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- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!


One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages (1995)

Retold by Rafe Martin and Manuela Soares

Illustrated by Junko Morimoto

It’s terribly dated to quote an episode of Seinfeld, but lest we forget the episode in which Jerry’s dentist converts to Judaism ‘for the jokes.’ I find myself in a similar dilemma when presented with these wonderful picture books, the need to convert to Buddhism. For the stories.

Unlike the Biblical stories I've reviewed in the past, there is no pretense of these having been actual events. Thus, no need to leave my brain at the title page. Also, I do not need to be in the constant act of apology for an angry, jealous Supreme Being. Instead, I found myself doing just what Manuela Soares speaks of in his Editor's Note at the beginning:

"...these stories are meant to evoke questions, to elicit wonder and amusement, and encourage contemplation."

One Hand Clapping is a small anthology of stories, some only a few paragraphs in length, some several pages. It is no simple task to codify what makes up a Zen story. Page by page, I found myself surprised at what I found next. There are the classic Zen tales in here, that is, what you might imagine when you think of Zen. For example, The Sound of a Single Hand. (In the depths of the innermost self, more remote than the farthest mountain, and closet than close, lies the secret house of the sound of one hand. Enter!) That sounds pretty Zen, no?

But several of the stories are actually funny, and seemed patterned after jokes, with a setup, a reveal and a punch line. Like the Lion and the Tiger, which ends with the presumed lion seemingly about to kill the poor man dressed in the tiger outfit, but who instead whispers, “Not to worry. I’m the same as you.”
Ikkyu’s Poison almost seems patterned after a classic trickster tale, in which a clever child outwits his master. It is a funny, clever story, but it made me wonder, what is being taught? Should we not be looking to the Zen Master for wisdom? Instead, the story extols the child and his cleverness to get around the master’s rules.

In my last review, I looked at The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth. I was very pleased to find the same story contained within this collection as well, although with a slightly different title: The Three Answers.

This version seems more of a classic retelling. It is not a child and his talking animal friends to whom we are introduced, but rather, an emperor and a hermit. There are also no wounded panda bears, but rather a wounded soldier with a specific vendetta.

“During the last war you killed my brother and took away my lands,” says the soldier. “So I swore vengeance and vowed to kill you.”

This version definitely ups the stakes, and speaks a further truth about forgiveness.

Last time, I posed the questions the narrator asks, but I did not reveal the answers. This time I thought I would not give the questions, but instead list the hermit’s answers:

The present moment is the only moment.

The most important person is always the person you are with.

And the most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy.

That is not to say there are no anthropomorphic animals here. In The Fish in the Sea, two fish are trying to unravel the great mystery: What is the sea? In fact, Rafe Martin gives a nice insight into this anthropomorphic practice in his introduction:

"In folktales and fairy tales ravens, bees and ants talk, clods of earth, raindrops, pebbles, and trees converse freely. We might discover that during the depths of the night the stars can answer the flowing streams. In such folk stories the universe itself is revealed to be one great ongoing conversation in which everyone and everything participates equally."

I'm going to remember that the next time I watch an old Disney cartoon with my son.

The story which for me spoke most directly, was Mountains and Rivers.

“Before I grasped Zen,” says an old woman to her grandson, “the mountains were only mountains and the rivers were only rivers. When I got into Zen, the mountains were no longer mountains and the rivers were no longer rivers. But when I understood  Zen, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.”

This made perfect sense to me – I think – but the child doesn’t seem interested. “The river’s right here and it’s a hot day,” he says. “Can’t we go swimming?”

“Of course! Just jump right in!”

This will have to serve as the conclusion of my series of Zen Picture Books. To see all of the books I’ve reviewed in this category, please click here.

It’s a topic I went to explore further - I didn't even get to any of the picture books about the life of the Buddha himself - but for now, my favorite holiday is quickly approaching! Stay tuned!

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