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.