“Being Buddha at Work” is a promising book, but it loses its balance early and never recovers. That’s a shame because the question which it authors, Franz Metcalf and B.J. Gallagher, set out to answer is an important one: what does it look like when our deepest values are thoroughly integrated into our work? (While Metcalf and Gallagher attempt to encounter this question through the lens of Buddhist teaching, the subject is equally urgent for people of other traditions or no religious tradition at all). We live in a time of spiritual segregation, in which many of us imagine that the holy and the rest of our lives can and should be kept separate from one another. The great spiritual teachers have all insisted that such segregation is impossible, that to even attempt to separate faith from vocation is to misunderstand what faith is. To riff on the words of Richard Rohr, something is deeply wrong when we hold jobs in which we profit from war, selfishness, and economic injustice and then to go to church to declare that, “Jesus Christ is my personal savior.” We desperately need the book that “Being Buddha” promises to be.
Sadly, it quickly becomes clear that Metcalf and Gallagher aren’t going to make good on that promise. They have arranged “Being Buddha” into 108 short chapters, each of which begins with an aphorism, an anecdote, or a parable and then goes on to encounter a challenge in the contemporary workplace — “How Can You Handle Rumors and Gossip at Work?” “How Do Mindful People Deal with Jerks?". This format has good potential, except that the chapters appear to have been written with no reference to one another. Thus, Metcalf and Gallagher cheerfully declare that, “Money, even loving it, is not intrinsically evil,” while, four pages later, they speak of money as a “seductive poison.” Similarly, they tell us that the Golden Rule has a “significant flaw” because “what we want varies widely.” Can you guess what’s coming next? It turns out that we all want pretty much the same things.
This kind of writing is merely sloppy — it suggests a pair of authors who are uninterested in their subject. However, “Being Buddha” crosses a line from the silly into the offensive when Metcalf and Gallagher begin to opine on serious ethical matters. “You want to know the reason that everyone is treating you so badly?” they demand of the reader. “It’s because you started it long before…. There are no innocents among us.” Now, I understand where Metcalf and Gallagher and trying to go here — we have all been party to conflicts in which we downplayed our own culpability and cast ourselves as martyrs. But, by arguing that false martyrdom is universal, the authors deny the reality that some workers are genuine victims. Think of those who have endured sexual exploitation by employers, of those who were fired for speaking up about unsafe or dishonest working conditions, of those who were murdered for organizing unions. None of these people deserved the violence that was done to them. To tell these victims that, “you started it,” is both odious and absurd.
There is a good and an important book hiding within the disaster that is “Being Buddha at Work.” I hope that Metcalf and Gallagher will choose to seek that book out, that they might find the Buddha-like humility to go back to their desks and, in a year or two, release a substantially revised second edition. In this broken world, we need books that celebrate and nurture the idea of a truly value-driven workplace. Should Metcalf and Gallagher choose to do the hard work of rewriting it, “Being Buddha at Work” could well be such a book.