Review of Buddha at Work: Finding Balance, Purpose and Happiness at Your Workplace

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I ended my review of Marryam H. Reshii’s The Flavour of Spice by thanking Roland Barthes for his work on popular culture. I have to now, unfortunately, agree with Jim McGuigan that the study of popular books leads to “cultural populism” which is a waste of time:

Cultural populism is the intellectual assumption, made by some
students of popular culture, that the symbolic experiences and
practices of ordinary people are more important analytically and
politically than Culture with a capital C. (Jim McGuigan cultural populism, Routledge, London, 1992)

In the review which follows, it would be useful to study Red Pine as a translator of the original Sutras and of Nichiren Buddhism itself. No amount of intellectual haberdashery on my part can prove the value of Pandit’s work in preference to say, either Red Pine’s works or Thomas Bien’s works. McGuigan and Harold Bloom are not to be pooh-poohed just because John Storey dislikes them. The review below and the two before it just shows the uselessness of popular culture and the verities of cultural populism. Just bringing in Maurice Merleau-Ponty while reading Buddha at Work does not make it any more meaningful than the pseudoscience of the Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) folks’ puerile name-dropping. The following review should be read with many pinches of salt since I am proving McGuigan and Bloom true. 

Buddha at Work: Finding Balance, Purpose and Happiness at Your Workplace. Geetanjali Pandit. Gurugram. PP 288. Hachette India. ₹ 399.

What do you think, Subhuti, can the Tathagata be seen by the means of the possession of attributes?

Subhuti replied, “No, indeed, Bhagavan, the Tathagata cannot be seen by means of the possession of attributes. And why not? Bhagavan, what the Tathagata says is the possession of attributes is no possession of attributes.”

This having been said, the Buddha told the venerable Subhuti, “Since the possession of attributes is an illusion, Subhuti, and no possession of attributes is no illusion, by means of attributes that are no attributes the Tathagata can, indeed, be seen.

(Pine, Red, translator. Diamond Sutra: the Perfection of Wisdom: Text and Commentaries. Counterpoint, 2002. Page 101)

To understand the Diamond Sutra and the Platform Sutra is to enter the heart of Chan/Zen Buddhism and thus into Geetanjali Pandit’s book under review. Pandit is a Zen Buddhist by her own confession.

One really cannot understand Bodhicitta by reading what most people consider as the archetypal English pop-Zen Buddhist book: Robert M. Pirsig’s  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). One can have a better understanding of the Zen mind through the correspondence between Thomas Merton and D. T. Suzuki, but even that is not ‘empty’ in the Buddhist sense. Merton was certainly an essentialist and Suzuki had to be less than ‘empty’ to reply to Merton. Buddhist mindfulness, as seen from the quotation above, is to be without attributes or free from essentiality. To ‘be’ a ‘Buddha at Work’, one must realize that “by means of attributes that are no attributes the Tathagata can, indeed, be seen.” Contrary to popular notions, we spend most of our lives at work, and our colleagues become our real families, while our totemic families must bear the burden of the disappointments of our workplaces. Workplaces are known to literally drive us insane with the whole gamut of emotions that humanity can experience: these emotions range from forgiveness (somewhat cognate with the Buddhist Karuna and Metta) to rabid hatred and envy.

I have always been a fan of Dr Thomas Bien. He is one of the most lucid thinkers in his field writing today. 

Buddhist Mindfulness also has a long tradition within the behavioural sciences. For instance, Thomas Bien deals with the interface of psychology, neurobiology and Buddhism in his work as an author and a therapist. In Mindful Therapy: A Guide for Therapists and Helping Professionals (2006) Bien traces out Buddhist methods of approaching various talk-therapies for mental health care providers and lays down step by step guidelines to deal with transference issues arising in the mental health care provider in the counselling dyad of counsellor and client. Geetanjali Pandit’s book under review is a book which has to be seen as a text which draws from Buddhist psychotherapists like Bien and obviously, from various Buddhist Sutras. She incorporates the works of Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970), therapists like Thomas Bien, scholars like Red Pine and does for Indians what Pema Chödrön has done for Americans. Chödrön has changed American Buddhism forever. Pandit, like Chödrön, has changed the Indian understanding of Buddhism for good through the book under review. She has reinstated the Buddha in His own land, India.

