Zen and the Art of Painful Clichés


Two Sundays ago, the PBS program, Religion and Ethics, decided to ask the question: “Why are Hinduism and Buddhism capturing the attention of business and management circles?”

The show profiled Professor Srikumar S. Rao, of the enormously popular Columbia University class Creativity and Personal Mastery, and Gautam Jain, of the Vedanta Cultural Foundation.

So the answer to the PBS question? The usual hodgepodge: happiness is elusive, the material world is illusory, one must not be possessed by one’s possessions… Since the 80s proved to business people that greed is not necessarily good, satisfying, or even lucrative in the long run, people are searching for another peg to hang a slogan upon.

I have a reflexive gag reaction to anything that smells of Deepak Chopra and the “pot of gold at the end of the spiritual rainbow” school of thought. While Prof. Rao and Gautamji came across as sincere, thoughtful and genuine (at least in the 5 mins alloted to each), I wonder if, despite their best efforts to explode the If/Then model of happiness, their students listen selectively. After all, these are people willing to pay $1,000 over the cost of the class to listen to Prof. Rao. His website, Are You Ready to Succeed? opens with this passage:

Life is short. And uncertain. It is like a drop of water skittering around on a lotus leaf. You never know when it will drop off the edge and disappear. So each day is far too precious to waste. And each day that you are not radiantly alive and brimming with cheer is a day wasted.

Which, frankly, leaves me lost (lotus, skittering, radiant cheer -what?) and slightly thirsty. rao1.jpg

But Prof. Rao has clearly affected and touched a lot of people, (his is, perhaps, the only business school course ever to have its own alumni association), and no doubt the class injects a much needed counterpoint to the general B-school syllabus.

As do Gautam Jain’s Vedanta teachings, which sound quite thought-provoking:


Vedanta, a “self-management” life strategy that reduces stress and emphasizes practical ways of approaching reality, centers around the fundamental concept that it is one’s relationship with the world that needs to be studied and understood. “One person enjoys a cigarette, another detests it; one wants to divorce his wife, another is desperate to marry her. Therefore, it is one’s mind, and not the world, that produces joy or sorrow in life,” says Jain, who returned to the United States after 10 years of instruction in India. link

But…but…but…I live in NY, land of the beautifully blonded yogis who teach classes on aligning chakras and smugly eat all-raw vegan meals while delicately puffing on their cigarettes. I’m wary of how easily complex Eastern philosophies become reduced to status items bought in a spiritual center’s gift shop. How easily the search for a harmonious understanding of one’s desires, relation to other people, and responsibilities in the world becomes transmuted into seeing oneself as a being superior to those who have not been enlightened.

As one of Professor Rao’s former student’s said with much confidence on my TV:

[The class] made be a better person…a better husband, a better listener, a better teacher.

I know he simply meant that the class helped him, but I cringe at that word- “better.” A less rapacious, short-term bottom-line focused business model would be great, but I fear the dawn of new, more “spiritual” business people who feel virtuous while claiming larger profit margins. But maybe I’m overreacting and these classes could really help the good folks at everyday places like Dunder-Mifflin.

70 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Painful Clichés

  1. Amrita, your great story hilariously summarized the kind of event that goes down in so many venues, in so many ways these days.

    Still, I’d rather be amongst people doing the the quasi-Asian, New Age, vacant-eyed, patchouli-scented, TM à la Krishnamurthi-cum-Maharishi routine than pious Fundamentalist born-again Christian any day. At the very least, the eastward-looking ones are more entertaining.

  2. Great story, Amrita! Just what I was getting at too…

    At the very least, the eastward-looking ones are more entertaining.

    Oh hey, if you haven’t been to an evangelical prayer meeting, you haven’t lived! Very, very entertaining.

  3. The room was of course full of people acting out their perceptions of spirituality and behaving like they had taken opium, with a few Indian onlookers at the edges wearing vacant expressions.

    oh, Amrita, that was the funniest thing I’ve read all day!! I soo wish I’d been there. It’s good to be reminded that I’m not really a cynical mean bitch – people are that clueless. Many thanks for an excellent rant ;)

    Kusala, have you seen Children of Men yet? It depicts a world where, yeah, I’d rather be among crystal-vibrational-ganja-healing-sweetly-addlepated types too. Michael Cain is amazing: “It tastes like strawrrbrerry!! cough! cougghhh!”

  4. Uncle MC, are you for, like, hire ?

    For hire, for hire, the roof is on fire, I’m Uncle MC and I’m never gonna tire of earning this paisa (yo!), learning this paisa (yo!), burning and mathemacking this paisa (yo!), and that’s why I’m gonna rope ya some dope ya some, skim a bit off the Vedanta, son, fixin’ ta Deepak Chop-ya paisa some.

