In Zen Buddhist practice, a koan holds a special place. It is a story, a question, or a statement, which a Zen master administers to provoke ‘great doubt’ in the disciple. At first, the self sees itself not directly but under the guise of the koan. But then in a moment of transcendence, the two become identical, one and the same. The disciple has passed the test as this popular Zen Buddhist story shows:
The great Zen master Mokurai had a little disciple med Toyo. Every morning and evening one older disciple after another would visit the master’s room to receive instruction or persol guidance. Mostly they were given koans to train them so they could stop their minds from wandering.
Toyo wanted similar instruction, but his master was doubtful. “Wait a while,” said Mokurai. “You are too young.” But the little disciple insisted, so Mokurai filly consented.
One evening, Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of the master’s room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed deeply three times outside the door, then went to sit before the master in respectful silence.
“You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai. “Show me how you can hear the sound of one hand.”
Perplexed, Toyo went back to his room to think over the problem. Suddenly, he heard the music of geishas through the open window. “Ah, I have it!” he exclaimed.
The next evening, when his teacher asked him to produce the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the geishas’ music.
“No, this won’t do,” said Mokurai. “This is not the sound of one hand. You haven’t got it at all.”
Toyo took up a quieter room and pondered: “What can the sound of one hand be?” And then he happened to hear water dripping nearby. “I got it,” he thought elatedly.
When he next appeared before his master, Toyo imitated the sound of dripping water.
“What is that?” asked Mokurai. “It is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.”
Toyo now began to meditate so he could hear the sound of one hand. Was it the sound of the locusts? But Mokurai rejected that out of hand. Toyo concentrated harder and heard the sighing of the wind. But that too was rejected.
Ten times Toyo visited his master with different sounds and ten times he was rejected. A year passed by. But he could not figure out what one hand sounds like.
At last, little Toyo entered true meditation. And then he transcended all sounds. When his master later asked what he meant, Toyo explained: “I could collect no more sound. So I reached the soundless sound.” So far he had concentrated upon the koan given by his master as if it was an inert object. Then in a flash of insight he saw that the koan was both the object being sought and the ceaseless seeking itself. Like the two hands that had become one, Toyo ‘became’ the koan he was trying so hard to understand. The little disciple had realized what one hand sounds like. His master agreed that Toyo had at last come of age.