For Father’s Day: Is that so?


I was writing a story riffing on a tale about the great Japanese Zen reformer and artist of the 18th century, Hakuin.

It seems a young unmarried women had a baby and wouldn’t give up the name the father. Finally she said it was the monk Hakuin. The parents were incensed, not only because he was a monk who was just starting out renovating a small, run-down old temple, but also because they had been supporting him in his endeavors.

They brought him the baby and said, here, it’s yours.

“Is that so?” He responded, and he took care of the baby.

A year later the young woman confessed that Hakuin wasn’t the father, so her parents went back to Hakuin, tails between their legs, and let him know the baby wasn’t his.

Giving the baby back he responded:

“Is that so?”



Nyogen Roshi told me Maezumi Roshi told him it may have been about someone else, not the well-known Hakuin. Maybe, but it’s just a story, right? I am still looking but haven’t seen this one in his autobiography or his student Torei’s biography (so far; I’m still looking) of Hakuin. Of course although there is a lot of material available in English, not all of Hakuin’s writings have been translated.  A recent memoir (Hitch-hiking with Larry David) ascribes the story to another Zen monk.

In fact, it is clear Hakuin enjoyed a good story. If you read Waddell’s translations of Hakuin there are all sorts of footnotes where it seems Hakuin just made things up. Hakuin even called one of his works “Tale of a Trip on a Night Boat” which was a phrase for bullshitting (it comes from a story about a peasant who said he had visited Kyoto, but when asked about a boat trip on a river there he came up with a whole river boat adventure despite that the river in question was not one of Kyoto’s real rivers but a small creek. No night boat soirees! He was caught in his lie!).

Hakuin was pretty funny. In one work of art he is smoking a pipe and the curling plume of smoke becomes him in drag as a folk figure of an older woman prostitute. He also cared. He made efforts to broaden Zen to a lay audience and wrote to his more powerful students that they shouldn’t over-tax the poor. I love this guy.




So then why would he take the baby? Wasn’t he complicit in a lie? Was he just a bleeding heart liberal? The obvious interpretation I often hear is that he was so non-attached he just took on whatever was in front of him. That may be true, but I don’t think that’s quite it. That view of non-attachment can get quite out of hand. I have heard that some Zen students (though none I know) think a great Zen master would be so non-attached he or she wouldn’t discriminate between a rock and a potato. That’s just dumb of course. And that certainly wasn’t Hakuin! He had a sense of humor, played the board game Go, was an artist, cared about the poor, bitched about stupid Zen people who thought because they had an enlightenment experience of some sort everything they did was cool. Hakuin shook things up. He discriminated plenty. He wasn’t biting into any rocks and he didn’t start an orphanage as far as I know.

But for whatever reason his practice and samadhi, his insight and penetration, led to ”is that so?” in that instance.

I appreciate this “is that so?” in another way.

I am always asking “is that so;” aren’t you?

Whatever my fevered brain projects, whatever I think that I understand, my fears and hopes and desires, whatever my senses present or presents to my senses, whatever phantoms and chimeras I piece together, isn’t “is that so?” a good question? Of course not in so many words, and usually not consciously, but isn’t that pretty basic?

Even more basically, delusion aside, isn’t it just the Great Question of Existence, of life and death? Isn’t “is that so” the question of each moment, the question that is always being answered in the moment?

Why a question and not a declarative “that’s so”? I don’t know, but for me it just kind of usually is. Maybe it is my ignorance. But seems like sometimes it was like that for Hakuin too. Maybe sometimes he answered: “that’s so.” Maybe even sometimes just: “So”! I wouldn’t put it past him. But I just made that up.

I am not Hakuin, so go ask him for yourself if you can. I’m just saying “is that so” goes much deeper than passive acceptance. It is the sound of practice; it is the sound of the entire cosmos evolving in each moment.

As far as accepting the baby that wasn’t “really his,” don’t we always do that even if the baby is “ours” (i.e. meaning our eggs or sperm or we have kosher legal adoption papers)? Who knows what they are really getting themselves into? What does it means to be “ours” in any case? How do you own anything in this ever-changing cosmos?

For that matter, aren’t we always taking each other on, sangha, at work, at play, in the world? Like it or not, legal papers or not? Maybe we are all Hakuin and Hakuin’s baby both.

I think that’s so.

In classical Buddhism it is taught we have all been each other’s father, mother, baby, sibling, lover, friend, enemy, every relationship you can name again and again, time and time again, lifetime after lifetime.

Happy father’s day.






2 thoughts on “For Father’s Day: Is that so?

    • Hi Ben Ming. Thanks for the feedback. You are more father than you think! In any case, I can see why that part about not knowing what we are getting into resonated with you. It’s so much my experience too. Fantasize all you want, plan and hope, but wow, stay light on your feet and hold on for the ride.

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