Clap Your Hand: The Zen Koan Hoax

by Robert Lewis (March 2022)

When in my early 20s – code for young and foolish – it was very trendy to take an interest in Zen Buddhism. Both the mercurial curious and blinkered zealous were lured by the promise of enlightenment (satori) — being at one with the universe.

Among the doctrinal methods and means employed to achieve enlightenment, the Zen Koans held a particular fascination, since the answering of them, especially the difficult ones, promised instant enlightenment — not to be confused with instant Karma.

Of the 1,700 Koans, the most difficult and most widely known is “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Despite my one-and-twenty status and hard-wired idealism, it struck me as incredible that answering a single question correctly could result in enlightenment. If I was ever tempted to dedicate my life to Zen in hot pursuit of satori (bra size 36), that corny question and its outrageous promise quickly disabused me of all things Zen: such as, “for the arrow to hit the target,” Zen master says to bewildered student, “become the arrow.” That dollop of wisdom put an end to both my archery career and the hospitalized instructor for whom there was no n-arrow escaping. And in consideration of my then rabid hormone count, hitting the target (any vagina) by becoming my penis turned out to be a meditation in futility. In point of fact, until I turned 30 I was never anything but my penis.

Notwithstanding major objections from friends and the unpremeditated wrath from the meditation crowd, I regarded the Koan and the society it engendered as a ploy of the con-man, and its misfit-devotees the raw material cults prey on. That on Monday, I’m a nostril excavating, cannabis wrecked hippie devoted to the path of least resistance, and the next day an enlightened Buddha, registered as incredible as Corpus Christi rising from the dead. On top of which I had come to know several enlightenment chasers whose motives were highly suspect on the way to their tryst with satori: one took to the ashram circuit for free room and board and to prey on vulnerable women. Closer to home, Montreal, one master required unconditional surrender from students who were obliged to turn over their entire weekly salaries while the female contingent were repurposed as sex slaves. Other masters were outright sado-masochists, obliging their disciples to submit to (in order to transcend) extreme physical pain: whipping and caning.

I quickly came to regard the Zen enterprise as nothing more than an excuse for the smart and strong to exploit and abuse the dumb and the weak, and the widespread practice of ‘oming” as merely the means to the end of securing a consenting master-slave relationship.


Om is a mystic syllable that is repeated (as in a mantra) by someone who is meditating = oming. An omer (not to be confused with Homer) is one who oms.

A serious omer aspires to the state of satori, or enlightenment, or higher being, or Zen’s no-mind, or oneness with the universe. Whatever we might say about omers, they are not lacking in ambition — of a different (metaphysical) sort.

As for the promise of transcending duality via oming, I offer the following contrarian view.

Om is a vegetative state raised to the highest eminence, om is lobotomy, om is non-being, om is anti-being, om is dereliction, om is abdication, om is inauthentic, om is dumbness, om is rap, om is Indian drone, om is minimalism, om is drug addiction, om is sports addiction, om is games addiction, om is danger addiction . . .om is any activity that (by design) keeps you imprisoned in the present where there is no past, no future, no self-consciousness, no judgment. Omers are cowards and like Nietzsche’s Christians and priests, they are the antithesis of life, of the will to power. Om is pure cop-out, and the gurus and Zen masters are the great escape artists.  Taking liberties with the Beatles lyric, yes indeed “living is easy with eyes closed oming all you see.” When an evolved omer claims his eyes are wide open but he sees nothing because he is not separate from the world, he has willed himself to occupy the lowest rung on the chain of being, which is a mere syllable away from non-being. Behind every om ever uttered lurks a closet suicide looking to out himself on the end of threadbare hope.

Why would anyone who doesn’t harbour a death wish want to transcend duality? I love duality. I love -25 Celsius because it enables me to appreciate +25. If there were always and only 25 Celsius, the very concept of temperature would disappear, along with the four seasons. Viewed from afar, all human endeavour — doctrinally frowned upon by the oming fraternity — implicitly aims at cultivating an appreciation of duality: we work hard to play hard, we travel far to better appreciate what is near.

