What is the sound of one hand clapping? The answer to this old Zen koan is “nothing”, or “there is no answer,” which is just a wordier explanation. However, if we ask this from the literalist position of a martial artist, the question leads to experimentation in the real world of practical application.
There are, of course, many variations of clapping, ranging from polite tapping of fingertips against the palm, to every-fiber-of-your-being hand-against-hand Sumo slams, but all presupposing a result stemming from the tympanic resonance of one object against another. Even one-handed claps strike against walls, tables, etc.
But what if air is the object against which we strike? We are always told that, like a fish in water, we do not perceive the medium in which we move because it is taken for granted, but is this true? We feel wind, sense temperature, all qualities of this medium. We know it is there; can we use it?
An ordinary person attempting to clap one-handed will probably wave that hand vaguely in the air and then ponder at the nothingness of the result, oblivious perhaps to the precept that the result speaks for itself, as does the experiment that produced it.
As martial artists, we train ourselves to move precisely. A highly developed proprioceptive sense helps us slice time by defining aspects of any motion from start to finish, so we start by looking at our original clap.
Where are the hands at the start of a clap? This isn’t a random thing; we all have deeply ingrained habitual patterns and clapping is pretty automatic. Where are your hands when they meet? Are they even or is one on top? If the latter, what does it feel like if you reverse them? Do the hands bounce? How much?
Since martial artists are concerned with things like speed and power, let’s focus on vigorous clapping for our model. Your hands might start face height, about shoulder width, and come together evenly at chest or throat level.
Now do the same motion with just one hand. You have a designated start point. You have (or should have) a designated end point. How do you move between them?
Efficiency suggests the shortest distance is a straight line, and the simplest way to achieve this is with relaxation. Inertia says an object in motion will tend to remain in motion unless worked upon by an outside force. Tension is a force that acts against acceleration through increased stress in components of a system.
Rather than a stiff movement that pushes, use a sudden pulse of acceleration to start, and use a “pop” at the end, with some rebound. This is a short, explosive motion, and the sound of your one hand should be a “whoosh.” It may take some practice to consistently create a sound (although some of us older guys may hear extra creaking in the joints).
What this gives you is a powerful inward strike, whether a slap, chop, parry or block. Develop both hands by alternately “clapping” in this way. Another thing to practice is a single-handed double slap. Interestingly, you may find the second slap to be both shorter and louder than the first.
Other techniques to hear the sound of one hand: Upward outward parry (flick it); downward outward parry. I like to combine the two. In a fighting stance, flick upward with the lead hand then slap downward with it. The elbow stays fairly fixed in position and angle; rotation is from the shoulder. Keep the fingers open. The rear hand may do the opposite to cover, ie. flick downward and then up.
Some nights when I’m on, I’ll just shadowbox to the sound of my hands. I can feel the energy flowing through the fingertips and I’ll feel energized at the end of the workout.
This is powerful stuff. Sifu Al Thomas, my old Kenpo teacher, was a master at hard style blocks (courtesy, perhaps, of his Shotokan roots). We got punished for being slow or obvious. As we got better, though, movement became quicker and lighter, but the only reason parries were not so bone-jarringly painful was perhaps our own understanding of the consequences of getting caught. One day Al put speed and power in perspective. Hard blocks were for simple situations, such as overzealous students. When sparring skilled fighters, he parried to stay in tempo. If, however, it were a serious fight on the street, he would be flicking with his fingertips.
Maximum distance, maximum velocity. Applied to vital targets such as eyes and throat, these do not require great strength, though conditioning is an asset. Being relaxed can increase stress on joints because of greater velocities. Tension is actually a way to apply the brakes. Pay attention to your body and work your way into this. You don’t want to injure ligaments or tendons by over-stressing them.
The more skilled one becomes at this, the shorter the distance to achieve a powerful result. Bruce Lee had the six, three and one-inch punches, in increasing order of skill. Listen to your hands in the air and you can measure your success.
Strike with the padded parts of the palm. The whole palm is a powerful slap, striking more nerve endings on the surface than any other blow. Using the heel of the hand at the end adds focus to penetrate more deeply. The palm side of the knuckles is a hard bony surface, good for parries against punches. Practice hitting with these rather than the whole palm for more effective parries. It will also help avoid parrying too high and getting fingertips bent backwards.
For those who use the Filipino c-hand check, which keeps the thumb open to catch or as a sensor, focus the parry specifically with the knuckle of the index finger. This is the “fist within the palm” that focuses the maximum energy of a palm strike. Practicing flicking this knuckle can make it an effective nerve strike against the wrist, and will also help overcome the danger of snagging one’s thumb during the parry.
So, some tips from the Stickman on using air to hear the sound of one hand clapping. Of course that means you are listening with your ears, but then if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it (and earthquake sensors picking up the fall of a giant redwood are just extensions of our hearing), does that mean it really made a sound?
Ah, those wacky Zen masters! But if there is only nothing, then there is nothing to oppose, either. No need to try, just do. When we let go we can have it all, and so we see the appeal of the empty mind to the art of fighting; indeed, to the art of living. When we do not resist, the path become simple. Not always the shortest, but the most direct path has fewest detours.