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Dying to the Self

By Barnabus Tibertius

"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!'"

...from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones


The sound of one hand is a classical philosophical tenet in Zen Buddhism. This is given to wean away one from conceptualizing or seeking higher levels of consciousness through a mental mode. The concept that it is impossible to produce a sound when one hand exists by itself is a precognitive imprint in our mind.

There are three states, that the teacher says, which are acting as impediments to the student in understanding the sound of one hand.

First is the level of effort he is putting in (nature of application), second, his holding on to material things, knowledge and to concepts (attachment to duality) and finally the very state of being continuously subject to the operation of the body and mind (analytical approach) this is the reason that the teacher says it would be better if he should die.

Now let us analyse how we can tackle these states to evoke a higher level of consciousness.

All our seeking and its related activity are conditioned from our past karmic imprints and the current life accumulation of cognitive inputs. While life is given to eradicated aberrations in the consciousness that was accumulated in our previous existences, attachments and the resulting actions create more hurdles in our spiritual progress. It is important that we have to die to these attachments and resulting actions, which are our natural tendencies, in order to elevate our consciousness to the higher level.

The moment we are asked; 'what is the sound of one hand?' our immediate reaction and thought is to associate a subject, object duality to produce an answer. From this results a question as to how one hand in itself could produce any sound. We also qualify sound as something that must be heard in a conventional sense. This is similar to the question 'Does the falling of a tree produce a sound in the forest when no one is around?' The moment we introduce a subject all the difficulties set in. Hence it is necessary to remove the subject from the field of enquiry. This is the reason that the teacher says 'It would be better if you died. That would solve the problem.'

Though the student ultimately understood that he had to die to the self in order to come up with the answer, he could not transcend the subject, object duality and resurrects his subjectivity by verbally articulating that he has not yet solved the puzzle.

If he had remained in a dead posture without answering the teacher, the teacher would have been given the answer in silence in his very being.

This is the concept of dieing to oneself which many spiritual traditions speak of.

Barnabas Tiburtius lives in India. A seeker throughout his life, he is involved in multi-discipline learning and his field of enquiry covers Cosmology, Sustainable Technology, Strategic Leadership, Philosophy and Spirituality. He regularly conducts workshops and seminars on spirituality and personal empowerment.

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