The difference between metaphysics and the philosophy of oming is that the former encourages us to dwell in the sacred nexus between being and nothingness while the latter is a death wish.

And if I grant that my somewhat jaundiced view of Zen and beggar-cup carrying saffron-robed monks hasn’t changed since those heady days of my youth, I have to confess that I have never been able to totally disentangle myself from Zen doctrine, in particular the Koan that asks: what is the sound of one hand clapping?


A Koan is a puzzle, or riddle, or paradox Zen masters employ to help initiates unravel the great truths about themselves and the world. They are encouraged to “abandon ultimate dependence on reason” which facilitates sudden intuitive enlightenment. The Zen master knows the meaning of all the Koans because he is enlightened.

Of the 1,700 Koans, “what is the sound of one hand clapping” is regarded as the most difficult, and when answered, it results in enlightenment. To wit:

Master Hakuin (1686-1769) attained satori (enlightenment) with the answer “I have heard sound without sound!”

Washing his master’s feet with one hand resulted in enlightenment for Wang Xiang in the early 19th century.

A student allegedly thrust out his one hand and attained enlightenment (became a Buddha).

Since there is no single answer to a Koan, each student will find his way to the answer according to his nature and the unique circumstances of his life.

And that is where I begin, with the here and now, and this small essay, whose sole mandate is to revisit, without pride and prejudice, the one-hand-clapping Koan with one goal in mind: to exorcise my remaining Zen demons. As for transcending duality, that is a non-starter or the unique dispensation of all non-living matter, vegetable and non-sentient life.

My method will be straight forward: with one arm pry open the question, that is rip it out of its mystical underpinnings and expose its bogus indices and outright silliness (measured by frittered away time).

To the question at hand, the obvious first answer is that one hand can’t clap, that is make a sound, but since that response doesn’t result in satori, we have to grant the question its specific gravity, which means the student must address the key word in the question, which is sound, or the absence of sound, which is a duality that has to be transcended. In my circumstance, since there is no short answer to the Koan, the question suggests a method, or process or gradual unveiling which might require a lifetime before it yields its fruits. Again, it depends on the person. Einstein reports that he understood relativity in a flash; for most everyone else, a lifetime isn’t time enough. If the proper measure of a good question is its ability to endure over time, the hand-clapping Koan deserves top ranking since it hasn’t disappeared into oblivion.

Another possible answer is that there is no answer, which could very well be the correct answer especially (presumptively) since there is no such thing as enlightenment or higher being or being at one with the universe. Master T. S. Eliot concluded: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”

Concerning dedicated students who have sacrificed their selfhood to a ‘presumed’ higher being, to finally recognize that the Koan is an exercise in futility, or someone’s sorry pretext to exercise absolute command and control, must surely constitute an epiphany of sorts. While Zen initiates sign up of their own free will, once enrolled they are anything but free: body and soul belong to the institution, its masters, directors and financial planners.

Another possible approach to the question is through the method outlined in Martin Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking? Since one hand clapping cannot yield an actual sound, silence becomes the necessary condition for thinking to assert itself and ask what in life asks most to be thought about – which of course will result in the immediate dismissal of the clapping Koan and others like it (Where is the pulse located in a petrified tree?).

How long can a thinking person defend the one-hand-clapping proposition against philosophy’s timeless queries: Why is there something instead of nothing? What constitutes a meaningful life?  Is there a God?

Perhaps the key to objectively determining the appropriate status of the question, that is situating it taxonomically in relation to all other questions, is to “reculer pour mieux sauter” (step back in order to better advance), or to examine and interrogate the Koan from outside the box.

With this long view in mind, what can we say about the question and its world? After all, the question didn’t arise in a vacuum, and has been around for more than 300 years, which speaks more to the kind of species we are than the question proper. From time immemorial man has shown himself to be incurably vulnerable to almost any idea — no matter how far-fetched (aggrieved party avenges wrong by sticking pin into doll).

