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Thread: Practice in the Workplace

  1. #1

    Practice in the Workplace

    I know we'll be getting to the topic of workplace practice in Joko's book sometime within the next month or so, but I just came across this nice article on The Worst Horse (an irreverent little Buddhist pop culture blog) and thought I'd share it.

    Here's a link if you prefer. The full text follows.

    =========================

    "GOOD WORK: Uncovering the Dharma in Even the Crappiest Job"
    by Joe Evans

    When we are at a Buddhist teaching or on our meditation cushion, we are open, ready to alter our views. So why are we immediately sucked back into a mind of aversion when it comes to doing the work that gives us our paychecks?

    We may perceive our work as mundane or tainted in some way, but since we are the ones in charge of transforming our minds -- from the green caterpillar that it is, into the majestic butterfly of awakening -- shouldn't we also be able to create a purified view of the workplace?

    Yes. We have a choice:

    We can see the world as a place were things are ugly, stupid, boring, or counterproductive to our dharma practice. Or we can see it as it is, in its ultimate reality.

    In reality, our meditation cushions and our work uniforms or desks are in fact the same. They all exist in dependence upon limitless causes and conditions. If we can take advantage of this innate oneness of phenomena we can transform how we view our day-to-day universe. How? Well, let's just say that I am a waiter at a chain restaurant that has a uniform that makes me feel like a moron. The uniform includes a lot of really gimmicky buttons and catch-phrases designed to get the patrons to buy poorly prepared foods. The restaurant itself is noisy and dirty and there is plenty of gossip and bad attitude.

    Okay -- now that we have a sufficiently crappy setting, let's see what we can do to transform it into a suitable place for the cultivation of the mind of enlightenment.

    Let's look closely at my waiters' uniform and see what it is made of. It is cloth and bits of metal and various other bits of material. Now, let's look at our meditation cushions. Cloth. Metal zippers. Hmmmm. . . . Same stuff. Really, even this tacky uniform is composed of the same material as the robes that our teachers may wear, or which is used to make a thanka.

    Now, let's get to the generic American cuisine I'm serving. As we investigate it, we can see that it may not be the best, but we can still work with it. If we are to cultivate the mind that wishes to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings we can think of this food as something different. We can imagine that we have blessed the food and transformed it into a beautiful array of the finest offering that can bring happiness to sentient beings.

    As we deliver this food, who is to say that someone at the table isn't a Bodhisattva or a Buddha or a Rinpoche or a Roshi or whatever? We can't know such a thing, so why not offer this food to them with a mind that wishes for any and all who receive it to become free from pain and suffering? In this way we can even transform the duties of a seemingly mundane "service industry" job into true service for the benefit of others.

    The appearance of the world is what it is. Our real "job" is to look deeper and to recognize that while we are functioning within that reality, it does not have the power to control us. Only we can choose whether or not we take seemingly counterproductive conditions and turn them into steps on our path to enlightenment. By utilizing the tools that samsara gives us, we can build a place for the potential enlightened mind that resides within us all to flourish. And generating a virtuous mind at work makes going to work much more appealing; itís no longer separated from our spiritual practice.

    While I don't work at a restaurant like the one I've described here, my job does entail the selling of wine to customers. In selling a potentially harmful substance I am given the opportunity to exert more effort toward transforming and working with my daily environment. Dharmaraksita says in "The Wheel of Sharp Weapons:" "In jungles of poisonous plants strut the peacocks, though medicine gardens of beauty lie near. The masses of peacocks do not find the gardens pleasant, but thrive on the essence of poisonous plants." In the verse that follows, the peacocks are likened to bodhisattvas living in the world of samsara and working for the benefit of others. Likewise, we as ordinary people going to work have the opportunity to "thrive on poisonous plants."

    If we can maintain a level of mindfulness that allows us to even transform difficult situations into virtue then we are skillfully working with samsara. Rather than running away from suffering (and our difficult or frustrating jobs), we can use our eight hours a day to train our minds. In that way we too will thrive like the peacocks, and benefit others like the bodhisattvas.

    If I can create an offering of fine wine with the motivation of bringing bliss to all sentient beings, I will be transforming all the seemingly mundane moments of a work-shift into a day of mindful activity. Through constantly striving to maintain an open and mindful attitude that is rooted in compassion we can even transform ordinary moments into bodhicitta. Through serving a quality wine to my customers with the wish that they attain complete and total awakening I am serving them by trying to enhance my mind of awakening. The more aware we become the more we can benefit those around us.

    Through such a mental transformation -- which we might often leave behind once we've gotten up from our meditation cushions -- we can transform our clothes, our job, and even our customers. When we can transform our seemingly mundane daily activities into a means by which we can increase our compassion for others, we're doing the work of a bodhisattva. We have increased our merit, fortified our compassion, and earned a paycheck all at the same time.

    -------

    JOE EVANS lives in Boston with his girlfriend Charlotte and their dog Rufus. He's a former worker for and member of Gehlek Rimpoche's Jewel Heart Tibetan Buddhist Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has volunteered his time for the Tibetan Nuns Project and Students for a Free Tibet.

