The Sound of One Hand Clapping-Revisited

After coming across Cecil’s comments on The Sound of One Hand Clapping I decided to reopen a thread on it because I found his comments insufficient. Significant events are often altered and morph into ritualized expressions that later interpreters find enigmatic and/or miraculous, even though there is a kernel of truth in them.

The story below is a half remembered and distorted version of a story I read many years ago that I posted at a Buddhist message board for a man who was disillusioned by his teacher. I wasn’t aware of how much my mind distorted the story and even who it was about until and I came across “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” link here at SDMB. The man Cecil says devised this koan/riddle was Japanese Zen master Hakuin (1686-1769), often considered the father of modern Rinzai Zen. The monk I wrote about in the story below turns out to be Chinese Ch’an(Zen) master Lin Chi (d.867) (Jap. Rinzai) founder of Rinzai Zen.

I inadvertently linked into SBMB seeking the origin of the word “sidekick” which I had always thought were cowboys riding together. I decided to use this curious set of coincidences to seek out like minded people, if any, here at SDMB on the path to Understanding. As you read through all this pay exquisite attention to see how your mind works through or against this posting for that is what the path to Understanding is all about, understanding how your mind works.

The Power Of Disillusionment

An intelligent young man began seeing through the ways of the world and became very frustrated and so he sought out a master to bring an end to his suffering. A monastery had grown up around a particular master made up of similar minded people seeking a way out of their suffering. The master was cryptic and difficult to understand since he resided in the realm of no effort. The new found friends of this young monk encouraged him to approach the master and hopefully get some direct teaching and then he could relay the message back to them.

The young monk approached the master in his cell and with great diffidence he bowed and sat before him and requested his understanding of the BuddhaDharma. The master simply looked at the young man and slapped him hard across the face. Shocked and humiliated the young monk fled the room.

When his friends gathered around him to get their second hand knowledge they too were shocked by the actions of the master.
“You tell me that I am the most intelligent monk here and that I might help you understand the Teachings and he slaps me! What kind of teaching is that?”
“Maybe it was just a test to see if you are sincere in getting the Dharma. You should go back and show him that you are still determined to get the Teaching.”
That made sense to the young monk and he later ventured forth to meet with the master.

He approached the master, bowed and seated himself before him, and again asked most humbly for his assistance in understanding the Dharma. The slap was swifter and harder than the first, followed by a rain of blows from the masters staff as the young monk was driven from the cell.

“The master hates me and humiliates me and I must now leave this place.” the young monk later told his friends. “Do you know of another master I might seek out?”
“Three days journey from here lives a former disciple of the master who is said to have realized the Truth. Maybe he can help you.”

The young monk left that very night too humiliated to face the other monks in the morning and set out to find the master’s disciple. Arriving late at the disciple’s dwelling place he asked for an immediate audience and created such a commotion that the disciple came out to see him.

Exhausted, humiliated, and agitated the young monk related his experiences to the enlightened disciple who broke into laughter upon hearing his tale.
“Why do you laugh and mock me?” yelled the young monk.
“Because that old crone really loves you!” said the disciple.

It took less than a second for the full realization of the master’s “teachings” to explode in his mind. Ignited by the remarks of the disciple, the “teachings” shattered his artificial sense of self. Totally free with his mind completely open the young master thanked the now astonished disciple and left to return to his master’s monastery.

Moving through the forest as free as the wind the radiant expression of the young master effortlessly arrived at his old master’s dwelling and without stopping burst into his cell slapping the master before the master could raise his own slapping hand. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Only the masters know and these two laughed as one into the night leaving the rest of the monastery bewildered.

On the path to the Truth of Suffering, disillusionment is valued by the wise for only ego can experience it. If the disillusionment is great enough and the ego can find no place to hide and no one to blame, then this artificial sense of self will shatter. On the path to freedom your friends and family are your enemies and your enemies are your friends.

If anybody has an affinity for this kind of stuff then check out my blog. I usually store most of my comments there.

To see how much I distorted his story see Venerable Master Lin Chi. He appears to be a SDBM kind of guy.

Hmmm, isn’t this a scene from Beverly Hills Ninja?

I have a theory about art and humor and such matters.

