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Koan: The Dead Man’s Answer

The Dead Man’s Answer

When Mamiya, who later became a well-known preacher, went to a teacher for personal guidance, he was asked to explain the sound of one hand.

Mamiya concentrated upon what the sound of one hand might be. “You are not working hard enough,” his teacher told him. “You are too attached to food, wealth, things, and that sound. It would be better if you died. That would solve the problem.”

The next time Mamiya appeared before his teacher he was again asked what he had to show regarding the sound of one hand. Mamiya at once fell over as if he were dead.

“You are dead all right,” observed the teacher, “But how about that sound?”

“I haven’t solved that yet,” replied Mamiya, looking up.

“Dead men do not speak,” said the teacher. “Get out!”

7 comments to Koan: The Dead Man’s Answer

  • Babu

    let me try?
    can there be a ‘sound of one hand’; only two hands can produce sound. therefore the answer is nothing or no sound or silence.

    but the student got irritated when the master asked him to die. he probable started to get the feeling of ‘I, the ego’.

    So when next time the master asked the question, the student wanted to tease the master and therefore lay down to act as if to be dead.

    when he started to answer the master’s question, it is where he made the proverbial mistake ‘dead men don’t speak’. his ego got releaved.

    when one does not have ego, then there is nothing to reveal. if he was not having the ego, he would have answered him differenlty – i.e. not by laying down acting as dead.

    is my interpretentation okay?

  • TWC

    As with all Koans, there is no one answer.
    Only you can know if the interpretation is right for you.
    If you learned something valuable from it, then the koan served its purpose.

    In the story, the Teacher probably gave that koan to Mamiya to teach him the futility of attachment to anything (including any specific verbal answer to the question, or to being “right” about the answer), as attachment immediately separates me from what I feel attached to.

  • alex

    Ah yes…the sound of one hand. This is a fairly recent koan that was widely used and invented by the great zen master Hakuin. Its given as a first koan to students. Other breakthrough koans include Joshu’s Mu, What is it?…Who am I?
    Or What is my original face before my parents were born?

    In formal practice, Koans should be worked on with a qualified zen teacher. A breakthrough koan can lead one to a glimpse of their original nature, and the experience is a brief glimpse of what Shakyamuni Buddha realized under the Bo tree.
    The above posters assertion that “Only you can know if the interpretation is right for you.” is erroneous. Not to be argumentative or judgemental, but koans are serious business…

  • DDM

    Various answers are possible: Students have been known to reach out and slap the teacher or the floor – with one hand, of course. This answer has been accepted at times, and at times not, depending on whether the master discerns the student has true understanding of the koan, or if the student is just guessing with an unsure mind. A zen master knows the difference, of course.

  • Al Wilkinson

    The student cupped his hand behind his ear, leaned toward the teacher and said: “Eh?”

  • PATRICK

    ONE HAND CAN MAKE ONE SOUND ALL BY ITSELF, AND ANY NUMBER OF SOUNDS WITH OTHER OBJECTS.

    IF YOU HOLD ON TO ONE OF THOSE OBJECTS, ITS POSSIBLE TO MAKE OTHER SOUNDS.

    HOLDING AN OBJECT, LIMITS YOUR HAND’S ABILITY TO MAKE SOME SOUNDS, BUT ENABLES YOU TO MAKE OTHERS.

    IF YOU WISH TO MAKE THE HIGHEST NUMBER OF SOUNDS, YOU MUST HOLD AN OBJECT, AND EVENTUALLY LET IT GO. NOTHING WRONG WITH HOLDING IT AS LONG AS YOU REALIZE THAT YOU WILL EVENTUALLY LET IT GO. TAKE THAT INTO ACCOUNT WHEN YOU MODULATE THE AMOUNT OF TIME YOU SPEND HOLDING IT.

    PAIN IS ROOTED IN DESIRE, DESIRE TO HOLD IT, BUT USE YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF THIS DESIRE TO HOLD IT AND YOUR DISCOMFORT AND MODULATE IT AS NECESSARY FOR YOU.

  • mvr prasad

    This is not simply to touch the “nothingness”, nor to live it but being it.