Koan 12

Is that so?


The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parent went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else he needed.

A year later the girl-mother 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 mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.

Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”


This Zen koan, “Is that so?,” like koans generally, encourages self-reflection and the questioning of assumptions we hold without doubts. However, unlike other koans, it is unique in that it isn’t disguised as a paradox or absurd riddle.

“Is that so?” Hakuin asks the girl’s parents to question their initial certainty that Hakuin fathered their daughter’s baby and their later certainty that he did not. Unlike the girl’s parents, we, the readers of this anecdote, know we don’t know who fathered the baby. Maybe the girl’s parents don’t know either.

“Is that so?” simply suggests we consider things from many perspectives. That is the essence of wisdom. Wisdom leads us to conclude that perceived truths change (like the girl’s claim as to who fathered her baby) and that ultimately no thing is truly knowable. This is the same conclusion we come to when considering paradoxes and absurd riddles.

Moreover, without wisdom, there is no compassion (as the girl’s parents carelessly ruined Hakuin’s reputation). Yet, Hakuin, a man of wisdom and compassion, is unfazed by how he is thought of by others; for he knows who he is, beyond descriptions and thoughts.

As well, when we embody wisdom and compassion, we gracefully accept what comes our way and make the best of it.