If you recognise that question you could be into Zen philosophy. Or you could, like me, have heard it asked in Van Morrison’s song, Enlightenment.
In fact the question is derived from a Zen ‘koan’ – a concept described by Encyclopedia Britannica online, thus:
‘… a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation discipline for novices … The effort to “solve” a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level.’
So, set aside your analytical skills and your egotistical will and think about that question. I’ll come back to it later.
First, though, I ought to tell you why I was pondering it this weekend.
On Saturday, a cold, drab winter’s day I spent two hours standing around on Victorian cobbles outside a huge neo-classical building. I was in Liverpool, in the company of my husband, my friend Heather and hundreds of peaceable strangers, women, men, children, babies – and dogs.
I was part of something wonderful. And by the time I left I’d made a new friend.
This is how the organiser, Kirsty, billed the event:
“On Saturday, January 21, 2017, millions will gather in Washington, D.C. and in hundreds of cities around the world. Here in Liverpool, we will stand together in solidarity with those women, and with partners, families and friends of all genders, to remind the US administration, our local leaders, and the world that the majority of us stand for and will defend human rights.
The city of Liverpool, the UK and Europe are closely connected to the US in so many ways. What happens there affects us all.
This is a peaceful rally – not a march – to show that we will not accept intolerance or injustice in Liverpool or anywhere else”
It was one o-clock when the first speaker piped up, using a not-quite-worse-than-useless megaphone.
We kept quiet – and listened hard.
Across the Atlantic, in that land where so many ships arrived that had set sail from Liverpool, the Women’s March in Washington was setting off.
A minute’s clapping was our tribute.
My two hands clapping made a muted, thudding kind of noise, thanks to the sheepskin mittens. But, together, our hundreds of pairs of two hands clapping made a sound like a monsoonal downpour of rain, falling on a hard, flat surface.
Augmented by whoops and hoorahs, we sent out our signal of transatlantic solidarity. They may not have heard it in DC, but it was there, somewhere, in the air.
And there were placards. Not the usual identikit printouts, but creative, personal statements. Some distinctively local:
Liverpool’s event, ours, was just one of the many amazing outpourings of people, placards and soft toys onto the streets – or not streets in the case of the Antarctic gathering – of the world.
And a lot has been said, since then, about the extraordinary phenomenon. Some of it very sniffy.
Who are these feminists, daring to question the results of a legitimate, democratic election?
Where have they been all these years while Rome burned (that’s metaphorical, they mostly mention bombings, human rights abuses and such like).
And some rejoice in the harmonious outpouring of peaceful – what?
Certainly for many it was. But it was both more and less than that.
‘Pussy grabbing’ was by no means the whole story, but it certainly fired the imaginations of women – and men – world wide. Such a crass, dirty, sleazy thing to say.
And there were plenty of pussies around on Saturday. Women and girls – to use another term. Warmly dressed. Cheerful. Tolerant (that megaphone).
We all felt good. Heartwarmed. Reassured.
We weren’t shouting, throwing missiles or tearing up the old cobbles.
We were clapping.
And over a good brew of hot strong tea, later that day, it came to me. That question.
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
I’d always assumed I knew the answer. That it was silence.
But as we all know, one should never assume.
And now Van Morrison was stuck in my head. I had to track down that old cassette. Get the tape deck working.
As I listened, to Enlightenment, I knew I had to find out more.
And so I delved into that tombola of strangenesses, the search engine.
My prize was a Hawaiian website devoted to ‘Huna’. Which, apparently, is a Hawaiian word meaning ‘secret’ which also alludes to the ‘esoteric wisdom of Polynesia’.
The author of a post on that site, Serge Kahili King,* suggests an answer to the riddle.
The sound of one hand clapping is, he posits, the same as that of two hands clapping. One hand doesn’t need the other to move in order to make the sound.
Then, he applies that principle to human relationships:
‘…everything is in a relationship to everything else … if you change one side of a relationship you change both sides … We don’t have to wait for both sides of a relationship to participate before bringing about beneficial change. Change one side of that relationship and the other side has to change because the relationship has changed.’
Hug and smile a lot (I’m summarising wildly) and you’ll find other people hugging and smiling more. Try and see qualities you like in people you dislike, it will begin to change how you interact with them and perhaps influence how they behave and:
‘… the more your persuasion is based on a benefit to the other person, the more successful it is likely to be.’
Then he takes it much, much further:
‘In a strained global relationship, assuming our theory is valid … we might be able to get together even in a smallish group and rethink (or redream) our relationship with one or both countries involved. Theoretically … it ought to take only one person to make a change. On the other hand, the change of one person’s relationship to a country might only produce a very small change, so the more people the better. The thing to remember, in this context, is that you are trying to change how you think or feel about the country, not trying to change the country. It’s a subtle but important difference, and it applies to people as well as countries.
If this idea catches on we can introduce a Huna koan (the actual Hawaiian phrase is “nane huna,” a hidden riddle or conundrum): “What is the sound of one person loving?” ‘
Oh, I like that!
A global coming together, without violence, with smiles and hugs. With cuddles for babies and pats for dogs.
The sound of many people loving.
Spread the word.
Do you hear the sound of one hand clapping?
*Read the full One Hand Clapping blog post by Serge Kahili King:
Listen to Enlightenment by Van Morrison here (unfortunately there’s an annoying ad):