The middle way of career ambition

It is not easy for a Kadampa to get career ambition correct.  But it is very important that we try if we are to thrive as a tradition in this modern world.  In my view, there are two extremes when it comes to career ambition.  First, is the extreme of not living up to our full professional potential.  Second, is the extreme of becoming attached to worldly success as an end in itself.  The middle way is pursuing your career fully as a skill-building training regime organized by Dorje Shugden to forge you into the Buddha you need to become.

Before we encounter the Dharma, many of us have a well-developed sense of career ambition.  I wanted to be a high-powered engineer, then lawyer, then banker.  We then encounter the Dharma, learn about abandoning worldly concerns, learn how the only thing that matters is gaining realizations, and then we start to think that pursuing a career is inherently mundane.  We look around us at the various examples in the Sangha and see that “to be committed to the spiritual path is to do the minimum amount of normal work as possible so that we can do retreats, etc.”  We come from a historically monastic tradition, so as a tradition we have few examples of professional Kadampas.  This is something new we are learning as a tradition.  There is a cultural bias within the Kadampa community that looks down on those pursuing a normal career, as if doing so is necessarily somebody preoccupied with worldly concerns and not really committed to their practice.  For others, some of us are naturally lazy, not really wanting to do much or accomplish much.  With such a mind, when we encounter the Dharma it provides us the perfect excuse for not pursuing our professional careers!  We now (mis)use the Dharma as our pretext for being lazy and doing nothing.

It is a big problem if, as a tradition, we shun professional life.  We will then evolve into and be perceived as a collection of losers and misfits who only pursue their spiritual lives with full vigor because we have nothing better we are able to do or accomplish with our lives.  Competent, intelligent and professionally capable people will then shun the tradition or certainly not feel at home amongst us.  We will have little chance to thrive and succeed for the long-term if we are a collection of societal “rejects” and “losers”.  People will conclude the Kadampa path is only for those with no life.  And once people start to develop a “life” they will then falsely feel they need to choose between their spiritual life and their newly emerging normal life.  We will become a tradition of people living far below their professional potential, implicitly grasping at professional life as inherently worldly.  Such ignorance is rooted in the unsaid belief that the Dharma cannot be practiced in certain circumstances or ways of life.

The other extreme is to become attached to worldly success as an end in itself.  We pursue worldly goals of wealth, power, reputation for their own sake.  We allow ourselves to become distracted with the concerns of this life.  We start to mistakenly believe our happiness depends upon worldly success in our career.  We allow ourselves to start engaging in negativity in the name of getting ahead.  We start to value our own happiness above that of our colleagues, clients or competitiors.  There is no doubt that the professional, working life is dominated by worldly mentalities.  We can very easily get swept away by such mentalities and come to possess them ourselves.  We start to view every professional setback as an obstacle or a problem, becoming despondent when we don’t achieve what we want.  Later in life, when we are no longer rising in our careers and we start to have to take old people jobs, we become depressed as if our best days are behind us.  When we retire, we feel as if our life has been robbed of all meaning since the only thing we have ever known is our professional careers.  We become sad, depressed individuals, frustrated with our dwindling potential, staring into an increasingly steep descent into irrelevance.

The middle way is to view our professional lives as a skill-building training regime organized by Dorje Shugden to help us develop the skills we will need to become the Buddha we need to become.  We must live up to our full professional potential.  Why?  Because it is in doing so that we will develop the skills we need.  Operating at a higher professional level requires a higher level skill set – working with people, being able to communicate effectively orally and in writing, analytical skills, managerial skills, problem solving skills, creativity, innovation, managing risk, inspiring others, transforming setbacks into opportunities, etc.  We need these skills to be able to help the tradition flourish and to be most effective at helping people.  As a tradition, we also need to gain the realizations for how to maintain a 100% kadampa life in the context of any professional life, from the highest king to the lowest beggar.  To run centers and to enable the tradition to flourish, we need to know how to get things done in this world.  We need the world’s best and brightest not only helping the tradition flourish but occupying the world’s most important and powerful positions so such power and wealth is being used with compassionate, bodhisattva intentions.  And yes, there is a financial component to this.  We need the wealth and resources necessary for the tradition to flourish at a material level.  We do not pursue material development for its own sake, but because we realize there is a material foundation and infrastructure required for the tradition in this world.

