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I have been a practicioner of mindfulness and vipassana for a few years. I have felt that buddhism is at odds with striving towards professional success and ambition. Ambition and professional success inherently has elements of attachment and passion, which are at odds with the fundamental virtues of buddhism (such as equanimity). On one hand, I would like to be my best self in professional life and make significant contributions to my field, but when I have this mindset I experience negative emotions like insecurity, impatience.

Do you think that these two things are at odds with each other and if not, why?

  • There are some other (previous) topics like this one -- some of them are listed here if you want to read the answers to those. – ChrisW Sep 28 '18 at 23:12
  • It's not about what you do but how and why you do it. If you bring your practice to your professional work you will have the best of both worlds, albeit some professions would be more suitable than others. I think a butcher or lawyer might struggle to reconcile their practice with their work but it would be a doddle for a musician or doctor. Where your profession causes negative emotions, loss of equanimity and so forth this would usually be thought an excellent situation for improving and testing your practice. – PeterJ Oct 1 '18 at 12:21
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In AN 8.54, the Buddha teaches the four qualities that lead to a lay person's happiness and well-being in this life: consummate (or accomplished) in initiative, consummate in vigilance, admirable friendship and maintaining livelihood in tune. The four qualities that lead to a lay person's happiness and well-being in lives to come include consummate in conviction, consummate in virtue, consummate in generosity and consummate in discernment.

Trying to be the best that you can be in your profession is actually being consummate or accomplished in initiative. This is a good thing for lay persons.

The negative emotions like impatience, insecurity, envy etc. can be overcome with the latter four qualities: consummate in conviction, consummate in virtue, consummate in generosity, consummate in discernment. Especially, becoming consummate in virtue and discernment will lead to skillful thinking and skillful living, away from the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion.

So, trying to be the best that you can be in your profession is a good thing and is not contradictory to Buddhism. However, having negative thoughts like insecurity and impatience is contradictory to Buddhism and the root cause of these needs to be understood and weeded out.

From AN 8.54:

[The Blessed One said:] "There are these four qualities, TigerPaw, that lead to a lay person's happiness and well-being in this life. Which four? Being consummate in initiative, being consummate in vigilance, admirable friendship, and maintaining one's livelihood in tune.

"And what does it mean to be consummate in initiative? There is the case where a lay person, by whatever occupation he makes his living — whether by farming or trading or cattle tending or archery or as a king's man or by any other craft — is clever and untiring at it, endowed with discrimination in its techniques, enough to arrange and carry it out. This is called being consummate in initiative.

"And what does it mean to be consummate in vigilance? There is the case when a lay person has righteous wealth — righteously gained, coming from his initiative, his striving, his making an effort, gathered by the strength of his arm, earned by his sweat — he manages to protect it through vigilance [with the thought], 'How shall neither kings nor thieves make off with this property of mine, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?' This is called being consummate in vigilance.

"And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders' sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship.

"And what does it mean to maintain one's livelihood in tune? There is the case where a lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], 'Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income.' Just as when a weigher or his apprentice, when holding the scales, knows, 'It has tipped down so much or has tipped up so much,' in the same way, the lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], 'Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income.' If a lay person has a small income but maintains a grand livelihood, it will be rumored of him, 'This clansman devours his wealth like a fruit-tree eater.' If a lay person has a large income but maintains a miserable livelihood, it will be rumored of him, 'This clansman will die of starvation.' But when a lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], 'Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income,' this is called maintaining one's livelihood in tune.

"These are the four drains on one's store of wealth: debauchery in sex; debauchery in drink; debauchery in gambling; and evil friendship, evil companionship, evil camaraderie. Just as if there were a great reservoir with four inlets and four drains, and a man were to close the inlets and open the drains, and the sky were not to pour down proper showers, the depletion of that great reservoir could be expected, not its increase. In the same way, these are the four drains on one's store of wealth: debauchery in sex; debauchery in drink; debauchery in gambling; and evil friendship, evil companionship, evil camaraderie.

These are the four inlets to one's store of wealth: no debauchery in sex; no debauchery in drink; no debauchery in gambling; and admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie. Just as if there were a great reservoir with four inlets and four drains, and a man were to open the inlets and close the drains, and the sky were to pour down proper showers, the increase of that great reservoir could be expected, not its depletion. In the same way, these are the four inlets to one's store of wealth: no debauchery in sex; no debauchery in drink; no debauchery in gambling; and admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.

