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Listen, to the sound of one hand clapping




In Japanese Zen Buddhism, a verbal puzzle known as a “koan” is often used to frustrate the process of logical thought to encourage the student to look beyond the boundaries, or limitations, of their own thinking.

In doing so the student is encouraged to reach higher levels of self-awareness and thereby increase their understanding of their role in this world.

Now as much as a Zen master might cringe at my oversimplification of this concept, let’s look at the following literal translation of a classic koan and think for a moment what this can show us about human disagreements:

“When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”

If we consider this simple text in the context of an argument between two people, the first half is easy to interpret – two people “butting heads” are the two hands coming together to make a sound.

Robin Trimingham suggests we all listen to the sound of one hand clapping

But what about the one hand clapping?

On the surface, it pushes air but makes no sound; end of discussion.

Or is it?

If the Zen master insists that there is in fact a sound and that you the student must describe it, how will you respond?

And, if there actually is a sound, how can you hear it?

Close your eyes and visualise this for a minute. What possibilities do you see?

If all you apply is logic and you are very clever, eventually you may realise that one hand can in fact make a sound if you use it to pat yourself on the back.

But in the context of this discussion, will patting yourself on the back ever help you solve a disagreement and, more importantly, is this the answer that the Zen master is seeking?

What if I told you that it is not?

What would you do then?

Would you give up?

Would you scoff in frustration and turn the page?

Or would you settle down in a quiet place and attempt to hear that which you have refused to hear before?

And if you did choose this last and somewhat unlikely course of action, what do you suppose would happen next?

Would you hear nothing?

Perhaps at first, but what would happen if you continued to sit?

Would you hear the hum of your refrigerator, or the bird in the street, or the neighbour on his porch?


And if you eventually ran out of external sounds to identify and finally looked beyond the noises that they make – what then would you hear?

Would you hear yourself as others hear you and see the solution to the disagreement, or would you merely hear the sound of your ego buzzing in your ear as you endlessly swatted the air?

Which begs the question … in any disagreement what do you actually react to more, the voice of your opponent or the one in your head?

Robin Trimingham is the chief operating officer of The Olderhood Group Ltd and a virtual presenter, journalist, podcaster and thought leader in the fields of life transition and change management. Connect with Robin at ··· or




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Published October 13, 2020 at 8:58 am (Updated October 13, 2020 at 2:58 pm)

Listen, to the sound of one hand clapping

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