Buddha's Office

The Ancient Art of Waking Up While Working Well


By Dan Zigmond

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Can enlightenment be found at the office? From the co-author of Buddha’s Diet comes another book that shows how the wisdom of Buddha can apply to our modern lives — this time exploring how Buddha’s guidance can help us navigate the perils of work life.

Without setting foot in an office, Buddha knew that helping people work right was essential to helping them find their path to awakening. Now more than ever, we need Buddha’s guidance. Too many of us are working long hours, dealing with difficult bosses, high-maintenance coworkers, and non-stop stress. We need someone to help remind us that there is a better way. With Buddha’s wisdom at the core of every chapter, Buddha’s Office will help you learn how to stop taking shortcuts and pay more attention, care for yourself and others, deal with distractions, and incorporate Buddha’s ageless instructions into our modern working life.

It’s time to wake up and start working in a more enlightened way. One that is right for you, right for our health, right for your sanity, and right for the world.


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Waking Up at Work

BUDDHA NEVER WORKED A DAY IN HIS LIFE. HE WAS BORN about 2,500 years ago, grew up a pampered prince in ancient India, left those riches behind to become a wandering monk, and ended his life as a revered spiritual teacher—all without ever earning a salary.* It’s not clear that he ever even handled money, and he forbade his closest followers from doing so.

So why would anyone want to know what a freeloader like that had to say about work?

Let’s start by backing up a bit. A few people today still follow the Buddha’s literal example and renounce worldly possessions, living their lives as full-time monastics. In fact, probably more do than you think—estimates range from a few hundred thousand to a million or more worldwide. But if you’re reading this book, I’ll bet you’re not one of them. You have not chosen to spend your life cloistered in a temple or monastery, let alone wandering the rural countryside of some far-off land without a fixed address. Neither have I. For better or worse, most of us today do not live as Buddha and his core disciples did. One way or the other, most of us spend much of our adult lives working.

Some of us basically hate it. It’s a rare treat these days to find anyone who truly loves their work. Too many are working long hours at jobs they can’t stand. The lucky ones look forward to the weekend, when they can have two days of their real life back. But many in high-stress careers don’t even do that, grinding through their Saturdays and Sundays, barely slowing their pace, charging toward some hoped-for early retirement or other future reward. Most Americans don’t even take all the vacation they’re allowed.1

Those lucky few who do love their jobs often have their own frustrations. Maybe it’s nonstop stress or lack of resources or miserable behavior by colleagues or clients. Or maybe work is fine, but you just wish there was a little less of it. It seems that everyone with a demanding career laments their work-life balance. Does anyone really enjoy answering emails and texts at all hours? And all of us who are racing and striving like this may be in for a surprise. A study in 2016 found that work-related stress was the fifth-largest cause of the death in the United States.2 Some may not make it to retirement at all. (More on this in chapter 2.)

It doesn’t have to be this way. And Buddha knew this, 2,500 years ago, without ever setting foot in an office.

When Buddha had his great awakening—when he literally became the Buddha, which means the Awakened One—he listed “right livelihood” among the eight keys to an enlightened life. He knew somehow that work was important, and that working right was essential. As he traveled through ancient India, spreading the word about his newfound path of spiritual liberation, he preached not only to other wandering monks like himself (and eventually nuns), but also to those he called “householders,” who he encouraged to follow his teachings while remaining in the workaday world. Even two-plus millennia ago, Buddha understood that most of us would spend much of our waking lives working, and would have to find our enlightenment there.

Buddha was raised among the privileged 1 percent of his day and became an honored guest of kings and queens, but he was also surrounded by subsistence farmers, artisans, and small-scale merchants who struggled to survive. The Buddhist scriptures, usually called the sutras, refer to dozens of professions already practiced in Buddha’s time, and his audiences included everyone from royalty to slaves.3 For most people hearing the Buddha’s words, work was a necessary and central part of their daily lives. He couldn’t ignore it then, any more than we can ignore it now. Enlightenment was not something just for full-time monastics, so Buddha knew that helping ordinary people work right was essential to helping them find their own path of awakening.

