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Is that So?

August 2, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1769) was a highly realized master who was instrumental in revitalizing the Rinzai School. After traveling extensively to temples and monasteries, he returned to the Shoin-ji, the temple in his home town of Hara where he devoted himself to teaching a growing number of disciples. Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as well as Zen students throughout the country as a teacher living an exemplary life.Image

One day everything changed. An unmarried, pregnant girl who lived near his temple told her parents that Hakuin— by then an old man— was the father.  When the baby was born, the parents confronted Hakuin. In front of all his students they demanded that he take care of the child since he was the father. “Is that so?” was all Hakuin said. And so, he lost his reputation and disciples.

But he was not disturbed.  He was very grateful for having the opportunity of being a father.  He enjoyed taking care of the little boy, obtaining milk and other essential from the neighbors who had not abandoned him.  After about a year, the embarrassed girl confessed that the father was a young man in the village. The girl’s parents went to Hakuin and asked to have the baby back.  Although Hakuin had taken great pleasure in caring for the baby, all he said was “Is that so?”

How wonderful!  Or maybe I should say, “Is that so?”

This story illustrates equanimity, the last of the Four Immeasurables, or Brahma Viharas, taught by the Buddha:

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

Equanimity is the secret of our meditation practice in which we learn to let go of whatever arises in our minds. We learn not to grasp onto what we like or push away what we don’t like. Equanimity gives us a sense of emotional balance between the extremes of attraction and repulsion. When we look very carefully, we see that our emotional responses to the circumstances of our lives give us a sense of something that is “real” and “solid” that we can rely on. But if we let go of those responses we can find a way to live with “nothing to hold onto.” By letting go of our emotional responses to whatever is going on in our lives we can accept whatever is appearing with great openness.  We learn to respond to each moment of our lives with the attitude of is that so.

We don’t have to wait for some great crisis to say “Is that so?”  In fact, we need to be prepared for future crises, by responding to each moment of our lives with an impartial and unattached, Is that so.  In a sense those three words encapsulate what we are trying to do in Zazen.  A thought or memory appears and instead of engaging with it, instead of “inviting it in for tea” as Suzuki Roshi said, we just say, “Is that so?” 

Why not try taking that practice on, at least for a day or two.  No matter what is going on at any given moment, just take a step back and quietly say, “Is that so?”



From → Zen Buddhism

  1. Such a rich and wonderful story. Is that so?

    To be open and ready. Free of attachment. Equanimity.

    I feel at peace.


  2. I love this story. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Simple yet powerful story. It says much about attachments and judemental-ness. Thank you. Richard

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