Cultivating the Bodhisattva Path at Work

This article was based on a public talk given at the Chan Meditation Center and published in the Chan Magazine, summer 2013 issue.

Cultivating the Bodhisattva Path at Work

By Rebecca Li

Most of us have to work to make a living, yet many people dread going to work for many reasons, such as boredom, interpersonal conflict, stress and competition. In our attempt to feel better in our work life most of us try to change the external conditions. Some may keep changing jobs. Others may find distractions outside of work to deal with the stress and pressure. As practitioners, we might explore ways we can apply the practice while at work, since running away does not really get to the root of the problem. For those who keep changing jobs, they may find that they get dissatisfied not long after starting the new job. For those who try to forget the problems at work by devoting themselves to other things—family, volunteer work, or hobbies—they may find the same problems still staring them in the eyes every time they go to work. Observing this, one may realize that perhaps the problem is not external. Dharma practice allows us to turn inward to reflect on how sufferings arise. The bodhisattva path provides us with guidance on how to free ourselves from suffering. In this article, I would like to examine how one can engage in the bodhisattva practice at work.

First of all, I would like to clarify what we mean by cultivating the bodhisattva path—It is an approach to practice which focuses on bringing benefits to others without being concerned with one’s own gain and loss. Personal benefit results from such practice; this sounds paradoxical, but not so if we keep in mind that the goal of practice is to lessen self-centered attachment, which is the source of our suffering. As long as we put ourselves before others, see our needs as more important than other people’s needs, this self-centered attachment will only strengthen. If, instead, we stop being so concerned with our own desires, comfort, worries and suffering, and turn our focus to bringing happiness to others, we will find that we end up being happier and the worries that were haunting us disappear.

Many of us have probably experienced this in one way or the other. For example, on some days, we wake up feeling pretty lousy because we did not sleep well. Very often, we attach the self to the notion that “I am not feeling well and I am not going to put up with any garbage today.” So we set our mind to put our desires and suffering first, expecting others to yield to us, and perhaps feeling totally justified in being mean and nasty. In this way, the self-fulfilling prophecy begins. We are going to have a lousy day not because we woke up feeling lousy, but because we made the decision to focus on our discomfort at the expense of our concern for others. When we are inconsiderate, others respond in kind, and thus more unpleasant experiences are generated. Or, we can take a different path—the bodhisattva path: We are aware of the headache, but we focus on smiling, being considerate and helpful to others. Then we will find that either the headache disappears by itself, or we stop noticing it; our suffering disappears when we do not dwell on it.

If we are only concerned with bringing benefits to others, we will be motivated to improve ourselves. We will find ways to calm our minds, maintain emotional stability, learn new skills, and try to understand others’ points of view, so that we can be more effective in helping others. As a result, without thinking about what benefit we may yield, we are the ones who benefit most from our selfless concern for others. This is how the bodhisattva path works.

How do we go about cultivating the bodhisattva path? The content of the bodhisattva precepts provides some guidance. The three cumulative pure precepts include: refrain from causing harm to others, engage in all virtuous acts, and vow to help all sentient beings. I will go over these precepts one by one in the context of our work life.

Refrain From Causing Harm to Others

The first of the three cumulative pure precepts is to refrain from causing harm to others. This involves, for the laity, upholding the five precepts: not killing, not stealing, not lying, not engaging in sexual misconduct, and not using intoxicants. We avoid getting intoxicated to prevent acting with poor judgment which often results in hurting others. The teachings on right livelihood (part of the eightfold noble path) as explained by both Master Yin Shun and Master Sheng Yen, talk about making a living while upholding the five precepts. Hence, in choosing our profession (an important step in our work life) besides making sure it is legal, the precepts also provide some guidance on what kind of professions practitioners would like to avoid. While perfectly legal, for instance, running a slaughter house would be a profession a practitioner might like to avoid because slaughtering animals breaks the precept of killing. This is an obvious example; there are some more subtle ones. Some jobs appear on the surface to be perfectly in accordance with the precepts until we start working there. For instance, in some jobs that involve selling and promoting products or services, some companies push the salespeople to deceive customers in order to increase sales and profit. Discovering this, a practitioner might like to consider a different job.

