A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Livelihood as a Buddhist Teaching

By Steve Clorfeine

Livelihood is a topic that my Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (CTR) often spoke about with his students.

I remember him telling a group of Naropa University summer faculty not to proclaim yourself as an “artist.”  It was pointed out that in Bali, where the University later had a study abroad program, people say that because all work is done with a mindful attitude that everyone is an artist. CTR said, for example, that if you are filling out a visa or a form at a border, write anything else, but don’t write down that you’re an artist.

What we understood by that is to be ordinary—to not separate yourself by credentials of one kind or another. I imagine the same would go for any occupation—to try not to pigeonhole yourself; that in itself causes separation. On the other hand, take pride in what you do, whether it’s being a short order cook (he used that example) or the CEO of a company.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s I had a moving company in NYC.  It began almost accidentally when I was just starting out in Meredith Monk’s theater company. Meredith heard that I had a Dodge van and she asked if I could transport equipment to a gig in Boston. After that, other directors, musicians and dance companies made similar requests—mostly trips to and from the airport or installations into theaters. The moving company was under way.

At first I did it all myself, hiring a friend or two for larger jobs. Gradually it expanded to include apartment and office moves as well. Then one time when I had to be away on tour in Europe with the theater company, I asked a performer friend to take over the driving and the booking. So began the moving company in earnest.

Later on, CTR spoke about the importance of giving situations of livelihood a genuine name. I thought about this in relation to the moving company, and after some deliberation, I came up with Kind & Reasonable Moving Co. I was shy about it at first, but it definitely represented what I had learned about the situations involved in moving people and goods. I took a risk and eventually had logos painted on the two vans and station wagon that we were using. I even thought about uniforms for the workers, all of whom were ‘artists’ and all of whom needed part-time work.

Naming your business or describing your profession in a straightforward way that accommodates whatever situation you’re in is what CTR called a “wakeful energy.”  It keeps you “honest,” or at least more honest.

In keeping with CTR’s admonitions about genuineness—to take things seriously, to be yourself, and look into things, every detail, I developed a training for the artist-employees based on the name Kind and Reasonable.  It involved running through scenarios of conditions that we experience in moving or re-locating—basically, groundlessness and hope and fear—both of which are principal topics in Buddhist teachings on impermanence.

Along with the basic condition of groundlessness come feelings of anxiety and stress that cause people to feel vulnerable, sometimes extremely so. The training was to recognize and acknowledge that these were the likely conditions they would be facing as expediters and managers of moving jobs. The office manager, dispatcher, and I would brief each moving team on the job and on whatever we had picked up from our conversations with the client and our knowledge of the building, the streets, the neighborhood, the airports, etc.

I came to regard the moving company as dignified livelihood based on outreach, direct and empathetic communication—nothing to be ashamed of or arrogant about (as I sometimes felt at the beginning) even when you had to use the service entrance to a building, relate to a protective/territorial doorman, or face a difficult client.

It was a different world in New York City in the late 1970s and ‘80s, but for me the essence of an open and uplifted relationship to livelihood remains constant these days in terms of the practice of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, listening carefully to what’s being said and to how you speak—all of which prepare the ground for direct communication.