We all know a little about Buddhism. It’s crept into western consciousness over the past few decades, and we’re now at a point where many people understand at least some of it. We recognize the Dalai Lama, for example, as the exiled ruler of Tibet and all-around decent human being. He’s wise. He has excellent ideas about how to live a happy, meaningful life. Buddhism appeals to many of us that question the three big monotheistic religions but still want or crave spirituality in our lives.
Buddhism can be traced back over 2,500 years ago to what is now India. The Buddha (the name simply means “the awakened one”) was a wealthy prince named Siddhartha living a sheltered life within his father’s palace. On his first excursion outside the palace, he saw a corpse, an old man, a sick man, and a holy man. His experiences led him to reject his life of luxury. He sat down beneath a Bodhi tree, and through intense meditation, he became the first truly enlightened being. For the remainder of his life, he taught his followers what he had learned and helped others reach enlightenment.
Buddhism contains many branches and subsets, but the basic tenets are the same. They include the Four Noble Truths (to live means to suffer, the origin of suffering is attachment, the cessation of attachment is possible, and the prescribed path to end that suffering), and the Eightfold Path (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration).
Zen Buddhism began roughly 1,500 years ago in China (where it is known as Chán) and traveled to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan from there. It is itself a branch of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
Defining Zen is notoriously difficult. Practitioners say it is something that can only be experienced, not described. It relies heavily on seated meditation, or zazen, as a route to self-discovery and vigilance. It is a practical, hands-on experience rather than a belief system or theory. Zazen is at its heart.
Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, describes it as:
A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and obtaining Buddhahood.
What, then, can we take away from it? To the layman or laywoman, can the guiding concepts of Zen Buddhism be applied to our careers, with or without the practice of zazen? Can it help us advance in our careers?
1. The Concept of Mushotoku
Westerners are driven by profit and results. Everything we do is motivated by… something. We rarely, if ever, complete an act or thought without an eye on what it will bring us. Mushotoku is the absence of that. It’s acting without thought or desire of results or rewards.
In our lives, we can apply Mushotoku to our actions in both our private and professional lives. We should aim to give – time, effort, material – without any thought of reciprocation. When you genuinely act without any selfish motivation, good things can and generally do happen. Of course, you work to make money to pay for housing, food, and clothing – you need those things to survive – but Mushotoku goes beyond that.
You can apply Mushotoku at work by offering assistance to a colleague, for example, not because you plan to ask them for a favour next week, but because they need help. You become the go-to guy or gal at the office, ready to pitch in, lend a hand, or take the lead. Colleagues love you. Supervisors love you. Managers love you. And just who do you suppose will get that promotion when it comes up? You. Because you’re always there when needed, without any selfish thought or ulterior motive.
2. The Concept of Zanshin
We all need a lot more of this in our lives. We’re so busy and preoccupied that we don’t notice anything going on around us. Zanshin reminds us to take it all in. To slow down and experience what is happening right now… not what needs to happen an hour from now, tomorrow, or next week. To quote Ferris Bueller (himself at least a little Zen):
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.
In your career, Zanshin means focusing on what you’re doing, when you’re doing it. No multitasking (itself a behaviour quickly falling out of favour). No dwelling on an exchange with your boss earlier that morning. Here. Now. There is nothing else.
How can that help? Ask yourself: when’s the last time you put your thought and energy into only what you were doing at that moment? How much better/stronger/faster would it be if you did? Exactly. We’ve been erroneously taught that we need to multitask to get ahead, that those of us that do "only" one thing at a time will be passed over for those that can do many things at once. Not so. Focusing on the single task at hand – whether a financial report, coming up with a new marketing campaign, dealing with a client complaint, taking inventory, or whatever – will generate better results. Multitaskers may finish more things in less time, but often at the expense of doing them well. Remember: it’s quality over quantity. That’s what Zanshin is all about.
3. The Concept of Fudōshin
Fudōshin is known as the “immovable mind” or “immovable heart”. It refers to total determination and unwavering willpower… a mind locked on what needs to be done and ready to do it, obstacles and fear be damned.
Fudōshin means not allowing ourselves to be thrown for a loop, no matter what happens. It’s about self-control, confidence in our abilities, and dealing with issues as they happen. Fudōshin protects and shields us from the four sicknesses of our minds: surprise, fear, doubt, and anger. An individual that has attained Fudōshin does not lash out or recoil from difficulty. They are centered. They are balanced. They are ready for everything… come what may.
When it comes to your job, how much do you believe in yourself and your abilities? If you attained Fudōshin, what could possibly stand in your way? An obstacle, then, would be nothing but a speed bump. You may have to slow down, but you keep moving forward. Have a little faith. We all let problems bother us way too much, and that is nowhere as true as it is at work. But what if you just brushed them aside and got to the business of fixing or addressing them, rather than dwelling on them? Imagine how much more efficient you’d be if you said "sayonara" to fear and doubts. Standing outside the conference room about to pitch to a major new client? You’re not afraid. Client questioning your approach to their account? You have no doubts. Boss wants you to come in on Saturday? You’re not angry. You are the ideal employee. And someone will eventually notice.
4. The Concept of Hishiryo
Many of us overthink things. In fact, we may never have a waking moment when we’re not thinking about something, and that can be exhausting. Hishiryo does not mean emptying your mind, which is an incredibly hard thing to do. Instead, it refers to letting your thoughts come and go naturally, without grasping or fixating on them, or pushing them away. Some call it what happens “between thinking and non-thinking”.
Consider how much time you spend thinking about "stuff" at work. What did the boss mean by that comment? Why did I not get the Anderson account? How come Susan in sales gave me a dirty look at lunch? It’s exhausting. So, don’t fixate. Don’t obsess. Don’t rehash, or relive, or overanalyze. Let your thoughts just be. The more we think about something, the more we second-guess, criticize, or fear. Like Zen itself, Hishiryo is tricky to explain until you experience it.
But try. Concentrate when you need to concentrate. But the rest of the time, let everything else fall away. In the grand scheme of things, those thoughts are meaningless and unimportant.
You’ll be amazed how your mind opens up, how your creativity blossoms, and how your ideas flow when you stop “thinking” about them. Many of us know what can happen when we "stop thinking" – in the shower, or completing some other mindless, repetitive task. It’s when many of our "Aha!" moments occur. It’s when we have a breakthrough on some issue, problem, or decision. Let it happen. You’ll know more by thinking less. And it gives you more time to work on and think about the things that matter most, the things you truly need to devote time and energy to. If you’re spending your day bettering yourself as an employee while everyone else is busy worrying about the stupid crap that we all worry about, who do you think is going to go farther up that corporate ladder?
See Also: Advance Your Career
If you’re interested in learning more about Zen, it’s worthwhile to find a nearby temple, school, or instructor. The introduction here is rudimentary, and barely scratches the surface. Practitioners spend years, decades, even an entire lifetime trying to master and understand Zen. It’s not something that can be taught in a single article. But you can put these four principles into play during your workday. Remember them. Use them like a mantra or personal motto. Don’t make it more complicated than it has to be… it’s just four simple reminders.
Zen teaches us to live from moment to moment in the here and now. Good advice. You’ve heard the phrase “stop and smell the roses” many times, right? Zen preaches the same thing. Here and now. Always here and now. We could all use a lot more of those two things, and a lot less of everything else.
Do you have any experience with Zen? How has it helped you in your daily life and career? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!