For part of my visit to Tokyo to straighten things out with Nakano Productions I arranged to stay at Nishijima Sensei’s itty-bitty apartment in a gigantic government-subsidized apartment complex called Takashimadaira. That’s way too long a word to pronounce, so I’ll use the name as infrequently as possible.

It’s one of the largest housing projects in the world, with endless identical buildings stretching on as far as the eye can see. The project has three train stations pretty much to itself, plus its own supermarkets, restaurants, retail shops, and bars. These places aren’t particularly spiffy, but they’re not bad. In fact, the project itself is a fairly pleasant place, except for the fact that all the buildings look exactly alike. It’s nicely kept up, there’s very little litter and almost no graffiti, and the playgrounds between the buildings are actually safe for kids to play in.

When I first met Nishijima he was living in a reconverted company dorm belonging to the cosmetics company he worked for. The president of the company was a big fan of Zen and required all employees to attend Nishijima’s three-day zazen retreats at least once every two years. He had lent Nishijima the building to use as a Zen dojo some years before. Until his wife’s death Nishijima spent three days a week at his home in a Tokyo suburb and the rest at his dojo. After his wife died he moved into the Zen center full-time.

Nishijima’s family viewed his fascination with Zen as something of an eccentricity, one they tolerated but did not much care for. He tried not to burden his wife and daughter with his Zen-related work too much. But he was not about to stop it either.

When the president of the cosmetics company died, his heirs decided they were wasting too much money on useless extravagances like Zen dojos and Zen retreats, and Nishijima found himself abruptly cast out of his longtime home. He took the move in stride, though, and never complained, seeing it as a natural progression in his life and work. From now on, he said, he would devote himself to teaching Buddhism to the whole world “through the method of blog.” One of his students had set one up for him, and he was amazed at his new ability to communicate instantly to the entire planet just by typing on his computer keyboard. For someone born in 1919, it must have seemed unimaginable.

While I was at Nishijima’s place, I told him about what had been going on with Nakano Productions. I said that they had absolutely no goal for their international business. “In Zen it’s important to have no goal,” he said. “But in business a goal is absolutely necessary.”

When I tell this story people often have difficulty accepting its apparent dichotomy. How can a Zen teacher, dedicated to a goalless practice, function in the business world where goals are essential? But this is only a problem if you’re too caught up in words and images and too insistent on maintaining the fiction that all aspects of life must be consistent.

Of course it’s important not to be a hypocrite. But there’s nothing hypocritical about practicing goallessness in Zen and making specific, goal-oriented plans when you’re in a business meeting. Here’s how it works. In terms of the Zen view of the true nature of time, the idea of having a goal breaks down into absurdity. There is only the eternal now, so when would you realize your goal?

But human business affairs take place in a different realm. This realm is essentially an artificial construct of the human mind. As human beings we need to interact with other humans. We provide ourselves with means of support from the wider human community by engaging in such useful fictions together.

Even though, in Buddhist terms, there is no real future, I still have a retirement fund. When I go out for public appearances I plan ahead — not very well, mind you — but I do. I need to know where I’m going, how long it will take to get there, how long I’m supposed to speak, and what Thai restaurants in the area will be open when I’m done. You can’t function in society if you don’t involve yourself in the fictions society accepts about time. But you do so with the understanding that you’re playing a game.

A lot of people imagine it’d be wonderful to escape from their everyday lives and run off to some kind of spiritual world where everything is okeydokey and they never have to worry about jobs and all the attendant hassles. This is how cults work, by promising a life free from trouble in exchange for believing stupid stuff and blindly obeying the master. But the truth is that there’s no cult, no church, no monastery in the world that is any less susceptible to politics and basic human bull crap than any company or other organization. The dreams we all have of there being some ideal place where we could escape from all such troubles are all just empty fantasies. I dreamed this dream myself for a very long time and still find myself lapsing into it. But it ain’t gonna happen. Not to me. Not to you. Not to anyone anywhere in the world at any time.

In Los Angeles people are always hopping from job to job trying to find something better. The culture in SoCal gives the message that as soon as things get rough you run away. And, of course, there are times when you have to split an uncool scene* — battering husbands, Bobbitting wives, and that sort of thing are good examples. But if you do split, just make sure you don’t do it with the expectation that everything’s gonna get solved once and for all.

Our day-to-day real human struggles are important. I hate ’em just as much as anyone else. I especially hated them on this trip since I was going to have to spend the rest of the week trying to explain what I wanted to people who didn’t seem to be very interested in understanding. But it’s what I had to do. And even if I ran away from this particular struggle now, it would come back and bite me in the ass in another form later on. I wish it wasn’t this way as much as you do. But facts are facts. Watch your own life closely, and you’ll see it’s just the same. You can always improve your situation. But you do so by facing it, not by running away. The brilliant thing is that doing what you do is how you realize your life and realize the universe. Your struggles are your true self. Weird, huh?

In any case, Nishijima’s take on my troubles at Nakano Productions was that they probably hoped I would take the kind of decisive action they were unable to take themselves. He said they placed those barriers in front of me expecting me to break them. This was so that they could absolve themselves of responsibility, should whatever I do turn out badly. Naturally, should my actions turn out well they would be all too eager to take credit.

He also said that he thought I probably didn’t really need them anymore. He believed my own creative works would be able to see me through financially. If he believed that, he obviously hadn’t seen the pitiful advances I’d been receiving for my books! A book that took me a year and a half to write would pay my rent in Los Angeles for about six months, maybe eight, if I could forgo eating.

“Make your own job,” he said. “And if it is successful, that is good. If it is not, you can resign.”

With that advice in mind I steeled myself to have it out with my bosses.


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Brad Warner is the author of Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, Sit Down & Shut Up, & Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality. A Zen priest, filmmaker, and blogger, he lives in Los Angeles.


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Excerpted with permission from Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate © 2009 by Brad Warner. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.  or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

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