    Joe can be reached through his MySpace page.[/u]

  2. #2

    Re: Practice in the Workplace

    Hello Justin,

    Thank you for posting this, and I appreciated it very much. I did want to adjust the tone of the article on a couple of points. I hope my reasons for doing so will become clear in the process.


    We may perceive our work as mundane or tainted in some way, but since we are the ones in charge of transforming our minds -- from the green caterpillar that it is, into the majestic butterfly of awakening -- shouldn't we also be able to create a purified view of the workplace?

    ...

    We can see the world as a place were things are ugly, stupid, boring, or counterproductive to our dharma practice. Or we can see it as it is, in its ultimate reality.
    Yes, our Zen practice is just that. We can radically change our workplace, and the whole world, by how we perceive them. Among the possibilities, we can find a perspective on Reality dropping all thought of "beautiful" or "ugly" ... and thus so "Beautiful"!

    However, I would hesitate to say that the workplace needs to be "purified" ... and I think we must avoid to think of it as something impure or unclean ... for it is purely our workplace, purely just-what-it-is. It is not (--- and this is the very Heart of the Matter, I think ---) that we attain to some realm in which nothing is ever again ugly or impure or boring ... a realm of candy canes and ice cream mountains that is always beautiful and pure and fascinating. I mean, YES, we attain a perspective that can often be nearly like that ... a realm where all conflict and division is gone.

    But, we cannot stay there, cannot live there.

    No, instead we find a home in a world that is often ugly and impure and unsatisfactory ... and that fact is Beautiful!! and as delicious as all the candy canes and ice cream mountains that could ever be. The world is sometimes ugly and boring, and sometimes beautiful and fascinating ... and that fact is Beautiful and Fascinating, I believe.


    Sometimes the workplace (or any place in daily life) will feel like a land of candy canes and ice cream. Sometimes it will all feel like crap. And both are wonderful because, folks, life is just that ... it is not life without all that.


    Now, let's get to the generic American cuisine I'm serving. As we investigate it, we can see that it may not be the best, but we can still work with it. If we are to cultivate the mind that wishes to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings we can think of this food as something different. We can imagine that we have blessed the food and transformed it into a beautiful array of the finest offering that can bring happiness to sentient beings.

    As we deliver this food, who is to say that someone at the table isn't a Bodhisattva or a Buddha or a Rinpoche or a Roshi or whatever?

    No need to transform it, and it is already a fine offering. (That being said, it is still best to avoid the junk food).

    Other than that little change in tone, I fully agree with the point of the article: Our work place is our Dojo. Everywhere is our Dojo.

    Gassho, Jundo

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Anonymous
    hmm seems like we're dealing with the juxtaposition of idealism and materialism, that Nishijima Roshi talks about.

    Jundo, would you be pointing to a more realistic viewpoint?


    Gassho,

    Greg
    Hi Greg,

    Yes, I think that is precisely Nishijima's point:

    (Please pardon the thumbnail sketch below, because it paints with a very wide brush. When we had this discussion once before, the generality of the description led to misunderstandings)

    Some (almost all people in some way) people dream of a world (or "heaven" or "enlightenment" or a "purified society after the revolution comes" ... whatever) that is always good by our little human standards ... candy cane trees and ice cream mountains. At least, they dream of some state much better than the present state. In contrast, this world of ours is less than ideal. That is an "idealistic" view.


    Some people think of the world as just blind processes, going no place in particular. (I really abbreviate the description ... but this is generally a materialistic view of the world). Although seemingly dispassionate and "coldly objective" about the world, this view will often cross the line into asserting that the world is "meaningless" or "pointless crap" or "survival-of-the-fittest cruel" or just "we are born, we work, we die" ... some such bleak thing.

    Both those views tend to judge that there is something lacking in the present state.

    However, Buddhism is an existentialist way of being in the world-just-as-it-is, meaning the world before we impose our judgments and dreams upon it. We neither judge the world lacking in comparison to another ideal world, nor do we judge it cold and pointless and hopeless. We just let the world be as it is, and we go with the flow ... to such a degree that we can no longer see perhaps the divisions between ourselves and the world in the flowing. In that way, as Nishijima describes it, it swallows whole both materialism and idealism by finding this world, just going where it goes, to be ideally just what it is. And that way of seeing beyond "beautiful" or "ugly", "peace" and "war" is .... pretty darn Beautiful and Peaceful!

    And more than words describing this "realistic" perspective, we must actually taste it in the practice-experience of Zazen.

    Something like that. My description is not very artful today.

    By the way, accepting the world "just-as-it-is" does not mean we cannot also seek to improve things that need improving. Having "no judgments" and having "judgments" about making things better can be like two sides of a single coin. It is not an either/or proposition. I think.

