"And since we're going to be talking about work this week, I was just curious, what do you consider to be your primary job?"
The Dalai Lama looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
I was puzzled why he was puzzled. It seemed to be a simple question.
"Well, in the West," I explained, "when you meet somebody, often the first question you ask a stranger is, 'What do you do?' meaning specifically, 'What kind of work do you do? What's your job?' So, if you met a complete stranger and they didn't know you or had never heard of the Dalai Lama and they didn't even know what your monk's robes signified, they just met you as a human being and they asked you, 'What do you do for a living?' what would you tell them?"
The Dalai Lama reflected in silence for a long while, and finally declared, "Nothing. I do nothing."
Nothing? In response to my blank stare, he repeated himself. "If I was suddenly posed with this question that would probably be my answer. Nothing."
Nothing? I didn't buy it. He clearly worked as hard as anyone I knew, harder even. And as grueling as this day had been, it was light duty compared to his schedule during his frequent trips abroad. In fact, informally attached to his small staff on a speaking tour of the U.S. the year before, I had witnessed a remarkable display of relentless activity, dedication, and hard work: as a statesman, he had met with President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a host of high-ranking senators and members of Congress. As a teacher, an ordained Buddhist monk and consummate Buddhist scholar, he gave extensive lectures expounding the most subtle facets of Buddhist philosophy. As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and tireless advocate for world peace and human rights, he gave public addresses to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. As a religious leader striving to promote interfaith dialogue and harmony, he met with religious figures from many faiths: priests, rabbis, ministers, and swamis, even the president of the Mormon Church. He met with scientists, scholars, entertainers, the famous and the obscure. And in each place he visited, he met with local Tibetan refugees struggling to make a life and prosper in their new country. He worked morning till night, traveling from city to city with such speed that one place seemed to merge into the next. And yet not a single meeting or event on this tour was initiated at his own request--all were based on invitations from others. And even more remarkable--no matter how rigorous his schedule became, he seemed to handle his work effortlessly. He was happy doing it.
He did nothing? Not by a long shot.
"No, really," I pressed. "What if someone persisted and asked you again?"
"Well," he laughed, "in that case, I would probably say, 'I just look after myself, just take care of myself.'" Perhaps sensing my frustration with this glib response, he smiled and continued, "I think maybe this answer isn't entirely serious. But actually, if you think about it, that's true. All six billion human beings in the world are just 'taking care of number one.' Isn't it? So whether one is a professional, or whatever line of work one is in, each of us from birth to death is just working to take care of ourselves. That's our main task."
My attempt to pin him down on his job description was getting nowhere fast. And this wasn't the first time I had noticed his natural reluctance to engage in discussion about his role in the world. Perhaps it was due to a certain lack of self-absorption, an absence of self-involvement. I don't know. But I decided to drop the subject of his job for now and turn to the wider issue.
"Well, in working to take care of ourselves most people need some kind of job. Now many times in the past I've heard you say that the purpose of life is happiness."
From The Art of Happiness at Work. Copyright The Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Riverhead Books.
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