Koans about the One

Kenneth Leong
5 min readNov 14, 2023

There is a famous Zen koan about the One. I am posting it here for us to meditate on:

A monk asked Master Zhaozhou, “The ten thousand things return to the One. Where does the One return to?” Zhaozhou replied, “When I was in the state of Chou, I made a hemp shirt. It weighed seven pounds.”

In the past, I have said many times that Zen koans are not irrational. Rather, based on my own experience, all the koans can be understood rationally. But how can we understand this particular koan?

The monk said that all things return to the One. Clearly, the One is not one of these things. Rather, this One is an abstraction for all things. We might as well say that all things are part of the Universe. It is pure nonsense to ask where the Universe would return to since the Universe is not one of the things. It is not an object. The fallacy committed here is called “reification.” Reification is the process of treating something abstract or intangible as if it were concrete or physical.

Master Zhaozhou mentioned a hemp shirt. A hemp shirt is something concrete. It is a suggestion for the monk to return to the concrete world. He should not be lost in the world of abstraction.

There is another Zen koan about the One. It is from a Japanese source. The koan goes like this: “You have heard the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

I encountered this koan many years ago. I could not answer it. This seems to be one of the koans which cannot be understood rationally. But is it really?

Let’s go back to the question of “Where does the One return to?” It was said earlier that the ten thousand things return to the One.” It is clear that whether we call something one or many depends on your perspective and grouping. Depending on how we group things, we can name it either “ten thousand” or “One.” In the Philosophy of Mathematics, there is this classic question of whether numbers are invented or discovered. My own position is that numbers are invented. They are social constructions, based on our ability to abstract.

Given this understanding, we can generate alternative answers to this koan. My own answer is to ask a counter-question, “What sound is not the sound of one hand clapping?” We are just playing the…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human