Thoughts on Zen, Work and Happiness


Coming to the quiet farms for Christmas is always the perfect break from the craze of the city and stress of work. When I look out my window, instead of seeing the vibrant skyline and the bustling streets, I see quiet mountains and vast fields of dried grass. Far far away from civilization, it’s a great place to recover a calm, something I’ve unfortunately forgotten in the city that never sleeps, in the program whose mantra is “sleep is for the weak”.

Third year has proven itself to be torturously demanding as warned, and after 4 months of physical, mental and emotional toil, I think it’s quite natural to feel damaged and thin. Of course, health comes first and we should make it a priority to exercise, eat, and sleep regularly. However, it also remains an illusive dream when we are bombarded with projects with expectations for students to independently study industry standards and come up with innovative and unique solutions; and studio projects that not only determine our individual merits but our personal worth as well. Quite literally, blood, sweat and tears is what it takes. It’s what it takes for us to be content with our own work and be “happy”.

In an environment where we are so immersed in our work, in a society that judges individuals based on their competence and usefulness, our work tends to determine our self worth and contentment with ourselves. This is a great attitude since it consistently advances our skills and knowledge while having us strive for the best. However, in a society where work numerically and methodically evaluated on certain standards, this satisfaction remains different from true self-contentment, and our satisfaction ultimately depends on the standards of others. What if, after all those sleepless nights, the iterations after iteration, after painful sacrificing of health and relationships, your judges are not still satisfied with your work?

A few years ago, I picked up but never finished Dalai Lama’s “The Art of Happiness” and in my stay at the farm, I rekindled my long forgotten interest in his teachings and Zen Buddhism. He states that all humans inanely strive to reach happiness in their lives and in his interviews, illustrates methods in which humans can train the brain to reach everlasting, rather than temporary, happiness. He discusses these ideas while illustrating the contrast between Western thinking and Tibetan Buddhism. One the reasons our happiness is shortlived is because of our desire for material goods and dependence on others. Although our work is a much better judgement of our worth than what we own, the stability of the satisfaction we attain from our work is not too different from the temporary pleasures gained by worldly goods since it will fluctuate depending on others’ standards.

Nobody denies the importance of education. I have long accepted the fact that I must on some levels sacrifice things that bring me happiness in order to achieve a different kind of happiness, the satisfaction I gain from producing good work. However, how do I justify this sacrifice if the happiness is only temporary? In a increasingly competitive world where work is becoming an integral, even dominant part of our lives, defining our worth and character, it’s becoming more and more difficult to reach. To strive for a zen lifestyle is difficult, especially if all of our time and focus is spent on work rather than reflection, health and relationships with others.

This issue continues to boggle my mind, but one of Dalai Lama’s words stuck. “The most important use of knowledge and education is to help us understand the importance of engaging in more wholesome actions and bringing about discipline within our minds… The proper utilization of our intelligence and knowledge is to effect changes from within to develop a good heart.” This was Dalai Lama’s response to his interviewer who was puzzled at his methodological, rational approach to achieving true happiness. Instead of learning to become clever and wealthy in pursuit of fleeting happiness, Dalai Lama rather suggests that knowledge is a tool for self discipline, for cultivating the mind and heart, which in turn, will lead to eternal happiness. Then, we must not look to education as a step towards life’s goals and happiness. We must be selective in our education and gear it towards what we believe in as human beings, in order for us to undertsand the world from a view that makes most sense to us. By striving to eliminate the disconnect between our moral beliefs, personal lives or work, we achieve integrity. When everything in a person is in tune with each other, I believe that it will lessen conflict, give clarity to daily life, and give chance for genuine happiness that grows from within.