We know that someone, presumably a Zen master, is asking the question. We also assume that since he is asking the question, he knows the answer even though the answer will be unlike his own. Secondly, the question is being directed to someone or a group. Today, 300 years later, with the aid of satellite and fibre optic communication technology, the question is now being asked simultaneously everywhere, addressing anyone who encounters it. At a very basic level, the question implies a relationship between the one posing the question and those endeavouring to answer it.

The question implicates a teacher-student relationship, or bond, or nexus, which wouldn’t exist if one or the other didn’t participate. In other words, prior to the content of any Koan, ‘the other’ is implied. Without the other there is no world, which speaks to the rationale or telos activating the question whose first purpose is to serve as a bonding mechanism that allows for the exchange of ideas. That there must be ‘the other’ is the non-negotiable, the sine qua non of the human condition, and the Zen Koan is one of the many means employed to satisfy that set-in-stone desideratum. And whether he is cognizant of it or not, the student engages the question in order to satisfy the primordial need to be in community with others. The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty, from “Man and Adversity,” observes how words “suddenly swell with meaning which overflows into the other person when the act of speaking binds them up into a single whole.” And from that same extraordinary 1951 essay, he writes: “Sometimes one starts to dream about what culture, literary life, and teaching could be if all those who participate would give themselves up to the happiness of reflecting together.” To finally seize upon that insight and its philosophical implications is to invest a previously dark area with radiant light.

So we again ask:  “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The short and long is:  You and I, or existentially (ontologically) being-in-the-world-with-others.



Master Lewis wishes to announce that he is now accepting students for meditation classes. Prior to arrival, all initiates will be required to visit the Lewis Enlightenment Foundation for the orderly disburdening of all material entanglements.


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Robert Lewis was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He has been published in The Spectator. He is also a guitarist who composes in the Alt-Classical style. You can listen here.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


10 Responses

  1. This would be better if he didn’t keep confusing ‘incredulous’ for ‘incredible’. Are there no editors?

  2. The essayist’s smarmy, snarky display of ignorance and insult is a fine measure of mental incompetence. This is meant as no denigration of his fundamental dumbness, rather applause for him being an excellent example of a poor Zen student.
    A few examples are noted below, as above on the ceiling I am struggling to counteract the rising of my gorge.
    A. Had RL stayed the course he would have realized that following realizing there was no ‘he’ to be realizing Oneness with the universe, that there was no universe with which to be realized with. What That is, is inexpressible. Get it?
    B. Your penis focus would result in solution given time enough in a rehabilitative penal colony.
    C. The good examples of bad, fraudulent Montreal Masters you refer to are analogous to comparing quicksand to a lighthouse for life-saving potential.
    D. Transmuting punnily OM to its ‘universal’ implication and intent points to its ultimate as the center of Truth as hOMe. Sadhana, properly or improperly pursued will get you there; there being what you never really left except for your misdirected thinking. Your thoughts, composing your mind, will eventually be left behind as soon as you extract your head therefrom. Practice makes excellence perfect. Do it, don’t rue it!

    1. Mr. Howard. I think you are overrating the intent of the article. The author never aspired to, never pretended to become a Zen student; and he explained why. So he isn’t guilty about writing about something of which he knows nothing: he acknowledges it. But you would agree that his ignorance of everything Zen does not excuse the many charlatans and hoaxsters that prey on the naive and innocent?

  3. By the whey, if I may milk this this subject of , “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” the answer is obvious to the practitioner — the sound is a soft slapping sound as fingertips slap/impact the quickly closing hand. Almost like the sound of surf gently breaking.
    Of course, fools and innocent ignoranti, miss the obvious need to test this thesis, preferring to keep their heads pillowed in feces. This last preceding sentence was meant to end with a full colon.

