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What Would Buddha Do at Work?: 101 Answers to Workplace Dilemmas

What Would Buddha Do at Work?: 101 Answers to Workplace Dilemmas

by Franz Metcalf, Barbara BJ Hateley, B. J. Gallagher Hateley (Joint Author)

With the economy booming, people are experiencing extraordinary material benefits yet still hunger for deeper meaning in their work lives. What Would Buddha Do at Work? uses the gentle teachings of Buddha to help readers discover that meaning. What Would Buddha Do at Work? presents 101 situations or issues that people struggle with daily, ranging from


With the economy booming, people are experiencing extraordinary material benefits yet still hunger for deeper meaning in their work lives. What Would Buddha Do at Work? uses the gentle teachings of Buddha to help readers discover that meaning. What Would Buddha Do at Work? presents 101 situations or issues that people struggle with daily, ranging from coping with difficult bosses, serving customers, and working as a team, to being creative, solving problems, and offering leadership. In response to these dilemmas, the authors pass along Buddhist wisdom that will inspire and guide readers to “enlightened” answers to their problems — answers that are spiritual as well as practical and realistic.

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Ulysses Press
Publication date:
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5.00(w) x 7.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What would Buddha say about
the advantages of enlightened work?

Since there is nothing to attain, the Bodhisattva lives by the perfection of wisdom with no hindrance in the mind; no hindrance and therefore no fear.

The Heart Sutra

What are the advantages of enlightened work? Buddha would simply say they're the advantages of enlightenment, because enlightened work brings enlightenment to the workplace. So the question becomes: "Enlightenment, what's that?"

    The first person to see Buddha after he was enlightened asked, "Who are you?" Buddha said, "I am awake." Enlightenment is being awake to the moment and the world.

    That awakening, that enlightenment, is the goal of Buddhism and there is no reason it cannot be the goal of work as well. Enlightened work, then, wakes up the workplace and the world. The Heart Sutra describes spiritual practices, but it could just as easily describe work practices. It's not about attaining anything; it's about being there, at work or at home, without hindrance and without fear.

    "Which comes first," you might ask, "Enlightenment or enlightened work?" Well, where are you, right now? Do the work of the moment. Take a first step. Sure, a first step is not a whole journey; nor is a first answer a whole book.

What would Buddha do about developing
a vision and mission for himself?

Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them;
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to abandon them;
Dharma gates are countless, I vow to enter them;
The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

The Four Great Mahayana Vows

Almost all organizations have a mission statement, and some have a vision statement as well. Leaders know the importance of having such things in writing as a compass to guide our values and priorities, to prevent our becoming lost in the details of day-to-day organizational issues. Organizations that are built to last operate on a handful of key values, principles, or beliefs, that guide everything they do: policies, goals, hiring, training, marketing, spending, and every other aspect of work life.

    Successful individuals also have personal mission statements, or creeds, by which they live their lives. Millions of practicing Buddhists make the Four Great Vows every day, to remind themselves of the commitments they have made: commitment to respect all forms of life; commitment to break free of the tyranny of endless desires; commitment to continuous study and learning; commitment to bring their Buddha nature into their lives in every way. Of course the more beautiful the goal, the smaller the chance we shall accomplish it. No matter, the commitment is to try. Don't sell yourself short. What is your vision or mission for your own life? You can make that vision inseparable from your work. It can be the heart of your personal mission statement.

How would Buddha choose the right
career or job?

A birdcatcher asked the Teacher, "My family's always
been birdcatchers. If we stop, we'll starve. But doing
this (evil) work, can I still reach Buddhahood?"
The Teacher answered, "The mind goes to hell, not the
body. So when you kill a bird, take your mind and kill
it too. Doing this, you can reach Buddhahood."

Zen Teacher Bankei

Almost everyone at one time or another has asked the general question: "How do I find the right career, the right job, where I will be fulfilled and happy?" If you are seeking to learn from Buddha's teachings, this question is especially important because part of the very core of Buddhism, the Eightfold Noble Path, is Right Livelihood. Simply put, that means doing work that helps, rather than harms, all living things. As Buddha brought work into the spiritual life, he brought spirituality into worklife. Right Livelihood is being Buddha at work.