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The rest of this review will show how Pandit has drawn from each of these sources and performed her therapeutic work. Of course, one gets the sense that Pandit is cathartically expunging her own life lived in the corporate world. Her book effects a Lacanian  ‘irrepression’ of desire; since “…from being deeply grateful and happy to be working, I [the author-persona] found my sense of fulfilment being steadily eroded…The thought of going to work and actually being at work had become stressful for me…My initial feelings of hurt [at being back-bitten at work] quickly gave way to anger” (Buddha at Work 57). Throughout the book, there is this sense that the author tries to escape her Lacanian mirroring in the eyes of her colleagues, from the reciprocal ‘gaze’ (used here in a Lacanian sense) of her bosses, peers and juniors. Then in a manner of phantasy (sic), Pandit recreates the life of the Buddha and in the likeness of Bien in his book (Mindful Therapy) mentioned above prescribes her “My Exercises For You”. This ‘primal-trauma’ that Pandit negotiates and invites us to negotiate is a Lacanian trauma with all its burden of the triptych of the symbolic, the real, and the imaginary:

“In the imaginary…the threat is merely physical. And the physical is far less dangerous than the emotional and the psychological, for the latter cause damage to the heart, the mind and the body in one fell swoop” (Buddha at Work 75).

This reviewer finds Buddha at Work more phenomenological than an objective to-do book. Pandit’s insistence in “developing the skill of listening to others” (Buddha at Work 158) or what is known as ‘deep-listening’ in talk therapy circles is also an offshoot of her phenomenological leanings derived from the exegetes who worked on say, the Lotus Sutra (the main text of Nichiren Buddhism). These Nichiren scholars were powerfully influenced by phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Red Pine mentioned above, for instance, appears to this reviewer is very well versed in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. Further, this reviewer finds that mindfulness techniques mentioned by Pandit and in books by both Chödrön and Bien do not get analysed for their internal narrative informed by either Lacanian and Lacan derived psychoanalytic gaze(s) or as this reviewer’s electronic correspondence with Bien shows, with these authors’ Hindu moorings. Bien in an email (“Review.” Received by Subhasis Chattopadhyay, Review, 24 July 2016.) to this reviewer’s charge that Bien did not mention the Hindu Scriptures from which the Buddha(s) derive their teachings (Samkhya to Yoga to Buddhism as distinct from Samkhya to Yoga to Jainism which Pandit censures in Buddha at Work for Jainism is torturous on the body unlike the Buddha’s ‘Middle Way’/Madhyamika) pointed out that he was well aware of the Hindu canon but it was his prerogative as an author to limit himself to Buddhism; this reviewer presumes and is confident that the ultimate source for Buddha at Work is Patanjali’s Yogasutras (whose Buddhist content has been noted by both Hindu and Buddhist scholars) which say in the second Sutra of the first chapter (Samadhi Pada): योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः (a rough translation to be found online is: ‘Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind’). Buddha at Work like all forms of Buddhism including the Sautrāntikas aim at योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥ This analysis of Pandit’s book is validated by the work on mythologies in a different context by Roland Barthes (See Barthes’ Mythologies,1957) and the debunking of high culture begun by Slavoj Žižek in his The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989). Very few will ever read the Diamond, the Platform or the Lotus Sutras but people read this book sufficiently enough to make it a bestseller. Thus it is essential that we scrutinise(d) this text (archival datum) through thinkers who have taught us to see value in the popular: Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Slavoj Žižek.

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Pandit’s book is a case study in the Lacanian gaze, albeit, the gaze of the colleague. 

As Buddha at Work ends, we have scope to return to the quotation with which we began this review: Pandit writes “to be happy…you must train yourself to be present in the present”(236) , in other words, one has to grasp the ‘attributelessness’ of all attributes in the here and the now, for according to Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, time is not contiguous, and only the now exists.

 

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