This is often a difficult issue to discuss. For one thing, these precepts seem to put practitioners at a disadvantage in our already challenging world. One may complain, “It’s not easy to find a well-paying job to support my family. It is simply not practical to narrow my choices to comply with the precepts. Perhaps only some people are fortunate to have such options if they do not have huge student loans to repay or they come from a wealthy family.”

This is a fair comment and warrants clarification. Precepts are not rules to restrict our behaviors, the disobedience of which leaves us condemned. Rather, precepts are tools that help us free ourselves from suffering. They provide guidance on how we would like to live our lives so as to refrain from causing harm to others and ourselves. For instance, if our job asks us to convince people to pay for products we know are not good, how would it make us feel inside? We may make a decent amount of money doing so, but deep down, we probably don’t feel so proud of ourselves. Such turmoil gnaws at us and may surface as resentment, irrational anger, low self-esteem or insecurity—emotional afflictions that cause us unease or suffering. Our personal happiness is not the only victim. Our performance and effectiveness can also be adversely affected. Consider this: feeling lousy because of this internal turmoil may cause us to treat others poorly and we can feel quite helpless about it. We may get grumpy or snap at our boss, colleagues or clients, who may in turn evaluate us poorly which can cost us our next promotion or even our job. Knowing this, what would be the wise thing to do? It may be a good idea to stop working at this job that involves breaking the precept of lying and look for a job that allows us to sleep well at night.

Observing and upholding the precepts helps us attain peace of mind; breaking it knowingly causes us suffering. The choice is ours. As long as we are willing to suffer the emotional turmoil caused by our actions that cause harm to others, we can choose not to uphold these precepts. There are no precept police out there enforcing these precepts. We are responsible for ourselves. In fact, the practice of upholding precepts is a perfect illustration of how the bodhisattva practice works—the intention appears to be for the benefit of others, yet ultimately, we ourselves benefit the most in the form of inner peace and happiness.

Before we move on, for those of you unfamiliar with the teaching of precepts, I would like to clarify one more thing. The upholding of precepts is our own business, and thus we set the standard to which we are able and willing to adhere and practice accordingly. They are not standards we use to judge and evaluate other people. This is very important. If we do not understand this point, we may misuse the teachings of right livelihood and pass judgments on and discriminate against people in some professions. This is not the purpose of the precepts. Doing so will only generate more vexations and suffering for ourselves.

Engage in All Virtuous Actions

The second of the three cumulative pure precepts is to engage in all virtuous acts. In our practice, it is not enough just to refrain from harmful actions, we also aspire to bring joy and happiness to others. Hence, in our speech, in addition to refraining from lying, using harsh words, engaging in divisive and frivolous speech, we also say things in ways that bring comfort and happiness to others.

I heard a story about a person who teaches the Dharma. When he learned that one of his students had just been diagnosed with cancer, he thought he would help the student understand the impermanence of life by saying to her, “you are going to die.” The student was very hurt. In this case, the teacher was certainly not lying, but what he said did not bring comfort to the student.

This point may seem trivial to some of you, but it is a crucial part of our practice. Master Sheng Yen often reminded us that we should pay equal attention to wisdom and compassion in our practice. If we emphasize wisdom at the expense of compassion, we can become arrogant thinking that we know the truth and become callous in our relations with others, as illustrated in the example just mentioned. If we cultivate compassion without wisdom, we are likely to do things we think are helping others, but because such actions are based on ignorance rather than wisdom, we often end up causing harm and vexations to self and others. An example may help illustrate this point: I used to work with someone who thought of himself as a nice, compassionate person. When students went to him for help because they neglected to fulfill certain requirements, he would bend every rule in the book to make exceptions for them. He believed that he was helping them, but because he was violating policies and procedures, his actions caused everyone else loads of problem. Students became very confused about the policies. While some students who were exempted from some requirements thought he was a great guy, others felt cheated. So, in this case, trying to be compassionate without wisdom caused others a great deal of trouble.