Humans like thought puzzles. For example, the big component of a joke is “getting it.” When we figure things out, we both feel rewarded for succeessful, but we also get stimulated in a different, more fundamentally psychological way. For example, we’ll often like a movie more if we’ve discovered it ourselves rather than when someone told us to go see it. It is instinctual. Partly, especially with humor, it is a game evolution invented for bonding and maybe testing intelligence. Partly, it makes sense that conclusions you arrive at yourself should be enhanced in importance in one’s mind. It isn’t so much because they’re more likely to be accurate. Instead, it is because evolution made it that way to encourage diversity in thinking and to encourage fresh ideas, which is very important for the “memetic health” of the group. (“memetic health” sounds like a bullshit phrase, but it just means it’s better to have many ideas, even if individually most have a lower probability of being right than some dominant idea.)

Also, there is another reason that art is usually vague and requires thinking. It is because the more vague you make something, the more ways there are of interpreting it, and the wider the audience who could potentially agree. If you say something speific, many people will disagree. If you say something very open to interpreation, people can fill in their own blanks for themselves, and you suddenly have a whole bunch of people who “agree” with you and don’t even agree with each other! And of course, in addition, all of them also feel overjoyed that they’ve “figured it out.” This reason (the plurality of meanings and appeal) is why a true artist never explains his work.

So anyway, this Zen riddle bullcrap, and all this vagueness in art, literature, etc, is dumb. Or at least, people generally like it because of the two phenomena I explained above, not because of any inherent value or message. For if they actually liked the message itself, then it could have been stated plainly and directly and would have received the same reception. But, of course, you know that’s not the way it works, especially for things like this (where the message might be an ordinary, boring, “be confindent,” or whatever).

I mean it’s fine to play games. But it is not true philosophy (although the “philosophers” of the past frustratingly often played this very game themselves).

I think the only possible response is that your form of positivism is remarkable close-minded. There is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy.

oh, on further thinking, the message of your allegory isn’t to be confindent but that asceticism/suffering is good.

ok… so why couldn’t you have stated that directly? are you afraid it’d be cliche? are you afraid people would begin to actually argue against you, with things such as that if you begin to take pleasure in asceticism you are actually defeating its very purpose? that true asceticism is depression flat-out, and what exactly is so enriching about plain depression? the feeling that ascetics get off on is that rare case where you cry or feel meloncholy but at the same time feel a profound satisfaction in having those emotions. i know that feeling. but that feeling is by definition not suffering!

State it plainly, and let’s discuss it. I am interested. I am no scholar of philosophy per se, and I think that opens my mind a bit up, but it’ll be even more opened if I have someone like you to debate. The definition in google of “positivism” is a restriction of philosophy to “scientific methods”. I can see how you would disagree, and I would disagree myself, because “scientific methods” is usually too strict a criterion for knoweldge/information. It produce ideas of the higher grade of probability, but there are many general inferences that can be made that sprout from observation, which are deduced subtly, which have a lower probability/certainty, which by no means derive from “scientific methods” (whatever romantic notion that may be), and which may be discussed. However, of course, philosophy DOES have to arise (however remotely) from observartion of the world. No, I don’t believe we can just pull things entirely from our own asses, and believe in them because they feel fuzzy and warm. Does that make me a positivist? I think it makes me a rational philosopher, as opposed to a theologist or an intellectual entertainer.

I said nothing about ascetecism or about suffering. I said that the stunted form of logical positivism you advance fails under the weight of actual experience. Life simply isn’t perfectly rational, and the universe isn’t clockwork. Verbal communication isn’t the sole ultimate arbiter of truth. Boolean logics break down, and great truths can contradict each other.

To speak specifically to Zen, you dismiss it out of hand because it doesn’t just come out and say what it is, and to do that misses the entire point from the beginning. It cannot be said, and it cannot not be said. Zen occupies an entirely different realm of discourse from rational debate.

I’m not going to explain further for a few reasons. Firstly, as I said it simply can’t be explained – to ask for an explanation is not a well-founded question. Secondly, to whatever extent it can be explained, your entire attitude is one of offense. I’m not going to fight to convince you of anything because you simply aren’t worth a fight.

As an expansion on this theme (mods, I’m sorry for veering from the topic, but someone has to say it sometime), this note about your attitude extends to every post I’ve seen of yours. You act as if you have a line on absolute truth, and disparage or dismiss everyone who disagrees with you. You call to yourself the function of judgement – of format[1] as well as of content – and this arrogance is simply noisome. If nothing else, learn this: not every question has an absolute right-or-wrong answer, and often more can be gained from coming to a common understanding rather than picking a position and holding it against all comers who disagree in the slightest.

[1] for God’s sake learn how to reply directly to a post or start quoting more thoroughly. It’s maddening in long threads to figure out who or what you’re replying to.

Just a taste from the Venerable Lin Chi web site:

“Philosophical or metaphysical questions were answered by Lin Chi with a swift blow. Students and disciples were to go out of their paradigms and habitual patterns of thinking. When Lin Chi asked a question, the response could not be based on logic, traditional teachings, and reason. The disciples could not lean on any model or pattern of thinking. Lin Chi pulled out the rug from under everyone. The ordinary models of thinking were unacceptable and there was nothing to hold on to. When students wanted to know the truth sincerely , whole-heartedly, and there would occur an abandonment of all former thinking, and the mind would open up to the direct experience of its own nature.” The emphasis is mine.

What does your “heart” tell you about the origin of “The Sound of One Hand Clapping?” Given the evidence, do you think/feel it was originally an awakening slap to knock the egotistical patterns out of the mind of Lin Chi and 900 years later presented by a man living in the tradition of Lin Chi as a puzzle to ponder till the mind disassociates from its egotistical patterns?

Operation Ripper: Are you a rip-off artist? I took your link and got hit with advertisements. Why would you go through the trouble of setting up a link like this? Do you get paid for it? I’ve only been in “computer-land” a short time but I am aware of the insidious and truly diabolical nature of some advertising. Are you one of these?
I’m under the assumption that “The Straight Dope” was from horse racing slang which meant getting your info directly “from the horse’s mouth” and not a gay term for a stupid heterosexual.

Yep! Gotcha!

Umm, okey doke.

Right, we are mostly in very good agreement. Patterns, information, probabilities, are all much more subtle.

No, the reason I dismiss Zen is because it is a game whose appeal is entirely psychological and not at all truly philosophical. Everything that Zen is about may be presented more directly. Now I also have a deep appreciation for how things must be figured out on one’s own, and hearing someone else say them both makes it more difficult to understand and more difficult to jump off from for a personal deliberation. Actually, I think most thinkers underestimate the inhibiting effect of hearing before thinking. However, posing Zen riddles doesn’t address that challenge very much. If I am teaching, I prefer the method of asking questions, making the students think about something before I’ve even gotten quarterway to explaining it, and letting them form their own opinions and worldviews such that my lessons take on the role of debates rather than explanations. Er, I’m not actually a teacher (so you can’t feel bad for my students!), but that is what I would do. And in my own thinking, I believe that the appreciation and counteraction of the aforementioned hearing-before-thinking phenomenon is (for better or worse) a source of my (ahem, go on laugh, whatever) originality.

Zen riddles are rather social games, mostly not actual tools. In particular, their fault is that their purpose is to lead someone to a predefined conclusion, not get them to arrive at conclusions themselves (as is the point of my approach). And they lead them to a predefined conclusion and make them feel that they arrived it themselves. And that is just horrible for “memetic health.” It locks people powerfully into a frame of thinking (again, because it hijacks those very powerful reward mechanisms of self-discovery without accomplishing their actual purpose of encouraging originality). Philosophically, that is usually very, very, bad. Everything that a Zen riddle tries to get at can be very well explained with words. Of course, that explanation wouln’t have that indocrination effect going for it (ie, it won’t “teach the student” as effectively), which is why you insist on the riddles themselves.

I’ll repeat myself:

Regarding your qualms with my argumentative style. I take those seriously. You’re right, my tone is usually wrong. It is forceful, and I have to figure out how to make it friendly (and no, there isn’t just a switch I can flip). You’re right, in this thread it is especially condescending but that is because I have a distaste for the style of philosophy inherent here (and I gave my arguments for why I think it is a silly game). However, by no means am I locked in my thinking. I actively seek out arguments against me, expose myself by making defeatable points, and all-in-all seek a true debate. Frankly, I’ve found that the people on this forum aren’t usually up to it. They’re not going to dissect what I’m saying point-by-point. So everything that I try to do is mostly futile, and I am just disturbing their calm without benefit to either them or me. Ugh. This is why it seems that in my speech I am so one-sided, because I expect a formidable response in return and it never arrives.

(P.S. alright, I’ll start including many more quotes. I shouldn’t just be talking to the people who made them, or expecting even those individuals to remember. The reason I avoided doing so was because it would make my posts balloon even more.)

Walking in a field of diamonds, playing with the rocks in my head!

Setting aside the question of whether or not Zen is a game, you seem to be stating that psychology and philosophy are mutually exclusive and that they are absolutely defined. I disagree with that position.

Alex_Dubinsky quotes edited by me

There is a book
of koans that contains a story which I think elucidates my perspective.

