What is the sound of one hand clapping?
In Zen Buddhism, such seemingly nonsensical questions are known as koans, and are given to students to focus on. The intent is to bypass the everyday, rational mind, and access that state of mind that is directly aligned with reality – that which is.
According to Zen, there is nothing to teach, nowhere to go, nothing to do when one has perceived reality, a realisation referred to as satori. We do most things in a shallow state of mind, jumping from one thought to another like a monkey leaps from one branch to another. ‘Monkey mind’ is an apt metaphor to qualify it, and has been used often in spiritual literature. As long as the mind is jumpy, it will be unable to settle down and reach the depth it needs to find in order to experience the ‘isness’ or ‘suchness’ of the true nature of reality.
This monkey mind is handed a koan to puzzle about and tease at, which it does almost like a dog with a bone. It chews on the koan, never quite unlocking its hidden marrow. This exercise of grappling with something so completely illogical that it defies any answer that can be arrived at by conventional logic wears down the everyday mind. The kind of thinking it normally employs and takes for granted no longer works. Gradually and with sustained contemplation on the koan, the mind begins to ripen for a sudden realisation of reality – satori.
The koan unravels more than it reveals. In most spiritual traditions, a question is a tool of knowing, which the student employs to clarify doubts and figure out the path and practice that lies ahead. When a question is asked of a master, it is with the anticipation of an appropriate answer that will help the student’s inner growth.
The koan reverses and upends this traditional model of the student-teacher dialogue. It is the master who presents the student with the challenge of the koan, with the expectation that it be contemplated with complete focus and awareness, and which will in time lead to a radical break from the everyday quality of mind for the student. So, through unravelling the mind’s unthinking dependence on conventional and conformist modes of thinking, a direct apperception of reality is made possible.
Koans are questions without any right or wrong answers. The Zen master gauges the student’s progress, or the lack of it, from the way the same koan is answered each time it is asked. The correct answer, if you can call it that, is the one that emerges from a direct experience of the nature of reality. And since reality is ever-changing, the answer can also vary from one time to another, provided it remains attuned to the reality of that moment.