On Work

A Dharma talk by Enkyo Roshi given on 3/18/99

Good evening. I spent the day at Temple Beth Jeserin attending an interfaith convocation on the subject of work in our lives– and so tonight I thought I’d share some of the issues that came up during that meeting as well as some reflections on those issues from the Buddhist perspective.

The Noble Eightfold Path, said to be enunciated at the Buddha¹s first teaching, holds right livelihood (along with right thought, view, action, speech, concentration and mindfulness) to be at the foundation of the path of awakening. From the beginning, the vital consequence of work in our spiritual lives is stressed.

In the first thousand years of Buddhism, Buddhist monastic communities did not work for their livelihood. In accordance with the Indian tradition, they went from place to place and begged for their food. But within a thousand years, the large size of the monasteries in China created a different situation. Feeding the monks put too much pressure on the lay people, so the great abbot, Pai Chang (Yakujo), decreed that all the monks had to work in the fields, and he too worked every day. The story goes that when he was a very old man, his fellow monks felt that he was too old to work and hid his tools from him. ‘If I can’t work, I won’t eat,’ he said, and he fasted until they gave him back his tools. Since Pai Chang, the Zen tradition has honored the simplicity and integrity of work as mindful practice, as service to the community, and as the expression of oneness.

At the Temple Jeserin convocation the question was: how can faith communities open a dialogue about the imbalance in a society where we have some people who have no work or meaningless jobs in which they feel degraded, and others who work all the time to the point of exhaustion? Moreover, what about the overwhelming disparity between rich and poor? To start off the discussion, Rabbi Arthur Waskow told a story: During the days of the Roman Empire, a group of Jews in hiding from persecution were debating their situation: was it better, they debated, to study or to take action? I could easily imagine a Zen group asking the same question — is it better to sit and face the wall or to act? I value our sitting and facing the wall very much because this is how we come to understand that we are not just separate beings out for our own good; it is how we get in touch with our absolute nature. So it’s very, very important to sit and face the wall. But what about taking action? Do we go out and make these issues known to others with discussion, demonstrations and other forms of action? Waskow continued his story: unable to solve their dilemma, the group went to consult with the High Rabbi and he told them, ‘it’s better to study, if that leads to action!’

And we might say also, it’s better to sit, if that leads to action, if that leads to actualizing our insight. When we allow our personalities,¹ our unique way of being, to sit in the Absolute and dissolve, we can see another aspect of our selves: our oneness, our interpenetration with all other people and the earth itself. And we see the great joy and the great suffering associated with work. Not only are we working ourselves to death, we’re also working the earth without rest, sucking out the oil and minerals and chopping down the trees, polluting the air and the water. Perhaps you know the shocking fact that in the U.S.A. we have by far the greatest disparity of income of any industrialized nation. Among the statistics I heard at the temple meeting was that Bill Gates’ income is greater than the combined income of the lower-earning 50% of people in this country. Michael Jordan was paid more by Nike in one year than the Indonesian economy paid it’s entire work force in that year. How can we even conceive of this? We have first to listen to this, and then find a way to make a difference, to change the way we live, the way we relate to other people, and the way we relate to the earth.

We don’t realize how much the world is changing, particularly in relation to work. Like Dogen¹s description in the Genjo Koan, it is as though we’re in a boat going down the river, and while it looks like the shore is moving as we go by, actually it’s we who are moving. In our society now, many people must take on three jobs in order to make ends meet, living a life of exhaustion, working 60 or 80 hours a week constantly trying to keep up, depriving themselves of spiritual health and their families of interaction. Others are caught in the culture¹s ‘overworkism’, and are never far from their cell phones and emails. ’7/24′ has become a slogan ­ implying that the norm is to be available seven days a week, twenty four hours a day.

Yesterday, I went to see an accountant about my taxes and I mentioned to him that I had left my job at the University. He paled, and said, said, ‘but how could you do that?’ And I said, ‘you know, I can adjust, I don’t think I need much money. I think it’ll be fine.’ And then he started telling me about his gout and his high blood pressure and how little time he spends with his children. He told me how he had once worked at a less stressful job and had left it to start his own accounting firm, and how now he just works all the time. Suddenly we were in an intimate interaction about the relative value of putting all of your life energies into getting money and surviving. Our conversation ended with the question, how much do we really need?

Let us notice what impact our relation to work has on our own lives. Are we using work as a way to cloud our mind, as a way to numb ourselves? Are we avoiding other ways of being, of spending time with friends or family, of simply being with ourselves, or on retreat? Is our work done in a mindful way? Does it harm or deprive others? Do we recognize our work as our practice? Does it further our own compassion and that of others?

And on a global level, can we see the consequences of our actions, whether we are purchasing cleaning products or stocks, whether we are selling or writing or providing service, or raising a child and homemaking. What decisions do I make that affect the way others live, eat, or breathe? Let us look deeply into our effect on the commons. For example, what if we were to accept a slightly higher cost for cleaning agent which does not use environmentally damaging agents? What if we ‘take a chance’ on a new contractor who is hiring and training those who have not worked before?

There are inspiring stories. A few years ago, when the GAP was paying American workers $8 an hour to produce tee shirts, they found that there were workers in El Salvador who would take 32 cents an hour. They made a deal, and thereby lowered the labor standard of the entire country from the going rate of 52 cents an hour to 32 cents. Hearing of this, a small group of interfaith activists, about 500 people, started a letter-writing campaign to the GAP executive in charge of this operation. A religious person, he responded angrily at first, seeing no connection between his faith and his business. However, in the end, after reading all 500 letters, he saw very clearly that his work and his spiritual life could not be separated. It was not easy, but he convinced the appropriate managers that this was an unconscionable act, and the operation was moved back to the United States. It is unfortunate that the Salvadorians had to be abandoned, but their labor standard was preserved again at the previous rate. Here was a big effect brought about by a fairly small number of people who were able to change the perception of one person. It is a reminder to all of us that we can change things, and that we must be willing to write the letter, talk to the person and continue to speak the truth as we perceive it. How very directly we affect each other, our community and the planet!

An enduring image of this interconnection is Indra¹s net, an infinitely wide and infinitely high and infinitely temporal fisherman¹s net. The net is as sensitive as a spider¹s web, and when one corner of the web is pulled or compressed, all of the net trembles, some of the threads and some of the holes are distorted, torn, or damaged or expanded. When we pull on the net, all the net reacts; all the parts are one. A tear in the net affects all the rest of it. No matter how subtly, the whole net is affected by the slightest change in any one nexus, in any one space in the net.

We are the net, and we nurture the net. We are the rain forest, and the Hudson River, the person with AIDS, the maquiladora working sixteen hours in the Bronx to survive, and the barges full of garbage headed out a few miles in the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, we are also the ginkgo leaves turning gold in the park, the sounds of children laughing, the autumn breeze. Let us take care of all of it.