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 parents 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 the little one needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth-- that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.
The mother and the father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"
-- from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
It’s the koan-like nature of even the simplest (especially the simplest) zen stories to keep haunting you until you crack them, or perhaps more accurately, until they crack you. I was a teenager when I first came across this story, quoted in a college textbook of my sister’s called Religions of the World (a book that so fascinated me that I’ve kept it to this day, but that’s another story). Of course, what struck me most back then is that this bizarrely unflappable "Zen Master" would simply take a baby into his care based on accusations he knew to be false. One can only imagine he was completely unprepared for the parenthood (something any teenage boy can sympathize with); and the fact that he met the challenge without even seeming to blink an eye was truly awesome to me. It definitely fanned the flames of my interest in Zen. These guys, it seemed, could face anything, at a moment’s notice.
Now, at least fifteen years later, having practiced Zen for 12 years and having been a dad for one (a stay-at-home Dad for 6 months), what strikes me as most awesome isn’t that Hakuin took the child into his care, but that he was willing to give it up when the seemingly fickle grandparents came round to collect it. To me, that is utterly amazing. No way could I do it: not with my own baby boy, not with any child with whom I’d spent the first year of life. You become so invested, so attached-- indeed, so in love-- with a baby that it’s hard to be away from them for more than a couple of days.
But there’s Hakuin, a year later, doing what must be the right thing, again merely on the word of some not-so-likeable people. What’s the lesson here? I’m not completely sure. I’m still learning it. I think it has to do with the profound choices we’re faced with, often spur of the moment, and how it’s incumbent upon us to stay as even-keeled as we can.
By all commonly accepted standards, Hakuin has every right to react with moral outrage, both at the initial accusation, and again when the family came round later to take the baby like so much forgotten baggage. So why doesn’t he? Well, the easy answer is: he’s a Zen Master. Such individuals don’t truck much with moral outrage. But I think the question is worth a little more digging than that.
In the West, not really knowing any better, we tend to equate "Zen Master" with "wizard" or "ascended being", or perhaps more pejoratively, "empty shell", and further in the more fundamentalist vein, "amoral idol worshipper". But what if all "Zen Master" really meant, when you've stripped away the ritualistic trimmings specific to Zen practice, was "complete human being"? Then I’d say Hakuin’s actions make a perfect sort of sense. He saw the truth in front of him--a child that needed care-- and he cared for the child. Then later, when he saw a family who recognized their error and wanted to become whole again, he gave the kid up. I don’t imagine that just because Hakuin was a Zen Master, he felt no pain at parting with the child. I imagine that his practice allowed him the equanimity to face the pain with courage and without adding more suffering to the world through outrage.
The world is suffering right now, arguably more so than usual. Many of us on the Left are perhaps rightfully outraged at the ignorance, self-righteousness and high-handed hypocritical moralism that has brought us to this pass. Maybe we should ask ourselves, though, how far our outrage will get us in solving the problem. I seek counseling from a man who is the abbot of a Zen Temple, and may some day achieve the official rank of "Roshi" or "Master" in the Rinzai Dharma lineage. (Hakuin is an extremely important reformist link in this patriarchy.) When I expressed to him my anger and frustration over the current political situation, he told me the best thing I could do for the political future is bring my son up well. Talk about long-term solutions to short-term problems! How can you argue with that?
So those are some of my thoughts on Hakuin and his baby. I feel like there’s more to say, but... I have to go take care of my boy. He’s turning one in a week. And you can call me a hypocrite, but I thank the lord I ain’t no Zen Master, and ain’t nobody taking him away from me.