Don’t quit your day job (to practice dharma)

A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software engineer teams.

“Transform your daily task into an internal meditation … the result is the immaculate dharmakaya.” ~Kamparipa, the Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in his daily life as a blacksmith

What do a Weaver, Musician, Cobbler, Blacksmith, Merchant and Potter all have in common? They are a few of the professions of ancient practitioners who attained full enlightenment through their day jobs. How did they do this? The common theme in the stories of these great yogis is that they used their daily appearances as fuel for their practice of meditation.

These ancient Mahasiddhas knew that everything is a mere appearance to the mind. By changing our mind and learning to see the appearances of our day job as a Dharma teaching, there is no need to change external appearances. Rather than our job being an obstacle to realizing Buddha’s teachings, it becomes our path of meditation. Then the focus of our job is not on escaping it so that we can really practice Dharma. Rather, the focus will be on transforming it in the most profound and meaningful way possible.

Our day job is not an obstacle to our practice
“When I realized my mind is the nature of emptiness, all phenomena that appeared to my mind became emptiness itself.” ~Manibhadra, the female Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in her daily life raising her family

Thinking that we need to quit our job to practice Dharma puts the results of our practice into the distant (and often unlikely) future. Often the wish to leave our job to practice Dharma is an aspect of aversion. We believe that if we only could have the space and time to actually focus on our practice, then we could make a dent in our delusions. This way of thinking obstructs us from living in the moment. It also disengages us from transforming every experience into one that destroys our delusions.

The most common objection to this is that we need to do solitary retreat for years to make progress. Geshe Kelsang has explained that with consistent practice we can attain the fourth stage of tranquil abiding in our daily life. In Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang explains how to attain actual tranquil abiding and superior seeing using this level of concentration. This teaching unlocks the complete path to enlightenment without the need to quit our day job.

The complete path to enlightenment is available in daily life
“I weave the strands of my experience … and the finished fabric is the dharmakaya.” ~Tantipa, the Mahasiddha who met his teacher at the age of 89 and attained enlightenment in his daily life as a weaver

Geshe-la has explained again and again that we can easily attain the same results as the ancient practitioners of the past. He said that their stories are our proof that these practices work. We have access to the same techniques, presented in a modern context that are clear and easily understood. Due to many special qualities of Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings, attaining the results of these practices is even easier now than it ever has been before!

So what other excuses do we have that stop us from fully embracing every appearance in our life as our spiritual path? What is stopping an Art Manager, Graphic Designer, Performer, Event Coordinator, or Software Engineer from becoming a modern-day Mahasiddha?

We need to fully believe that we can attain enlightenment in our day job and encourage ourself again and again until this becomes our reality.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

29 thoughts on “Don’t quit your day job (to practice dharma)”

  1. Great article, it’s certainly something I’ve thought about and a lot. Thanks for the Mahasiddha stories, I didn’t know they were working.

  2. I love this post and Ted’s comment could have been me! Your response was so practical and encouraging, thank you!

  3. Thank you very much for this great post. When I’m in a tedious meeting or dealing with a challenging client, I think “Just by talking with me, their minds are being blessed by Vajrayogini and Heruka.” I like to think of myself as a stealth agent/conduit to the Pure Land for corporate America.

  4. Thanks for reiterating what had been on my mind lately. The support of Sangha can really be auspicious.

  5. Thank you so much. I would really like to fully agree with it. Somehow I know it is the truth. But unfortunately I do not come to the point to have this believe. I try to practice Dharma as good as I can. But during work my mind is so distracted, restless and also negative. Sometimes I had a good weekend, thinking much about dharma, meditating or maybe there was a Festival which is always incredible inspiring and encouraging, but only after one day at work my mind is so restless and has lost all good thoughts. So I get more and more discouraged and come to the decision that at the moment I do not have the (spiritual) power to practice dharma during work. I do not really know how to deal with it, how to change it. Maybe you have any ideas…

    1. Hi Ted, this is a common experience for many of us.

      The most useful thing I have found that works for overcoming this attitude is taking a look at the self that can’t do it. At this time a fixed and limited version of ourself is usually appearing to our mind. We believe that this self is true and then develop unhappiness as a result.

      The next time that self arises, enjoy spending time with it. Take a look at it and see how this is the self you normally perceive. Examine how it is just an appearance to your mind. See how this ordinary appearance of our self holds us back from progressing. Then gradually learn to stop believing this appearence.

      Our delusions can be our greatest teachers if you learn from them in this way!

      1. Aha, sounds good. Thanks a lot for sharing this, very kind. I will think about it and try to bring this thoughts to work (and outside work). Thank you!!!

    2. Hi Ted, I just wanted to share what came to mind when reading you comment.
      Another method to transform work is to think about what makes you restless and negative at work. Do this with your quieted Dharma mind when it arises within you, and part of your mind, your wisdom mind will be strengthened. This strengthened perspective will be the mind you use to decide what you can do at work, the methods, ideas, a practices, to help you eventually remain in peace throughout the day.

      The main point is this: If you are actively seeking the solution to the state of your mind at work, then each day you will grow better than the previous. This does not mean that you will not get irritated or negative, but does mean that you will reflect on it an grow. This means it is all about the “wise thinker” within you, this wise one will grow everyday because it self-reflects and learns something new about their mind everyday. This wise one always makes great steps forward, and accepts when they take a few back. Back-stepping is easy because we are so used to our ordinary minds controlling us, but we must forgive our self when then arise, because in the end, our wise mind will win and we will fall back less and less and eventually not at all.

