Is that so?



Any Day Now
K. Hartmetz


Is That So?
S. Miller

A koan from Hakuin (via Paul Reps, 1957):

A beautiful girl whose parents owned a food store[1] becomes pregnant and won’t say who the father is, until she finally names the priest.[2] She has the baby. Her family tells the priest he must care for it. The priest takes the baby and says only, “Is that so?”[3]

One year later the girl changes her story, explaining that the father was the neighbor boy who worked in the fish market.[4] The family goes again to the priest and apologizes and asks him to return the baby, and he does, saying, “Is that so?”

All the explanations of this koan that I have read focus on the priest. It is only and always about the priest, and his enlightened reaction. As if a man’s damaged reputation is far and away more compelling and difficult than a woman losing her baby. This is one hand clapping.

Since Zen teachers continue to tell this story in 2020, and since we have not had a new translation since 1957, I investigated it further.

1. Let’s assume this story took place in the country, because Hakuin’s temple was in the country, and his audience was primarily rural. Perhaps the girl lied about the priest being the father, because the priest had a higher status than she did, and the child would benefit from that status. Merchants held a lower status than peasants or priests, at least in terms of the law. (Because merchants were ultimately interested in profit, the general attitude was, “let them ruin themselves.”[5])

2. Or, perhaps the girl lied about the priest being the father because women are untrustworthy. This is an admittedly specious and disappointing interpretation, but fairly automatic in the 21st century due to prevailing stereotypes going all the way back to Adam and Eve. Fortunately, the Japanese at that time were particularist[5] in their attitudes, and wouldn't have immediately come to this conclusion.

3. What if the priest raped the girl, and he told her not to say anything?

[After all, it was her fault she was raped; it was her fault she was beautiful. (It’s not clear if this was the attitude in 18th century Japan, which as noted, resists generalizations due to a focus on harmonic resolution based on individual situations.)]

Then, what if the girl realized that by saying nothing, she was enabling the priest, so she told the truth. She didn't expect to lose her baby.[6] Losing her baby was extremely painful, and it was also very hard to live with the idea that her rapist was taking care of the child. She tried to keep silent, because maybe a higher status was better for the baby. But she loved that baby. She tried for a year, then she couldn’t take it anymore, so she lied about the neighbor boy, who wouldn’t get in trouble [4], and by doing so, got her baby back.

In this case, we find that being untrustworthy is helpful because maybe at that point people didn’t know what to believe, and therefore would not blindly trust that the priest was enlightened and perfect.

It’s also less likely he’d continue to get away with raping village girls.

4. Or, maybe the priest did not try to control the situation, and it worked out for him, and the girl tried to control the situation, and it worked out for her.


[1] In the Tokugawa era, when Hakuin wrote this koan, society had several distinct social classes. The girl’s family was chonin - the merchant class. Merchants were of a lesser status than priests and peasants according to the law. (Bellah, Robert. Tokugawa Religion.)

[2] Priests were supposed to be celibate but this was not rigorously enforced. (Bellah, Robert. Tokugawa Religion.) Some say the priest in the story was Hakuin himself, (Yampolsky, Philip. Zen Master Hakuin) whose personality bears a strong resemblance to Bill Clinton’s.

[3] Women and men equally shared childcare. (Bellah, Robert. Tokugawa Religion.) Men knew how to take care of babies. This was nothing exceptional, even if a priest was doing it.

[4] The neighbor boy was therefore also chonin. Rural unmarried women and men could sleep around before marriage (in the same class, not with priests). It was called yobai, or literally, “crawling around at night.” (Bellah, Robert. Tokugawa Religion.)

[5] Attitudes towards merchants, and particularism in the Tokugawa era from Bellah, Robert, Tokugawa Religion. Example of particularism: “Women might lie sometimes; it depends.” Example of universalism: “Women are liars.” Because of particularism, it's impossible to conclude definitively whether unmarried, pregnant chonin girls in 18th century Japan would have automatically been shunned, but when this story was translated into English in 1957 in the United States, they most certainly were.

[6] Children conceived during yobai were often raised by the girls' parents as their own. (Bellah, Robert. Tokugawa Religion.) Hakuin's audience was composed mainly of rural people. (Yampolsky, Philip. Zen Master Hakuin.)

Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. New York: Tuttle Books, 1957.

Hakuin. The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings, translated by Philip B. Yampolsky. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

Bellah, Robert. Tokugawa Religion: the Values of Pre-Industrial Japan. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1957.

Note: I did not cite any sources for modern Western attitudes toward women, because duh.


Lori Cries
S. & A. Laurence


Ode for Eva
by C. Hudak

On the occasion
of your graduation
this year of our lord,
First Corona,
a song.

Here, where
it is difficult to see
much, but something
I do know is
now we must live with our choices.

we must
Live with
our choices.

Now we must live with our choices.

What we choose
will be what we have
whether, weather,



2 pounds tomatoes at their peak, halved and cored

2 Persian cucumbers, chopped into large pieces

1 garlic clove peeled

1 piece of white bread

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar. Depending on the intensity of the vinegar, start with 1 tablespoon then add more if needed.

1/4-1/2 cup olive oil (or add sparingly when serving)

1 tsp Kosher salt

optional: 1-2 tablespoons shallots, rough chopped

Instructions:Blend all ingredients and chill for 1-2 hours.