When we cultivate the bodhisattva path by engaging in virtuous actions that bring comfort and happiness to others, we practice putting others’ needs and concerns before ours. Wisdom helps us understand what is happening and what needs to be done, compassion reminds us to do the right thing based not on what we think is right (which is a self-centered attitude) but on what others need most.

When I was department chair about ten years ago, it happened to be an incredibly busy time because the university was restructuring its entire curriculum, and I was often quite overwhelmed. There were a few times when students came to me to ask for help because they had to spend an extra semester as they neglected to take their courses in the correct sequence. I told them that there was nothing I could do and it was their responsibility. Later on, I found out that these students were quite hurt by my refusal to help them. I felt very badly when I heard that. While it was true that their situation was the result of their own negligence and it would be unfair if I gave them any exemptions, I could have expressed more kindness and understanding even though they would still need to stay an extra semester. At that time, I was too concerned about defending my decision to enforce the department’s policy. As a result, I neglected how these students felt; they must be deeply worried about the implication of having to graduate late. I certainly could have been more mindful of their agony and expressed my empathy more. It was a good lesson for me; it taught me that being too concerned about myself and my beliefs (in defending how right the department policies are and how I should enforce these policies equally to be fair to all students) had caused me to lose sight of taking care of the feelings of these students whom I cared about. I worked very hard to make the curriculum restructuring go smoothly for them. Yet, I neglected to be kind when I was interacting with them, and very often those moments really matter.

We may take our work so seriously that we become very attached to our way of doing things, believing firmly that we are working for the benefit of the organization. This belief is actually a form of self-centered attachment. It is relatively easy to spot that we are being self-centered when all we care about is making more money or getting the next promotion. Yet, this other form of self-centered attachment—where we believe strongly that we are doing the right thing for everyone—is more subtle and difficult to recognize. Various forms of practice, such as sitting meditation, that help us settle and clear our mind are useful in self-reflection that sheds light on these more subtle forms of self-centered attachment. While we can remind ourselves to engage in virtuous actions, maintaining a calm and clear mind puts us in a state of being where these virtuous actions come naturally. Hence, if we want to be better at being kind and generous to others at work, practicing some form of meditation to calm the mind is important. When our mind is calm and clear, we are the first to benefit from this peace. If we approach our relationship with people at work in this way, putting their comfort and happiness ahead of our self-centered concerns, many of the interpersonal problems can be resolved.

Let me share another personal example to illustrate this point. There was a period when I was having some difficulty getting along with a colleague of mine. We both care about the department very much but we have different ideas about how to make things better. Things were quite tense between us for a while. One day after a meditation session, it suddenly became clear to me that it must be very stressful for her to be dealing with these departmental problems. I knew it because I had to deal with them in the past. For me to constantly voice very different opinions must have made things even more difficult. I thought to myself, “she too wants to make things better, it’s just that we have very different ideas.” So I bought a nice plant in a pot in her favorite color as a gift to show her my goodwill and told her that she was doing an excellent job. It made her very happy and the tension in our relationship disappeared. Do we still have disagreements? Of course, we do. But we can now disagree in an amiable way, and it makes life at work so much more pleasant for both of us.

Upholding this precept does not mean that we give up our principle, or pander to everyone, or never disagree with anyone at work, or let our subordinates slack off, or let people walk all over us. It merely means that we interact with them in a way that brings them joy and comfort rather than hurtful feelings, even when we are firing someone or giving someone an order or disagreeing with someone in a meeting. Also, when we keep our mind calm and clear, we can listen better which helps us understand the real issues. We are then more likely to be able to find a solution that is satisfactory to all parties. On the other hand, when we are consumed with anger—often righteous anger—at others, it is difficult to see the situation clearly and come up with a satisfactory solution for all.

