Is That So? – a Zen Story
The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
One day, without any warning, a beautiful girl, whose parents owned a food store in the village, announced that she was pregnant. The parents were livid and badgered the girl to reveal the name of the father. At first she would not confess the name, but after much harassment she finally declared that Hakuin was the father.
In great anger the parents confronted the master and accused him of lechery. “Is that so?” was all Hakuin would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. “This is your responsibility,” the girl’s parent said.
“Is that so?” said Hakuin.
By this time he had lost his reputation with the community and he was shunned and often ridiculed behind his back. This did not seem to trouble the master. He took very good care of the child, seemingly delighted with the task of caretaker. Observing this, the neighbors soon accepted the situation and helped Hakuin obtain milk and everything else the child needed.
A year later the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.
The girl’s parents at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness and apologize at length. They also demanded that the child be returned to them.
“Is that so?” Hakuin said. But willingly relinquished the child.
Stories like this not only teach us about the lives of past Zen masters, they also help us develop personal enlightenment by offering our minds interesting vistas upon which to travel.
What was up with Hakuin? Why didn’t he just tell everyone he was not the father? What made him accept responsibility for the child? What did he mean when he said, “Is that so?”
Hakuin was always himself and not whatever other people thought of him. He did what was needful at the time. In life one day it rains the next day it’s sunny. Arguing with the sky doesn’t change anything. Cursing your fate doesn’t help you. Because Hakuin was truly free and his mind enlightened, material circumstances could not disturb or distress him.
As the poet Richard Lovelace wrote:
Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take that for a hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love and in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above, enjoy such liberty.
But what do you think? What does the story say to you? How does it reveal to you the path to enlightenment?