The Sound of One Hand

I used to be quite meticulous about appearances, back when I was too young. From my clothing to the furnishing of my room – everything had to be color-coordinated, from the bedsheet to the curtain to the doily under a flower pot. Even the bandana I put on the Pooh Bear had to be compatible with the ribbon on a Swarovski Swan.

And when a family member habitually left all the drawers and cabinet doors open after searching for something, I followed on the heels to shut it one by one, chafing inwardly, “I really can’t stand noisy people.”

So when I saw a Tibetan style meditation room, encumbered with all those mixed-colored Buddhist wall hangs, carpets, statues, ritual implements, incense, altar chests and accessories, like an antique flea market lingering with stale smell of old goods, I thought to myself, “How could people find such stuffy surrounding meditation-friendly?”

My ideal meditation room would be an airy space, preferably south-east-facing, with bamboo flooring and no furniture whatsoever, except for a zafu and a pot of orchids.

I thought my preference for simplicity, symmetry and system is an indication that I have a quieter mind.

Then I read this Zen parable, in which a young disciple named Toyo was given a koan to meditate on, by his teacher Mokurai. “You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai, “now what is the sound of one hand?”

Toyo attempted to answer the question many times, but every time he failed nonetheless – the sound of one hand is not music playing, nor is it wind sighing or water dripping; neither it is the cry of an owl, nor the buzz of cicadas …

At last, the story said, Toyo transcended all sounds after contemplating almost a year. He realized that the sound of one hand is soundless. Finally, he attained the soundless realm.

As I ponder the story, I wonder if there is really so-called soundless realm? Even if you could ignore all the external sounds, and take the world as soundless, your perception itself is still a mental sound.

Even if you stop self-identifying with your perception, and act like a third-party watcher, this mindful choice you make is still a sound in its own right.

The sound of one hand may be soundless, but the thought about it and the concept of it are loud and echoing.

As it is, the world is always drifting with all sorts of sounds, buzzing, wheezing, tooting, roaring, chiming, clanking, honking, droning … It’s simply impossible to have a soundless mind.

So maybe the point is not to transcend all sounds as Toyo did, but to take every sound as it is. Maybe the goal is not about attaining a soundless state, but listening to all sounds without prejudices, preferences and opinions.

Usually I fall asleep rather easily, but occasionally in a full moon where I lie awake, I find myself more restful if I just accept the fact that I am sleepless, rather than trying too hard to fall into sleep.

And now I no longer have a precise definition for an ‘ideal’ meditation place. And the cushions I sit on don’t have to be color-matched either.

Once you allow all sounds in this world to chorus, the environment seems become much more accommodating, and the mind quieter than ever.