Dorje Shugden, our Dhama protector, knows what skills and realizations we need to become the Buddhas we need to become.  We should trust that if he has arranged for us to have certain professional skills and potential that he has done so because it is in developing those skills and living up to that potential that we will gain the realizations and skills we need.  To not live up to our fullest possible professional intention is to waste the conditions he has given us and to deny the fruit of our past virtuous deeds.  We do not seek these things for their own sake, but rather by having them we can help more people.  If we view things through the lens of eventually we need all of the skills and qualities of a modern Kadampa Spiritual Guide, then we will view our professional circumstance as part of our spiritual training.  We will simultaneously live up to our professional potential and our spiritual potential as part of the same continuum.  All contradictions between our so called worldly life and our spiritual life will dissolve away and we will become inspiring examples to all.

Reliance on Dorje Shugden in the context of our careers also enables us to let go of worrying about what happens.  From an ordinary perspective, certain things will be a setback for our career and others will be good; but from a spiritual perspective when we know Dorje Shugden is arranging everything, good or bad, everything that happens to us will be a spiritual boon!  Both success and setbacks in our career give us opportunities to develop spiritually, so we will be able to take in stride (indeed joyful stride) whatever happens in our career.  This takes the stress out of career progression and enables us to focus on the journey.

While I don’t know enough about the Mormon and Jewish communities, and I am sure there are things not worth emulating, we can nonetheless take inspiration from these communities.  Both are minority religious groups who are nonetheless very successsful professsionally.  They possess disproportionate power and wealth relative to their numbers in the world.  Culturally, they value hard work, discipline, and living up to their full professional potential.  Externally, we should be just as professionally successful as they are, but internally our motivations are 100% Kadampa.

Your turn:  Describe a situation where have fallen into one of the extremes of career ambition and what you learned from that.

6 thoughts on “The middle way of career ambition

  1. Dear Kadampa Ryan,

    Being a happy Kadampa for several years, I had thought about going back to school to pursue my (seemingly) worldly dream of becoming a music therapist. It would mean quitting my current job, which paid well but was not very stimulating professionally. I worried about quitting, however, not only because of the obvious financial hit, but also I wondered if I would still have time to help out at my Center, do pujas and retreats, and also keep up my own meditation practice. I took the plunge and have been so glad I did. That being said, it has been much more of a challenge to really use my time wisely and not engage in meaningless activities for their own sake. I try to do schoolwork efficiently and with concentration, and plan out my day and week so that each day includes time for meditation, relaxation, social time, exercise, and work at/for the Center. Is it always perfect? Of course not. But I am less inclined to be lazy because trying to maintain that balance takes effort. Relying on Dorje Shugdan has been a main part of my practice, and I try to keep the view that my training in school will develop my spiritual skills so that I can help as many people as possible. Your post helped me feel confident in pursuing this path to the best of my abilities. Thank you!

  2. Dear KR :

    This make a lot of sense, is quite difficult to find the middle way when your aspirations in life are most above to gain spiritual realisations.but as you mention, DS always reveal us what is exactly is best for us while all the conditions appear in our external world that has to be with our potentialities and show us the way to gain some better skills for us. In this way we can achieve our goals inside and outside without losing our main intention.

  3. Nearly all Buddhist traditions are biased by the fact that the monastics have passed everything on to the rest of the world. Buddha taught extensively to the lay community and gave vast teachings. Many of us know nothing of these because of how the teachings have been presented mainly by the monastics. Not that this is bad, this is how it is.

    Buddha empahsized careers, gaining wealth, how to raise a family, how to handle partners etc. Buddha said, you have the karma for success in this life then enjoy it! Succeed as a hair stylist, an office worker, a writer, a movie star or whatever. Temporary happiness is important to a healthy spiritual life entirely focused on future happiness.

    The key to lay life for me is to have balance. I have evolved from a large retreat monastic community (tharpaland) so this has been a big deal here. But settling into my own practice regardless of what others in the tradition think is gold 😉

    • Within the Kadampa tradition at least, I think it is very important to remember that whether we are lay or ordained, we have been given exactly the same presentation of the Dharma. I understand in the past and in other traditions, there were different instructions emphasized depending on whether somebody was lay or ordained. But within the NKT, this is not the case. Ordained people often lives lives very similar to lay people and lay people often practice in ways very similar to ordained people. Everyone is converging. Of course, there are external differences, but internally we have exactly the same Dharma, focus and intentions. Understanding this helps us avoid the extreme of thinking that some instructions are not for us or that because we are lay we have a different lineage we follow. Externally, we all lead as moral of lives as possible and internally we maintain as selfless of an intention as possible. Sex is about the only difference, but even here lay practitioners are encouraged to work on overcoming their sexual attachment and to engage in the act in as spiritual of a way as possible (based on love, etc.).

  4. This was badly needed. Thank you! Ever since I met this path i have been on the verge of dropping my ‘career’ but circumstances have held me back. I should have more faith and remember Dorje is caring for us in every possible way and when the time is right shifts will take place naturally.

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