That’s what this book is about: how to make our work not just another distraction, but an integral part of truly waking up.

This book will help you understand why Buddha—a guy who never held a job—chose to elevate right livelihood to such importance. More importantly, we’ll explore how to find a way of working that’s “right” in every sense of that word: right for you, right for your health, right for your sanity, and right for the world.

Buddha’s teachings are not complicated. He laid them all out in his very first sermon in about 700 words—about as many as you’ve already read in this book so far! Most of them come down to basic principles, like honesty and balance, that help us pay closer attention to the world. But applying those simple teachings to the complexities of daily life can be quite a bit trickier. As Buddha elaborated on these concepts over the years, his teachings ballooned to about 20,000–80,000 pages, depending on who’s counting.

Despite his complete lack of job experience, Buddha actually had a lot to say about work in all those later sermons. Some of his admonitions were both specific and unsurprising. (He suggested that we avoid careers in weapons, human trafficking, and drugs, for example.) But once you start pulling on even those simple threads, it’s easy to unravel the whole sweater. When Buddha says to avoid business in “intoxicants” and “poison,” what does he really mean? I spent years working at Instagram and Facebook. Are those online platforms intoxicants? Are they even poison? I suppose some people would say so, although I disagree. Should we consider television an intoxicant? What about video games? Are coal miners trafficking in poison? Or car manufacturers? Some people talk about sugar as a poison—so are ice cream shops forbidden? That’s a depressing thought.

In any case, these specific suggestions are just the beginning. All the same principles Buddha offered to guide us in the rest of life must also guide us in our work. After right livelihood, the other seven elements of the eightfold path are right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. All of these can help us at work—especially mindfulness and concentration, which we’ll spend extra time discussing. Most of us know from sad experience that there are endless ways to stray from this path in the workplace—to fall into wrong conduct, wrong speech, and so forth; to treat our coworkers badly; to drift mindlessly from one task to the next; even to lie, cheat, or steal. We’ll talk about all these things, too, and how to avoid them.

Buddha taught that life involves a lot of suffering, which many in the working world will find very easy to believe. But he also taught that it doesn’t have to, that suffering has a cause and a cure. That cure isn’t necessarily easy, but it is possible. And it’s just as possible behind a desk or at a cash register or in a factory as it is on a distant mountaintop.

You don’t have to quit your job to find enlightenment. It might not even help. Buddha’s life was kind of an American dream in reverse: starting in the lap of luxury and ending literally penniless.* He found all the bliss-chasing of his youth to be a distraction. As nice as retirement might sound right now, it isn’t any easier to wake up on a beach or on a golf course or at a spa. Buddha would tell you it might be harder.

You don’t have to become a Buddhist, either. Buddha never used that word, and might not be thrilled with the way people use it today. He didn’t believe in “Buddhism” per se—he believed in paying attention, taking care of yourself, and waking up. That’s something anyone of any faith can do.

In the end, happiness and fulfillment at work depend on many of the same things that bring us happiness and fulfillment elsewhere. Like anything worth doing, there are no shortcuts. There’s no pill you can take or magic notebook you can buy or fancy exercise you can learn. But this book will show you how Buddha’s simple instructions apply to our everyday lives in the office or on any job. Before long, you’ll find yourself waking up while working well.




Why Work?

SHORTLY AFTER BUDDHA’S ENLIGHTENMENT, TWO TRAVELING merchants named Tapussa and Bhallika were passing through a neighboring village. It’s not entirely clear how word had already gotten around, but one of their local relatives mentioned to them that a holy man nearby had recently become what he called “wholly awakened.”1 Even in ancient India, where wandering mystics were a lot more common than they are today, this was a big deal. The two men gathered some food to bring as an offering and went off to find this Awakened One. The story goes that they caught Buddha a little off guard. He hadn’t started teaching yet—he hadn’t even decided to become a teacher—and he didn’t have a bowl handy to accept their gifts of barley and sweets. But he found something he could use and the two were so impressed by his mere presence that they immediately converted and became his first disciples. Then they continued on their way.

