What Should I Be When I Grow Up?

Sat, Dec 22, 2007

Note: This article was originally published in the November/December 2007 issue of the now-defunct Sentient City Magazine.


The stories told of the development of most religions once those religions have been established seem to start with the rules. First, a religion is codified, institutionalized, and spread; then revisionist historians, mystics, and advanced practitioners go back to seek the truth of the revelation or inspiration that preceded what has become the official version of the religion. And those mystics and seekers usually assert the primacy of their connection to the source of the religion through a secret (and often supernatural) lineage that parallels the official history of the religion. More orthodox (or skeptical) observers, on the other hand, might see those insights as evolving from the contemplation of the official version of the religion’s teachings.

The evolution of the Abrahamic religions offers several examples of this process. In the second chapter of Genesis, immediately after Yahweh put the finishing touches on creation, He started handing down rules to Adam and Eve. And the remainder of the Torah is the story of how He adjusted those rules with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The little historical evidence available to us suggests that Christianity may have begun as one of many Jewish movements emerging at the same time that sought a more direct communion with God and focused less on adherence to a specific set of rules. But shortly after the death of Jesus, Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee and persecutor of the followers of Jesus among the Jews, was struck by a blinding light on the way to Damascus and became a follower of Jesus himself, as Paul the Apostle. In his new identity as an apostle of Jesus’ (and, thus, God’s) love, he traveled tirelessly among the nascent community of followers of Jesus, proselytizing and, ironically, handing down the rules that would govern what his efforts transformed from a Jewish sect into a religion of its own (a religion that came to assert the primacy of its connection to the Jews’ God through Christ, the Son of God prior even to the first chapter of Genesis). The remainder of the Christian bible was likely written after Paul’s epistles, so it’s impossible to know if or how much those accounts of Jesus’ experiences and teachings were transformed by subsequent interpretation, codification, and transmission by Paul and others. What we have instead is a set of rules with only tantalizing glimpses of what Jesus may have experienced, written down long after the fact. And within Christianity, countless movements, from the early Gnostics and the Cathars to the Mormons, have emerged claiming a connection to Christ prior to those writings, whether through Jesus’ brother James, the apostle Thomas, or the thirteenth tribe of Israel.

Islam, another religion claiming descent from Abraham, began with Allah dictating the Qur’an to Muhammad for the Arabs. Among other things, the Qur’an contains the set of rules by which one may live a life in accord with the wishes of Allah and secure His blessings. It established a direct connection between the Arabs and Allah that didn’t depend on (but also didn’t contradict) Judaism or Christianity. And as Islam evolved after Muhammad’s death, Sufism, an Islamic mysticism, developed. Sufis, like Jewish and Christian mystics, seek a direct personal experience of God or Truth, which is pervasive and without duality, and look beyond the conventional reality of a God, separate from creation, handing down rules of conduct to those within that creation. And like Jewish and Christian mystics, they claim a direct connection back to the source of their religion, in their case through Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and others (though Louis Massignon, a Catholic scholar of Islam, claimed that, “[i]t is from the Qur’an, constantly recited, meditated, and experienced, that Sufism proceeded, in its origin and its development”).


In his unfinished Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister who was executed by the Nazis for his alleged participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler, describes the distinction between direct communion with God and the rules handed down by God as follows (as translated by Neville Horton Smith):

The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge…

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin.

I take this to mean that the rules handed down to us through religions are a conventional substitute for the ultimate experience of unity with God or Truth, wherein rules would be not just unnecessary, but meaningless. Bonhoeffer makes this more explicit in his discussion of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees:

…Any distorted picture of the Pharisees robs Jesus’s argument with them of its gravity and its importance. The Pharisee is the extremely admirable man who subordinates his entire life to his knowledge of good and evil and is as severe a judge of himself as of his neighbour to the honour of God, whom he humbly thanks for this knowledge. For the Pharisee every moment of life becomes a situation of conflict in which he has to choose between good and evil…

These men with the incorruptibly impartial and distrustful vision cannot confront any man in any other way than by examining him with regard to his decisions in the conflicts of life. And so, even when they come face to face with Jesus, they cannot do otherwise than attempt to force Him, too, into conflicts and into decisions in order to see how He will conduct Himself in them… The crucial point about all these arguments is that Jesus does not allow Himself to be drawn in into a single one of these conflicts and decisions. With each of His answers He simply leaves the case of conflict beneath Him… Just as the Pharisees cannot do otherwise than confront Jesus with situations of conflict, so, too, Jesus cannot do otherwise than refuse to accept these situations. Just as the Pharisees’ question and temptation arises from the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil, so, too, Jesus’s answer arises from unity with God, with the origin, and from the overcoming of the disunion of man with God…

