buddha side

In a Buddhist Context…

by  Ruchiraketu

There once was a minor scandal at a Zen monastery when one of the monks came across his master the Abbot throwing stones at some deer that had wandered nearby. The monk was too embarrassed to say anything directly to his master so he just quietly withdrew. Later, he felt so uncomfortable about what he’d seen that he couldn’t help mentioning it to his friends, who were all scandalised at the Abbot’s behaviour. ‘Isn’t it of the very essence of Buddhism to have an attitude of loving kindness to all living beings? How could a ‘Zen master’ act like that and still be a Zen master?’ Eventually, after a few days, one of them plucked up enough courage to challenge the master about it. The master explained: ‘I’ve noticed those deer coming by here a few times recently and I was becoming concerned that they might develop the habit of hanging round here, where the hunters would be sure to find and kill them. So I chucked a few stones at them to scare them off.’

Human beings live not merely in a world of actions and events but in a world of meanings. As the story above shows, knowing why someone is doing something can completely change our interpretation of what they are doing. This applies to ourselves too: sometimes, to change the meaning of what we are doing may not require doing anything very different, but simply a re-evaluation of why we are doing it. This creates a new context for our actions that may radically change their significance for us, even though it may not be obvious to others just what it is that we are up to. As both a member of the Western Buddhist Order and as a director of a gift importing and wholesaling business, what I’m doing gets questioned from two directions. There are the raised eyebrows of those in the gift business who discover that their wholesale supply company is staffed by ordained Buddhists working for a pittance and is of charitable statusowned by a charity; and there are the concerned enquiries from fellow Buddhists as to whether working in the gift business is even an ethical livelihood—never mind a spiritual practice. In either case they won’t be able to understand what my friends in the business and I are doing until they have some idea of why we are doing it, and—more importantly—neither will we.

In addition to the relatively straightforward aim of making money to give away ( (last year we gave away just over £100,000 to various Buddhist projects—supporting social and educational projects among the ex-untouchables in India and buying land for a retreat centre there, funding translation and editing work, giving financial support to enable the teaching of meditation for free, and so on)), one of our major aims in the business is that the work should encourage spiritual development. Exploring how to continue transforming work into a spiritual practice is an exciting job that I’ve been engaged in for several years. When I first joined Windhorse Trading about eight years ago my brief was fairly clear, even if the way of achieving it was completely unspecified: I was to make sure that the more directly ‘spiritual’ (as opposed to the more directly business) aspect of the business was developed and maintained in such a way as to keep a healthy balance in the work. This was to counteract a ‘gravitational pull’ towards engaging with business as an end in itself. In the five years in which the company had already been running, those working there had repeatedly experienced a tendency to forget their wider purpose and to become almost completely absorbed in the job of running the business. From a Buddhist perspective there is little point (apart from making some money) in doing that. It’s not as if what the world needs is more gift businesses! To be really worth the time and energy that it inevitably takes, the work needs to be an expression and activation of meaningful ideals. You could say that ideals are only real to the extent that they affect everyday living.

