Does applying Buddhist principles of compassion and kindness make you a walking doormat at the workplace? PJ Teh, a former Strategic Planning manager at EDB, challenges that view and gives us points to think about, in this mini-article series.
TLDR: We spend more than a quarter of our adult lives at the workplace. Knowing how to choose your workplace can either build or destroy your character. Choosing the right people, and culture, and asking the right questions is crucial!
Principles in the financial world and the Dhamma
The term Dharma/dhamma is something that brings up the mental image of a Californian long-haired hippy with incense and drugs, spouting free-love, with flowers in their hair.
In reality, the term Dhamma is simply a set of conditionality or principles: this can be seen from how they are described, which are usually sets of conditionality i.e. if A happens, that allows B to happen, etc.
So that is why in my mind, “Applying Buddhist Principles at Work” is the same thing as “Applying the Dhamma at Work”.
Ray Dalio, a famous hedge-fund manager, who wrote a best-selling book “Principles” gives us further insight into the workplace. His book is about the principles he used to grow Bridgewater Associates into one of the largest funds in the world: that is a kind of Dhamma for hedge funds (and decision-making), with many overlaps with Buddhist Dhamma.
Instead of ‘lazily’ applying the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths, I’m taking a first-principles approach to the Dhamma at Work, but without necessarily being MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive). These are decisions and actions that anybody probably needs to act on, at work.
These are my personal views on the matter, so please feel free to look at it differently. 🙂
I should also caveat that these Buddhist principles might not make you rich or conventionally successful. But you will probably sleep well at night, and probably suffer a lot less, and be happier!
The following decisions need to be made by anybody with regard to any workplace.:
Choosing a workplace
How to look at issues and matters, and how to decide
How to treat people at the workplace
How to conduct oneself
This article will cover ‘Choosing a workplace’ with subsequent articles covering the other areas.
Choosing the place where you spend a quarter of your adult work life
A workplace is an environment where your mind will be in, for a substantial amount of your life.
A week has 168 hours: a typical work week takes up anywhere from 42 to 120 of those hours, which is 25% or more of your total time. That’s where your mind will be at.
What happens at work also spills over to the rest of your life, shaping your mental state for your week. Hence, I think choosing a workplace is perhaps the most important decision to make.
So how should we choose a workplace? I have a few factors to consider.
1. Choosing the people
The first factor to decide about a workplace is the people you’re going to be working with. You become the people around you.
This was so important, that Ananda (who was the Buddha’s personal attendant) was rebuked by the Buddha for saying that the good friendship was only half the Holy Life:
When a bhikkhu (monastic) has a good friend, a good companion, and a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.
The same consideration applies to choosing our colleagues.
Why is it so important to choose your colleagues carefully? This is because of anatta, or non-self: if there truly is a self that was fully in control, then the environment wouldn’t impact any individual.
But precisely because anatta or non-self is true, we humans are influenced easily by the people and environment around us.
Choosing the workplace, especially choosing the people you work with thus helps shape our own minds and conditions.
2. How do I know if the culture is right for me?
Related to this, is whether the culture of the team and workplace you’re joining is a good or bad culture. How do you know if it’s good or bad? And good or bad, with reference to what?
Choose a workplace culture with reference to your state of mind, and your progress on the Eightfold Path.
If you go to a workplace and you end up having a lot of strong desires, that’s probably not good.
Nothing below a five-star hotel
When I was working with a previous employer in finance, an ex-boss said to me “You know, PJ, I can never stay in a hotel less than five stars, and on a plane less than business class.”
I was horrified and asked why. She said, “because I am so used to this, that anything less is really uncomfortable.”
It was suffering for her, basically, because the financial industry had norms that were extremely expensive. And that’s when I realised that the industry was Super Samsara!
That’s when I decided I had to leave because I also noticed that many of my colleagues and peers were not happy, not very healthy, and used their high pay to “buy happiness” outside of work, indulging in all kinds of expensive things.
The layoffs happened
When we were laid off due to the financial crisis, I heard an ex-colleague had cash for only half a month’s worth of rent in her bank account, because she had spent all her income on spa packages, pedicure packages, gym packages, branded clothes, bags, drinks, expensive dinners, etc.
So she was desperate to get another high-paying job as a banker, even though the market was flooded with retrenched bankers.