  4. I’m afraid this has nothing to do with Zen at all so it’s difficult to know where to begin. But the writer should know that the sound of one hand is not an advanced or “difficult” koan. It’s one of three (the others being mu and original face) traditionally given to beginners. More importantly, koans were never intended to be worked on without a teacher of Zen master rank. To do so would be like trying to learn a foreign language alone without a textbook or dictionary. You’d end up with a “Greek” or “Russian” that had nothing to do with the real thing. That is the basic problem with this article which is merely the author’s confused speculation.

  5. Why not read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shinryu Suzuki, then follow up with The Myth of Freedom by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche?

    “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news; shaky ground a good place to find ourselves.”

  6. Thanks for your article, Robert Lewis. Because the subject is so important I’m gonna take the time to respond to you. If I sound confident, please don’t take it as pushy or stubborn; it’s just that I have an immense amount of experience in this subject, and when I say experience, I don’t mean just reading but practicing.

    A person hasn’t practised this or penetrated it. It’s very hard to see the mirror in it because it’s an experiential thing covers wisdom that blew wide open the narrow categories and concepts that most of us are thinking in, including highly, regarded intellectuals in the western world and so-called uncle leaders. They were playing in a kindergarten compared to what I’m talking about.

    And when I say “talking about“ I only deliver it in brief simple ways, because that is the way I was taught in Zen, and that is the most effective way to avoid getting bogged down in argumentative and puffed up intellectualization of things that are actually nature that is better than tit for tat or cleverness.

    It sounds like you are not aware of all of what makes up a living being and since you’ve been dwelling only in the realm of the intellect, that’s not surprising.

    There is a part of all living beings, especially humans, that is pure consciousness and it is more than 99% of us.

    The reason for spending periods that are not immersed in intellect is to be able to see this because the intellect just doesn’t get it. It is a non-linear non-conceptual thing and it is what animates all things. It is the actual source of things such as what we call love, inspiration, creativity, balance, and so on.

    But we experienced them only dully, like a facsimile. This is because most of us have not uncovered this thing I’m talking about, so we go around relating to each other, more or less conceptually with an idea of something that we aren’t fully experiencing. What accord refers to has not been fully present in the “”.

    When the Intellectual mind experiences things they are merely names and tags and a mild feeling if any feeling at all. They are pale representations of what the source is really offering, and of what human experience is capable of.

    This part of mind that experiences fully and directly is both personal and transpersonal. The biggest part of us sits in the background, beyond subconscious mind – beyond what we even call “mind.”

    And this special part of each of us, a non-conceptual presence beyond our “mind” is fully connected to a transpersonal Consciousness that is also fully present, immeasurably present, and is also non-– conceptual in nature.

    If one is able to unwind enough to feel and notice this they may have access to the universal mind which can provide immense wisdom in milliseconds.

    This can stay with a person forever, so they refer to it from time to time when exploring exploring things on a feeling, inspirational or conceptual level.

    This is why great superteachers such as Einstein and Jesus just flow, and know things about all subjects not just ones they have “studied.“

    They create the concepts, and the often brief descriptions that the rest of mankind tries to unpack with lengthy analysis but can barely keep up with – still studying, and trying to understand things that were out thousands of years ago.

    And academics try to go over and over with their thinking minds to get a grasp of it. Why? Because they haven’t either 1. Been lucky enough to have spontaneously, tapped into the full open, heart wisdom of the universe, which often happens because of meditating extensively in prior lifetimes, or some kind of divine intervention, or something we don’t understand), or because they haven’t learned how to meditate, haven’t learned how to surrender and non-conceptually experience, the richness that we are in.

    You may have read descriptions by highly evolved beings, much more evolved than “expert” professionals, academics and scientists . . . .pople such as Buddha, Madhva, Vishusvami, Arjuna, and thousands of others – talk about the “indescribable.“

    Or you may have seen mantras “downloaded” by immensely evolved people/special beings like Avalokiteshvara (Om Mane Padme Hum). And many others that come from this higher state, such as “Mei via“ and the Gayatri mantra, describe the whole thing right there chanting the mantras and doing the practises could not understand what it is because it’s not really understanding, it’s something deeper.

