Zen in the Workplace: Approaches to Mindful Management

Gerry Shishin Wick Sensei

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Shishin Sensei, Zen teacher and corporate director, on the enlightened qualities of every good manager.


When the country prospers, the king’s name is unknown. It is only when there are problems that everyone knows who is to blame. It is the person in charge, the ruler: the king, the president, or the manager.

When the king is more important than the country, the country will not prosper. When the manager is more important than his or her employees, then the company will fail. If a manager is doing his or her job properly, then the company should run smoothly. The manager will become like a forgotten person, which is what a manager should strive for. Too many managers believe that they must have all of the answers and control every situation.

The Performable Square, James Lee Byars,
Japanese Handmade flax paper, 1963


Zen Master Jizo said that “not knowing is the most intimate thing.” Not knowing means to be open to all eventualities, to not prejudge a person or situation. If your mind is full of preconceived notions, there is no room for an unbiased view. It is like when your hands are full of objects—you cannot pick up anything new. A closed mind causes separation and suspicion. Like an umbrella, a mind is only useful when it is open. The first step toward maintaining an open mind is to understand the nature of mind or self.

In his Genjo Koan, Master Dogen wrote, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” To forget the self means to let go of our schemes to either aggrandize or to pity ourselves. These schemes are so pervasive and subtle that they require careful examination. One needs to see the nature of these schemes. By studying the self one sees that all schemes are hollow fabrications that arise and disappear with each thought. The thoughts themselves are mere phantoms with no substance. The same is true with feelings, sensations, perceptions and conceptions.

Recently I met a seasoned high-level manager. He has run departments of many hundreds of people for multimillion-dollar corporations. During the course of our interaction, he expressed an interest in Zen and Zen practice. After he was practicing zazen for a while, I asked him the famous koan of the Sixth Patriarch, “Thinking neither good nor evil, what is your true self?” He has been reflecting on this for about a year and during that time his interactions with both his superiors and his employees have dramatically changed. Rather than coming to a meeting with preconceptions, he can clear his mind and just be present and participate. He is not so carefully guarded and protective. His interactions flow more easily and as a result he is able to get his points across with less resistance.

If you “think neither good nor evil,” you can just be present and reveal your innate wisdom. If you are constantly thinking about how your colleagues or bosses are evaluating you, you are putting a filter between you and yourself, and between you and others. You will be in touch with neither yourself nor your situation. Thinking neither good nor evil is the same as forgetting the self. “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things.” When we can truly let go of our attachment to the self, every activity in the ten directions is the enlightened action and every place is nirvana, including the boardroom or the laundry room.

Every good manager is a bodhisattva. I did not comprehend the immensity and seriousness of being a bodhisattva until I heard Trungpa Rinpoche say that a bodhisattva does not reserve any time for himself or herself. A bodhisattva cannot even allow himself the luxury of reading Time magazine while sitting on the commode. Sometimes it takes good examples to drive the point home.

Dogen Zenji wrote that there are four ways a bodhisattva acts to benefit human beings. They are: giving (fuse), loving words (aigo), beneficial actions (rigyo) and identification with others (doji). A bodhisattva serves others. And part of that serving is giving. There are many different kinds of things that can be given. A manager is capable of giving all of them. The first thing to give is material things and comfort. The salary that an employee earns provides the necessary material things required for survival and comfort. A good manager will also make sure that his employees have the necessary state-of-the-art equipment and a suitable space in order to fulfill their job. That’s one aspect of giving.

Another type of giving is to give the dharma. The dharma is the teachings of the Buddha. It can take many forms. Giving employees the training they need in order to be successful is giving the dharma. Empowering employees to make their own decisions is giving the dharma. Allowing employees to learn by making mistakes is giving the dharma. Employees who are given opportunities become more capable. Conscientious employees always rise to the occasion when they feel that they have the encouragement and support of their boss.

The last and most important thing that a bodhisattva can give is “no fear.” A manager cannot give “no fear” unless he has “no fear” to give. “No fear” is the same as “forgetting the self.” If there is no self to protect or aggrandize, what is there to fear?