This could, I suppose, be seen as the thinking behind the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement. That question is meant to get at not what the rules say about a situation, but at what Jesus, in His unity with God, would do in that situation. The practical problem with this approach is that we can only know what Jesus would do if we ourselves are in unity with God, which I suspect is more often mistaken for true than actually true. Without the unity with God, our guess as to what Jesus would do will be based on what we’ve read and what we’ve heard, and under those circumstances, it’s probably better to follow the rules that have been provided for that situation. Though flawed and incomplete, the rules are more likely to be correct than we, in our disunion from God, are. This suggests that we should aspire to unity with God, but rely on the rules until we achieve that. Even the mystics, who seek only unity with God or Truth, would seem to agree, given their emphasis on the personal transmission of their teachings only to those who have the capacity to properly understand them, and a significant component in the process of developing that capacity is generally an extensive regimen of rules and practices, though those rules and practices tend to become progressively less normative and more focused on transformation. (And such precautions aren’t always successful–the history of religion is filled with mistaken mystics, prophets, and visionaries who took their conventional understanding to be ultimate Truth and caused all sorts of suffering for themselves and others.)


A similar progression can be found in Buddhist practice as I’ve learned it. If anything, Buddhism is even more explicit both about the potential for every one of us to ultimately be a Buddha and about the need for conventional guidance as we work toward that realization. The sets of practices dedicated to conventional guidance are called the Hinayana, and those dedicated to ultimate realization are called the Mahayana and Vajrayana. Westerners tend to see these sets of practices as two (or three) different versions of Buddhism, as Catholicism and Protestantism are different versions of Christianity, but I don’t find that view useful. Though the word Hinayana is usually translated as “lesser vehicle” (and Mahayana as “great vehicle”), implying its inferiority, I find it more helpful to understand it as the “narrow” or “precise” vehicle, which constitutes the basis of all other practices. Just as writers are obliged to learn to make sentences and paragraphs correctly before they can become great writers, and artists are obliged to learn to draw correctly before they can become great painters, Buddhist practitioners are obliged to learn the Hinayana practices before they can effectively practice the Mahayana and Vajrayana. And just as great writers never abandon the practice of making sentences and paragraphs and great painters never abandon the practice of drawing, great Buddhist practitioners never abandon the Hinayana practices. Even Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who taught and practiced almost exclusively from the perspective of ultimate realization, exhorted his students right to the end to “remember the Hinayana” as the basis of their practice.

It is from the Hinayana, the Buddhist realm of rules of conduct, and specifically the Four Noble Truths (and still more specifically the Noble Eightfold Path), that we receive the teaching of right livelihood, which, like the rest of the Noble Eightfold Path, focuses on harmful activities from which one should refrain. Though the individual tenets of the Noble Eightfold Path are positively named, they are generally negatively defined. This is because the focus of the Hinayana is liberation from Samsara, so its practices usually identify what to let go of, rather than what to grab onto. The teaching on right livelihood doesn’t identify professions that are meritorious, wholesome, and fulfilling (that would likely be seen as perfecting Samsara); it only identifies professions that are positively harmful. The teaching on right livelihood, and the Hinayana in general, won’t urge us toward creativity and self-actualization in our work; it only urges us not to lie, cheat, steal, or harm. It can be tempting to infer exemplary professions to be pursued from the teaching’s short, straightforward list of what not to do for living, but the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Hinayana in general, offer no such guidance. And though it may seem reasonable to expand the teaching’s short, specific list for guidance in our current context by asking what the Buddha would tell us now, to properly answer that question would require the Buddha’s realization, just as the question of what Jesus would do could only be properly answered by someone who, like Jesus, is in unity with God.

The practices of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, on the other hand, take a more expansive view of our experience and offer insights into how to live a life engaged in Samsara. The crucial underlying difference between the Hinayana and the Mahayana and Vajrayana is that the Mahayana and Vajrayana are based on shunyata, generally translated into English as “emptiness.” The introduction of shunyata shifts the practitioner’s perspective from one where, to quote Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche from his Gateway to Knowledge (as translated by Erik Hein Schmidt), “all knowable phenomena are complete and simultaneously clear and distinct” to one where “they are also equally devoid of a difference between subject and object in the nature of one taste, free from attributes.” Where the Hinayana teaches the conventional attainment of Nirvana through liberation from Samsara, the Mahayana and Vajrayana teach that ultimately Samsara and Nirvana, like all phenomena, are not separate. Where Hinayana-only practitioners can rely on clear rules to guide their conduct, Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners engage in specific practices seeking to experience their Buddha nature (or “basic goodness,” according to the Shambhala tradition) and, ultimately, to act based on that understanding. If strict Hinayana-only practitioners could be seen as Pharisees by Bonhoeffer’s definition, then Mahayana and especially Vajrayana practitioners, like the mystics of other religious traditions, can be seen as aspiring to a perspective similar to that of Bonhoeffer’s Jesus. And aspiring to that perspective, and understanding the truth of shunyata (that they aren’t separate from any aspect of reality or the suffering it entails), Mahayana practitioners take the Bodhisattva Vow to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. The practices that follow from that vow offer guidance for all situations, but that guidance is not something that can be codified or generalized, and the motivation and fruition of those practices are different from those of the Hinayana practices.