    You mentioned animals being emptied out of that ending up like an animal. Many ways animals are operating on the level, much higher than humans in certain aspects because of that lack of intellectual. But humans have the potential to have things going on. The intellect alone will not be enough to review the other parts of it.

    So wise truths, telling us about the “indescribable“ – they are saying that it is nonconceptual, and you have to go there to get it. This fact, so to speak is not something that is merely exposed by part -time yoga teachers in the suburbs, but this special gift of truth is coming from special people, they may even be avatars.

    Immensely loving and aware humans that ever entitles, such as “three“ and other honorifics, by those who around them could feel their immense power. I already mentioned Jesus and Buddha, but also people such as Patanjali, Nagarjuna, Adi Shankara, more recently Ramana Maharishi, Chogyam Trungpa and so many more . . . Super achievers totally off the scale beyond beyond beyond. Super hearts you can say not just super minds. They’re all telling us this thing about going beyond thinking. It is the basis of Zen, for example, and Sufism.

    Only adult and prejudice mind would say “yes but that’s JUST religion.“ I mean, that is kind of crazy. These were the highest ideas for many thousands of years before we even had things like schools and academia. And they’re still going strong because they involve five layers of learning, including actual practice, practice to shine up the mind and get out of the thought patterns, and also the practice of devotion, or giving over oneself to whatever they can find out there that is deep in all of us.

    These are people from whom entire religions have been formed, people who have written highly tested commentaries on the vast canons of expression of what was found in this way. Going back 7000 or more years and studied practised and added to by people who who are beyond geniuses over and over again.

    Besides wise and compassionate and Uber insightful on a feeling level, these kinds of “people” ALSO have a deeply developed intellect. The are the rare individuals whom the highest academics try to study to try understand their ideas as a source for their own derivative work.

    These people all agree that the conceptual mind can hardly penetrate “capital T” Truth, and that one must abandon it to find another part of ourselves to get there.

    This is spoken of for example in “Heart Sutra“ which is an extraction from the 25,000 lines of a larger document.

    I will be interested to see what you think if you tried to read the Heart Sutra. It isn’t very long and it may sound like gibberish to you.

    Traditions in China, India, and all around the world use it as a practice and try and read it without expression in a monotone voice and consistent, metered, rhythmic way of speaking repeated usually at least three times in a session to perhaps have a chance at downloading the wisdom of its meaning. I chanted it in temples in Chinese language, Japanese, Sanskrit, English, and study many many languages. Regardless of the very different syllabic gate of these translations, trying to say the same thing, it is become a practising culture to do it in that moral specific way, which takes quite some adjustment to get to that seamless all around the world in all the many different types of temper of these different kinds of religions. And why did they go to the struggle? Because there is a download that reveals the actual truth of it, even though it may look like gibberish in the beginning.

    This is not the same as brainwashing yourself by repeating something; it’s a whole different type of practice in that. It’s hard to explain, unless you understand the whole philosophy and practice of it and things like it. Which happened to be most of what is going on in the world. Billions of people in that mindset compared to the few hundred million around North America who are basically sitting with their head up their ass, by comparison. The intellectual has up to intellectual asses. Their ego has up their ego asses. Their chemically contaminated up there chemically contaminated asses. Their body-disconnected heads up their body-disconnected asses. So disconnected from Body ANB consciousness that they don’t even know their heads are up their asses. This is the state of things in the world of people trying to use their minds without knowing about the rest of it, and their lack of humility and awareness is the key problem with the entire Human race on this planet.

    This mindset has been exported, promoted glamorized, bribed, bullied, and thrust onto all the rest of the world, which may not have been inclined to go in that direction if it were not for the British and the US of A, who just wouldn’t let up, and wanted to stamp out every other form of understanding, and replace it with the materialist/shallow way, which thinks the human organism is something like an automobile with some moving parts and fuel that keeps it going – an inanimate object more or less with some biochemical snap is happening, but it’s all basically I’m mechanical situation, not connected too much of anything else.