The second way a bodhisattva acts to benefit human beings is called “loving words.” When a bodhisattva sees another person, compassion is naturally aroused and he or she uses loving words. Compassion is the natural functioning of wisdom. The clearer one sees, the more readily one uses loving words. Loving words can take all kinds of forms. “Loving words” doesn’t always mean being sweet and solicitous. Sometimes a loving word can be a very harsh word, but it is always according to the situation.

The third bodhisattva way is “beneficial action.” Beneficial action means to take care of every person, whether of high position or low position. Some people are ood at managing their managers and other people are good at managing their subordinates. But you have to manage in both directions. One of the reasons there is so much dissension in companies is that people think that if somebody else gains or moves forward, it’s at their loss. Beneficial action is a win-win scenario. If you support the people who work for you, they will push you up. If you support your superiors, they will pull you up.

The fourth way is “identification with others.” Whenever I felt alienated from a situation and the people at work, I would chant “not two.” Heaven, earth, and I have the same root; self and others are not two. That is one of the revelations of the Buddha: that there is no separation between oneself and others.

There is no formula to being a good manager. The Buddha called this lack of formula upaya, or skillful means. Each situation is different and each person is different. Upaya is employed by a bodhisattva to awaken others. A manager uses upaya to bring the best from his employees.

Years ago an old teacher gave me three pieces of advice about how to bring practice into one's life. The first thing he said was to see everybody as the Buddha. It doesn’t have to be Buddha, it can be anybody for whom you have an image of respect and appreciation. The second thing he said was to hear everything as the dharma. The dharma in this sense means the teachings of the Buddha. The third thing he said was to reveal every place as nirvana. Nirvana means the enlightened place—the place of clarity, peace, and comfort. How would we function if we held those principles all the time?

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Byars
Untitled Object, James Lee Byars,
crayon on Japanese handmade flax paper,
1962-64
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See everybody as the Buddha. When you are stuck in a traffic jam on the Los Angeles freeway, can you look at all the other drivers, particularly the ones who are weaving in and out of lanes, and see them as the Buddha? In a work situation, if you have a particularly cantankerous boss who you think is a complete idiot, can you look at that person as the Buddha? As a manager, can you see that person who is working for you as the Buddha?

I don’t mean that we should react to everybody in the same way, because we have to react according to our wisdom. Our wisdom evolves over time, and has to be in accord with our activity or our action. There is an expression in Zen that wisdom and compassion need to be well balanced. Compassion doesn’t always mean being nice to people. Sometimes the best thing you can do in a situation is to be rough with someone. We have to be balanced in accord with each situation.

A manager needs to see each situation clearly and act accordingly. A decision may be correct today and incorrect tomorrow. A decision may be correct with one person and incorrect with another. Each decision depends upon conditions, the time, the place, the people involved, and the intensity of the situation.

The second guiding code of conduct is to hear every sound as the dharma. There was a famous Chinese Zen master named Joshu. At the age of sixty he was extremely well accomplished as a Zen master, but he felt he needed more seasoning. So he told himself that he was going to go on a pilgrimage and if he met a man of eighty whom he could teach, he would share with him; if he met a child of eight whom he could learn from, he would learn from that child. By being that open, he further seasoned himself for twenty years, until he was eighty years old, and then he decided that he was ready to teach others. And he taught for another twenty years.

To hear every sound as the dharma means to just pay attention. Listen to what people are saying when somebody is talking to you. We are usually so busy trying to say something that will impress them that we don’t really listen to what they are saying. It is easy to give an appropriate response if we are really listening.

When you meditate you can see how difficult it is just to pay attention. Just to pay attention to breathing is not easy. Until you can quiet your mind it’s almost impossible to really listen to what other people are saying.

People like to get away from the city and enter the mountain for zazen because they think it’s quiet. Actually when the squirrels and the blue jays get going, it is quite a racket. What’s the difference? We think that some sounds are pleasant sounds and other sounds are not pleasant sounds. It is true that there is something attractive about the trees and the lack of congestion. Why is that? Is it something that’s basically biological or is it something in our own minds? Listening to the flowing water: it’s very soothing. If you think that passing cars are smelly, noisy traffic, then it’s going to be unpleasant. The point is that we interject so many filters. If we can just let those go and be present, then every sound is the sound that can enlighten us.

