Zen Koan 3: “Is That So?”

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Zen Koans seem like paradoxes at first. The reason is that Koans are not meant to be understood by the intellect, but by intuition. Pondering over these riddles can help us unravel greater truths about our world and ourselves. This breakdown isn’t meant to substitute the insight the Koans are meant to invoke, but merely aid in getting there.

From “101 Zen Stories”:

” The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbours 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 neighbours 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 fishmarket.

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 Breakdown:

Hakuin can be described as being a detached observer, but also as one who accepts whatever is thrown their way. Fortunate and unfortunate events were welcomed and accepted equally. Every time life would say “This is happening”, Hakuin plainly answered “Is that so?”. This extreme detached attitude is not expected to be emulated perfectly, but it is something to strive for and it stands to prove several points as well.

First, perceived virtues and reputation are not true definitions, they are merely perceptions and value judgements made by others. Hakuin had a wonderful reputation with his neighbors until the false accusations, but even though the truth was that he had nothing to do with the girl’s pregnancy, the ‘truth’ people believed was that he was the father and thus his reputation was tarnished. The idea is that even if a large group of people “know” a truth doesn’t make it true. Relying on people’s ever changing values and judgement to measure your worth is as meaningless as the rumor that Hakuin was the father.

Second, reality persists despite your perception of it. You can believe a million false things to be true, but they will never be true except in your head. People’s perceptions change, of you and of the world, but reality doesn’t. It is wise to be detached from these definitions, as they serve only to mislead. Your perception of yourself is all that matters, unless you’re playing the game of appearances, where your values are only perceived to be true because you pretend that you have those values. To the average person, these appearances will have significant effects, to those who are unaffected by appearances, however, they mean nothing.


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