It is What it Is (You got a problem wit dat?)

My old sangha was Original Mind Zen Sangha in Princeton, NJ, and half-jokingly we had a rather Jersey-like motto: “It is what it is (you got a problem with that?)” I used to work with a crew of electricians in New York whose motto was, “It is what it is, we'll get it done. We always do.” We hear the phrase “It is what it is” so much, it probably has no meaning anymore. But if we dissect it, it is one of the most “Zen” statements around.

We can look at the statement from a purely objective point of view, where there is a separate subject & object, and state that there is an “it” to be what “it” is. This “it” exists as totally separate from me, in fact may have nothing to do with me at all, other than I perceive that there is an “it” to be what it is. Is there an “it,” is there a “what,” is there an “is” all would be answered yes. Nothing more to it, it's there, it exists, and there is a “it-ness” to “it.” Everything is only ever seen in the realm of form. At this stage, we don't even ask any of these questions; it never dawns on us to even ask them, because the answer is only “It Is What It Is.”

We can look at it from the “emptiness” perspective and say, “What is this 'it'?” Is there any 'is' to 'it'?” What is implied by 'what'?” Is that a subject/object separation? Am I “it,” and is “it” me? Does “it” have any “it-ness” to it? Do I have any “me-ness” to me? Is that an implication of existence as a physical form? Is there an “is-ing” or “being” to be done? If we consider only the Absolute, the answer to the multiple-choice quiz would be “None of the Above.” Here, we're stuck in emptiness, asking questions that may stay as exercises in intellect and nothing more. Everything is only ever seen in the context of the Absolute, we're stuck in the Absolute, which is no better than being stuck in form.

From a broad, geopolitical standpoint, neither of these views is particularly useful. Saying “There is no bomb, there is no Paris, no birth, no death, all is oneness,” would probably not be well-appreciated by someone who just lost a loved one in Paris last week. Subject being object, object being subject is only skillful in certain circumstances, and as Bodhisattvas, it's our duty to ascertain when that is. The other side, where subject and object are totally separate may result in, “We've got to keep them out of our country, they're all terrorists, they should go back where they came from.” Likewise, perhaps not the most Bodhisattva of expressing oneself.

On a more personal level, what do you or I have going on that's holding us back? Tonight is the last night we are sitting in this space, because financially it isn't feasible. The sangha is small, attendance swings widely from one week to the next, we don't receive enough in donations to justify continuing to rent the space. It is what it is. I asked Venerable Wonji about “trying to grow a sangha” when we were on retreat a few weeks ago. His response was, “Maybe you should stop trying.”

Now, that can be taken a few different ways—I can stop putting up notices about our schedule, posting blogs and Dharma talks, put everything in the realm of, “If it's here, then they will find it.” Consequently, I could be sitting alone week after week, maybe happily, maybe angrily. Happy or angry is largely irrelevant to the matter of growing a sangha, because neither has any effect on whether anyone is here or not. So that's a “not-trying” that is purely passive, and probably ineffective on a number of levels.

Another way I could take “not-trying” would be continue to do the same things that I've been doing, posting schedules, flyers, and so on, and if anyone comes, Wonderful! If anyone doesn't, Wonderful! This is fine, it's non-attachment to results, I do what I do, and the rest, “It is what it is.” That's a good attitude, except it leaves out a few things: am I doing this because I should be doing this? Am I doing it out of ego, out of stubbornly hanging on to the notion that “There's a Five Mountain Order Sangha, and I'll be damned if I'm the one to close it down.” The option I'm taking for now is seeing that neither of those views contains the “totality of reality.” For now, it is becoming financially difficult to continue to meet here. That doesn't mean that we won't meet somewhere else in a matter of weeks, months, whenever. For the moment, that's the “it is what it is.” It's not an either/or, it's a “for the moment, this is what I need to do.” Very practical, or so it seems at this moment. That may be proven to be incorrect as much as anything else. It is what it is.

In “The Compass of Zen,” Zen Master Seung Sahn talks about the Huayan Sutra:

If you wish to thoroughly understand
All the buddhas of the past, present, and future,

Then you should view the nature of the whole universe
As being created by mind alone.

Truth contains both correct and incorrect. Truth contains both greed and generosity. Truth contains good and bad, and simultaneously doesn't make good and bad out of there being good and bad, greed and generosity, correct and incorrect. Sangha is here? Wonderful! Sangha is not here, Wonderful! It is what it is.

But is we only leave it there, we're still in the realm of the Absolute without taking the Relative into account. Our thinking makes sitting here good and bad, and that is Truth. It's not necessarily reality, but it is Truth. So whether we're meeting here in this room Thursday evenings is only good or bad when we make it so. The next step after “thinking makes good and bad” is, what is the enlightened behavior that accompanies this? In any situation, what is Bodhisattva action? Bomb goes off in Beirut, bomb goes off in Syria, and Paris, and Nigeria. Bombs have already gone off. Don't make good or bad, just help the injured. See if there is something you can do to keep the next bomb from injuring people.

Sit with sangha? Wonderful! Sit alone? Wonderful! Meditate in order to become a Bodhisattva? OK. Meditate and be a Bodhisattva? Wonderful. All we do is save all sentient beings. That is what it is. You got a problem with that? Wonderful!

Click on the title to listen to the Dharma talk, or navigate here: