contemplate for years if not lifetimes  in monasteries? Isn't that the question, the answer to which leads to the temporary state of satori, or even to the permanent state of nirvana?  And he just promised I'm going to be able to answer it myself by the end of this session, three hours from now, not in years or lifetimes?". Suddenly I was sitting bolt upright, paying attention.

I'd been aware of the koan / question (who hasn't?) since I first became interested in Zen when I discovered Alan Watts (who, as it turned out, was one of Werner's early mentors also). Its answer (whatever it might be) seemed shrouded in mystery. But I did surmise there's an answer to it (there must be). I just didn't know what it was. And its very phrasing seemed to deftly skirt around and adroitly avoid any reasoning or rationality I could bring to it. But it's a Zen koan after all, and that's what Zen koans are like. So I stopped trying to figure out its answer by being reasonable or rational, and began to consider three other pragmatic approaches instead.

The first approach was I imagined I was clapping normally with two hands (which makes a sound instantly recognizable to appreciative audiences worldwide) ... and then in my imagination, I removed one hand from the equation. So I then had one hand moving like it was clapping, and the other hand at my side, not clapping. And the sound of one hand clapping was ... silence (obviously, having no other hand to clap against). So, Q: What is the sound of one hand clapping? A: silence. "Not too shabby ..." I mused. The second approach was I imagined I was clapping that way with one hand, but moving the fingers of that hand, opening and closing them, to slap against the base of my thumb. The sound it made wasn't the sound made by an appreciative member of an audience, but it wasn't silence either. So, Q: What is the sound of one hand clapping? A: (holds up one hand, slapping fingers against base of thumb). The third approach was I imagined something incorrigible from Zen lore. Q: What is the sound of one hand clapping? A: (takes off sandals, puts them on head, turns around and walks out). And yet none of those three sounded to me as if they'd be the kind of answer a Werner would give or facilitate. They just didn't. "But they're a good start" I thought, and went back to listening Werner speaking.

"What is is, what isn't isn't" is what he was saying. It seemed like a simple handle to have on life. Indeed, at first it seemed to me as if it was over-simplified. But then I noticed it was only I who introduces complication. What if it is  so simple? How great would that  be? Then he began distinguishing and fleshing out the trifecta of how life is, how life isn't, and "the way I'd like it to be", and I started to notice, to my chagrin, that my first take on life is never  to come down on the side of its simplicity. His "What is is" is simple. His "What isn't isn't" is simple. My "The way I'd like it to be" is never simple. And then he started the Zen koan again, asking "So: what is the sound of one hand clapping?". And then he started to answer it by saying "What is is, and what isn't isn't, and the sound of one hand clapping is ..." ...

... and then an interesting thing happened, a very, very  interesting thing: in that exact moment, the answer came to me in a flash: "(speaking silently) What is is, and what isn't isn't, and (speaking out loud, incredulous, having just then fully realized it) the sound of one hand clapping is ... the   ... sound  ... of  ... one  ... hand  ... clapping  ..." just as he  completed saying "... the sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping" in that rich, deep, Philadelphian accent (by which time I was speaking in sync with him) and my jaw slowly dropped. It is what it is. It isn't what it isn't. Is that it? It is (ie "est"). What is is, what isn't isn't.

It was a truly astonishing moment, an astounding  moment. The world I'd known until then, had ceased to exist. An entirely new world had opened up. And it wasn't satori: I didn't require that context. And it wasn't nirvana: that's too eastern. And please don't call it enlightenment because it's become too misconstrued. It was the possibility of ... transformation. And it was delivered unerringly by Werner in a straight, personal conversation which deployed only that one classic, perfectly minimalistic Zen koan as a vehicle. Clearly it's no coincidence persons interested in Werner and his work are also interested in Zen.

Resolving the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" by realizing "The sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping", is not only good Zen, it's also tautological. A tautology is when something is defined in terms of itself - for example, "It's deja vu all over again"  courtesy the great Yogi Berra (and the fact that his name is "Yogi" in a conversation about a Zen koan, is  a coincidence). So look out: if you're not ready for Zen answers, they can be maddeningly tautological.



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