So the very first Buddhists were two ordinary people on a business trip.2 (Keep this in mind the next time you’re killing time in an airport or stranded at a Holiday Inn.) Many years later, when recounting a list of his foremost disciples, Buddha still remembered their names and mentioned them first among all the laymen he had taught.3 Think about that: Before there were any monks or nuns shaving their heads and donning saffron robes, there were these guys—two regular Joes, going about their daily lives, trying to earn a decent living, yet eager for a glimpse of something more.

Two thousand five hundred years later, the world is still full of Tapussas and Bhallikas—spiritual seekers with a day job. And I’ll bet you’re one of them.

Many of us wonder why we have to work at all. Wouldn’t it be easier to find ourselves, to find our own enlightenment, if we didn’t have to? Surely a trust fund would help.

To be clear, this is not a new problem. We’ve been working for a long time. And I don’t just mean you and me—I mean all of us, all of humanity. For as long as people have lived together in anything resembling a human society, we’ve had to work.

Buddha understood this and accepted it. In fact, he was much more likely to get the opposite question: Why stop working? In a famous lecture, a local king asked Buddha exactly this. The king’s servants and staff—everyone from elephant riders to weavers, soldiers to bath attendants—produced useful things. Through their labors, the king explained, “They bring happiness and joy to themselves, they bring happiness and joy to their mothers and fathers, to their wives and children, and to their friends and acquaintances.”4 Compared to all that, what good was Buddha’s hours and hours of sitting around?

Buddha explained to the king the fruits of meditation and spiritual life, and we’ll talk about that later in this book, too. But for now my point is that Buddha didn’t have to explain the fruits of working life. Those seemed obvious to everyone. He had to defend not working.

As both that ancient king and Buddha understood, there are lots of good reasons to work. For some of us, our jobs feel like a calling. Maybe you’ve wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a firefighter or a nurse or a teacher for as long as you can remember. Or maybe you discovered such a passion later in life. Maybe you’ve found some way to turn your love of art or sports or music into a job that pays your salary, and so you work mostly because you simply love doing what you do.

For others, work is a mission. You see a problem in the world and feel duty-bound to solve it. The day-to-day work itself may not be particularly exciting, but you believe in what you’re doing and you feel that you’re making a real difference. That is enough.

Other people work simply to earn a living. Whether you’re supporting a family or supporting yourself, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Beyond the lucky few born into riches (like Buddha) or those who choose to live by the generosity of others (also like Buddha!), we all need a way of paying the bills. And that’s great! It feels good to be financially responsible and independent.

For most of us, work is probably a mix of all these things. Often, it changes over time. When I left college, I thought I might become a traditional Buddhist monk and live out my life in a remote temple in Asia. And I did live in a temple in Thailand for a few months, and later in another in San Francisco. But then I fell in love and got married, and ended up needing a job. When I first started working, it was to earn a living and support my new family. I counted the days until I thought I could afford to quit and move on to something more satisfying—literally counted, with spreadsheets and calendars and complicated formulas. Then, over time, I realized that I liked my work, and one day, about 10 years into my career in technology, I decided I didn’t want to do something else. I stopped counting the days and focused on how I could do my work better. Now, more recently, I’m focused on the difference my work makes to the wider world, and on helping others find satisfaction and fulfillment in the work they do.

The business executive and writer Mike Steib has described this evolution as the three stages of “learn, earn, and return.”5 In the first stage of our careers, we might focus on building our skills and deepening our knowledge. In the second stage, we might focus more on reaping material success from these early investments. And, in the end, we can dedicate more of our energy to giving back to others—including those just starting out and trying to learn.

Your career doesn’t have to follow Steib’s pattern—or mine. Your motivations may be entirely different or even moving in the opposite direction. Maybe you started out in the Peace Corps (both “learning” and “returning”) and much later in life applied your knowledge to something more lucrative (finally “earning” a bit). Or maybe you needed to earn at an early age, and only had the luxury of going back to school and learning later on.

Everyone’s career path is different. There are no bad reasons for working. And yet many of us can’t shake the feeling that it would be better not to.

