As I travel the great Northeast of our nation, I have had to end each of my talks with a reminder to the audience that I’m traveling at my own expense (no monetary support from my publishers or my sangha or anyone else), that it’s cost me a lot more than I budgeted for, and asking them to please buy a book or an audio skull and/or leave a donation.
I hate making that speech. It’s truly and deeply humiliating.
See. I grew up mainly in and around Akron, Ohio. Akron is a working class city. You earn your living by doing a job, dammit. And a job means a thing that you wake up for way earlier than you want to five days a week, go to a factory and do for eight hours then come home. A job is something you do not like to do. If you like to do it, it’s not a job. Where I grew up there was jealousy and disdain heaped upon anyone who actually enjoyed whatever it was they did to earn a living. No, a real job is something that you hate and you only do because you need money to survive. You get paid for your job by your boss who gives you a paycheck. The money comes from the company.
When I finally landed the first job I ever actually liked, working for Tsuburaya Productions in Tokyo, I felt guilty about taking money for something I enjoyed doing. It took me a while to figure out why. But even when I did, I still felt guilty.
While working there I was also studying Dogen very intensively. Dogen says somewhere in Shobogenzo that “even working to earn a wage is originally an example of free giving.” Free giving is one of the great virtues in Buddhism. It felt nice to read that. But I wasn’t sure quite what it meant.
I started to think about where the money I got every month in my bank account really came from. It didn’t actually come from the company. The company got that money from lots of people all over Asia who bought Ultraman stuff. Tsuburaya Productions only made the TV shows and movies, not the stuff. Those TV shows and movies usually cost more money to make than they brought in directly through ticket sales or sales to TV networks. We made money by licensing the characters from those shows to companies who made the stuff people bought — toys and video games and T-shirts and novelty condoms and so on. We earned only a few yen from each item sold. But lots of items were sold and thus the company was able to pay all of its 100 or so employees and contracted workers (I was always one of the latter, never an official employee in all 15 years I worked there) a living wage.
Once when I went to one of Nishijima Roshi’s retreats in Shizuoka I took along a children’s book about Ultraman to read. It was a fun way to practice my Japanese. Nishijima saw the book and said, “Those TV shows teach children to believe in power.” I didn’t know what to make of that statement at the time. I didn’t know if it was meant to be disparaging. I didn’t know if he was trying to advise me to find another line of work. I was baffled.
But he was right. Those TV shows do teach children to put their faith in the power of others to rescue them. But perhaps they also teach children to want to be like Ultraman and help others in trouble. I know that the folks at Tsuburaya Productions had a strong sense of morality regarding their shows and the messages they conveyed to children. They were deeply concerned that the shows they produced taught children good things. Although the shows could be extremely violent they always took care to make the violence kind of unrealistic. It took place between the heroes and the monsters and was therefore a kind of abstract violence intended to convey a sense of overcoming adversity rather than a real sense of just duking it out against your opponent.
Whether or not this was conveyed successfully is another matter. In 2001 we introduced a character called Ultraman Cosmos, a gentle-natured Ultraman who was supposed to reason with the monsters rather than hitting them over the heads with locomotives and zapping them with rays. Here is the promo video I wrote and directed about the show. At the time I thought it was a totally wrong-headed idea. It just made Ultraman look timid and ineffectual. By about the tenth episode, the powers-that-be realized their mistake and Ultraman Cosmos started kicking ass just like all the other Ultramen before him.
But I digress.
After Nishijima told me that I started worrying if what I was doing was “right livelihood” or not. But when I asked him if he thought I should quit the company he said, “No. You should continue working for them.” He said that my small influence would make the company and its shows better. I wonder if he was right.
Nowadays, though, I no longer “work for a living” at least in the sense that most people back in Akron would probably understand. I travel the world, which I enjoy, I write books, which I love to do, I don’t have to be at some specific place five days a week, which is wonderful, and I don’t get paid by “the company.” I get paid indirectly by people who buy my books in stores or on line. But I also get paid directly through donations to this blog and by people who come and listen to me talk about my books (which, again, I really like to do).
In a sense, I’m just earning money directly that I used to earn indirectly. When working for Tsuburaya pretty much all my pay came from people who never knew who I was or what I did. They weren’t handing their dollar bills directly to me the way people do now. But they did pay me even though the didn’t know it. Now the connection is much more direct.
Amanda Palmer has talked about how she conceives of what she does in terms of fund-raising as allowing people to contribute to her work rather than begging for hand-outs. I think she’s right. I know that I like contributing to artists whose work I enjoy. I was happy to by Dog Party‘s new record from their mom when I saw them at Old Haunts in Akron. When Robyn Hitchcock plays somewhere nearby, I always make a point of going and buying some kind of merchandise even if it’s something I don’t really need (I buy his albums as soon as they come out and by the time he tours I’ve usually got everything he’s selling already). It feels good to contribute. It feels right.
I think all work is a form of both free giving and of begging. We give our work to the world and the world gives us money to live and to continue our contributions. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Obviously the system breaks down far more often than it should. We beg the world to support us by doing work to contribute to society. We all shake our cup at passers-by and hope they throw a dime in it.
Maybe someday I can be like Amanda Palmer and put aside my Akron roots enough to enjoy the process.
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Speaking of which, my friend Pirooz wants me to mention that he’s about halfway to his goal of funding the completion of his movie about me. If you want to contribute, go to this page. It’ll be a very cool movie, unlike any Buddhist movie you’ve ever seen before.
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My Northeast Tour still has two more events. Go see me at:
• 28-June Asbury Park, NJ 7 p.m. Pure Health Bar & Yoga 701 Cookman Ave Asbury Park, NJ
• 29-June Long Island, NY 7 p.m. Clear Mountain Zen Center 519 Hempstead Ave., West Hempstead, NY 11553
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Go ahead. Throw a dime in my cup!