Friday, June 13, 2014

One Hand Clapping

"Beyond Reason"
-Sunset at the Desert Retreat House"

In one of my favorite Zen Koans, the master asks his student, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The student desperately tries to come up with answers but his rational skills get him nowhere. Finally the student realizes that there is no answer to the question and when she realizes this, the student is on the road to enlightenment." 

The purpose of a Koan in Zen practice is to teach seekers not to be dependent on "reason." The way to enlightenment cannot be "figured out."  There are no easy answers to ultimate questions.

In our own day in Western culture "reason" and "thinking" are very highly prized. We are, after all, products of the age of science. We live in an era of great technological advancement and so we believe that there are answers for every question. We have figured out how the human body works. We have built cars that can drive themselves and computers that can do everything from cooking breakfast to designing skyscrapers and launching satellites that orbit around the globe. 

But the truth is that "reason" and science can only take us so far in explaining and controlling who we are and what makes us and our world "tick." The quantum physicists and new scientists of our own day confess that even with all our advanced technology, we can figure out and explain only about 5% of how the universe works, the rest is mystery - "dark matter" that goes beyond human comprehension.

We live in a cosmic world of multiple unknown galaxies, and we have very little conception of how "time" works. Even at the tiniest subatomic levels, we find a world of chaotically churning, wildly exploding atoms and quarks that defies easy answers and cannot be contained by rational thought or explained by scientific method. It's a mystery. 

There is another Zen story (one of my personal favorites):

A student asked the teacher "What is the true Way?" The teacher answered, "The everyday way is the true Way," to which the student replied, "Can I study it?" The teacher sat quietly and then responded, "The more you study it, the further you will be from the Way."

Now confused, the student asked the master, "But if I don't study it, how can I know it?" And the master answered,  "The Way does not belong to things seen, nor to things unseen. It does not belong to things known, nor to things unknown.  Do not seek it, study it, or name it. To find yourself on it, open yourself wide as the sky."

We all want to know the "Way." We want to figure out who we are, what makes us all "tick, how the universe works. We all seek a way to deeper peace. We desire a connection to transcendence. We want answers to those ultimate questions about who "God" is,  and does "God" exist. 

Science has no answers to these ultimate questions neither does religion. In fact, most of the questions we ask have no answers.   

Most of my life,  I have been looking for the answers. I have studied psychology, sociology and philosophy. I have been a life-long student of theology in order to answer the questions about who I am and what the world is all about and who God is.  It's only now,  in my later years of life that I have finally come to understand the wisdom of the old Zen master, "The more you study it, the further you will be from the Way." 

Life is a mystery. The world is a mystery. "God" is a mystery.

So I sit in the desert, and every day I do my best to live with the mystery and pay attention to the revelations of the moment, opening myself as "wide as the sky." 


  1. Beautiful insight.
    When Gautama became Buddha it is said that the sun rays passed through him. The sky and trees and the earth became his body. I was reminded of that when you said _wide as the sky_

    1. Yes, Nandu..what a great image of the Buddha.

  2. Oh dear, these are real answers; that throw back the ball to where it comes, and finally, time is measured in no time and path is discarded for the land is path less ! the more deeper the question, the answer is concealed with it ! Now the lesson put on break and I make my reverences !!

    1. Ravi--fantastic! I make my reverences to you also

  3. Thank you, I'm in my later years too with similar experiences. I live now by the ocean enjoying each moment as it is.

  4. Thanks for this: can really relate. But where would you put living in the world interacting c others ie seva or following ones life purpose into this narrative? Thanks for sharing this insight that All of It is accessible and available at every moment within even this earthly existence depending on our openness to It and capacity to percieve, but to Whom and in what form do we offer back the gifts the universe has bestowed on us in our moment of perception of Its deeper realities. . Love Sarah