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
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping
Napa, California, USA
July 30, 2020
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
master Hakuin Ekaku (1686 - 1769) who almost single-handedly
after three hundred years of decline
"What is is, what isn't isn't."
"Of all the disciplines that I studied, practiced, learned,
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
nor even anything like it, some features of
teaching and practice. It is entirely appropriate for persons
had just said something
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
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
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
isn't it? Isn't that the question people commit themselves to
contemplate for years if not lifetimes in
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
I'd been aware of the
/ question (who hasn't?) since I first became
when I discovered
(who, as it turned out, was one of
early mentors also). Its answer (whatever it might be) seemed shrouded
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
after all, and that's what
are like. So I stopped trying to figure out its answer by being
reasonable or rational, and began to consider three other pragmatic
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
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
against base of thumb). The third approach was I imagined something
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
would give or facilitate. They just didn't. "But they're a good start"
I thought, and went back to
"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
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
a very, veryinteresting
in that exact moment, the answer came to me in a flash:
silently) What is is, and what isn't isn't, and
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
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
What is is, what isn't isn't.
"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
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
is a coincidence). So look out: if you're not ready for
answers, they can be maddeningly tautological.