The third principle is to reveal every place as nirvana. Where you sit right now, that place is nirvana. One Zen ancestor said, “Neither try to eliminate delusion nor search for what is real. This is because ignorance, just as it is, is the Buddha nature. This worldly body itself, which appears and disappears like the phantom in this world, is nothing other than the reality of life. When you actually wake up to the reality of life, there is not any particular thing that you can point to and say, “This is it!”

A couple of points here are worth absorbing. One is that people try to change themselves. “If only I could only change. If I could be a different person, then everything would be okay.” What’s the difference between that and thinking if you had a new stereo, you would be okay? Or if you had the right automobile of the right color and the right make and the right model? Our practice is to appreciate who we are, rather than to become somebody who we are not.

This ignorant, deluded self, just as it is, is no other than the enlightened self. If you can appreciate that, then this practice is a simple matter. If we deny ourselves, right there we are denying the very vehicle that reveals to us our innate true self. It is no other than this body and mind. This very body and mind in this very place is the enlightened one. If you reject it in any way, you are rejecting that enlightened self. So rather than trying to eliminate delusion, just be attentive to each moment.

 

Gerry Shishin Wick Sensei is a dharma successor of Maezumi Roshi and Director of Software Development at Merriam-Webster, Inc.

 

 

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wilnerj's picture

With hands together, I bow.

This is a very well put together article.

Thank you

mahakala's picture

This ignorant, deluded self, just as it is, is no other than the enlightened self. If you can appreciate that, then this practice is a simple matter. If we deny ourselves, right there we are denying the very vehicle that reveals to us our innate true self.

Denying ourselves, and being "this ignorant, deluded self just as it is" is "the enlightened self" already, right? So - whats the problem? There is no problem, right? Even "if we deny ourselves" and deny "the very vehicle that reveals to us our innate true self", we are already "no other than the enlightened self".

If you reject it in any way, you are rejecting that enlightened self. So rather than trying to eliminate delusion, just be attentive to each moment.

So, it doesnt even matter "if we deny ourselves" to begin with. "If you reject" that denial "in any way, you are rejecting that enlightened self". So, dont even worry about it!

Damn, that was easy. Simple matter, indeed!

I am enlightened.

wilnerj's picture

Yes you are.

ITSJUSTALILA's picture

The term "Innate true self" at the end is confusing to me. I'm very new to Buddhism. One of the first text I studied was Nagarjuna's Middle Way translated by Garfield, Kalapahana & Batchelor. Innate True Self seems to be an eternally existant self. Could you help me with my confusion?

Danny's picture

This is a good point-- I have always understood anatman to mean no inherent self or soul; that there is no "innate true self "at all--that would be atman exactly! but on the other hand, having a very real conventional self or process self, dependently arisen with real causal power to act in this world. So I agree with you, it is a confusing and I think a terribly misunderstood term.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Our innate true self is our Buddha nature, or our enlightened life-condition. It's still you but not the deluded, suffering you.

jespersr's picture

How refreshing to hear from a dharma teacher who must endure the rigours of a real workplace, like the rest of us. Such a person doesn't depend on students -- and the inherent full-time teacher, part-time student hierarchy -- for a livelihood. I'm more inclined to trust and respect someone who has to walk the talk like this sensei does. Thanks for the article.
Rik
buddha-bing.com

knrbrennan's picture

Thank you "this very body and mind in this very place is the enlightened one" I will remember this.

Jakela's picture

I really liked the beginning of this piece, but found the rest rather long-winded. A good teacher says only and exactly what is necessary. Don't know if Dogen said this, but if he didn't he should have.

wilnerj's picture

You are correct.

But we need explanations and explanations upon explanations.

Yes few words and being to the point.

And yet there is a place for words -- lots of words and thus the losing of one's eyebrows.

Where does one find the place between explanations and the paucity of words?

joliminor's picture

This is a very good reminder in keeping awake to the dharma, very pracktical, thank you!