    Gassho, Jundo

  4. #4
    Something like that. My description is not very artful today.
    I would disagree! I've found nary a description more useful than the following:

    Buddhism is an existentialist way of being in the world-just-as-it-is, meaning the world before we impose our judgments and dreams upon it. We neither judge the world lacking in comparison to another ideal world, nor do we judge it cold and pointless and hopeless.
    Gassho.[/quote]

  5. #5
    Found another useful article, this one by the Rev Nogo Nanshin Barry Graham titled "Off the Zafu & On the Job." Here's the link, full text follows.

    Gassho.

    ====

    Off the Zafu and On the Job

    I once worked as a copywriter at a company that did advertising and promotion for most of the North Georgia flooring industry. Dalton, Georgia, is home to the world's biggest flooring manufacturer, and several others that aren't far behind. For a year, I drove there every day from Chattanooga, spent the day finding interesting things to say about carpets, rugs, hardwoods, laminates and tiles, and then drove the 30 miles back to Chattanooga, listening to NPR and wondering how my life had taken this particular turn.

    The day I started the job, I met Jane*, who had founded the company 20 years earlier, and had just sold it. I had been hired by the new owner. Jane had agreed to stay on as a manager for a while, and, early on my first morning there, most of my co-workers warned me about her. They told me she had run off several copywriters who just couldn't stand her attitude, that she was impatient and controlling and had a foul temper.

    They were right. But none of them practiced Zen.

    Jane and I got along wonderfully. It really freaked people out, because they'd never seen anyone get along with her, let alone enjoy working with her. I did, and I still miss her.

    Before the first day was over, I found she was exactly as advertised. I was sitting at a computer, working, and she sat down next to me and began to explain how to use the program I was using.

    "Thanks, I know how to use it," I said. "It's the one I use at home."

    She ignored what I'd said, and continued to explain how to use the program. I let her explain it, and, when she'd finished, I thanked her for her help.

    When she left the room, my co-workers looked at me sympathetically, probably wondering how long it would take before I stomped out in tears like my predecessor had.

    Jane came back a few minutes later. "Does that white truck right outside belong to you?" she asked me.

    "Yeah, that's mine," I said.

    "Don't park it right outside. That's for clients only. Park it across the way."

    This obviously wasn't true. Most of the other employees had parked right outside, which is why I had parked there. "No problem," I said. "Should I move it now?"

    "No, that's all right. Just don't park it there tomorrow."

    "Sure. Thanks," I said.

    When she left the room again, a few co-workers approached me to commiserate. They seemed shocked when I said I didn't mind Jane's behavior at all.

    Why should I mind? It wasn't about me.

    If my co-workers had told me in advance that Jane got along well with everyone, and was the most amiable boss they could ever imagine, and then she'd come to me and behaved the way she did, I might have been concerned - because, if that wasn't her usual way, then maybe she had a problem with me. But that wasn't what had happened; people had told me that she was difficult, and that turned out to be true. It wasn't about anything she had against me - she was just the type of person who felt the need to assert dominance over her turf, and she wanted to flex her muscles and show the new guy who was boss. Fine with me; I was getting paid.

    The people who'd walked out, slamming doors, or had burst into tears because of the way Jane talked to them, were angry over a fiction, a story they were making up about Jane and them. There was no Jane and them. It wasn't about Jane and them, any more than what Jane ate for breakfast was about Jane and them. It was about Jane. For whatever reasons, that was just how she behaved.

    Since I didn't take things personally, didn't react to her drill-sergeant routine, Jane didn't feel that she had to keep doing it. I wasn't fighting her, so she felt no need to conquer me. Very soon, I got to know things about Jane that most people who worked for her or worked with her never got to know - her warmth, her sense of humor, and her passion for her work. She truly loved what she did, and she was good at it. She'd learned everything about the Dalton flooring companies, knew their histories, their feuds, where the bodies were buried. Like her or not (I did), agree with her or not (I rarely did), she was always worth listening to.

    But, if I hadn't been trained not to make things about myself, I would have felt pushed to defend something that isn't real. I would have told Jane to blow it out her ass, and I would have quit the job before I had ever properly started it. While telling a story about me, I would have abandoned all the good things about the job, and come away with nothing but a story of my own victimhood.

    I'm not very smart and I'm not very strong. I would never have been able to figure this out for myself, to see through the delusions of the ego. It was the unforgiving, sharp compassion of Zen training that awakened me, that enabled me to realize that nothing, ever, was about me, and so that everything, always, could be met on its own terms.

    *Name changed

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by "Rev Nogo Nanshin Barry Graham in [i
    Off the Zafu and On the Job[/i]":ipx10o74]
    I'm not very smart and I'm not very strong. I would never have been able to figure this out for myself, to see through the delusions of the ego. It was the unforgiving, sharp compassion of Zen training that awakened me, that enabled me to realize that nothing, ever, was about me, and so that everything, always, could be met on its own terms.
    I too am not very smart but I know one day with practice I too will more regularly "realize that nothing, ever, was about me, and so that everything, always, could be met on its own terms." Wonderful story. Thanks Justin.

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