  5. Yo, yo, yo –

    I cleanse your head like Aveda, shampoo with a Veda, Rinse your soul like the Ganga droppin’ from Himalaya, Separatin’ sanyasis from wack perpetrataz In a state of samadhi, I drop bombs like a slaya Desi please! I repel fake gurus and haters With the oneness of Brahman, my protective layer Belur Math be my spot, Ramakrishna’s da mayor, I blow yo’ mind every time cause my science Advaita.

    Peace! I’m Audi 5000.

  6. After all this was done, and the audience told they could disperse, it turned out that all this was to sell four books, two quite remarkable and under-priced ones of Romio’s paintings, so huge that only a strong man could pick up both at once, plus one by Patti Smith about her own life and — Deepak Chopra’s Kama Sutra.

    That’s what I like about western new agers. Totally non-anal-retentive about sex.

    So how did the vacant eyed Indian onlookers react when the subject turned to sex?

    Or was the book just there and not discussed?

  7. Oh SNAP!

    Daddy MC, please, you know my steez, my lyrics are as pungent as home-made cheese, I’m the gulab in every jamun, the ras in every gullah, Make a Hindutva-wadi cry Alhamdullilah! While you laying Bricks like Monica Ali, Faking the Spices like Divakaruni, only, lonely, but it’s true: I’m iller than you, cooler than you, more in touch with tha Guru than you, and when I explode, I’m like an Andaman volcano, flowing through chutiyas like a bottle of drano, the Acharya of the microphizzle, making you dizzle, making you dazzle, tha Uncle MC of the World Wide Wizzle.

  8. Awww shit…

    Beta please! Got no time for colonized minds Brown dudes with no soul, girls with no behind Spice-wallah macacas peddlin’ second-hand rhymes Sellin’ curries in a hurry for the cost of a dime A dozen, til the hipsters be buzzin’, Publishers bendin’ over for a taste of the cousin Brother, same Desh different mother, Same shit different day, same game different Other, Self-promotin’ self-hataz, got they names on a list, Got a sharp scimitar for them Ho-rientalists Catch them after the reading, put they skulls in my fridge Make them pay for clichés like my man Manish Vij, Yo! I got diamond in the back like Bipasha’s booty, Got the sun roof top on my souped-up Maruti, Dig the scene with the lean while I sip on my whisky, Eructatin’ fly mantras til the sistas get frisky, When I step in the club, white boys say Namaskar Johnny Walker be chilling at the V.I.P. bar, I max out in a lungi with your girl on my leg, I’m a two litre bottle, you’s a chump chhota peg.

  9. Yo yo yo, Daddy-ji, old man, in the place to be, I see you got the idea of tryin’ to flow with me, but let Uncle MC tell you how it really be…

    You know how I do that thing I do, all day long foxy, all night the moxie, and all the little kiddies in the chowk say, “uncle MC, we want uncle MC!” And all the ladies want me too, arrey, even some of the goondas they want to do teh gay. The playing ground is open, come out and play! That’s me, you see, and what you see is what you get, outernational, supernatural,
    like a tryst with destiny, costlier than a chai tea latte, cooler than the raita, in the fridge, that rhymes with Vij, Vedantic for the people, trans-Atlantic for the people, overflowing with that mojo, Shah-rukh Khan in slo-mo, completely undetected, an Ennis, respected, a Mirza owning tennis, unexpected, like the sixth-digit on Hrithik, like “oh no, you killed it,” but first I freaked it, tricked it, nailed it like in some chick-lit, living large, off the cash, off the badmash, you can’t trial this, can’t dial this, I’m screening all my calls,
    but if you bring the saffron, I will surely bring the balls.

  10. I am lowwwwing the rap jugalbandhi.

    And I vote for according the term “Ho-rientalists” entry into the Official Sepia Dictionary.

