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    What Is the Sound of Two Hands Clapping?

    By John Lewis–

    Perhaps the most famous Zen koan (a seemingly nonsensical or paradoxical question that Zen students are instructed to contemplate) is the koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Zen students may spend countless hours turning the question back and forth in their minds, trying to find a logical explanation of how one hand could clap by itself. At some point, students may exhaust themselves trying to reason their way to an answer, and instead learn simply to “become” the koan, holding it and embodying it both in meditation and daily life.

    The koan then points students to a more direct experience of life firsthand, unfiltered or distanced by personal conceptualization, abstractions, and judgments. In a famous old Zen story, a young student Toyo repeatedly tries to answer the koan to no avail by reporting to his teacher sounds he had heard during meditation. Finally, Toyo’s mind opens, and he reports, “I could collect no more” sounds, and then “I reached the soundless sound.” Toyo realized the answer to the koan through his direct experience.

    A few weeks ago, Stuart’s step-mother Tish, his father’s second wife of many decades and mother of Stuart’s three half-siblings, passed away from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS after a four-year struggle with the affliction. This unforgiving disease rendered Tish—an outgoing, fun-loving, energetic, engaged, vibrant, and verbal person—severely limited in her ability to eat, breathe, move her body or utter sounds, much less speak. Throughout the disease, Tish maintained an indomitable spirit and ability to live with joy in the moment whenever possible. One of her favorite activities when she had energy was cranking her high-tech wheelchair to its fastest speed and racing her adult kids through the streets of the retirement community where she and Stuart’s dad lived.

    I’ve played piano since I was a small child. For years, on weekend family visits before Tish became ill, I’d play piano for her in the living room while she and others chatted and prepared dinner in the kitchen. She loved hearing me play and looked forward to it whenever we visited.

    After Tish became ill and she and Stuart’s dad moved to a retirement community, I brought my music with me when we visited, thinking it would be nice to play for her. Tish, however, had become very sensitive to sound, and each time I tried to play for her, she would gesture for me to stop. When we visited last fall, I almost didn’t even bother to bring the music with me, but at the last minute decided to do so, thinking I might have a chance to play if everyone were out of the house.

    It was late on the last evening of our visit and time to say goodnight. As Stuart and I interacted with Tish seated in her wheelchair, she looked at me and suddenly gestured with her two hands as if she were playing the piano and a brightness and smile came over her face. We asked her if she’d like for me to play, and she nodded enthusiastically. Tish’s daughter, who was responsible that evening for the hours-long process of helping her mom get to bed, agreed to one song, and I dashed to get my music.

    As I began to play, I began to hear joyful utterances coming from Tish, whose face was beaming with happiness. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw Tish moving her lower legs up and down, over and over to the music. Her black Labrador Zoe awoke from her slumber and lifted her head and began to bark playfully. And Tish did one of the few things that she could still do with her arms and hands. She started clapping. First to the beat of the music, and then as vigorously as possible after each song (we didn’t stop with just one). Everyone else joined in clapping, too.

    We exchanged many hugs and kisses, and when I finally stopped playing, Zoe came up to me and licked my hands and arms without stopping for a long time. We all were alive, in the moment, without words—just music, hugs, kisses, barks, licks—and clapping. It was the last time we saw Tish alive.

    As I went to bed that evening, my mind turned to the famous Zen koan, and I came up with a new one: What is the sound of two hands clapping? From subsequent researching I did, I learned that the full, proper translation of the famous koan is: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?” And I wondered if the sound of one hand clapping and the sound of two hands clapping could actually be the same. Had we together that night touched the soundless sound that young Toyo heard centuries ago?

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.