My own state of mind back then was extremely unhealthy: strong desires, bad-tempered, and lacking sleep (I was working 90-120 hours a week).
Even though it has taken ten years to get back to the base-level salary I earned in the investment bank, I still think it was the right decision to leave (or rather, to get laid off).
The Buddha gave this advice on how to choose a place for a monastic:
Buddha: Take another case of a mendicant who lives close by a jungle thicket. As they do so, their mindfulness becomes established, their mind becomes immersed in samādhi, their defilements come to an end, and they arrive at the supreme sanctuary. But the necessities of life that a renunciate requires—robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick—are hard to come by. That mendicant should reflect: ‘…I didn’t go forth from the lay life to homelessness for the sake of a robe, alms-food, lodgings, or medicines and supplies for the sick… they shouldn’t stay there.
This advice isn’t just for monastics but is applicable to anyone who is intent on walking the Path.
What’s perhaps most interesting is the subsequent instruction from the Buddha. When your meditation, mindfulness and practice aren’t good, due to your environment,
That mendicant should leave that jungle thicket that very time of night or day; they shouldn’t stay there.
That’s how important the Buddha placed the effect of a place on one’s mind.
Asking the human mirrors you live with at home
How should you apply this learning, if you don’t really meditate nor keep precepts?
A simple way is to ask the people who live with you: are you becoming more gentle, kinder, and compassionate? Or are you becoming more of a pain in the ass to live with?
That will tell you how your mental cultivation is going. If your workplace is causing you to be more irritable, have strong sensual desires, and crave more material things, then you’re probably in the wrong place.
And if you see that a workplace is full of people with big egos, anger, strong sensory desires and material things, those workplaces are probably the places to avoid.
Understand the impact of colleagues on your mind and choose them wisely. Which of your colleagues improve your mind, and which do not?
Check-in with the people you live with if your character has improved or worsened since you joined your firm; this is one of the best indicators of whether you chose the right place. What do they say?
TLDR: Are we truly a rainbow of a thousand colours, lighting up the sky? With Singapore’s myriad of diverse identities, we can receive its cultural melting pot with kindness and an open heart. Reflecting on two vignettes, we refresh commonality and connect uncharted dots between faiths.
Take a spin around your neighbourhood or a stroll down Central District this weekend.
How many different places of worship can you find along the way? And when was the last time you stepped into another, other than your own?
It is likely that the number nor the lack of visit will surprise you. Have you ever wonder why do they not?
Greater than the Sum of its Parts
I pondered on how parts of the world fit snuggly into modern Singapore, partly implemented via intentional planning of her policy makers and partly developed through her history of immigrants.
The feat that so many chapalang people, cultures, identities and faiths can co-exist within the limits of this space calls for a cake. As we learn of various national conflicts arising from differences, the ‘peace’ we share in Singapore may just be good enough.
When I say ‘co-exist’, I talk about awareness and at best, acceptance of diversity, differences and conglomeration. Let’s face it, relating harmoniously with everyone or anyone we encounter is no rosy picture. Humans have likes and dislikes.
It is natural to agree and disagree; to identify and cluster, what more to differentiate and – god forbid – discriminate. Yet, how often do we understand each other?
If my belief is right, the hodgepodge of cultures, races and religions goes way back beyond when Sang Nila Utama first stood on this island. Thanks to the 2019 Bicentennial efforts, we now acknowledge Singapore’s history to stretch over 700 years and longer.
To co-exist with such intense diversity in a cramped space for that long, this morphing society has learnt to draw upon individuals’ virtues and their conscious efforts to overcome inherent human cognitive biases.
Psychology of Goodwill towards “Different” People
Think about that one time when you felt uncomfortable or emotional in an encounter with someone outside your usual community in Singapore. What immediate perceptions did you form about this particular person and his/her/their community?
What decisions did you make about future interactions with this person/community during and after this encounter?
It takes open hearts, basic kindness and willingness to communicate and understand that someone of a different race/faith/culture does not pose a threat to what or who we identify with. It takes courage and patience to say:
“Hey, I don’t know you well enough. Help me see what’s going on for you,” or;
“Let me put aside my tightly-held conceit to appreciate who you are and what stories you live”.
Sometimes, we latch onto our views so strongly that we forget how it is like to be open to other perspectives or to not have any views at all. When we hold onto our version of reality as more important or deny others’ realities, the aversion and hurt ensuing from our attachment are poisons that we choose not to see.
