The sound of one hand

- through Sophie Solere

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Master Mokurai lived in Kenninji, the oldest cloister of the Zen school in Japan, right in the middle of the beautiful city of Kyoto.

His name means "silent thunder". Not that he was particularly sparing of his words or very angry, this highly paradoxical name of ordination actually designated the non-dual nature of the Buddha's teachings. He belonged to the flamboyant Rinzai school which, in addition to the stripped seat, emphasizes the study of koans, these enigmatic phrases or these obscure exchanges whose rumination and practice open the mind and untie the life of those who devote themselves to it.

A very enthusiastic young disciple

This master was surrounded by a slew of studious disciples and had even consented to take in an orphan from the streets, a mischievous and gentle young boy of about twelve, named Toyo, who watched with envy the merry-go-round and the ballet of the diligent monks who lined up every morning and evening to meet with their teacher and present their understanding of the kōan they were working on. Toyo was burning to be able to receive the instructions personally and to be received in private conversation too. After many refusals, the master ends up allowing the child to come and sit down, strike the bell to signify his presence, prostrate himself three times and enter his room. When he saw him approach, he couldn't suppress a smile that lit up his beard and squinted behind the lenses of his pair of tortoiseshell glasses. He was definitely the youngest of the students, the most enthusiastic too: “You can make a sound by clapping both hands, Toyo. Can you show me the sound produced by one hand? » Toyo greeted the master and carrying his words, he took the direction of the gardens to prolong his nocturnal zazen there while chewing on this already burning question. In the summer evening air, the shouts and sounds of parties, voices released by sake and sweet potato liquor, the sound of geisha music echoed. So that was it!

The spiritual path supposes this total immersion in what is neither known nor encountered.

The following evening, in front of his master, he returned quite proud to present his answer and began to hum the music of the shamisen, the stringed instrument with the delicate sound of the women of the pleasure district. “No, no, that answer is not appropriate at all. Geisha music is not the sound of one hand. You have to go further. Mistaking the real meaning of the master's words, Toyo took the path to the nearby mountain, where he heard the sound of water from the waterfall. "Here's my one-handed sound," he said to himself. He returned the next day with the sound of water in his ear and mouth in front of the amused master. “What are you showing me here? I can hear the marvelous melody of the water wandering and singing, but where does the unique sound of one hand resonate here? Toyo left again empty-handed. And after having believed to discern him in the breath of the wind or the song of the bird in the foliage, having believed to have surprised him in the heady strident stubbornness of the cicadas, poor Toyo was refused each presentation and no longer knew where give ear. He was desperate.

sound devoid of sound

For a whole year, he made the rounds of all the sounds and songs, noises and rustles, from the racket and racket of drunkards and their deafening snoring to the most imperceptible breaths created by the flapping of butterfly wings or the breath almost inaudible from young girls with such white necks. He had made the rounds of all the possible and imaginable sounds and little by little, he entered into a place beyond of any sound, a place where it was no longer possible to collect or even recognize the trace of the slightest sound. He entered with his whole body, with his eyes, his hands, his flesh and his spirit, and not only his two ears, in the sound devoid of sound. Toyo after ringing the bell in front of the room didn't even need to open his mouth, his master then saw that the one who showed up had just fully realized the sound with one hand.

To be like a child in front of the world

Besides the truth of the kôan that there is no question of explaining or even expressing, this story contains valuable lessons. First, that it is possible to approach the truth by encountering error, and by living error to the end. The way, Master Dogen said, can be to make mistake after mistake. One can, and everyone will be able to conceive it, to know a thing by understanding what it is not. And that it is also courage and temerity to persist where many are those who give up. That a real answer cannot also be verbal or the result of a seizure; that the answer to be heard must not be chosen from the great spectrum of the world, but experienced by the whole being. The kôan must be recognized as living in the flesh and the spirit of the one who studies it, he must become and live this question with all his skin and not simply ask it absently and lightly. The spiritual path supposes this total immersion in what is neither known nor encountered. An intimacy that cannot simply be knowledge or know-how. And then what is neither one nor two, the immutable fulgurance of the first sound, is also accessible to a simple child. Perhaps this is even the condition for realizing this sound before all other sounds, to be a child, to become a child in front of the world as well as in the depths of oneself.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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