  11. Yo Uncle, yo Daddy, this is cool, browns can spit, amalgamate the culture, one takes, one pulls, but is that it? I dig angrezi qawwali but wheres the thesis? Uncle, Daddy, it aint all about fusion, tantric sex and Deepak Wollop, trollop, spiff, boom, bam, this is what I could do to you, I could mock you like SpoorLam I read you, you act like a buffoon, and when I finish, you’ll be all backwards, like your pantaloons. India shining? Bullshit. wakeup people, Hammer meet Mr. and Mrs. Dalit. You and me, what we got dangles by a string, we brown, yah, and we all got small dingalings But there’s more to it, this thing we call South Asian, broken, argued, forgotten, hated, painted we need a Colbert to say, “Hey Nation!” The C should never be dropped, we’re confused, we pat ourselves on the back yet still abuse Case in point, the thread about caste, brother, when it comes to change, we finish dead last You talk about deep pockets, thats fine, I got a pocket, I live in it, its ethnic, poor, & what I have aint mine Sit up Daddy, sit up Uncle, stand up and be counted Don’t forget the kids, the ones who didn’t meet a -cide, fetus, infant, geno, Diesel and Tamasha do it, and do it with pride First gen, second gen, thats all good, they’re gravy, What you got for the third, the fourth, 2080? iBanking is cool yah, Fortune 500, VP, maybe head, but dont believe that Keynes shit, in the long run we aint dead We’re here, we the underclass, paying mental rent to corporate presidents, You see Daddy, you see Uncle, it ain’t all good enough of the pandering, live in the hood The global hood, the slum where homies can’t have none, food Shelter, water, its fiefdom, yo Bush, wheres my freedom? Is it cause underneath aint gold, that where I shit is where I sleep, where my bed folds only to be told by the Bank and the Fund, get up son, where’s your boots, pick em up If only they knew that my feet are bare, cause I’m black, I’m brown, I am what you ain’t, and that’s why you got what I can’t I aint preaching, it’s just, I feel hosed, for them, the comments, like their minds, are closed. And don’t say vote, save me the trauma, no ones on our side, not even Obama So he went to Kibera? So what? wake me up when my brothers in Rio live in something other than a 2 ply hut. Enough bitching, let me relate, When does the angle (TM) become a link, I think, for Khosla and Kaavya to see me as me, be me through me, talk with me, I’ll listen, in turn, promise to feel me, My mind jumps the Atlantic to hear Snapper, put your ear to the Mother, Earth, for me, though I ain’t dapper, I got something to say, in your tongue, meet me halfway, you say trollied, I say plastered, we both say George Allen is fust class bastard And there we are, you and me, share this identity, your shoes may be Japani, my pants Englishtani, but we unite, not ephemerally, around this thing once called Hindustani.

  12. Yo Uncle, yo Daddy, this is cool, browns can spit,/ amalgamate the culture, one takes, one pulls, but is that it?/ I dig angrezi qawwali but wheres the thesis?/ Uncle, Daddy, it aint all about fusion, tantric sex and Deepak/

    True dat. It’s also about paisa. As I said in one of my legendary songs:

    “I’m Uncle MC and I’m never gonna tire of earning this paisa, learning this paisa, burning and mathemacking this paisa…”

    No von Mises, my blood, thanx for standing up to be counted.

  13. Some of the commenters think that there is a hint of dismissiveness of Hindu spirituality in this thread.The point I am trying to make is that I am not sure comtemplative practices developed by sages, who for the most part were searching for larger truths and were freed from labor/commerce by the patronage of the feudal classes, is applicable to the work place. I have seen classes on Zen based approaches to work, but then again there is a tradition of looking for insight in the routine aspects of work in this philosophy (which is ultimately Hindu/Indic in origin anyway). Agreed that the only way to test the efficacy of these methods is in the workplace.

  14. Bharatiya Nari

    Yo, I’m a Bharatiya Nari Ain’t no boo of Rastafari

    Know how to lay it down When saas where a ugly frown

    Massage yo feet and bring yo chai Yo be feelin so damn good, yo think yo high

    Seen, I know how to work it Know how to pull off the lajja shit

    Cover my head when the elders are around When your bigger brother look at me, my eyes are on the ground

    Spoilin our betas coz they grow up to be THE MAN Teach our betis how to cook, whatever they can

    Keep our traditions alive, roti fresh from the tawa But when we kick it the bedroom, you be spillin like lava!

    But nobody will know, coz I’m a quiet kula-stri In Indian culture it ain’t all about ME

    So here’s a loud shout out to all my Karva Chauth sistas Follow your vrat and please yo mistas

    Coz your moksha come from seva, no need for any other dharma I’m proud to call myself Mrs. Devendranath Sharma!

  15. Love youse guys–rappin and jammin, hoppin and thumpin — kusala-hema-sid, the one thing worse than being laughed at is not being laughed at. Cicatrix, you pinned it, and CB, seriously, it was of course unspoken, the Deepak Chopra Kama Sutra book was just lying there waiting for dazed people to buy it.

  16. the Deepak Chopra Kama Sutra book was just lying there waiting for dazed people to buy it.

    Anyone read that?

    Anything special in his as compared to other versions out there?

    He probably tries to tie difficult positions into tantric spirituality or Shiva/Shakti this and that, yada, yada, yada. It’s more or less just a social and sexual manual, but because it’s Indian, mysticism will be tied to it in one way or another. Corny!

    Jai Kamadeva!