    But the Heart Sūtra – practiced studied, broken down, 1000 encyclopedia written about what it means, and what it is by people who have practised it, and just play academics, who’ve tried to study it – is basically indicating that just about everything we believe and assume and think are things we need to get beyond. So, stop thinking to go beyond conceptual mind and find this other mind I spoke of.

    Brahma – Atma, do you mind and the individual mind “mind“ means presence. The mine is just a thing that the brain does in the same way that smells like just a thing that the nose does. But this thing that is just present it is the only thing that is self arising And this is why it is the source of everything else including the human being who is walking around like a blind child not even aware of it.

    That kind of analogy is also very common coming from the hundreds of thousands are perhaps millions of wise once you have crossed over this line of Awareness.

    This is such an important thing. It turns many of them into machines trying to form religions to get people to understand it. They do their best but many are unable to hear them, other than those to get down and do a bit of practice, surrender a little bit and find out about it. These people always discover the truth in it.

    I’ve never for example heard someone say they had a meditation session today, and it was a waste of their time lol!

    They may say “I wasn’t able to relax enough to get into it.“ That is a different issue. Not having the discipline or the surrender or being able to make the space, that is fully understandable.

    But to say that meditation itself is a waste of time would only come from a person who has never really done it.

    The benefits are many fold. Some people may don’t have any particularly “mystical“ experiences, or see heaven, or anything, but even for those people, there will be clarifications, increased wisdom, and in increased compassion, and improved breath that will serve them for the rest of their years, a sense of posture as once I was up like an upright individual, and so much more.

    The last few lines of that Heaet Sutra can be translated to mean “beyond, go beyond, go beyond beyond, and there it is.”

    This is one of millions of documents that try to use language to convey something that actually language cannot describe, but they try and recommend a way to get to it.

    History of various eastern cultures has been batting around all this stuff for a heck of a lot longer and by 1000 times more people than the narrow western centric tiny list of “philosophers“ who have barely scratched the surface of this issue, and think that “I think therefore I am“ to large extent.

    Certainly some of the western philosophers have touched on parts of what I’m speaking of but for the most part this is not understood because it has not been experienced.

    This was Buddha’s and many others’ teaching – that you have to go through some practises the use mind to go beyond mind.

    These practices are not trying to pull you into any particular culture or dogma but to strip that away and enquire to see what you find; find out what you are made of at the raw level.

    This is not the same thing as an animal consciousness, although it includes some parts of animal consciousness, or rather animal awareness, that is missing from those who have an overactive intellect.

    I can name one other large document by way of example. Something that is likely not touched by mainstream western academics because they don’t really know about this stuff. Or don’t respect that these cultures could have something of that they haven’t already thought of.

    So, here is one example (of hundreds of thousands) of a text that tries to deal with this subject in an organized and detailed manner: Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (The Sūtra of Transcendental Wisdom in Twenty-five Thousand Lines).

    In a related commentary, the title has been reconstructed into Sanskrit as Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa.

    I believe it was written in the 1500s and it is a commentary on things that were written thousands of years before. The canon on this subject is vast – like a million Bibles, and spends very many cultures and religions and philosophies, although it attempts to go beyond philosophy into direct experience.

    The style of much of this writing is not religious, dogma, or lighthearted musings of a person that is uninformed and dreamy/projecting.

    These are hard hitting heavy duty, groundbreaking, discoveries about nature, the universe, consciousness, and how it all fits together, written by people, who, although are highly intelligent, are of direct experience, actually practising what is known as “insight meditation” and doing the related practises of keeping body clean, observing certain ethical practises and salon, in order to evolve to awareness of subtle things, under. ith each other, and especially to those of us who are not experienced it, to try and make the world a better place and I just place that is the evolving.

    Wisdom is said by these masters, to be comprised of “equal parts, insight and compassion.“

    I don’t hear this kind of smart talk coming from those who poo poo on meditation and are limited to mostly just thinking.

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