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The famous question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a Zen koan; a deliberately obtuse poem used by Buddhists to probe reality and test one’s ignorance.

Zen Koans, by Steven Heine.
University of Hawai’i press, Poetry.

Unfortunately, Steven Heine hasn’t written “Zen Koans” to unpack the obfuscating stories he admits can seem like “some oddity extracted from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’ “

The book has some analysis, some application of cultural relativism — with Heine explaining what koans signify in Japanese and Zen culture — and lots of historical context. It’s one for the students and the academics, or anyone embracing Zen culture, but it’s not for the rest of us.

The light at the end of this tunnel is learning about a form of poetry that Western poets have tried, and failed, to replicate.

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