Emptiness in an Uncertain Workplace

by Keith Brown

Every Saturday, I have been attending the DDM Exploring Buddha dharma class. I am learning about the notion of Emptiness in the Prajnaparamita Sutra and Heart Sutra. Ven. Chang Hui provides many interesting examples of how people can wrap their heads around the line in the Heart Sutra which states, “Form is precisely Emptiness, Emptiness is precisely Form”. Now to be honest with you, I always get stuck on the word “precisely”. For while I have often recited the Heart sutra in morning and evening services, I still have a tendency to conceive of emptiness as a force that is somehow acting on forms, almost like a wind or an energy. I have yet to deeply realize that the two (emptiness and form) are inseparable, perhaps due to my previous ideas about matter and energy that come to me from early science education. If faced with two concepts that seem to be opposites, I tend to think about how they relate causally, and find it hard to see that they are the same—or might even be ways of viewing the same. I tend to think that forms have a substance and are independent of other forms. I see a cup and label it a cup, not connecting that label with all the elements that allow it to be there. To be a cup, what is needed? Clay, a potter, the sun, and so on—and these designations are also created by the mind. It’s mind boggling to realize that no matter how much I try to grasp the existence of the cup as one totality, I find an infinite number of conditions that lead to the cup coming to awareness. Ven. Chang Hui always reminds us that there are multiple entry points to practicing emptiness, and she uses many different examples of how the concept can be understood and applied. One of these is how we can use emptiness to understand the workplace.

Ven. Chang Hui shared an interesting example in the class about a family member being upset due to a very dramatic salary decrease. Ven. Chang Hui tried to comfort this family member using skillful means. As Ven. Chang Hui explained it, there are different ways of looking at a situation. Something that looks pretty unlivable in one situation might turn out to be acceptable when a person sees the broader context, or the wider causes and conditions in which it arises. As Ven. Chang Hui described, a situation that seems pretty bad right now, might later on look quite different, because one’s perspectives change over time. This also suggests that the situation was never a separate occurrence in the first place, and there is no fixed self that is appraising the experience either. I always find it interesting to reflect that this example comes from a unionized organization, where many players contribute to the overall result. One in such a situation might feel like a pawn, having no power over the outcome of economic uncertainties. To me, this seems to be a direct experience of emptiness; however mundane it might seem, it is an embodiment of “form is emptiness”, in the sense that a person’s material wealth is subject to a whole roster of conditions. It turns out that there is nothing at all “material” about money. In a situation like an economic downturn or war, money becomes a number that fluctuates in a computer, or might even remain stuck in a frozen account. The value of money is based on how people collectively appraise it, as well as many external conditions like inflation, a nation’s policies and decisions, and even the weather.

It seems that many people in today’s work world are facing economic barriers and cutbacks, many of which arise from the effects of the pandemic. I work in the music industry, where we experienced many revenue decreases due to fewer live concerts as well as lack of sustainable income from music sources. Because I am currently leading a team of people, I often have to empathize with their worries about money. When one of the team members commented about a decrease in merit pay, I had to assure him that it wasn’t due to his not being recognized for his achievements. In fact, most likely the decrease in merit pay was affecting a lot of people, especially those who had experienced an increase in the cost of living in the past year or so that had not been counterbalanced by revenue growth in the company. But I was also thinking that there are different ways of looking at the situation. For some people, less merit pay might evoke anger; how can they do this to me when I worked so hard and went above and beyond to deliver? Others might experience the pain of having to make do with fewer resources. Still others might reflect: this, like everything else in life, is a temporary situation. It will pass, just like others. I might lose money or even lose my job, but that might give rise to other unforeseen opportunities, including the chance to overcome my fear of losing. When I was listening to Ven. Chang Hui’s talk today, I wondered to myself: will there ever come a point in my life where money (or lack thereof) is precisely emptiness, and emptiness precisely money? Honestly, I am not at that stage where I can really feel calm in the face of a potentially fluctuating bank account, and I suppose that this is one of the things that motivates me to get up every morning and make a living.

I suppose one of the ways I can treat this situation is, like Ven. Chang Hui reminds us, to take these concepts into our practice. Work can be either a way of accumulating (and therefore feeding a sense of desire or want) or a way of practicing Dharma and realizing emptiness. If the former, then I will always feel a sense of unease and anxiety, never knowing whether I will get enough approval from my manager to stay employable. As long as I attach to the self that “is employable” then my mindset will always be to grasp and compete, to worry, and to solidify the idea that all these anxieties are “me”. But if I go back to the previous examples, I can also realize that my job is precisely emptiness. My job depends on the other people around me in the office: their efforts, their collective contributions, and the contributions of the greater society. If musicians don’t create music, would I still have my job? What happens if people stop listening to music or buying music? When I reflect on this, I start to relax a bit, realizing that I am not solely in control of whether I work or not. I am part of a larger process that doesn’t start or end with the self. Then, when I extend this concept to the arena of time, I might reflect: one does not have to be fixated on one role to survive. There are many ways that people can survive in the world, and the roles that they are currently in are really only contingent roles. So while I will try my best in what I am doing, I am not attaching that role to myself: I start to see that the roles I am now adopting are only temporary functions that arise because many causes and conditions allow them to do so.

But of course, the examples I have shown here could go deeper. They could cut to the question of whether people should feel anxiety in face of any kind of loss, including the loss of life or body. From a Buddhist perspective, there may not be any reason to attach to this body we currently have, because the mind doesn’t end with the body. If there is no birth and no death, why feel regret at the eventual loss of this body? But I am still subject to this body and the demands of hunger, comfort, warmth and companionship, so I still operate according to these conditions. To go back to what Ven. Chang Hui mentioned in her example, however, having a perspective on emptiness can allow people to relate more flexibly to difficult situations and to see that more choice is available if we are not fixated on a specific outcome that is bound to change over time. I believe that this perspective might help people to be more stable emotionally even when they are subject to the pains of the body, as well as adopt more equanimity when faced with difficulties or dramatic changes in their working lives.

Questions for Reflection:

How do you use the teachings of “Form is precisely emptiness/Emptiness precisely form” in your daily life?

Is there an area in life where you would benefit from seeing all things as impermanent?

What is impermanence to you?

What is emptiness to you?