By this time, some readers are probably thinking, “What she is saying is nice but a bit naïve. Maybe it works in places where things are not so competitive. But there is no way I can be kind and generous and rejoice in others’ success in my ultra-competitive, cut-throat corporate world. This bodhisattva practice can never work in my job.” This is an important criticism. It is a common perception that Buddhist practice is only compatible with life in a relatively low-stress, non-competitive environment such as a monastery, and it is not realistic to try to apply these principles of bodhisattva practice in a highly competitive environment. If this is true, then the buddhadharma will become irrelevant soon as our world is only getting more fast paced and competitive with increasing globalization. Since work takes up a significant chunk of our time each day, if the Dharma is not applicable at work, it is not really relevant in our modern world. But is this true?

Master Sheng Yen talked about competing against others versus competing against ourselves. Very often, when we think about competition, especially at work, we are competing against others. It goes along the line of, “I want to have better sales performance than everyone else,” or “I want to be the most popular teacher,” or “I want to outperform everyone else in front of our boss,” so on and so forth. This approach to competition may motivate us to work harder and improve ourselves, but it also causes a lot of stress and suffering. By thinking of competition as me against others, we reinforce in our mind the notion that there is a “me” who is permanent and separate from others. This is an erroneous understanding of the true nature of self, which is actually the result of the coming together of causes and conditions that are constantly changing.

When we think of ourselves as separate from others, it is easy to feel isolated. If we add the idea that we are in a “me against others” situation, it becomes very difficult for us to see how we are actually living in an interconnected world, where other people’s efforts contribute to our existence. Think about it, if none of our co-workers did their work, there would be no company to provide us with our livelihood, and we would not be able to pay bills and support our family. Yet, we do not see ourselves as interdependent with others. We, instead, see it as a zero-sum game. If someone else is praised by the boss, I am automatically devalued. If someone else is popular with students or customer, I am by default the less popular one. If someone else makes better sales number, I am automatically the loser. Therefore, we want to beat down others to be the best, and this attitude causes the workplace to be quite competitive.

When we think of competition this way, we allow ourselves and our aspirations to be defined by someone else’s performance. If Joe, a colleague, makes $100,000 more in sales commission than we do, we can get very jealous. It is almost impossible to rejoice in his accomplishments. We would want to do whatever it takes to make more than he does. While this desire to be better than our competitor can be a motivator that propels us forward, if we fail to outdo them, we can become resentful, thinking that the world is unfair. When we are so focused on outdoing our competitor, we may become blind to the causes and conditions that made their success possible and thus fail to assess whether these causes and conditions are present for us. For example, perhaps Joe is so successful because he is extremely outgoing and can make friends easily, thus allowing him to get many new clients. Do we ask ourselves if we have the same capability? I know someone who only needs to sleep three hours a day. This gives him many more hours to work and be productive. Without the same biological disposition, should I try to compare my level of productivity with his? Because everyone has very different causes and conditions, comparing ourselves with others often brings unnecessary sufferings.

One might ask, “wouldn’t it mean that to avoid suffering, we should forget all about competition and just let ourselves fall behind and become obsolete?” The answer is “no”; if that were the case, then the Dharma would indeed be teaching passivity and complacency and would not be a contributing force to the society. According to Master Sheng Yen, it is not competition per se that is problematic—it is how we approach it. Instead of competing against others, we should be competing with ourselves. When we compete with ourselves, we are constantly trying to improve ourselves, even when we are in a non-competitive environment. When our focus shifts to competing with ourselves, we will not see others as competitors but instead as the source of help to improve ourselves. For instance, I work in a congenial and friendly department and it is a relatively non-competitive environment. It can easily breed complacency, thinking that doing a decent job is good enough. Using Shifu’s teaching, I understand that even though I am getting good reviews for my teaching, there is always room for improvement. I find out how my colleagues approach various aspects of their teaching and learn from them in order to improve my teaching. In the process, I enjoy my work more and experience growth and development.