"These, TigerPaw, are the four qualities that lead to a lay person's happiness and well-being in this life.

"There are these four qualities that lead to a lay person's happiness and well-being in lives to come. Which four? Being consummate in conviction, being consummate in virtue, being consummate in generosity, being consummate in discernment.

"And what does it mean to be consummate in conviction? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones has conviction, is convinced of the Tathagata's Awakening: 'Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge and conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine and human beings, awakened, blessed.' This is called being consummate in conviction.

"And what does it mean to be consummate in virtue? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking life, abstains from stealing, abstains from illicit sexual conduct, abstains from lying, abstains from taking intoxicants that cause heedlessness. This is called being consummate in virtue.

"And what does it mean to be consummate in generosity? There is the case of a disciple of the noble ones, his awareness cleansed of the stain of miserliness, living at home, freely generous, openhanded, delighting in being magnanimous, responsive to requests, delighting in the distribution of alms. This is called being consummate in generosity.

"And what does it mean to be consummate in discernment? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones is discerning, endowed with discernment of arising and passing away — noble, penetrating, leading to the right ending of stress. This is called being consummate in discernment.

"These, TigerPaw, are the four qualities that lead to a lay person's happiness and well-being in lives to come."

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Buddhism teaches about kamma or "merit". If you have done "merit" in your profession then naturally you will be promoted at work or have the ability & opportunity for other professional advancements because this follows the law of kamma. But if you have not done merit but expect a promotion then this is contrary to the law of kamma. It creates the suffering of "wanting something & not getting it".

When I had a profession, others often expected I get promoted. My managers would encourage me to apply for promotions but I never did (apart from once, earlier on, where I gained a multi-level promotion) because I knew those higher paid jobs would require me to sacrifice my personal ethics.

It was correct I seeked to advance as high as I did because I was the right person for that job. But to advance higher was against the Dhamma.

In summary, Dhamma limits ambition in at least two ways:

  1. You have not made the merit for the ambition; which is self-created.

  2. The ambition falls outside the sphere of ethics; which is externally created.

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On one hand, I would like to be my best self in professional life and make significant contributions to my field, but when I have this mindset I experience negative emotions like insecurity, impatience.

Perhaps that might be "conceit" as explained in this topic -- because it's a form of comparison, "I'm not just good -- I'm better! I'm best! Oh, no -- I'm not so good...", etc.

Whether that's self-view or just conceit, it's kind of fleeting IMO -- hence insecurity (even if it happens it may not last, or not be satisfying), impatience (craving for it to happen again).

I have felt that buddhism is at odds with striving towards professional success and ambition.

DN 31 is famous for its detailed advice for lay-people.

I get the impression, from that, that "success and ambition" are not the goal -- success may be the method, the mechanism, the tool you can use, to benefit yourself and others.

That's not the same as, "I just want to earn a lot of praise and a lot of money, and I don't know and don't care how or why, and I want to be more successful than (or at least as successful as) other people", which is maybe the stereotype of professional success (a.k.a. the "rat race", "consumer society", or however else it may be caricatured).

Ambition and professional success inherently has elements of attachment and passion, which are at odds with the fundamental virtues of buddhism (such as equanimity).

I don't know, it could also have elements of concentration, intentional action ... and kindness when you interact with others, and so on.

  • Great answer @ChrisW. You make some really nice points. The negative emotions arising from ambition could be from conceit or comparing yourself to others. Also, as you say if viewed rightly ambitions and success as positive elements as well. :) – ramanujan_dirac Sep 29 '18 at 17:27
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Further you progress in Buddhist path more it will be difficult to reconcile professional ambition and ambition for worldly success with what you become. Because you will realize more and more that ambition is a form of craving and success is a socially/worldly defined state which will lead to (mostly your) suffering. And you will want less and less of it.

But this is not something to fear. Because at any point on your path you will also be free to choose ambition vs freedom/peace. More fulfilled you are as a result of getting rid of de-fillments, less worldly goals and ambitions you will have. And as a result you will not suffer not having.

Right now you worry about your future state from a point of view of present day you. But if you walk along the path, the you who will let go of those ambitions is not the present/same you that need those to survive. That future you will be happy to see that they are gone.

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