Only when we rightly acknowledge and accept the multitude of truths held by different communities as their ways of life, will we have a more generous heart to learn and adopt inspiration from each other. Then, perhaps, we can love our neighbours as ourselves.
Honest Encounters with Various Faiths
The rest of my writing contains two vignettes of my local encounters with various faiths, as a late millennial female, straight Hokkien-Teochew Chinese, Theravadin Buddhist, who lives in a HDB flat and works in the construction industry.
The slew of labels is not necessary but what do you see? Look at the portrait you can construct using those stereotypes.
How many different intersections of faith, race, culture and identity can you imagine I have (not) crossed? What lessons will you uncover?
A continuous ringing of a bell shrills through the entire HDB flat at around 8am and 5 pm daily.
When I first heard it, it was the last thing I wanted to hear amid my activities. I complained to my mother. She explained, “It’s part of the Hindu prayer lah girl,” “Not peaceful leh?” The disgruntling echoed after each ring in my mind.
One evening, the ringing pierced through my body when I had a pounding headache from the foggy consciousness caused by drowsy antidepressants.
The bell rang with such vigour that I could picture the faithful hand that shook it so earnestly. I wanted to be annoyed but there was no strength to resist the daggers of sounds.
If I can’t run away, why don’t I accept it? I embraced the ringing with my awareness. The heart shifted.
Each ring sent my mind right back to the present moment. Each ring lifted me one inch out of that terribly dull drowsiness. As the last ‘ling’ landed in the air like a finale, the headache dissipated with a ripple. Since then, the ringing became a familiar soundscape at home, no longer a frustrating auditory contact.
On National Day, the bell rang again, as if to alert me that I have yet to fulfil my learning of this Hindu ritual. Seizing the opportunity to understand better, Google affirmed that I was not the only one hearing “bells ringing at home”.
It turns out that ringing the bell (or Ghanti) is part of the Hindu puja offering, where the worshipper announces his/her arrival to the Hindu deity worshipped.
Dear Lord, I am here. Please bear witness to my presence.
One offers his/her presence to greet and honour transcendence. This meaning of presence flows very much like the kangse meditation bell: a reminder to recollect the moment and to stay with one’s awareness that is larger than self.
Well, how could I forget that bells are also used in Taoist, Buddhist and Christian traditions?That they come in all shapes, sizes, tones, pitches and manners of ringing?
“Ting – ling ling ling —-” Here and now. Here and now.
2. Cleaning Ourselves
During the Ramadan of 2019, I was invited to participate in breaking fast with migrant workers at Masjid Yusof Ishak Mosque. As part of the interfaith circle’s initiative to promote appreciation of Muslim practices, youths from different faiths observed the evening Muslim prayer and joined in the mass breaking fast.
A scent of communal dedication to Islam hung in the air throughout the entire evening. What stuck with me was this particular quote outside the common toilets:
“Cleanliness is half of the Faith.”
In my mind, I drew an immediate parallel to Upaḍḍha Sutta, where Venerable Ānanda asked the Buddha if having admirable friendship is half of the holy life. If admirable friendship is the whole of holy life and cleanliness is half of the Faith (Imaan), then how much weight does the latter hold in a Muslim’s life?
Following the teachings of the Quran, Muslims cleanse their faces, heads, hands (forearm up to the elbow) and feet (up to ankle) to prepare for their prayers.
This ritual washing purifies the body of the filth before Muslims convene with God as
“Truly, God loves those who turn unto Him in repentance and loves those who purify themselves.”
Body purification and spiritual purification are both crucial in the Islamic Faith. Being pure brings one closer to God.
The principle of keeping up cleanliness is also prominent in Theravada Buddhism: monks wash their feet after walking their alms round barefooted; tidy and clean living quarters reflect the practitioners’ clear states of mind.
Often, the metaphor of cleaning a dirty and cluttered room is used in Thai Forest teachings for the practice of meditation and mental cultivation: what used to be a pure mind was tainted by unwholesome qualities or defilements (kilesa) since the beginningless time.
The way to liberate the heart is to clean out the defilements through the patient and consistent practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Essentially, we practitioners are cleaners scrubbing out stubborn stains with our tools and cleaning solutions. More importantly, the room does not belong to us. After cleaning it up, we can appreciate it as a pleasant abiding, close the door and leave.
