Buddha is Interested in What People Can Do, Not with What They Are

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Gotama is interested in what people can do, not with what they are. The task the Buddha proposes entails distinguishing between what is to be accepted as the natural condition of life itself (the unfolding of experience) and what is to be let go of (reactivity). We have no control over the feeling of intense envy or acquisitiveness that arises when exposed to images of status or wealth, for example, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in ways that are not determined by feelings of greed, competitiveness, or envy.

To dwell in the present is to be open to the projects that can be actualized in whatever time remains before one’s death. The Buddha indicated that work would optimally be subsumed under a single project. Because this principal project (to which all other work is subsumed) consists of four aspects, the project is called the “Fourfold Task”.

“Dharma” (often translated into English as “Truth” or “Law”) is analogized as work. Livelihoods common during the Buddha’s lifetime – such as farming, carpentry, and arrow making – are specifically invoked in the Dhammapada (i.e., often translated into English as “the Path to Truth”):

         Just as a farmer irrigates a field,

         An arrowsmith fashions an arrow,

         And a carpenter shapes a piece of wood,

         So the wise person tames his self.

The person is an unfinished project and a work in progress. The work product is a life that:

  • Is focused like an arrow;
  • Bears fruit like a field ready for harvest;
  • Is valuable like a finely crafted object. 

Such work is grounded in concerns that do not relate to maintaining the worker’s status at the workplace or enhancing the worker’s position in society. Such a mind at work is devoid of greed, hatred and confusion.

As long as the worker’s mind is preoccupied with his or her “place” in the world, the work will not be “grounded” in, or subsumed by, life’s principal work project, the Fourfold Task. 

Source: Batchelor, Stephen. After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age. Harper Element, 2016.

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