The Hinayana teaching on right livelihood can certainly be applied to modern employment situations: Don’t work for a defense contractor; don’t work for a tobacco company; and so on. But the value of this guidance, though correct, will be fairly limited for most Buddhist practitioners. Beyond this guidance, how can we make decisions about how to earn a living? Simplistic pronouncements against working for or with corporations, for example, are mistaken attempts to apply a Hinayana teaching outside of the specific context in which it was offered (unless the practitioner genuinely believes that corporations and corporate activity can only ever be harmful). For guidance beyond the specific situations addressed by Hinayana teachings, we must engage in the practices of the Mahayana. Corporations employ the bulk of Western workers and, arguably, have a greater influence on the world than any other force. From a Mahayana perspective, to dogmatically eschew participation in them as a means to our personal fulfillment would be to seek retreat into some illusory non-corporate Nirvana without regard for the bulk of humanity left in the equally illusory corporate Samsara. Corporations are human constructs composed of those who work for them and defined by those who interact with them. And corporations, like any other conventional phenomena, are impermanent and subject to transformation. We are none of us separate from corporations, and we are all responsible for their effect on us and others. Yet participation in corporations in a mindful way can be overwhelmingly complicated and fraught with endless effects and implications, as is true of any genuine participation in reality. If we’re going to look beyond the fairly simple guidance offered by the Hinayana to the deeper practice of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, then Buddhism offers no alternative to the assumption of the Bodhisattva Vow and, with it, the abandonment of clear, simple distinctions like right and wrong, or pure and impure, in favor of full engagement in the nature of reality.

Given this, the interesting (and realistic) question isn’t whether to participate in corporations; instead, it’s how to participate in corporations to the benefit of sentient beings. Answers to that question might typically focus on the effect of corporations on those outside of them, and that’s certainly crucial. But because so many people work for or are supported by people who work for corporations, the effect of corporations on their employees is also vital. And for most corporate employees, it’s far more practically feasible to have an impact on our coworkers than it is to have an impact on those outside the corporation. The urging of the Hinayana’s teaching on right livelihood not to lie, cheat, steal, or harm will likely prove useful here, but the Mahayana’s Bodhisattva Vow to take responsibility for and end all suffering (our own and the suffering of others) will prove even more useful. Properly engaging in these practices in a corporate environment will reduce the suffering of those who share that environment with us. Furthermore, the corporate activities in which we’re engaged will be more effective, moving the corporation toward greater success and, in the process, bringing us professional advancement. We can then use that advancement to further increase our positive influence on the corporation and its activities. Of course, this won’t be any simpler in a corporate environment than it is in other environments. For unenlightened beings, attempts to cultivate happiness and avoid suffering most often lead not to happiness, but to further suffering, and there’s no reason to expect that to be any different in a corporation. The possible causes of failure in this endeavor are many, including becoming attached to our success or to a burgeoning sense of superiority, failing to expand our perspective as our influence expands, and becoming overwhelmed and cynical as the scope and difficulty of our task grows. This is true of any Bodhisattva activity, and that is why the Mahayana offers paramita practices to cultivate the generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom that will facilitate our success.

In my personal experience, Mahayana practices are endlessly helpful to a corporate manager, and corporate management provides the opportunity to have powerful positive effects on the lives of those to whom a Bodhisattva seeks to be of benefit. The parallels are powerful and instructive. Like Bodhisattvas, the most effective managers became managers not to satisfy any narrow personal ambition, but because they’ve taken an interest in and responsibility for the larger issues around them and their work, and have sought to be useful in a broader sense. Like Bodhisattvas (or mystics of other traditions), managers, as they advance, will find less and less conventional guidance and be forced to rely more and more on their own experience and insights. Perhaps that’s why the notion of mentoring has been in such vogue among corporate managers. It can serve some of the same purposes that lineage and gurus serve in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. And managers fail in the same way that Bodhisattvas do, by becoming attached to themselves and their personal success, and losing sight of the success and happiness of those around them. Like Bodhisattvas, managers benefit from the wisdom of shunyata, which sees that none of the efforts that might serve as a source of such stress and satisfaction are ultimately real, but only as long as that wisdom is counterbalanced with compassion, which sees the conventional suffering that is can be the result of those efforts done poorly. So if, like me, you find yourself working for a corporation, don’t lament, apologize, complain, or spend forty (or likely more) hours a week incompletely engaged in your experience. You won’t gain anything that way, and you won’t be of benefit to anyone else. You may as well be a Bodhisattva. But then, that’s true no matter where you might find yourself working or what you might find yourself doing.