Not verbatim in the least: A student leaves his master and begins a life as an itinerant teacher. He becomes well known as a sage. His former teacher comes him and praises him for his renown. The teacher then (to borrow from pudgala2) requested his understanding of the BuddhaDharma. The student replied:
If the cloud does not hang over the mountain, the moon will penetrate the waves of the lake.
The teacher castigates the student, calling him a fool and a fraud. The student falls to his knees and begs the teacher to explain to him his understanding of the BuddhaDharma. The teacher says:
If the cloud does not hang over the mountain, the moon will penetrate the waves of the lake.
At this, the student becomes enlightened.

What does this mean? I have no idea, but my point is that the story does not have a predefined conclusion. It is paradoxical and forces the listener to find a meaning. That meaning changes over time and with experience. What aspect of this tale could be presented more directly?
I can tell my son to look both ways before crossing the street. That advice will make sense for as long as there are streets and traffic. But some insights need to be presented in a way that allows for reinterpretation and expansion.

Stories, in many traditions, are meant to bring depth to complex ideas and to act as a kind of mnemonic device helping teacher and student to remember their insights.

We know the sound of two cricket wings stridulating, but what is the sound of one cricket wing stridulating?

I’m rather partial to the story of the student who asks his master to explain (in a similarly direct manner as has been requested) the essence of Zen. The master promptly bitch-slaps him.

The in-story strike and the story itself are about as direct explanations as are possible.

More directly than what?

I think your problem with koans comes from the fact that you are not who they are intended for. Koans should really only be given to advanced Zen Students with substantial background in Zazen or other techniques. (Zen teachers have a history of refusing to teach without proof of somekind of spiritual development. When Huike wished to study with Bodhidharma he was at first refused. He then cut off his arm and presented it to the teacher as proof of readiness.) Indeed the koan is not the only, or even the most important method of Zen teaching. (In fact the koan was hardly used at all until Hakuin’s time, around 1700, and even then only in the Rinzai sect, where it provided a sort of structured program of Zen study.) In the early stages intellectual study as suggested by you above may well be used. But this will only get you so far. To use a trivial example lets take a flower. You could look at this flower, and, if you were of a certain mind you could look at its colours, and give them a label. You could look at its shape and do the same. You could compare its scent to that of something more familiar. You could eventually give it a name, so everytime you see it you could say “ah there’s ‘flower x’”. But none of these would help you experience the flower directly. Indeed, this might allow you to describe this flower to a friend, but your experience will be different to your friend’s. He may be colour blind, or anosmic, or just have a totally different “worldview”, thus sees the flower in different terms. The point of Zen, if Zen can be said to have a point, is to see the world, and indeed oneself, not in an intellectual, analytical way, but in terms of one’s own direct experience. The koan is merely a stepping stone on this path.

I am a teacher, but I know only a little about Zen. In both methods, isn’t it the process that is most important?

Alex, some of us, in forming our own “opinions and worldviews,” have come to conclusions different from yours. Certainly, I am your intellectual and analytical inferior. I probably have the advantage of time, perspective and experience. Debating the value of koans as a teaching method makes about as much sense as negotiating a romantic interlude.

pudgala2, thanks for the thread. I will check out your blog. Welcome to the SDMB. I hope that you hang around.

Well, alright, we can define the world “philosophy” any way we’d like, as soon as we know what each person’s definition is. When I give meaning to words, I do not mean that is the meaning everyone should have for it. This is why I hate when people hit me back with arguments from definitions. Rather, I am trying to communicate a point. When I say koans aren’t philosophy, I am not concerned that… Ok, alright, I see what you mean. I think most people understood that I had in mind a certain definition of philosophy (and if anything, they thought it more extreme than by far it was), but my wording also made a false value judgement regarding koans that implies koans aren’t any philosophy. I used one definition to construct the sentence, and gave an emotional message that implied another definition was employed. I don’t know if people still undertand what I’m talking about, but… ok, what I mean to say was that koans aren’t any rational philosophy (but not just that they aren’t positivist, or “scientific,” philosophy). I don’t know, I also feel that any philosophy that isn’t rational philosophy isn’t even worth (or susceptible of) talking about. Which, as I understand it, is actually exactly what Zen is about! Ok, ok, maybe we’re on the same page now. Now let me argue against what Zen is about. (one step forward, two steps back, you must be thinking.) (PS, i agree that phsychology and philosophy are in essence the same. I was saying that koans have appeal that is merely psychological.)

