This story is dedicated to my dentist who unwittingly gave me an almost empty box. Note that any resemblance between him and Hans is a mere coincidence.
“Do you know the one about the man who was balding?” George asked, setting his empty beer glass down on the table. It was early and the pub was still quiet. Apart from the bartender checking racing results in the evening paper, they were the only people there.
Hans shook his head. He certainly had no problem with hair loss. His curly locks hung down to his shoulders. Blond, like many people from his country.
“There was an ad in the newspaper,” George continued, “offering a solution for balding people to keep their hair in.” He couldn’t help grinning as he anticipated the punch line. “Well he sent off a cheque and was delighted when the postman delivered a parcel. But opening the small packet, he found only an empty box.” George burst out laughing. Hans looked at him perplexed.
“An empty box to keep his hair in,” George repeated.
Hans looked at him blankly.
“It’s ambiguous,” George began but immediately gave up. Jokes were never funny when explained.
“An empty box,” Hans said, pronouncing each word as if it were a rare wine to be swilled around his mouth but not swallowed. “It sounds like a koan,” he mused.
“A what?” George asked, waving his glass at the man behind the bar. When he caught the man’s attention he raised two fingers. The bartender shook his head but George motioned to the plaster on his leg. The man nodded.
“It’s Japanese. A pithy saying which doesn’t seem to make any sense. Yet on reflection it’s meaning is profound. That understanding changes you.”
It was George’s turn to look perplexed. How did Hans manage to jump from a joke to philosophy or was it religion when he had hardly finished his first beer? “Give us an example,” he said. “Something I can grasp. Not your airy fairy words.”
The bartender set out two new mats, removed their empty glasses and replaced them with full ones. George pulled out several notes and handed them to the man, saying “Keep the change.”
Hans clapped his hands together startling George who was about to savour his second beer. He hastily wiped the froth from around his mouth and said, “Why d’you do that?”
“You know the sound of two hands clapping?” Hans asked.
“Of course.” Why such an obvious question? Was the man trying to make a fool of him? Sometimes Hans was very strange. Maybe it was all that peering into people’s mouths that warped him. George was glad he was not a dentist.
“Well,” and here Hans waved one hand back and forth in front of him. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
George burst out laughing. “You Germans have such a funny sense of humour.”
Hans was not laughing. He wasn’t even smiling. Instead, his face was aglow. “The sound of one hand clapping reaches the highest heavens above.” He proclaimed the words with such fervour he could have been the vicar culminating one of his most inspired sermons, but unlike the vicar, Hans had no excuse for his madness.
“What’s all this got to do with an empty box?” George asked.
“Everything!” Hans exclaimed, a triumphant grin on his face. “Just like the apparent silence of one hand clapping is full of sound and meaning, so the empty box is brimming over with content.”
George made a mental note to change his dentist. The man was raving mad.
“Have you been sniffing ether again?” he asked.
Hans ignored the jibe and continued. “Silence and emptiness are akin. They are not an absence but a tangible source of richness.”
“I wish I could make money from emptiness,” George quipped, trying not to grin in case Hans thought he was poking fun. His friend could be touchy.
Hans shook his head, a look of determination on his face. “Bartender!” he called out. When the man came, a dish cloth in his hands, Hans asked, “Have you got an empty box?”
When the bartender raised his eyebrows, Hans said, “I’m trying to demonstrate something to my friend here.
“How big?” the man asked. Hans replied by placing his hands about a foot apart.
The bartender shared a knowing glance with George that said something like you have to humour madmen then disappeared behind his bar. They could hear him rummaging about for several minutes before he returned carrying a plain brown cardboard box that smelt of crisps
“Great,” Hans said and thanked the man. He took the box, peered inside, upended it as if emptying out its non existent contents, then set it upright on the low table between them. “I’m going to show you that emptiness has a feel to it.” He moved George’s now empty beer glass to one side and placed the box in front of him. “To do this you need to close your eyes.”
George glanced around the pub to make sure no one was watching. The bartender had returned to his newspaper. George closed his eyes, all of a sudden feeling vulnerable. He steeled himself against a possible practical joke. None came. Instead Hans said, “Hold your hands out in front of you.”
George did as he was told, wishing he’d never mentioned the empty box.
“Without moving, feel the air around your fingers.”
George could feel nothing. Air was air. And unless it was moving or you were, it didn’t feel of anything.
“Take your time,” Hans said softly.
George’s thoughts wandered and he had to force his attention back to the air. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination but he had the impression the air was thick and a little oily. If he moved his fingers they might produce ripples.
“Now I will put the box round your hands,” Hans explained. “Without touching them.”
George’s was surprised at the difference. He chuckled but kept his eyes closed. There was a tang about the air in the box. Salt, he told himself, and grinned. No. That was probably just the faint smell of crisps. So he searched further, peering behind the smell and beyond the image of the box he had in his head.
A thrill fluttered in his stomach as he realised there was something there, just outside his reach. Each time he stretched for it, the illusive presence slipped away. Frustrated, he gave up and just let himself sense the ungraspable. He was startled to discover his senses spreading out in every direction till he felt he could embrace the whole universe. No. He was the whole universe. He was connected to everything and everyone. He hung there not wanting the feeling to end, but his arms began to tremble and his eyes fluttered open.
With a jolt he saw that he was seated on a bench in a pub with his hands thrust inside an empty crisp box. How disappointing. He reached out for the feeling he’d just had but it was receding like a dream leaving only regret and nostalgia.
Hans put down the empty box and raised his glass, saying, “Prost.”