Earning a Living Part 2

I got a question in the comments to the video version of yesterday’s blog post. Here it is:

I’m confused. I was waiting for you to explain how to do everything as an act of free giving, but the explanation never came.

Here’s my answer.

I think we each have to find our own way to do this.

I am not sure I can explain how I did it when I worked at Tsuburaya Productions. I just sort of began to view everything I did as an act of service.

Also, Dogen says that working for a living is originally free giving. In Japanese, the phrase Dogen uses is moto yori, which means “originally,” “from the beginning,” or “all along.” Moto means “origin,” “base,” or “foundation” and yori means “from.” I think “originally” is a very good translation in this context, but “all along” might be very good too.

To me, this use of the word originally means that at the heart of working for a paycheck lies the act of free giving. This is the case even if you don’t notice it.

In the past, before money existed, people worked for the benefit of society as a whole because that’s how things got done. If no one chopped wood, there would be no wood for anyone. So somebody chopped the wood. And the person who chopped the wood also reaped the benefit not only of his own act of chopping wood, but also of everyone else’s actions to benefit society. Those who worked for the benefit of society were seen as worthy of reaping the benefits of others who also worked for the benefit of society.

These days, the relationship between what we do and how it helps ourselves and helps society as a whole are much murkier and harder to see. Things are much more complicated now, with more people doing more different things.

As I said in the blog article and in the video, when I worked for Tsuburaya Productions I was conflicted. I felt like I was doing a job that benefitted only me. Or maybe it benefitted the others at the company to some extent because it made money for us. But that’s as far as it went, as far as I could see. 

Ultraman was a purely commercial product, I thought. It was a show about a gigantic 40 meter tall (approx. 120 feet) superhero who battled equally gigantic monsters. It was produced cheaply, using guys in rubber costumes and miniature recreations of buildings and cityscapes. It was popular, so it made a lot of money. But it didn’t help anyone. Or did it?

When I was a kid I watched Ultraman. In those days, it was actually pretty popular in several American cities, including the Cleveland/Akron area where I lived. Ultraman was no match for Superman, Spiderman, or Batman in terms of viewership. But to certain kids, like me, it was ultra-cool.

Watching Ultraman as a child had a deep and lasting effect on how I viewed the world.

Let me give you an example. My favorite superhero when I was a little boy was not the same race as me and was from a wholly different culture (Hayata, the human who transforms into Ultraman was Japanese). This made me more curious about other cultures and less nervous about people of other races than I might have been had I never watched that show.

I also got my first exposure to Buddhism from episode Ultraman episode 35, “The Graveyard of Monsters.” In that episode, they hold a Buddhist funeral service for the monsters Ultraman killed in the past, which Ultraman attends to express his regrets.

Everything about that episode was so different from any American superhero show. Can you imagine an American superhero feeling regret for anything he did? Even now, that would be a pretty radical idea. In those days, it was unheard of. Superheroes were good. Their enemies were evil. End of story.

Did the folks who made the show consciously intend for it to have a strange, somewhat ambiguous message about the nature of good and evil? What about the message I got about trusting outsiders? Could that be deliberate? Perhaps. Head writer Tetsuo Kinjo was from Okinawa, and, as such, was a minority and an outsider in Tokyo. The writer of that episode, Mamoru Sasaki, and its director, Akio Jissoji, were people with loftier ideas than lots of folks who work on children’s TV shows. So it’s possible.

And yet, even they could not have known the effect the show would have on some kid in Ohio who would eventually come to work with them. They could not have known that getting a job working for them would lead me to meet Gudo Nishijima and begin a career of bringing the philosophy of Dogen Zenji to the west.

The moral for me is: You really never know what kind of good you may be doing in some job that might seem trivial or useless. When you’re at work hating your boss and just trying to get through the day for the reward of a paycheck at the end of the week, you might be changing the whole world in ways you couldn’t possibly see even if you tried.

I think part of what happened in the case of Ultraman is that the people who made that show did see making that show as an act of service for humanity. They cared deeply. They were unwilling to make a trashy show just for profit.

Sure, they would have gotten more social brownie points if, instead of making a TV show, they’d been out in, say, India delivering food to the poor. But maybe that would not have been the best use of their energy. It’s very hard to say.

Gudo Nishijima worked for a cosmetics company well past retirement age. He could have gone to a temple out in the countryside if he’d wanted. But he chose to stay in dirty old Tokyo working at a company that made soap. If he hadn’t done that, I’d never have found him.

To me, all this stuff goes to show that what we think we’re doing at any given time may be completely different from what we’re actually doing. For that reason, I think it’s important to do whatever I do as sincerely and as well as I can.



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