Buddha agreed that finding enlightenment in the working world could be difficult, that it could feel “confining” to many of us, that we could feel “weighed down” by our worldly commitments.6 But to be clear, he was not contrasting this with resort living. He was comparing both work and family life to going very much the other way—giving up all possessions and attachments. He felt enlightenment was a bit easier as a wandering monk, but he understood that such a path wasn’t possible for everyone.

On the other hand, Buddha thought quitting your job to follow your bliss was a terrible idea. Sure, chasing what he called “sensual desires” might feel good at first, but in the long run it’s more like being “pierced by a dart.” In the end, such lives are filled with even more suffering, like water flooding a broken boat.7

Many people find this hard to believe. If we enjoy golfing or knitting, yoga or reading, wouldn’t we be happier doing those things all the time instead of dragging ourselves into the shop?

Probably not. If you’ve ever eaten too much ice cream or too many doughnuts (it’s possible!), you know you can have too much of a good thing. The problem with lying around all day is that it makes us lazy and restless, and these turn out to be huge obstacles to finding true fulfillment.8 (We have a whole chapter on this coming up.) Working too little is no better than working too much—and possibly worse. Endlessly chasing pleasure just leads to more distractions, the exact opposite of what we need to truly wake up. Buddha referred to “an honest occupation” as “the highest blessing,”9 not because he wanted us to work 24/7, but because he saw work as an integral part of a fulfilled life.

But our lives can’t be only work. In the same verse, Buddha described learning, practicing a craft, hanging out with good people, and maintaining a family as the highest blessing, too. So, yes, that’s a lot of highests! But his point was that there are many important blessings in life, and the real trick is to combine them all.

Our lives are best when they’re in balance. This is the real message of Buddha’s middle way. Whether we work at home, in an office, or at a factory or a store, work can contribute to that balance. There are as many reasons to work as there are workers. Whatever our reasons, we just need to keep that work in its place.


The Cost of Suffering

IF THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH WORKING, AT LEAST in theory, why is work so hard?

In Buddha’s very first formal sermon, he espoused “Four Noble Truths.” We’ll talk about all four of these shortly, but for now let’s focus on the first one, which is usually translated as: “Life is suffering.”

It sounds kind of depressing, but Buddha didn’t mean it that way at all. He was merely trying to validate a feeling all of us have at one time or another. Life is difficult. Pain and loss are inevitable. But life is not only suffering. There are moments of joy and happiness, too. Most of us are not in constant agony. But all of us face difficulties at some point. And knowing that even the most pleasurable, most rewarding experiences will come to an end leaves them tinged with impending loss.

Some scholars aren’t even sure suffering is exactly what Buddha meant. Buddha didn’t speak English, of course. We’re not entirely sure what language he did speak. His teachings come to us in a few ancient Indian languages, including one called Pali, and the word used in that language is dukkha. One way to translate dukkha is “suffering” or even “pain,” and that’s why the most common rendering of Buddha’s first truth in English is what we just said: “Life is suffering.” But others have used the word stress instead.1 So another way to think about Buddha’s first truth might be: “Life is really stressful.”

For many of us, that’s the version that really rings true—especially when we’re working.

Study after study confirms that our working lives are full of stress. According to a report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 40 percent of US workers find their jobs “very or extremely stressful.”2 The Washington Business Group on Health estimated that “46 percent of all employees are severely stressed to the point of burnout.”3 As far back as 1996, surveys found that 75 percent of American workers were experiencing high levels of job stress at least once a week,4 and things have probably only gotten worse since.

It’s not just Americans, either. A recent European study found that 27.5 percent of workers there suffered from increased fatigue, resulting from workplace stress.5 A survey of women working in Sweden found that 38 percent perceived their jobs as stressful.6 Sweden! If even the Swedes can’t chill out, we must be in real trouble.