But first, we have to recognise that the room is indeed dirty from our self-centred activities and that we want to clean it. Then, we go about learning how to clean and then actually doing so.
Some folks are okay living in a dirty room because they are unaware of what a clean room feels like. Think about an elderly who hoards compulsively and fills up his flat with precious things that ultimately breed dust.
The ways of the world can be distressing because so much clutter and filth get into our mind-rooms, through our own ignorant volition and through unfiltered acceptance of external influences.
We definitely deserve better.
I find the following verse from the Bible resonates with the Buddhist practice so saliently:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
If the heart is filled with impurities, then what comes out of the heart is hazardous to others. Likewise, if the heart is imbued with unconditional love and kindness, goodness permeates in our interactions.
Regardless of who we meet in our “living-room” (be they religious figures like Lord Vishnu, God, Jesus Christ, Guan Yin, the Buddha or our family, friends, fellow Singaporeans, foreign talents, migrant workers etc.), I hope that we maintain as hospitable, self-respecting hosts to welcome and honour the guests’ presence in a clean and fresh space.
Perhaps, that hospitality may just be why Singapore tries to be as clean as it can.
In a world of turmoil and confusion, recollect on the goodness of the place you live in. Gratitude can light up your heart.
Share with your friends and co-workers from other faiths your similarities and differences. There are many lessons out there for us to learn amongst other faiths when we are open.
Reflect on your ‘living-room’. Where have you done well in keeping clean? Where needs cleaning?
Content warning: This piece describes acts of homophobia and bullying that might be disturbing to some readers.
Since young, Kyle is always confused with how people look at him and why people like to call him names that are demeaning and hurtful. The term “gay” was not common during the ‘80s in Singapore.
A boy behaving femininely did not fit into how society thought a boy should behave Boys in this group are labelled “Ah Kua”. Ah Kua is a derogatory Hokkien term for a transsexual or transvestite.“Maybe something is not right, I have to be more like a boy,” Kyle recollected on his thoughts as a child.
Today, Kyle is a jovial, energetic, creative designer and Buddhist guide who volunteers at a soup kitchen and Buddhist organisations. Though he has gone through a hurtful past, he now recollects his experience with zen and ease.
He hopes that his sharing will spark a conversation about how it is okay to be different and how we can support our LGBTQIA+ friends within the Buddhist communities.
The Challenges of Being Different
Kyle was easily a bully’s target in school as the only boy in the choir. He joined the choir because he loved to sing but yet he was often called a “Sissy” for choosing to do what he loves.
“Every day I am thinking…am I going to be called something else?” Kyle shared. He would find longer routes to his destination to avoid a group of boys who would bully him.
Secondary school was where things escalated.
“If you like boys, then there is something wrong with you,” Kyle recalled. Boys would shame him in public by shouting derogatory names at him or throwing garbage into his bag.
Thankfully, he had four female friends who always defended him from the bullies. They made the pain of insults easier to bear. He recalled taking part in the school’s talentime competition, with the song ‘Hero’ by Mariah Carey. The lyrics inspired him to go up on the stage to express himself and the audience was stunned at his performance. Kyle could reach all the high notes in the song. His performance led to less bullying as people saw his talent in singing.
Kyle felt lucky as the derogatory remarks were instead replaced with the nickname “Mariah”.
Mariah Carey’s “Hero” gave him the courage to be stronger during those tough times. The lyrics and tune provided a space of calm and refuge. “Mariah Carey and Whitney Huston are where my pillars of strength and inspiration came from. “That’s before I came into contact with the Buddha of course!” Kyle chuckled.
The Buddha as his inspiration
“I am not special, if I suffer I am not the only one,” Kyle realised as he found out about the four noble truths.
Learning the noble truths that life is subjected to unsatisfactoriness and there is a way out of it resonated deeply with Kyle. It gave him the empathy that he was not alone.
Bullying followed Kyle even when he was pursuing a diploma at NAFA. He really wanted the bullies to suffer badly. He was thinking about how to seek revenge all the time. However, he realised all the unhappiness and burdens within caused by hatred arose from being attached to his ego.
“At a later stage, I learnt more compassion.” Kyle shared. He drew his source of compassion from a Dhammapada verse on hatred.
“Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.”
Responding to hate with hate only tortures oneself with anger, Kyle reasoned.
“Being kind to oneself is not just shopping or buying things for yourself. We always say be kind to yourself. When you are not angry towards others, that is when you are really being kind to yourself”
Kyle’s sharing struck a deep chord within me. In a society that starts talking about self-care, we often talk about the material. Kyle’s sharing nailed it that the emotional aspect is hardly looked at.
“Life without Dharma will be tougher to live on. The loss of my loved ones, the physical suffering from illness, the mental tortures of guilt and hatred. My suffering only I can relate to. No matter how happy one can be, the drum always sounds better when it’s far away.”
Kyle is thankful to be alive in this time where the Dharma still exists. He is constantly inspired by the teachings of Ajahn Buddhadasa, Ajahn Chan, Venerable Hsing Yun, and Thich Nhat Han., Without the Buddha’s Dharma, these masters wouldn’t exist.
Kyle has enormous gratitude for how the Dharma has transformed him.
I wondered to myself, “With so many challenges at school, was his experience in the Buddhist community any different?”
Gay + Buddhist?
Although Kyle never had negative experiences from the Buddhist community regarding his sexual orientation, challenges remain. Occasionally, when doing Dhamma volunteer work, he was apprehensive about sharing his sexuality as he was unsure how people would react.
He felt compelled to ‘tone down’ his behaviour when he entered the Buddhist setting.
“Why?”, I wondered.
Kyle shared that it remains a cultural taboo to say, “It is okay to be Buddhist and to be gay”. Something that is not discussed, creates uncertainty. There is a dearth of centres that have Dhamma talks and resources tailored to LGBTQIA+. Hence, there is uncertainty whether LGBTQIA+ members are welcomed.
The compulsion to tone down on his femininity eventually faded as Kyle developed his Dhamma knowledge.
He concluded that being LGBTQIA+ is not a sin. Rather, it is the way that we treat others and ourselves that matters more than our sexuality. Our thoughts, speech, and actions of kindness and wisdom are of utmost importance.
That made me wonder how we can better support our LGBTQIA+ friends.
“Be sensitive to what you say as it may make them feel uncomfortable. You may be close but do not take liberty in sharing with others about the person’s sexual orientation.” Kyle advised.
He recalled that some straight friends might accidentally ‘out’ their LGBTQIA+ friends, leaving them in an awkward situation.
“If we are standing up for them, just defend them because everyone deserves kindness and no one wants to be treated harshly,” Kyle advised. He mentioned that is better to avoid ‘out-ing’ LGBTQIA+ friends if they aren’t prepared to share their sexual orientation.
As friends, we also can express skilful speech by not stereotyping a person immediately. Don’t call out someone for ‘straight acting’ if they are gay and expect gay people to have to act a certain way.
In addition, if you suspect that a friend is part of the LGBTQIA+ community, don’t ask them. They might not be ready to share and feel even more stressed.
One Buddhist community that helped Kyle was “RainBodhi” (HYPERLINK), which combined two words “rainbow” and “Bodhi”. It is a LGBTQIA+ friendly community that conducts talks and provides resources to help one another.
How can members of the LGBTQIA+ community develop more compassion towards themselves against a conservative society which may not always be understanding?
“Take your time and explore what is happening. It is always through initial confusion that we gain clarity and wisdom eventually. Once you understand your emotions, you know better about this “Me” and “I”. Pick up a Dhamma book to ground yourself.” Kyle shared.
Kyle added, “If you aren’t religious, then pick up philosophy or inspirational books.”
Remind yourself “There is nothing wrong with you”.
With Kyle developing so much wisdom over time, I wondered what Kyle would tell his younger self.
“Trust your instinct. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the way you are. One day you will know a group of people who truly love who you are. You will meet an amazing teacher, the Buddha. You will come across the Buddha’s teaching and it will transform you. Be kind to people as much as possible. I promise you, that’s the only way that will help you through all the struggles. ” Kyle encouraged.
“Stop obsessing with losing weight and lose the ego instead!” Kyle added in jest.
In the spirit of pride – acceptance and care- Kyle summarised his thoughts by sharing, “Keep giving joy and love to people around you, even when you can’t find it yourself. Because whatever hardship you are going through, all the joy and love you have given would come back to you eventually”