The Sound of One Hand Clapping – It’s Not An Academic Exercise

The Sound of One Hand Clapping
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I have written about koans before. The most famous koan simply goes:

“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”

How would you answer this koan? I have seen people answer by tapping their leg with one hand. Or closing their hand so it makes a sound. Most people, when trying to come up with an answer, will engage with it from a rational perspective. They are getting almost academic or scientific about it. But the purpose of koans; the purpose of Zen is never about academic exercises. Koans are not parables. None of them is. Koans ask you to engage with them on a very personal level. This koan is asking you to become the hand.

In the Zen tradition, if you work with a teacher on “solving” a koan, there is an actual “answer”. Interestingly enough, pretty much any beginner will convey the answer through words. Explaining what it is. But the teacher will be quick to ask the student not to use words, but “show” the answer without using words. Words lie. We are really good at explaining things with words that we haven’t actually understood. But acting out the answer requires you to get intimate with the koan. You have to find yourself in the koan.

You might wonder what all of this has to do with leadership. Well, leadership, just like koans, is not about an academic exercise. It’s about you. It’s about your employees. In order to be a good leader, you have to put yourself into the situation and react to it authentically. Make it personal. Experience it.

I challenge you to think about that the next time you are in a tough situation. Connect with it. Embrace it. Don’t push it away and don’t try to solve the situation through some “academic” approach.

Zen Koans (ˈkōän/)

One of the ways that this blog about leadership is different from most others that you might be following, is that every now and then I am trying to sprinkle a little bit of Zen wisdom into my posts. Rather than trying to preach anything, I’ll introduce an old tool that Zen practitioner of the Rinzai lineage have found useful on their journey to enlightenment. Not that we are trying to get to enlightenment, but if Zen monks find grounding and insight in koans, why shouldn’t we use them on our path of becoming better leaders?
As I mentioned, in the Rinzai school of Zen, it was found that the process of meditation can be greatly enhanced through the use of this device called a koan.
ko·an /ˈkōän/
“a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.”
Let me give you an example of a koan to confuse you a bit more:
What’s the sound of one hand clapping?
This is probably the most famous koan and you might have heard it mentioned somewhere before. How I first approached solving this koan is from a rational perspective. Well, I can slap my hand on my legs. Or maybe by quickly closing my hand it makes a sound too. You might have other ideas. Well: “wrong”. None of these are the solution to the koan. Sorry.
What you learn when you start working with koans is that you don’t need to approach them with your rational mind. A friend of mine likes to say that it’s like art: You don’t approach looking at art with your rational mind; you’d miss out. So, it’s really only when you strip away your stories, your believes. Everything. Only then will the koan open up to you and reveal it’s answer.
This openness, this state of letting all your stories go is where I will try to hook into leadership. What if you were given the gift of letting go of your stories before you reacted in a tough leadership situation? Sit (meditate) with that for a bit …