    For many people, this is a serious problem. What if you work for a company that makes instruments of destruction? What if you work for an organization whose fundamental mission is not aligned with your own values? Can you still do enlightened work? Can you still pursue Right Livelihood?

    Buddha's answer here is very interesting. He taught that we should try hard never to harm other living things, and yet here Zen Teacher Bankei reconciles enlightenment with birdcatching. How can this be? The key issue, it seems, is not so much what your body is doing, but what your mind is doing. Of course, the mind and the body are intimately connected, and one usually follows the other in day-to-day life. But this need not always be so. It is possible to have the body engaged in one activity, and the mind focused on something else. Here, he advises the bird catcher to kill the bird if he absolutely must (he recognizes that people have to make a living), while keeping the mind not on killing the bird (which would be wrong livelihood) but on killing the mind, that is, killing desire and attachment. A creative solution, and one that acknowledges the power of our environment over us. There are times we cause harm without meaning to.

    Of course, Buddha would never accept this as a long-term solution. He would encourage the birdcatcher to change jobs if he could. Birdcatching simply is not Right Livelihood. But perhaps for the time being there is no choice. You must feed yourself and your family, and this means you must make a living in a compromised fashion. You'll simply have to work that much harder to keep your mind pure until you can find work that is Right Livelihood.

    You can pursue enlightenment no matter what job you have, and you can often transform your boring or unfulfilling work into enlightened work by changing how you think about your work, by changing your spirit. You can be a garbage collector, in the spirit of love and service, and be well on your way to Buddhahood. There's no question that garbage collecting is Right Livelihood, while a creative and high-paying position in a corrupt and greedy field is not. Whatever your job is, start there; adopt the right mind and take that first step on the path. Yes, the path may lead you to change careers, but Buddha does not demand you harm yourself in doing so. In the end, only a career that helps will make you truly fulfilled.

What would Buddha say about attachment
and desire at work?

Don't cling to what is pleasant or unpleasant.
Suffering missing the first, getting the second.
Liking things just hurts too much; don't do it.
For he is free who has no likes or hates.

Dhammapada 210-211

Perhaps the central tenet of Buddhism is that attachment is the root of all suffering. When we hold something dear, when we love it a lot, we will suffer if we become separated from it. It is unwise to love a job too much, to love an organization too much, or to be too attached to having a particular job or career. For if you cannot attain it, or if you attain it and then lose it, you suffer greatly.

    The same is true for being attached to not having certain things at work. If something is unpleasant to me, I will do everything I can to avoid it, or if it comes my way anyway, to get rid of it. What is unpleasant might be a person I don't want to work with, a task I don't like to do, a responsibility I don't want to assume, a boss whom I detest, or anything else I resist or avoid. I will suffer greatly, to the extent that I am attached to not having certain things or people in my worklife.

    Buddha's path offers me freedom from suffering at work, and everywhere else, too. All I need do is to wake up, to notice that things come and go in my life, and to practice being unattached to any of them. Good things come into my work life, and good things leave. Bad things come into my work life, and bad things leave. That's the secret: everything in my work life is transitory; it will change; it will pass away. Find your freedom in that, and remember that nothing says you cannot be an agent of that change yourself. Finding this freedom is not easy; society constantly pulls us away from it. But Buddha found it, and so can you.

What would Buddha do to become
a great employee?

A good employee serves her employer in five ways: by
getting up and starting work before her; by stopping
after her; by taking from her employer only what is
given; by striving to do her work well; and by
upholding her employer's name.

If you're wondering what you can do to endear yourself to the boss, to be a fabulous employee, Buddha has some words of wisdom for you. Get back to basics. Forget about kissing up—no one is impressed by that. To be a great employee, start by doing great work. Here are five suggestions from Buddha:

1. Get up and start work before your boss. It never hurts to arrive at work a little bit early; you will be calm and collected as you start your day; and things will be perking along by the time your boss arrives.