Hum. Which means anyone can think whatever they want, and be right about it in a personal way, and to talk to anyone else about it would be pointless? (I mean I would still say that if you were to write volumes of books you could describe to a blind man, in boring detail, all the properties of vision. He may be left uninspired, but he’d have a good idea of what to expect if he ever got an artificial retina. I don’t think even the subjective things are incommunicable, since we do at least have some things in common. This is what philosophy/discussion is about… communicating, and comparing, our worldviews despite the immense difficulty of doing so. But anyway…)

ok, ok, makes some sense (i guess it would make more sense if i understood it better), in that the world IS subjective and there ARE many ways of understanding it, and GOD do I hate absolutism. However, I can take this in two directions. First, the more immediate: If there is no “truth”, and everything is personal or subjective, then why do these Zen masters think they “know” something profound and absolute? I mean I’ll bet they would firmly dissagree with that statement. But surely, in reality, Zen represents some sort of opinion or philosophy. It has some properties to it, some ideas. So isn’t that a contradiction? It’s what I was saying before, that the koan is supposed to open your mind to all these possibilities, but I think in practice all it does is close it to many others (closes it, for example, to pursue alternate philosophies such as science or other things concrete and tangible. I KNOW I KNOW Zen is not incompatible with science. But no Zen master in hell would’ve started on the path to it himself. Zen DOES push a way of seeing/understanding the world, and it is hypocritical when it claims that it does the very opposite.)

actually, forget the second. let’s just talk about the above. (and remember all the things I was saying about the subtlety of ideas… that a concept may directly say “let your mind open,” but in its subtle dynamics and physics it may actually embody something else).

or actually, here’s the second thing. I’ll requote myself from above:

Zen is just about giving up!

It’s wonderful that you’ve formed your own worldviews! I would find it immensely boring (and utterly unconstructive) if everyone agreed. But I don’t understand why we can’t debate the value of koans as teaching methods. Either they’re debatable teaching methods or toys. You even compare them to romantic inteludes, to art. Are you agreeing with me?
P.S. I am tremendously fascinated. Please excuse my ignorance, but like I said above MY method of learning is to be presumptious and second-guess the teacher before he even finishes speaking. It must be immensely irritating to have such an unbehaved student, but I believe it fosters originality (as long as I keep listening as well). And a teacher should never want a student to come away with the same understanding as his!

You could describe sight to a blind man but unless you managed to do it using things he was familiar with, maybe in terms of touch, or sound, it would mean nothing to the blind man. How would you describe green? Would you describe it in physical terms, in terms of wavelength? I would say that describing colour to a blind man is not just uninspiring but totally meaningless. If I draw a series of lines on a piece of paper I can get them to look like a conventional representation of a cube. I could show this drawing to you you will recognise it as a cube. But if I show this to someone who has never seen a perspective drawing to them it will just be a series of lines. Now, of course, this is where philosophy helps us. It gives us conventions which allow us to communicate. But using these conventions tends to make us forget how to experience things directly, non-analytically. Most people try to describe their experiences in terms of other things, even when they are just thinking to themselves. This is just like drawing lines on a peice of paper to represent a cube. You recognise what i represents but it is not the experience itself.

Now I can agree to an extent that modern Zen, especially as is practised by the Rinzai sect, is often taught so as to produce a desired result. This was not the orignal intention but this is often what happens when any sort of spiritual or intellectual practice becomes settled. I would contend that there has been no truly original western philosopher in at least 300 years, with the posiible exception of Nietzsche.

As someone who has taught various subjects (mainly maths, physics and music) in the past I think I would find it tremendously hard to teach you. I like students who ask questions but students who second guess me often end up making more problems for themselves than if they’d just listened a bit longer. This may have something to do with the way I teach. I tend to take students on something of an intellectual journey, which may go very far away from the point I will eventually make before arriving. The point, as Zoe said, is the process. If you just give a student the answer the will never gain any real insight into the subject. Note that this is not quite the same as letting a student teach himself. Some students are developed enough to be able to teach themselves, but most are not, and so need some method of reaching the conclusion you want them to reach. This is very much like the early and intermediate stages of Zen teaching, with the Koan being a used in the intermediate stages. The koan does not give you the answer directly but there is at least a conclusion to be made, albeit a personal, subjective one. However to go beyond the koan one must forget about conclusions, representations, analogies and all the other nonsense we use to try to understand the world, and instead see the world as it truly is. This is a very different concept to western philosophy, whose entire purpose is to create analogies, representations and explanations.

Why do you think I said I wasn’t going to try to explain it to him? He’s simply too jumpy to truly contemplate anything. He places rational discourse axiomatically at the top of the hill and automatically knocks everything else down. He’s just not going to learn – for now.

So hoiw does Zen relive suffering? Is direct experience a way to realize how trivial life’s problems really are? Or is getting slapped in the face enough for you to forget your mindstate that causes the suffering?