This approach works in a competitive environment as well. When our focus is on improving ourselves rather than defeating someone else, we are much more open to information that helps us make adjustments to improve our performance. This openness helps us appreciate the ability of those around us, who might otherwise have been identified as our “competitors.” Hence, competing with ourselves motivates us to improve ourselves and avoid complacency without pitting us against others in our workplace. In fact, it helps us learn from each other more effectively, resulting in our being a more valuable asset to our workplace, thus increasing our chances for advancement. More importantly, we do not need to suffer through the sense of isolation, resentment and jealousy that results from competing against others.

I want to share one more thing I find important in Master Sheng Yen’s teachings related to this topic. It is common for practitioners to mistake complacency for contentment. Very often, instead of being overly competitive and ambitious, some practitioners become satisfied with their current level of performance. They see this as “not being greedy” and think that they are practicing well. Shifu warned that this is complacency. Even though we do not seek promotion because it is not important for us, it does not mean that we should be satisfied with what we can do now and just hum along on auto-pilot mode at work. It would be a mistake to think of that as contentment or a high level of practice. It is actually complacency and laziness. Whatever job we have, we can always find ways to do it better.

Regardless of the kind of job we have and whether there is a boss breathing down our neck, we should continue to improve our performance. This is the attitude of competing with ourselves. In fact, that was how Shifu approached his teaching. Even though everyone always said that his retreat talks were wonderful and perfect, he continued to improve his retreat teaching over the years by experimenting with different things so that he could help more people. Here is another illustration of the bodhisattva path: If our focus is on doing a better job so that those we serve and work with can benefit, we will find ways to improve ourselves, and in the end, we are the one who benefits most from the learning process. Bodhisattva practice is about benefiting oneself while bringing benefits to others.

Vow to Help All Sentient Beings

The third of the three cumulative pure precepts is to vow to help all sentient beings. This part of the bodhisattva precept motivates us to be diligent. Since we have vowed to help all sentient beings, we make use of every opportunity to help others, not just when we feel like it or when it is someone we like. This point is particularly useful for cultivating the bodhisattva path at work. Very often we may not like some of the people we deal with at work. This is one of the most common complaints I hear from people about their work life: “My boss drives me crazy,” or “I can’t stand the people I work with,” or “I hate dealing with the customers.” If we remind ourselves of our vow to help all sentient beings, when we complain about someone at work, we are more likely to ask ourselves, “why am I not helping this sentient being?” This thought often is enough to stop the chain of frustrated and angry thoughts and provide us with the space to give rise to empathy, understanding and kindness, and to find ways to get along with these people and help them.

I know someone who told me that she could not stand her secretary; she would complain about her non-stop. But after a while, she saw that her complaining was destructive. She realized that when she complained about her secretary’s incompetence, she was reinforcing her own sense of pride while suppressing thoughts of empathy and understanding. Not only did she not feel good, these negative feelings came through in her interactions with her secretary, making it more difficult for them to work together. Being a practitioner, she realized that she was clearly not applying the practice when it came to her secretary. This thought got her to stop the frustration and instead see the situation more clearly. She saw that her secretary was being asked to perform tasks that she was not equipped to do, and it was a situation that they just had to work with. Being aware of that, she learned to give her secretary tasks within her capability and to give her more detailed instructions to help her. More importantly, because she no longer thinks negatively of her secretary, she can treat her with more kindness and appreciate better what she does. As a result, they now have a much better work relationship.

Some people may think of this vow to help all sentient beings as a burden. If we look at it from the perspective of cultivating the bodhisattva path, every person we encounter is an opportunity to practice. In this way, we ought to be grateful for all the difficult people we have to work with because learning to work with them deepens our patience and compassion, and definitely improves our interpersonal skills. Practicing this way, we come to see everyone we encounter at work as bodhisattvas who help us with our practice. When we see that our workplace is filled with bodhisattvas, then our workplace becomes no different from the pure land. When that happens, we will no longer dread going to work.

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