It is in developing ways of working that reflect our spiritual ideals that I have found some of what I’ve learnt of DBM over the last few years extremely useful. Take the example of connecting ideals and daily practice. For an ideal to be truly worthwhile it has to inform what we actually do, otherwise there is the danger of it remaining an empty dream disconnected from everyday living. What’s the use of a vision of a better world if we are not moved to action to bring it about? On the other hand, doing things without some vision is dull and may drift into meaningless activity if not informed or directed byby a guiding ideal. These are issues of particular concern to the people working in Windhorse, who are accustomed to thinking in terms of making the most of every opportunity for personal and spiritual development. A vision without a way to express it in everyday living and a life without a vision are both equally empty. An understanding of the ‘process of abstracting’ is very helpful for connecting ideals and activities. Ideals (such as ‘kindness’, ‘love’, ‘wisdom’, and so on) are represented more abstractly than the actions which embody them (such as: making someone a cup of tea, speaking in a soft tone with them, etc.) and so it is easy for the ideals and actions to be considered separately and for them to seem unconnected. One way of bridging the divide and relating relating them to each other is through the simple approach of ‘chunking’ up and down’. In this way an ideal can be explored in terms of ‘what would be a part of this?’ or ‘what would give rise to this benefit?’ and so be related to specific activities. So someone who wishes to ‘develop more friendships’ may specify this to mean (among other things) ‘having lunch with someone new at least once a week for a month starting tomorrow’. Equally an activity could be made more meaningful through being contextualised by ‘chunking up’—asking ‘what is this part of?’ or ‘what is the benefit of this?’ In this way ‘tidying my desk’ may be seen, for example, as an aspect of a wider project to ‘develop mental clarity’. The teams at Windhorse have found this way of working with different levels of abstraction to be very valuable in connecting general aspirations and everyday practices. There is a world of difference between simply doing a job and doing a job as an expression of, say, generosity, or as a practice in awareness. Knowing why you are doing something changes the meaning of what you are doing and also, consequently, affects how you do it.

As ideals become more integrated with daily activity, the content of ones work becomes less important and how one is doing it becomes more the focus of attention. There are still those who will visit our shops or our warehouse and only see people engaged in ordinary mundane work, and there is a level on which what they see is true. , Bbut for those working there the gift business just happens to be the medium they are using in working out processes of spiritual and personal development—practising what Buddhists call Right Livelihood. Traditionally, Right Livelihood has mainly been considered in ethical terms, (ones means of livelihood should not involve harming living beings through violence or deceit, for example), and there is not much in the tradition in terms of detailed application of Buddhist principles to work. In any case because we are attempting to apply these principles in the modern Western context, we need to develop a form of practising Right Livelihood which is appropriate for this age and culture. One aspect of this has been exploring teamwork, both as a way of developing friendship and as a means of developing the broader awareness that comes from communicating with others. There has always been a great emphasis on spiritual friendship in Buddhism as a healthy and enjoyable antidote to many of the hindrances and pitfalls (such as ego inflation, emotional alienation, fanaticism, despondency and so on) which may be encountered in pursuing a path of higher development. Each team has a meeting each week devoted to exploring ‘work as a spiritual practice’. In these meetings the emphasis is specifically not on points of business—these are dealt with separately—but on ‘How is the work helping each person in their development?’ Some aspect of spiritual practice is explored each week and the effects throughout the week are fed back at the meeting the following week. So if the theme had been ‘mindfulness’ we would examine what eaffect this had had on, say, the level of mistakes made in packing orders or on the relationships within the team.

In these team meetings there has been plenty of opportunity for drawing on some of the ideas and practicses that I have been learning in my study of DBM as the focus in the meetings is not only on what we do but also on how we do what we do and why we do it DBM. Among other things my DBM studiesthese have suggested: ways of exploring using experiential exercises, ways of formulating outcomes and directions, and of experimenting with how we draw subjective boundaries. Team membersPeople develop individual or team precepts with other team members using the criteria for ‘well formed outcomes and direction’—is the goal appropriate, stated positively, specific, etc.? The meeting is also an opportunity for clarifying and agreeing what the common task (in the broadest sense) of the team is, which is a necessary basis for becoming an effective team. It has been particularly revealing in these discussions to attend to the degree of congruence between the process of discussing and the content of the discussion—on one occasion a team who were heatedly discussing ‘what teamwork is’ were chastened to realise that while what they were saying about teamwork was fair enough, they hadn’t been working as a team in discussing it! I have had many similar experiences, showing how easy it is to have an idea of something and yet be doing something completely different.

