[Zen Koans] There is for instance, ‘the sound of one hand’. What’s the sound of one? Two hands [claps] meet together. In the Eastern markets to sell your goods -you’ve got your little stall out there with your goods. Now, sometimes when you’re going to do your spiel – it’s called now isn’t it – you clap your hands. People look around and then you start selling. A poem was written. Instead of listening to ‘the sound of one hand’ better clap both your hands and do some business. This was put to a great Zen master, who used ‘the sound of one hand’. He wrote another poem back, very profoundly.
It said, “If you can do a business just by [claps] clapping two hands then you don’t need to listen for the voice of one hand. You can clap your hands [claps]. You can attract attention. Now, you’ve got to sell the goods, you’ve got to get them to buy, you’ve got to estimate how much he wants. How much you can screw him up to this. When is the time you know he won’t go any higher? Clinch it now.
There’s a soundless voice, isn’t there? You can’t pass that on to your children. There’s a soundless voice, which the businessman has in his head. Can you do a business just by clapping two hands? The businessman too relies on the soundless voice. The businessman too has got two internal hands. Profit and loss, two hands. What is the sound of one hand?
I’m only giving that as an example of the sort of way that progress is made in a koan, by going deeper and deeper into it. We think, ‘the sound of one hand, the voice of one hand?’. Then someone says, “Silence. That’s it, the voice of one hand is silence”. “Oh yeah’” Then the teacher says, “Then what will be the difference between the voice of one hand and the voice of no hands. Why one hand?” Anyway, at least it’s interesting. He’s got a great big stick and sometimes the monk ahead of you comes out crying. Well, it’s one way. There are people who respond working under pressure. In fact some of us are so lazy that we won’t do a thing unless we are under pressure. But others of us perhaps have got a bit more voltage and perhaps we can work on these things ourselves. If we’re Christians then these riddles, we have to notice them. If we read with attention, a book will become alive.
A Japanese Jesuit told me that he was in a foreign country travelling. Now their great classic is the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, their founder, a Spaniard – I can’t speak Spanish but it is said to be written in the most wonderful Spanish. Well, this Japanese Jesuit couldn’t speak Spanish. He used to read the Spiritual Exercises in German. It was a very good German translation. One day he was travelling abroad with a Spanish Jesuit. He wanted to look up a point in this Spiritual Exercises book for some sermon or reference he was going to give.
He said rather hesitatingly to the Spaniard, “I suppose you don’t happen to have a German translation of the Spiritual Exercises?” To his amazement the Spanish Jesuit said, “Oh, yes. I always read it in German.”
“You’re Spanish and this is supposed to be the most wonderful Spanish.” The man said, “Yes. It is, it is.” “You say you always read it in German?”
He said, “Yes. You see, in my training I had to study the Spiritual Exercises in Spanish for years and years and answer so many questions and do so many studies and so much research and comparative work on it that it became like a scholastic text for me. It becomes dead, but when I read the German translation the ideas leap out of the page at me – it’s pure meaning – but not in this wonderful Spanish preface.”
The main thing is that our study, our works and our thoughts should become alive and not mechanical. Not reverentially dull.
The koan, the riddle idea is a very good way for waking us up. There are 40 or 50 riddles in the New Testament. One or two of them have got explanations attached to them but it’s thought unlikely that Jesus did give explanations and most of them he doesn’t give explanations for at all.
It’s all right when things are going fairly well but when one’s desperate – when a fatal disease is announced – that’s a devil mask. Now, if he’s practised meditation, he will be able to see peeping through the eyeholes of that devil mask something behind which isn’t a devil. These are cases when it actually matters. When we are in desperate need and we’re all going to be in this desperate need. Not necessarily at the time of death but at any time. The idea is to practise for that time. Well, this is a question of passing through those estates of actual desperation. It would be nice if poetry did rescue people from desperation but in fact, unless they have meditated on it for a long time, the phrases will not be alive.
You can speak to people sometimes even who’ve done, who’ve been very religious or as they thought. Then they have a terrifying circumstance and they say, “It was all up there, you know, and I was down here.” A famous author, I won’t name him, his daughter died. He watched by the bedside, he was with her through the night and she died in the morning. He found he was an atheist in the morning. Well, it meant that it hadn’t really gone very deep. It was still a mask. The mask could change, a mask of holiness and beauty could change to whatever mask.
The beautiful mask and the holy mask and saint mask is nearer than the devil mask but it’s still a mask. If it gets separated then it becomes hollow, something hollow. Anyway, these are things to be actually practised and while we’re all right we might not feel the necessity for practising them.
The interrogators in prison camps tell you that the people who have inner resources can last indefinitely. Now, I’m not speaking about torture but interrogators without using torture found one very effective method, and I only use this as an example, is to keep changing the cell. People want a home.
If you’re put in a cell for a week or so, it starts becoming home. It’s an awful home but it is home, you know where you are. Now, they say you keep changing it and changing it. Sometimes it’s a big one, sometimes it’s a small one, sometimes it’s a hot one, sometimes it’s a cold one. You keep changing it then you move the chap around to another place. You keep changing. As a result he’s got no associations of support that he can find anywhere and quite often they find that the whole self-control is lost. If he’s left in one place, however terrible, he can somehow, but a man with inner resources can survive there. He has his own support inside – he’s not dependent on the outer: the Line of Light [practice] is something separate. Not dependent on holding onto something outside, either in the external world or to ideas which change.
Response to another question:
No, life itself. You find out through life itself, whether your realization is firmly grounded or not. Now, for instance, I’ll give you an example. In a Judo hall you’re taught how to fall. It takes some practise, but after a time a man can fall quite easily without doing any harm to himself at all, quite comfortably. If he’s asked now to do a rolling break fall or somersault through the air and fall, he can do it to order. Throw yourself backwards, he can do it. He’s an expert.
Then, one day when that man is standing beside the mat just watching somebody in a curious sort of way, the teacher creeps up behind him and suddenly, whoosh, throws him over. Well, sometimes they forget how to fall. It isn’t yet complete, but the time does come when, even under those circumstances, he’ll still fall.
There’s one more, and that is something that will happen in life. The bus will suddenly move and throw him and he’ll fall off or somebody will slip on an icy surface. I mean, he’ll fall in life and if then the falling technique comes to him then it’s part of him.