2. Stop working after your boss: being willing to stay a little longer to tie up loose ends, or to help a coworker, is a great way to show your boss that you are willing to "go the extra mile." And so often, this quieter time is the most productive in the day.

3. Take from your employer only what is given. It may seem harmless to take home that pencil or that wrench or some other little thing, but it really is stealing and it's the first step on a long road down. Everyone may do it, but you don't want to be just like everyone, do you? Isn't that the point here?

4. Strive to do your work well. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people do just enough work to get by and then wonder why they aren't doing better in their careers. Don't waste your effort on scheming or daydreaming; Buddha always focused on effort. Here's the bottom line: above all else, do great work!

5. Uphold your employer's name. To many people you meet, you are your company; whether you are on the job or off, speak well of your employer and represent them well in the community; it will come back to reward you in surprising ways. If you care about your company, honor its name.

    What does it take to be a great employee? You can always add more things to this list, of course, but Buddha lays it out plain: start with the basics. There's no place to go but up.

What would Buddha do to bolster
employee self-esteem?

As a solid rock doesn't quaver in the wind,
So the wise are moved by neither praise nor blame.

Dhammapada 81

You may have heard that Buddha denied the existence of the self. Let's be clear: Buddha never denied that we experience the world and our lives through a sense of self. This self matters and needs attention. What Buddha denied was the enduring nature of this self: it is not eternal. Our selves arise and they pass away; and in fact, even while they exist, they only do so in relationship with others.

    Buddha respects the need for self-esteem. The self in this world needs to feel positive about itself. He warns you not to be swayed by other people's opinion of you or your work. You know when you have done your best work, and you are the best person to judge your own actions. Do not give away your self-confidence by letting others' opinions determine whether you feel good or bad about yourself. If you let others' praise, or criticism affect your sense of self-worth, you will forever be a slave to public opinion. In a sense, what they think of you is none of your business. Does a rock care what the wind thinks of it? A rock just goes on doing its thing.

    It is a truism that people who feel good about themselves produce good results. It is also true that people who produce good results feel good about themselves. So, which comes first, the self-esteem or the good results?

    Buddha would tell us it doesn't matter which comes first. If you feel good about yourself, chances are you are already producing good results. If you don't feel good about yourself, try producing good results and see how your self-esteem improves. Instead of the contemporary "power of positive thinking," Buddhism emphasizes the "power of positive doing." Get into action, and see how it improves your mood, sometimes immediately. Action alleviates anxiety. It also helps elevate self-esteem, and can even lighten a depression. So, if your self-esteem isn't all you'd like it to be, get your butt in gear. We're not sure Buddha would say it that way, but that's what he'd be thinking.

What would Buddha advise about

As the smith burns out the silver's dross,
So the wise man burns away his own.

Dhammapada 239

Walking the path of awakening is about progress, not perfection. Buddha might well have been the spiritual father of Edward Deming, preaching the gospel of continuous improvement and incremental progress. Deming focused his attention on refining work processes, while Buddha focused his attention on refining human beings. But they would agree that improvement never ends.

    You notice, in the quote above, that Buddha teaches each individual to be responsible for his own improvement. It is not your boss's job to make you into a better worker and a better person. It is your job. Your boss and other teachers may help you by giving your instruction, coaching, and feedback, but ultimately you are responsible for your own continuous improvement.

    A fool ignores his responsibility, throwing up his hands and exclaiming, "I am wha I am." He has accepted his character as his fate. But the wise person says, "I can change; I can improve; I can grow toward anything I want to be, if I am willing to work. I can follow the path and awaken." Buddhists say this human life is rare and precious; use it well.

Excerpted from What Would Buddha Do at Work? by Franz Metcalf & BJ Gallagher Hateley. Copyright © 2001 by Franz Metcalf and BJ Gallagher Hateley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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