Having done the basics of team-building such as agreeing on what the common task is (including how it is to be done), there is still a lot that can be done in terms of how team members are aware of each other. This is where aspects of the John McWhirter’sDBM work on the ‘cybernetics of rapport’ has supplemented some of the traditional Buddhist approaches; in exploring ‘bounding’—how our boundary of self can expand or contract under various circumstances. If you are working separately from the rest of the team do you still experience yourself as part of it or not, and how? How do you organise your experience in such a way as to have a sense of being included or excluded? The week after doing some of these exploratory exercises, one visitor to our Cambridge Warehouse said that it had had the effect that for the first time in his life he had experienced himself as working in a team.

It is in the area of training that I have had most food for thought with respect to Buddhist teachings and which has thrown light for me on some universal features of communication which I hadn’t appreciated so fully before. As the business has expanded we have been faced with the question of how to train up the new teams and pass on what we have learnt over the years. Most of the time training up a new team is a fairly straightforward process of passing on information, but sometimes new people misunderstand or have difficulty understanding things which seem quite obvious to the more experienced team members. In these cases again it seems again to be a matter of context: the new person hasn’t got the necessary background for understanding something which is a result of experience, and they can’t develop that context without engaging in a similar experience themselves first. The inexperienced eye simply doesn’t see what the experienced eye sees, and telling someone what you see may not be the best way for them to engage in seeing it for themselves. The best one can do is to communicate how the other person might proceed themselves in order to arrive at a similar understanding.

This is reflected in the design of the Sensory Systems Training courses where a superficial intellectual understanding—in which one might simply add another’s intellectual product to ones store of ideas without changing oneself very much—is pre-empted by the experiential learning style. On these courses the exercises are constantly being tailored so that one engages in having the experiences necessary to arrive at a fuller understanding in such a way that the understanding is integrated into oneself in the process of developing it. When later in the course conceptual models are presented they can serve to supplement and to crystallise what one has already been learning in ones own experience. In training up new team members the question is how to set them up to have the experiences necessary to learn most effectively—it sometimes being impossible to simply convey something you have already learned from experience. This is very familiar to me from my investigations of This seems familiar to me from my study of Buddhism, where where the student is constantly reminded of the need for personal spiritual practice exhorted to practise spiritually in order to develop Insight. ‘The Great Teachers can only point out the way, it is for you to make the journey.

 That the path is a path of Awakening (‘Buddha’ literally translates as ‘Awakened One’) suggests that the Insight which is to be developed by treading it is not just a shifting from one view to another—however exalted the content this would only be a first order change (a change at the ‘what’ level) in which we fundamentally stay the same, just as we may stay asleep while shifting from one dream to another (even to a dream of waking up). Waking up consists in changing the way our mind is processing its contents—a second order change (a change at the ‘how’ level) in which our mode of experiencing is qualitatively different. The Teaching itself is not to be identified with any view, but is primarily the means for developing that way of viewing which is Insight and of which ‘right views’ are an expression. The process of understandingo understand Buddhism is not about to discovering the content of the Buddhist teachingssomehow puzzle out its answers to life’s questions, but is about to engaginge in living a life informed by thoseits teachings. The teachings themselves are not the point, but they direct you back to living in such a way as to achieve understanding in your own experience.

For me, exploring Buddhism, Right Livelihood and DBM, is all part of the great adventure of finding out what it means to be living in the twentieth century, in a Western, Buddhist, context. As a Buddhist, I’m interested in anything that helps the process of waking up: from unhelpful habits and fixed views, and the often unconscious presuppositions which lead to conflict and pain. DBM excites me because of the ease with which I can apply it practically in my Buddhist context. It also demonstrates something close to my heart in the way it is constantly remodelling itself—not just encouraging one to have an open flexible attitude, but also showing how to do this—and continually suggesting better questions to ask.. When it’s so easy for our attempts at understanding to be foiled by unhelpful presuppositions in the very questions that we ask then something like DBM—which explores how to question the questions themselves—is simply liberating. Perhaps if those monks—who could doubt their Abbot’s character on the basis of seeing one action—had known how to ask better questions they would have been happier and learned more.