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“The single palm of the hand does not make a sound in vain” – Xuedou

Hakuin, the 17th century Japanese Zen teacher, artist and poet, is credited with the creation of the “What is the sound of one hand” koan, which is probably the best-known koan in the world. This comment by Xuedou about the “single palm” was probably the inspiration for Hakuin’s one hand koan.

Xuedou’s comment was made in response to a line in a koan about the design of a seamless tomb. “How do you build a seamless tomb?” was a question presented to the Emperor of China by his Zen teacher. How do we do anything seamlessly? The “seam” between self and other, this and that, seems to always be there. After his teacher’s death, the Emperor consulted another teacher about the design of the seamless tomb he was requested to build. That teacher’s response was: “South of the River, north of the Lake, The whole land in between is filled with gold, Under the shadowless tree a ferry boat for all,  In the crystal palace there is no one who knows.” We don’t know what the Emperor did with those instructions, the koan ends there. They are not the kind of instructions that you can take to Home Depot to get materials. We have to bring the instructions “home” to our lives, we cannot find the materials out there.

Hakuin wrote about the “one hand” koan saying that, “Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion listens to the sounds of the world, that sound is the sound of one hand. When you hear for yourself the sound of One Hand, whatever you are doing, whether enjoying a bowl of rice or sipping a cup of tea, all of what you do in your life is the sound of awakening.”

Even as you struggle with the design of the seamless tomb, that too is your awakening. As one day melts into another and our time in pandemic stretches into the unknown future, that too is the sound of awakening. Can you hear it? The one in the crystal palace, the one who doesn’t know, can hear it.


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