      These 2 minds, the uncontrolled auto-mind and the wise mind, are 2 separate minds that will arise in you. One is based on false views, feelings, and actions, while the other is based on Dharma wisdom (not emptiness). As samsaric beings, we always identify with our minds, but rarely see a separation between our deluded self and our wise self. It is important to identify the two, because we will have many inner debates with our self and eventually our wise self will spend more time as “who we are” than our current self that we are most familiar with. All of this happens through effort, without realizing emptiness at all. This all comes from reflecting on things like, why we feel how we feel about things, and people, and situations that occur. When we make honest inner reflections of why we feel and act as we do, we bring the light of the wise friend who illuminates our mind. Once this light allows us to see a dark way of thinking about anything or anyone, immediately it changes our view, as easily as a dark room becomes illuminated when a light is turned on. This is the inner light of Dharma that is lit within every mind of our Sangha, and reflects any of the new ideas each of us may have accepted as valid from Dharma, can be actively used to reflect on and to make plans for bettering our life, and daily experience. We all have this light, of what Dharma we believe already, but we do not all use this light to illuminate our minds, to change our self and our experiences quickly.

      Hope something was helpful for yo,u

      1. Thank you so much, that is great, both of your suggestions are great. Very practical and very helpful. I will try both. I can feel it will work. What I like very much is “enjoy spending time with it” – I mean not only refering on the self I normally see but also on all the deluded states of mind – with the meaning of just look at what is or was there, without resisting it and then reflect like you have described. Wonderful, thank you so much for your reply!

  6. Thanks so much, that is very encouraging. I’m also very often in a state of wondering whether the Job I do is the right Thing and sometimes getting impatient because I have the Feeling I waste my time. But as stated in the article, there is no waste of time if we apply dharma in our daily life. And also, the Job gives me the opportunity to get a salary, which I can use to travel to Festivals :-).

    1. Exactly! Festivals are one of the best ways we can use our vacation time to enhance our dharma experience. At each festival we are given the advice to bring the experience of it back into our daily life. Geshe-la created these up along with our study programs so that we have everything we need integrated into our daily experience. He is unbelievably kind.

  7. I don’t regret for a moment quitting my 6 figure salary secure relatively low stress job to attend snows retreat (only 3 months, not 3 years). I didn’t want to quit. I asked for unpaid leave but was denied. I knew I needed the retreat on a level an artist needs to create art. It wasn’t rational. I just knew it was something I needed to do. I wasn’t torn about staying or going, it just had to be done. (Mind you, I had no pet or family obligations which would and should be considered). But I also had absolutely no expectations. I figured the worst would be that I would be bored and cold for three months AND unemployed. Financially, it was a terrible decision (just like art school). But what I gained on the retreat was priceless (unlike art school). Again I truly had no expectations. I just completely surrendered to the experience. I didn’t even know if this path was right for me. My retreat experience is not important to the point I am trying to make. The guru will guide you if you ask with a heartfelt wish to progress on a qualified path. If that means staying in your job, great. For me, at the time, it was to give up a life I loved and appreciated for something unknown, a calling. Now, with no means to even go to festivals, I joyfully practice in my day job, on my commute, at my center, with family drama, etc. As advised by a teacher, I keep retreat in my heart and go about my day as if my mind is still in retreat – well, at least I try! I still feel like a beginner surrendering to the guru. May all beings find positive purpose and a path out of samsara.

    1. That is incredible you were able to do that! It is wonderful to keep a wish to go on retreat to deepen our dharma experience. Especially if we can do several weekend retreats throughout the year and maybe even a week long retreat in January.

  8. Just what I needed today! Do you recommend any stories of any particlar Mahasiddha to be inspired by Thank you!

    1. Yes, the ones we have a close connection with in the New Kadampa Tradition: Ghantapa, Liyupa, and Darikapa from New Guide to Dakini Land. Saraha, Nagarjuna, Shawari, Dingkiwa, Krishnapada from Essence of Vajrayana. Shantideva, from Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Tilopa, Naropa, and Dombipa who Geshe-la refers to in many places. Thats 12 of the 84 Mahasiddhas to get started with!

  9. Music to my ears! In my first years of practice I thought of every possible option to drop my work for formal Dharma practice but it just didn’t happen as I have family to care for. Now, years in, I can see much much improvement but sometimes I still feel restless. I then think I am just gathering karma for a future life and that’s ok. But it doesn’t feel ok, it feels like settling for less. The thought that motivates me then is, if we who have some faith can’t demonstrate that Modern Buddhist works in a busy life with work and family, not just to make life better but to lead us to realise Bodhichitta and profound wisdom, how can we ever help those who have a lot less inclination to follow a spiritual path? Thanks so much for the encouragement. It was badly needed.

    1. I am glad this advice was encouraging Yogini in training. I agree we should never settle for less than enlightenment. With our spiritual guide’s blessings, anything is possible!

  10. Thank you! Essential to embrace this practice as a modern practitioner. It helps keep Dharma in every nook and cranny of our life – helps us to remember Dharma all the time – not just when we’re at a meditation center or on our cushion <3 I also really appreciate the encouragement to not wait for some far off time or "perfect situation" to go for it! <3

    1. Agreed, now is the time to go for it! We need to become the modern-day examples for the next generation of practitioners.

    1. From the book Masters of Mahamudra. I would suggest Legends of the Mahasiddhas if you want to learn more about their life stories.

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