Is that so?

A traditional Zen story:

A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply replied “Is that so?”

When the child was born, the parents brought it to Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. “Is that so?” Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. “Is that so?” Hakuin said as he handed them the child.


How would you respond if you were Hakuin?  Outraged at the lie?  Unconcerned about your “image”? Persistently telling the world “the truth” about the whole situation? Refusing to take the child in?

I love this story. For me, it’s about getting on with things what need to be done, and not minding what others think, for opinions change, and we have absolutely no control over other people’s opinions. We can try and influence, but we have ultimately no control whatsoever. The best response in that situation is not to decry it, not to shout aloud your own opinion from the rooftops, but simply to get on with getting on with your own life. It’s all matter of perception, and perception is so subjective that to get upset about it is a waste of time.  There is a Zen saying – do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.

It’s also a story about compassion.  The baby in the story requires care, and is the unfortunate pawn in the game.  Hakuin refuses to use the pawn, and instead raises the child as need dictates.  When the child is demanded to be returned by the parents, the child is given freely, for Hakuin does not play the game.  How many times in our lives have we been drawn in to playing a game that we do not enjoy? What if we simply said no to the game, lived with compassion and did what needed to be done?

“Is that so?”  Such a simple statement, but breaking it down, can mean so much.  “Is” questions a defined reality, “that” refers to something that is external to ourselves, “so” is our individual perception of the world.  Not simply a knock-off devil-may-care attitude or answer, it is truly meaningful, constantly asking at each point in the story that everyone involved, including Hakuin himself, assess the situation and act with the right level of response, compassion, integrity and kindness.

Let’s give a shot.

7 thoughts on “Is that so?

  1. This is a great story. Is it wrong though that one of my first thoughts was to wonder the fates of the young man in the village, given how they treated Hakuin? Though Hakuin’s own selfless action may have given them second thought on that in the long-term…

  2. I’m minded of a prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr;
    “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,
    And wisdom to know the difference.”
    According to Wikipedia it’s been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous but seems to me to be good advice for us all.
    (P.S. Please don’t tell me what Zen wisdom says about me for that response!! :))

  3. Pingback: Beware of Trolls | octopusdance

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