All this stress has very real costs. Early estimates of the total societal costs of workplace stress back in the 1990s were as much as 10 percent of GNP.7 Today, in the United States, that would represent over $1 trillion dollars! The direct cost in lost revenue alone from workplace stress is estimated at $150 billion.8 Worldwide, the International Labor Organization estimates the cost of workplace stress at 1–3.5 percent of total world GDP.9

And it’s not just financial cost. In his book Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer explains that workplace stress probably leads to more health issues and more avoidable deaths than secondhand smoke. Stress in most offices is so severe that “White-collar jobs are often as stressful and unhealthful as manual labor, [and] frequently more so.” 10 The American Institute of Stress estimates that “75 percent to 90 percent of all doctor visits are now stress-related.”11

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Work doesn’t have to make us miserable. And when we find ways to be happy at work, everyone benefits.

We’ve known for at least two decades that happiness increases our productivity at work.12 One study found the volunteers whose mood was boosted by watching a funny video performed significantly better on a math task designed to simulate workplace thinking.13


  • "Working Buddhists and those interested in Buddhist mindfulness will find this to be an accessible, down-to-earth handbook for finding a 'middle path' while at the office."—Publishers Weekly
  • "This book may well transform your life at work!"
    Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram
  • "A delightful read. A practical, sensible, and unvarnished look at how we might apply the ancient wisdom of Buddha's basic instructions to modern daily life."
    Chris Cox, former Chief Product Officer at Facebook
  • "Buddha's Office beautifully links the worlds of Buddha and business. Author Dan Zigmond is both an ordained Zen monk and a highly effective people manager. This book is a wise exploration of how those two are less different than you might think."
    Mike Krieger, co-founder of Instagram
  • "What every book about mindfulness and work should be: thoughtful, accessible, practical without being formulaic. Yes, it's about how to work more mindfully, but it's really about how to live more mindfully."
    Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction and Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
  • "A wise and compassionate workbook for bringing more humanity and connection into the workplace and into your life. Dan Zigmond has a clear and powerful way of making a case for the value of working and living with more awareness and heart."
    Marc Lesser, author of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader
  • "Offers the perfect antidote for our current unsatisfactory work culture. We're conditioned to believe work has to be something we try to escape, but Zigmond shows us how to bring Buddhust principles into the art of work and make it a joyful and relaxing part of your life."
    Ginny Hogan, comedian and author of Toxic Femininity in the Workplace
  • "This small book is packed with insights, practices, wisdom and humor, all guaranteed to make you the most popular bodhisattva at the water cooler."
    Eddie Stern, author of One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life
  • "A refreshingly practical guide . . . Zigmond brings a light touch to meaty content."
    Randy Komisar, venture capitalist, entrepreneur, author of The Monk and the Riddle
  • "Can you actually find happiness and fulfillment and even 'wake up' at work? Buddha's Office provides readers with a path to help you do just that. Warm, funny, and packed with practical wisdom, this book by Dan Zigmond might just change your life."
    Amy Sandler, CMO and Coach at Radical Candor
  • "We all struggle with finding fulfillment and happiness in the daily grind of our careers. Thankfully, Dan Zigmond has brought to life the answers to our challenges with the timeless wisdom of Buddha translated to the realities of our modern workplace. You can find success and joy in your work, all you have to do is act on the recommendations of this delightful book."—Mike Steib, CEO of Artsy and author of The Career Manifesto
  • "It's the definitive text on how to ensure work isn't a distraction from our spiritual life but an integral part of it."—-Lion's Roar
  • "Buddha's Office: The Ancient Art of Waking Up While Working Well combines Buddhist principles with business management advice. The result is an inherently fascinating, impressively informative, exceptionally practical, and thoroughly 'user friendly' compendium of insight, advice and inspiration for improving our professional and personal lives with respect to whatever form of workplace that employs us."—-Midwest Book Review

On Sale
Dec 3, 2019
Page Count
240 pages
Running Press

Dan Zigmond

About the Author

Dan Zigmond is a writer, data scientist, and Zen priest. As a former executive at Instagram, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, he was named one of the “20 Business Geniuses You Need to Know” by Wired magazine. He is also the co-author of Buddha’s Diet: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind. He lives with his family in Menlo Park, California. Dan Zigmond is a writer, data scientist, and Zen priest. As a former executive at Instagram, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, he was named one of the “20 Business Geniuses You Need to Know” by Wired magazine. He is also the co-author of Buddha’s Diet: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind. He lives with his family in Menlo Park, California.

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