Zen Koan 4: 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?”


The foregoing Zen koan or parable, “is that so?, is meant for us, as the beautiful Japanese girl’s parents did not, to question any thoughts, associations, generalizations and meanings we create as they affect our perceptions and in turn affect how we act which can be hurtful to others or ourselves. Moreover, it instructs us, as Hakuin did, to accept whatever comes our way and make the best of it.

The acronym for “Is it so” is “its.” “Its” refers to a characteristic or description of something. “Is it so?’ questions the associations (characteristics or descriptions) we make or assume. The acronym reminds us that when we characterize or describe something, its, we need question, is it so?, our characterizing. Ultimately, nothing can be characterized or described beyond that it is what it is whatever it is. That is, accept things as they are without thought as thought transforms one thing into something else.


When we meet someone unhappy about one thing or another, we can console them by engaging them (is that so?) to elaborate on what’s the matter that’s distracting them from happiness. With the refrain, is it so?, they repeat their story again and again; until what’s the matter is not as much of an issue as it was initially. They may ultimately wonder whether their story can be viewed or made otherwise; in a more favorable light or that there are so many other ways of understanding the underlying matter of their woe that all explanations and their related stories are meaningless. It is then that they can be grateful for their otherwise good fortune. Gratitude leads us to happiness.