The Catcher in the RyeI first encountered Zen kōans when I read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in seventh grade.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

I loved the book and I went searching for more Salinger to read and things about him, and along the way discovered the puzzling sound of one hand clapping was one of many kōans.

A kōan in Zen Buddhism is a story, dialogue, question, or statement that is used to teach. The meaning of a kōan defies rational thinking – and therefore many Westerners – but may be accessible through intuition.

The one Salinger used – “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?” is attributed to the oral tradition of Hakuin Ekaku, 1686–1769, who is considered to be a reviver of the kōan tradition in Japan.

The Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen DialoguesThe word koan which we use in the West comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters 公 案.

I think I will post some kōans here occasionally for your contemplation. I won’t explain them. I’m not sure I can explain most of them, but I would be curious to hear your own comments on them.

The kōans are used to train teachers, monks, and students. They come from many sources. They can be taken from a story in the sutras and historical records. They may refer to poetry or the commentary added writings by later Zen teachers.

Some people mistaken;y see the kōan as an “unanswerable” question or a “meaningless” statement. Practitioners do not see them as meaningless, but a teacher probably does not expect a student to give a “correct” answer or response when asked about a kōan.

Is it a a ridThe Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koansdle or puzzle? No, and there is no one answer.

There are some traditional recorded answers” (kenjō) to many classical kōans that are used as examples. Those answers were correct for the person, the tme and the situation in which hey were given.

Hearing those “answers” may actually confuse the student even more.

For example, from the Book of Serenity – A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of the ancestral teacher Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?”

Zhaozhou replied, “The cypress tree in front of the hall.”

So, what is the sound of one hand clapping?


The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans
Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life
The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen
The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans