Zen Of Business Administration

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Sunday Talk.
Life at Green Gulch in the 1970s; giving, fearlessness; improv; no mistakes; parenting.


Well, I thought that since this is my first time speaking here at Green Gulch on a Sunday morning that I should start by just saying a couple of things about myself. It seems strange in this practice where we talk about no-self, but I'll start there, despite that problem. My name is Mark Lesser, and when I was at Rutgers in the early 70s, I took a one-year leave of absence and then spent the following ten years living here at Zen Center. My tenth year, I was director of Tassajara, and then from there it seemed like the natural progression to go to business school, which is what I did, and I came back from business school and I started and ran a company called Brush Dance that makes calendars and greeting


cards and journals and things, and the entire time I continued my practice and my relationship with Zen Center, and I was ordained as a priest a few years ago. I'm on the Zen Center board of directors. I'm married and have two grown children, and in fact I was married right here in this room, and I've written this book that I'll talk a little bit about called ZBA, Zen of Business Administration, and I've started a company called ZBA Associates that does coaching and consulting, working with businesses. I also thought of, the other place that I thought about starting was with a Zen koan,


but this isn't exactly a traditional Zen koan because it has an answer, and so it's more like a riddle, and this one is, what is the difference between a Zen lecture and stand-up comedy, and the answer is that stand-up comedy isn't always funny, but Zen lectures you might notice there's generally some humor because it's pretty funny when you spend a lot of time just sitting and looking at a wall, and especially when you do it for long periods of time because eventually you start to notice that the story, the story that we tell ourselves about who we are, it starts to get very tiresome by about, like in a seven-day sitting, by about the third or fourth day, this story begins to, we get really bored with it and we start to,


we start to see some some cracks in the story of who we think we are and what we what we tell about ourselves. What I'd like to talk about this morning is a particular practice, and I think it's a practice that is from the world of Zen, and it's a very very practical practice that we can use in our, constantly in our daily lives, in our business lives, wherever we are, and this is the practice of generosity, the practice of giving, and in Buddhism it's called Dana Prajna Paramita, and Dana means giving or generosity, Prajna means wisdom, and Paramita is the word that it's sometimes translated as perfection, but the more accurate definition of this word,


this Paramita, this practice of generosity, this practice of giving, is about crossing over and about crossing over to the other side, and in, again in Buddhist practice, this means shifting your world from a world of grabbing, a world of that it's all about me, to a much more awake, a world of awakening, a world where we can live in awakening. I was just reading this morning as I was preparing for this, I was kind of reading some of Suzuki Roshi's words, and he talks about this, this practice of giving, and the particular, let me back up a little bit, the particular part of giving that I want to focus on is a part of giving that may seem a little bit surprising,


but what we might be used to thinking about giving and generosity is the idea of giving things, like giving materials, being generous, and this is important, particularly around here at Zen Center these days, and the other aspect of giving is the aspect of giving our presence, or giving our joy, or giving patience, all these are aspects of giving, but the part about giving and generosity that I want to focus on this morning is, in Zen it's called giving the gift of fearlessness, and what I was reading about this morning, reading Suzuki Roshi's words, he says that it's not, it's not possible that, that we, that we just, we think that we just appear in this world when we're born, but the truth is that we've always been here, and because things can't


just appear from nothing, and he goes on to say that it's not possible that when we die that we, that we disappear, because things don't just disappear that are here, and he goes on to say, this is kind of famous quote of his, that, that the world is its own magic, and this sense of giving the gift of fearlessness, and this practice of generosity, is this, to be able to feel and experience that everything, everything about our lives has been given to us, that our, our hands and bodies and minds are all, all gift, and it's easy, it's easy to think that, but this, this practice, this Zen practice is to devote, to devote our lives towards actually realizing that and feeling, feeling that


and living that in our day-to-day lives, whether it's, whether we're at Green Gulch or with our families or, or whether we're working, this, this realization that the world is its own magic. Green Gulch for me has always been a very magical place, and I, I lived here for three years. I was, when I was a young student at Tassajara, I was, I was just settling into life at Tassajara when I was, things worked a little bit differently at Zen Center then, back, this was in the, the early 1980s. Actually, this was even earlier. This was the late, the late 70s. I was a young student at, at Tassajara and I was tapped on the shoulder and was told that it was time for me to go to Green Gulch. And I wasn't very happy about hearing that. And then I was told that my job was going


to be, I was going to be in charge of the draft horse farming project at, here at Green Gulch. And I, I, I thought for sure that someone had misread my resume, that it was true that I was, I was very athletic when I was in high school and I liked gymnastics and I did do some work on the horse, but I had, but I had absolutely no experience with the four-legged horses. And, and in fact, I had, I had almost no experience at all in doing anything with my hands. My, my father, looking back, I realized that my father had been an electrician and never felt good about it. And this was, he never felt that this was a worthy profession and wanted me to be a professional. So he, he was very consistent in keeping me away from doing anything physical with my, you know,


in terms of, he was always fixing televisions and radios and puttering and building, building things around the house with wood. And I never, I never learned any of that. And then when I came to Green Gulch, I knew nothing and, but found it was, it was as though, it was as though I had been living here my whole life in some way, that I immediately found that I loved being around these huge, beautiful animals and being around plants and farming and, and started learning the various skills that are, that are so important to farming. And one of these was that I needed to learn how to weld. And there was a, one of my teachers here at Green Gulch was a man named Harry Roberts. And Harry also became, Harry was a, a Yurok trained shaman who was also a cranky outspoken Irishman


and was, was one of the leading experts on native plants and also had tremendous skills. And Harry taught me how to weld. And he, he explained to me that the secret of welding is realizing that everything just appears solid, that, that actually the world is liquid and that this was physically true when it came to metals. So that when you, when you looked at a piece of metal, it was realizing that it has just been frozen and that the trick was to apply heat to these metals, which returned them to their natural state in which they were liquid. And then you could shape, shape the metal however you wanted to. And this, that this was the secret of welding. And as Harry said this, he would, he would let out this huge laugh and, and say, this is also the secret of being a human being. To


realize that we're just fooled by thinking that everything is, everything appears solid. Things appear fixed. People appear separate. But that in, in actuality, our lives are, are much more, are completely fluid. Fluid to the point where it takes tremendous fearlessness to actually realize how fluid our lives are. I want to do something. I'm seeing, I've been, as it's, as though I don't have enough areas in my life to feel terrified and to feel like a beginner, I've started taking improv classes. And, and I found that improv has been a tremendous teacher for me about generosity and


this practice of giving the gift of fearlessness. Because one of the many lessons in improv that apply so well to our lives and, and to our work and to practice, one of them is that it's not possible to make mistakes. And in fact, we all, that we always make mistakes. That, that we're always constantly making mistakes. And that, and in fact, that we should celebrate our mistakes. That every time, every time, this, this was the very first, this was the first thing that they taught us in improv, was you will make a mistake just by, you will do things in which you look completely foolish. And that when you do that, you should stop and celebrate it and go, woohoo! I feel stupid. I feel really dumb. And, and this, and this became, and I think I'd like to practice, I think


I'd like us all to practice that. Can we, can we, will you humor me on this? Can we do that together? So it's a simple practice. All you do is you throw your arms in the air and say, woohoo! I feel really dumb. You guys are great. We could do that all morning. You know, imagine, imagine if George Bush woke up each morning. Or if this were a practice in Congress. I mean, this is actually, I'm, you know, I'm serious about this, actually, that this, imagine, imagine if practicing fearlessness,


and fearlessness meaning admitting mistakes, and developing an open, flexible mind, and having an open, an open heart, and being willing to listen, being willing to change course, having the kind of fearlessness to, to realize that problems and conflicts can be solved through people getting in a room together and throwing their arms up in the air and saying, woohoo! I feel really dumb. And, and, and starting from that, starting from that place of having an open heart. I was thinking about, so there's so many things that happened in my, in my life while I was here at Green Gulch, and I want to talk about them all in this, this container of practicing generosity, and this container of


practicing with giving the gift of fearlessness. And I, I always, in case you haven't noticed, I'm always, what I talk about is what I'm working on, right? So my practice, this idea of fearlessness, I've realized isn't about, it doesn't mean not being afraid. It means not being totally frozen and responding from our fear. It means really being open and moving, actually moving towards what we're afraid of, moving towards what we're uncomfortable. This is what improv teaches us. This is what Zen practice teaches us. And this is also what our lives and business practice teach us, to move towards, to move towards what we're comfortable with, uncomfortable with, as a way of getting to know ourselves more and more. And I was thinking that this practice, there's so many


practical applications to this practice of giving the gift of fearlessness. For some people, being fearless might mean asking for what you want. Some of, some of us in this room even, might have a hard time asking and saying what it is we want. For other people, the practice of fearlessness might be being quiet and not always asking for what we want, that it's, that it's, it's different for each person. So this fearlessness is understanding, getting to know what your own proclivities are, what your own orientation is, and how it is that each of us is building our own story and protecting ourselves from something as a way to not give the gift of fearlessness. I was thinking of an event here, that happened when I was living here at Green Gulch. I got a


call one day from my, from my mother, back in New Jersey, saying that my father had become quite ill and was in the hospital with cancer. And I immediately got on an airplane and left and went back to New Jersey and found that, that my father had been highly drugged, and that he was, he was actually literally tied, there were straps around him, and he was tied to his bed. And the doctors told me they did that because he was wandering around the hospitals, he was wandering around the hospital at night, kind of disoriented. And I, fortunately I had a tremendous support system back here at Green Gulch and at Zen Center. There were people who had a lot of experience in hospitals and in working through that kind of system. And I got some, and that, that kind of connection was so important to me.


The advice I was given was that the doctors worked for me, that I should act with a kind of fearlessness in that situation, and fire the doctors, untie my father, stop giving him drugs, and actually have a conversation with him about what was happening. One of the things was that he was, he was on drugs in this hospital and no one was telling him the truth. This was, you know, at a time, my mother and brother were told, you know, that the family, the way of operating in the family was don't speak about things that are difficult, don't say to someone that they're, that they're quite ill. And so this was a very, very powerful time for me. This was, I was in my, I was in my early 20s and a pretty young Zen student and, and my father, my father had, for most of his life, my father was manic depressive


and was pretty unhappy and, and just spent most of his life kind of holding on and not really feeling a lot of joy in his life. But when it, it took a few days for these drugs to wear off and I was able to sit and talk to my father and explain that, that he was in the hospital and that he was diagnosed with cancer. And that according to the doctors, he probably, probably didn't have very long to live, but that one never knows about these things. I wanted to keep some semblance of hope. And there was a, there was a meeting that I had with my father that was unlike any meeting that we had ever had in our, in our lives. And in fact, he was quite, as you might imagine, that the fact that I dropped out of college and came to Zen Center did not make my father very happy. It wasn't, it was particularly bad in having things to talk about with other


family members who always asked, well, what is your son doing? And, you know, and all the other, all the other family members could talk about things that people under, at least understood. But in this case, all that my parents could talk about was, oh, he's at, he's at the Zen Center. And in New Jersey, this was not a big plus. But this meeting that I had with my father, he, he in that moment just transformed and suddenly his own fears just melted away. And one of the most, there are several really beautiful things that happened. One was that he said to me that he finally understood what I was, what it was that I was doing and that he could accept and under, understand why I left the world and life I was in and went to Zen Center. And, and he also asked me to hand him a telephone and he started calling everyone that he knew to


express how much love and appreciation he felt. And this was, I had never in my entire life heard my father express any kind of love or appreciation. And this was very, very moving and powerful to see this fear, again, this fear melting away and what that was like. The other part of this story, though, that was also powerful was to, to see what happened. I took, I took my father home so that he could be comfortable and, and die at home. And, and slowly but steadily, he started to go back to the state that he had been in, in terms of being kind of depressed and feeling a lot of fear. And it, I think, you know, I, I think this is what, what in Zen, when they try and diminish the enlightenment experience, because there's a way in which I think of this as my father finding out that he was going to die,


had a kind of an awakening experience, which was very, very beautiful and very powerful, but, but didn't, didn't have the practice, didn't have the support to stay anywheres close to that. And he went back to being quite closed and fearful. And, and it was, it was a real important lesson for me to see that. You know, in part, in my, in my role these days as a, as a consultant and coach, my prescription for what people need in their lives is, I say that, that everyone should have a regular meditation practice, that everyone should be in therapy, that everyone should have a coach, everyone should have a physical trainer, and, and everyone needs a community in their, in their lives. And it's just, it's just that simple. With, with that kind of support system,


you may have a fighting chance at, at dropping some of this fear that is, that we've inherited that's in our bodies. Yeah, I was also thinking how much fearlessness it takes to be a parent, as those of you who are parents know, and are just being around children. I, I sat down for dinner with my daughter, who's 17 years old, the other day, and my, my daughter, my daughter, she's, [...] is, is become a great teacher for me. And she's both in this, it's great seeing this, this age 17, where she expresses tremendous appreciation at things sometimes, and sometimes is very closed and angry, and kind of pushing away. There was a, a beautiful moment I had with her,


in which we walked into Green's Restaurant, I had to pick up something at Green's in the city, and she had been in there many times, but she walked in, and there's this big redwood burl in Green's, and it was as though she saw it for the first time, and tears almost came to her eyes as she, and she said to me, has this always been here? And she just threw her arms around this redwood burl, it was, it was very, very touching and beautiful. This other moment that I was going to describe was she and I sitting down at the table, the kitchen table, and her looking up at me and saying, Dad, I think I've taken on the worst traits of you and Mom. And of course, all of my fear came right to the, right to the forefront, but, but I, I worked on, this was, you know, I worked on staying open,


and I, and I, and of course she gave me, and she explained to me in great detail what she, what she meant by this. And it was actually, it was actually a really powerful, powerful experience. I was also thinking a lot about, I don't know why these, these golf stories come to mind in terms of fearlessness. I used to, I grew up on golf courses in New Jersey, and one is a interview I saw recently about Ben Hogan, who was one of the greatest golfers of all time. And someone said to Ben Hogan, they said, how is it that under great pressure, when, when most people would, would feel pressure and feel afraid,


you seem to time after time be able to hit really great golf shots? How is it that you do that? And Ben Hogan's response was, it's just luck. And then the interviewer said, but I've read that you practice golf more than any other human being in the history of the sport. And Ben Hogan looked at, looked up at the person interviewing him and said, well, I guess the more I practice, the luckier I get. And, and I think, I think it's that way, I think it's that way with, with giving the gift of fearlessness, that there's no, it's, it's in order to be lucky enough to not be caught by our fears, it's giving ourselves over to this practice, this practice of sitting meditation, this practice of practicing generosity.


Now this generosity, and I talked about it as being one of the paramitas, and there's, there's six of these paramitas, which are, right, generosity is the first one. And then the second is ethical conduct or morality. And there's patience, and there's energy. And there is the practice of meditation, and then the practice of wisdom. And these are, these six practices are kind of very, very basic, practical ways to bring meditation practice into, into our lives. And sometimes it's talked about that this practice of generosity includes all, all other six practices, that there's no, um, it's not an accident that generosity is first. I was also thinking of a, a time when, um,


when my mother became ill, and she was living in Florida. And, um, my mother was a great example of living in fearlessness, in that when, um, that after my father died, within, I, I think it was literally within a matter of days, my mother sold her house and moved from New Jersey to Florida, that she had a way of making these decisions very, very quickly. And, um, and then when she found out that she was, um, that she had cancer, it was a very quick decision for her to sell her house in Florida and come, um, live with us, um, in our house in Mill Valley. And, um, when, you know, when it became clear that she didn't have much longer to live, we brought her home. And my wife and I thought that she would want to be in a secluded place in our house. And we kind of rearranged our bedroom so that she could be there.


But she made it very clear that she, um, that's not where she wanted to be. She wanted to be in the center of things. And she came and died on our living room couch. And my children were quite young then. My son, my son was about, he was 11 or 12. And I was thinking how, um, you know, my children both took care of my mother as she was dying. And it was, um, very beautiful. And the night she died at night and the next morning, I said to my son Jason that, um, I explained to him that his grandmother had died and he came out. And I think this was his first experience at seeing a, a body of someone who was, who was not alive, who was dead. And, um, he couldn't, I could see he couldn't quite take it in. And he said that, that he wanted to go to school that day. This was, he was in middle school. And I was, I was very, very perplexed by this and


thought, no, you know, and I said, you don't, you don't have to go to school. And, but he was clear that he wanted to. And a few hours later after he was at school, I got a call from his counselor saying that Jason wanted to come home because he couldn't stop crying. And, and that he wanted to, and that he wanted to walk home. He didn't need to be picked up. And if it was, um, about a half hour later, he came, he came into the door of our house and he just came and threw his arms around me and he was crying and I was crying. This was just about 12 hours after my mother had died. And Jason looked at me and said, dad, walking is really a good thing to do in times like this. You should, you should try this. And, um, so I found that, that he, he found his own, and then he was able to come and really be, be present.


And as I mentioned, I was, um, it was my, my 10th year of living at Zen Center that I was director of Tassajara. And, um, I, I had a, I had the experience of being director of, um, having this strange realization that though I thought that I was a, I was living the life of a Zen monk and Zen practitioner, and this was my, my day-to-day practice, that I was also very much involved in the practice of running a business. That Tassajara is a, is a resort, um, as well as a, um, as well as a monastery. And my day-to-day activity as director of Tassajara was managing people and solving problems. And I was really surprised how


much I loved, um, doing that. And that it was a little hard for me to believe, but it kept, it kept coming up for me that, that this is, that this might be the next thing for me in my, in my own life was to find some way to bring this, um, this being, living and working, um, as a spiritual practitioner and also being in the world of business and the world of work, that there didn't seem to be any conflict at all in doing these, these two things. This was a, a time in which the book In Search of Excellence was the number one book on the New York Times bestseller list then. And when I read In Search of Excellence, I kept seeing how, oh, what they're talking about here is, is really Zen practice. Um, that In Search of Excellence


was about what separates really good, successful companies from companies that are, that, that don't stand out. And like the first, the very first lesson was being close to the customer. And, and this, as I read this, I thought, oh, this is, this is listening practice. This is meditation practice. And each of the lessons in this book were like that. In fact, I remembered that in, so it seemed like an, it seemed like an obvious choice to me, though it may seem strange to go from Tassajara to, to business school, because I realized that I knew a lot. I had just had 10 years of Zen training, but I knew very little about business practice. And that if I were going to somehow find a way to incorporate these two, these two practices, business practice and spiritual practice, that I needed to get this, this other training and that's my, my choice. And,


and I've never chosen the easy way. So I went right to business school on Wall Street, to NYU business school. And it was quite a shock to my system. And I think I'll tell one little story about what it was like being in New York. And then I want to just read, read a piece from my book about being here at Green Gulch. When I first went to New York, I did need to find a way to make some money. And I, the one skill I had was typing. So I went to a, a temporary agency and tried to get a job in Manhattan as a, as a temp typing. And I, I walked into this, this was like on the 52nd floor of a Madison Avenue high-rise in my, my best, actually probably my only suit and tie that I had. And I handed in my resume, which told the exact truth about what I had done with my life. And I was sitting in the waiting


room, waiting for someone to come get me for an interview. And I could see a group of people in this office around a desk and they were, I believe what was happening was they had my resume and they were all kind of snickering and laughing. And I saw someone, I thought I heard someone point to me and say, look, there's a Zen monk here looking for a job. And so as you, as you can imagine, it wasn't, it wasn't really easy finding work in Manhattan. And it was a several month process. And my, my resume evolved and changed over this time. And I think sometimes that I could write a book about how my resume evolved. I became, I think I characterized my job at Tassajara as the human resources director of a resort in California. And, and I was at a, I was at a job interview in which this was at a executive search


firm in which one of the owners of this firm interviewing me looked up, looked at my resume, looked at me and she said, who are you kidding? I know Tassajara. And I'm going to hire you because I would like to hire a Zen student here. So this, this, this book is called ZBA, Zen of Business Administration. And the title started as a joke. I was at a, I was at Green's restaurant having lunch and the person I was having lunch with introduced me to a person he brought as someone who had their ZBA degree. And, you know, it's like an play on an MBA degree or ZBA degree. That's, you know, it's not a, it's, that's where the name comes from. And, and people often ask, how long have I been, you know, one of the common questions is how long have you been writing this book? And the answer is, I could, there's three possible


answers. It's 20 years, 10 years or two years. So it's somewhere, I feel like the, the idea for the book came about 20 years ago when I was director of Tassajara and was starting to see the ways in which business practice, the commonalities between business practice and Zen practice. This is a, this is a chapter. The title, the title is Let Cash Be Your King, But Let Flexibility Be Your God. When I was in charge of the draft horse farming project at Green Gulch, my duties included taking care of the horses as well as our Jersey milk cow, Daisy. One morning in the midst of my morning work period, Daisy became ill. I found her lying on her side in her stall. I knew that if she stayed in this position for long, she would die. I was able to coax her to


sit up, but to keep her sitting up, I had to lean up. I had to lean my back against the side of the shed and hold her up by putting my feet just below her neck and use my body as a kind of lever. I was able to get someone's attention so that she could call the veterinarian. Several hours later, the veterinarian arrived, injected Daisy with a drug and she popped up onto her feet. I didn't pop up quite as quickly. I was sore and exhausted. As I was walking toward my room, someone came running over to me yelling that Snip, one of our draft horses, was stuck in the mud. I had no idea what this meant, but knew that I had to go investigate. Snip was in the back pasture, which contained a large pond. So this pond is the pond that you see when you come in. And the milk shed, the milking shed, was this shed right out here outside the zendo.


Snip was in the back pasture, which contained a large pond. She'd been drinking from the pond and had sunken into the mud to the tops of her legs. And she appeared to be slowly sinking further. We tried calling her and then, with the help of several more people, we tied some ropes around her and pulled. Finally, it was growing dark. We called the local fire department. When they arrived, they wrapped fire hoses around Snip's torso. By this time, nearly all 50 Green Gulch residents had come out to watch the spectacle. This was a good thing because we needed everyone's help. We asked everyone to pull on the hoses. And in this way, we were able to slowly extract Snip from the pond. Working as a Zen farmer taught me a tremendous amount about flexibility, which served me well in my role as CEO of a growing publishing company. Every day, working with the horses and cows was unpredictable. Each day began


with a plan and a lot of things to accomplish. Then life on the farm unfolded. Every day at work at Brushdance is unique and unpredictable. Employees call in sick or resign. The phone rings and a customer orders a large amount of product that we don't have in stock. An important order does not reach our customer on time. An artist has a family emergency and is unable to create a design that we promised to a customer. Specialty retail stores, our primary customer base, begin to struggle. And each year, more and more of our customers go out of business. Every few years, our computer systems become outdated. As we grow, our software becomes outdated and at some point useless. Zen and business share the same ultimate goal, flexibility and responsiveness. Zen practice helps us to develop a flexible, responsive mind, free of assumptions and habits, free of ruts and patterns.


Businesses exist to meet the changing needs of customers. Understanding and meeting these needs requires flexibility and responsiveness. And I would add fearlessness and giving the gift of fearlessness. I think I want to end with, as a way to practice my own fearlessness, to try um singing something. And not just me singing, having us all sing something together because I'm too afraid to sing alone. But this is, this is a song that I think of as one of the, it's one of my all-time favorite Zen songs, although it wasn't, wasn't written by Dogen. And the, the words go like this, and I hope, I hope some of you know it so that we can, um, I'm sure some of you know it so that we can sing it together. The words are,


hey ho, nobody home, no eat, no drink, nor money have we none, still we will be merry. Okay, I hope you can do this as good as, or maybe we should just keep doing the woohoo. Let's, let's try this. Hey ho, nobody home, no eat, no drink, nor money have we none, still we will be merry. Hey ho, nobody home, no eat, nor drink, nor money have we none, still we will be merry. Hey ho, nobody home, no eat, nor drink, nor money have we none,


still we will be merry. Hey ho, nobody home, no eat, no drink, nor money have we none. That was great. You guys did the round all by yourselves. You know, it's, it's, I feel both tremendously honored and humbled to be with all of you, and please, um, celebrate your mistakes and, um, practice giving the gift of fearlessness. Thank you very much.