Les Kaye is the Abbot of Kannon Do meditation center in Mountain View and the author of the books Joyously Through the Days, Zen at Work and A Sense of Something Greater. As a former manager at IBM, Les has always been quite uniquely placed as a teacher in the tech-corporate world, and much of his writing has been focused on the practicalities of living a spiritual life in this kind of environment. We have featured posts from Les’ books here on The Dewdrop, about monasticism and Zen in everyday life.
Why Do you Write?
I do not consider myself a true writer, according to the usual understanding of a writer’s role and orientation. I don’t have a natural intention to write for publication, so I don’t anticipate or think ahead to what my next writing project will be. All my books and articles have been initiated by suggestions, encouragement, and invitations from friends and students.
For example, I became interested in writing my first book only when a Sangha member persisted. She told me that I had what she called “dual careers,” in the high-tech business world and in Zen practice. She argued that I was probably the only manager in IBM who was a Zen priest and was I aware of any IBM or other corporate managers who had gone off to monasteries for months at a time and then returned to their jobs? She pushed me to share experiences of my “dual careers.” That was the start of Zen at Work.
In the mid 1990’s, my friend Joan Connell moved up from her role as religion editor of the San Jose Mercury News to editor-in-chief of Religion News Service in Washington, DC. She called me one day and said, “I want you to be my Buddhist voice.” Over the next decade, I wrote fifty or so articles for RNS.
“I think the enduring mark of any tribe or society or nation is what and how its people create in community with one another.”
How Do You Write?
Once I commit to a writing project, I make notes of ideas and insights as they arise. Only when I feel I have a critical mass of notes do I give them full attention. Then I try to expand them to discover if they have depth beyond being one-line bumper stickers.. My editor for Zen at Work taught me how to go into depth. During the editing process, she would say things like, “Take these two sentences on page 93 and make them into a full chapter.” At first, I resisted what I felt was an unreasonable assignment. But I did what she said and have to admit the work of digging down opened me up to creativity and imagination. In that way, maybe I became a little bit like a “real” writer.
One of the enduring themes in your writing is Zen in the workplace. What is it that keeps bringing you back to this topic and why is it important?
I think the enduring mark of any tribe or society or nation is what and how its people create in community with one another. The nature of the “what” and the “how” are vital for the well-being of its members. Ideally, they should be established on values that support people and give them satisfaction and a sense of purpose in their lives. The medical profession and the arts do that naturally but in commercial workplaces, if what people do and how they do it do not touch them but instead are established entirely on expediencies and financial gain, the work has little meaning, and people can feel irrelevant.
A man in a tribe of hunter-gatherers fashions his hunting arrows knowing that what he is creating is valuable to his tribesman and so senses his place in the world. To him, his work has benefit to others, and has meaning. In the modern world, our work is far less personal; its value is not so direct and not always well understood. If we define ourselves by what we do for a living rather than by our connection with each other and the environment that supports us, we feel separated from our world. The disconnection creates anxiety and suffering.
“If we define ourselves by what we do for a living rather than by our connection with each other and the environment that supports us, we feel separated from our world.”
We cannot depend on business owners and managers to provide an ideal workplace; they have more immediate priorities, including company survival and turning a profit. So, if we do not feel at home there or find meaning in what we do, we will feel as if we are just going through the motions. Our life will not feel authentic.
Zen practice enables us to recognize our inherent authenticity, to see who we are in a very large sense, beyond the roles we play in our daily lives, and not depend on the workplace to provide us authenticity. That understanding keeps our minds from being tossed around in complex, confusing, changing, pressure-packed work environments. Expressing our Zen practice at work brings patience, equanimity, acceptance, accommodation, and generosity. These attributes enable us to create a family feeling in our workplace.
You live and teach in Silicon Valley and you have seen that environment unfold in the past 50 years. What do you see as being the most pressing issues presented by technology?
Medical and surgical technologies have saved many lives over the past one hundred years or so.
We can leave those technologies at the hospital or at the doctor’s office. However, technology beyond the medical, despite its benefits and improvement to standards of living, can have serious unintended consequences and dangerous downsides, as has become clear in recent years.
Personal technology offers convenience, excitement, and entertainment. In the 21st century, we have learned that we desperately crave those attributes and are easily seduced by them. So, we cling to our devices, allowing them to diminish our attention to each other and our environment. Diminished attention leads to diminished caring. When we do not care or feel cared for, we suffer.
“Diminished attention leads to diminished caring. When we do not care or feel cared for, we suffer.”
If the business and technical world does not give consideration to the potential societal downsides of a powerful and seemingly beneficial new technology, the results can be destructive, rather than constructive. Global warming is just one obvious example. Corporate and political use of our personal data has already created serious problems.
What aspects of your own life have contributed to the themes in the book?
I have always been sensitive to the ways that people treat each other and their environment. At eight years old, growing up in New York City, I wondered why people were not nicer to each other. The hustle of the city seemed to encourage discourtesy and indifference. This condition was not universally true, of course – I did have experiences of people being helpful and generous.
But I saw enough of the other to make me wonder. And I noticed that the helpful ones did so with a smile, while the competitive and pushy always wore a frown. I think those reflections influenced my life.
Zen teachers often try and steer new students away from reading too many books. As a Zen teacher and an author, what is your advice to your students, regarding reading?
I caution new students to be careful of becoming carried away by all the Zen books available these days. I advise them to read only books that provide the foundations of practice and not to rely on Zen books to provide answers to the most fundamental questions. Rely on your practice, your own personal efforts and experiences, not the words of others, to bring understanding.
Can writing be a kind of spiritual practice?
Yes. It encourages total engagement with the work, determination to go beyond discouragement, and looking deeply – without bias – at the world, as well as at one’s own mind.
Which of your books has been the most gratifying to work on and why?
The most recent, A Sense of Something Greater. It is more than just the author’s voice. Through the interviews, it presents the experiences of a dozen dedicated Zen students who are taking care of family and work responsibilities in a pressure-packed, anxiety-creating environment while finding ways to bring their practice into a complex and busy world. Their personal stories can be an inspiration to the reader.