Interviews with Les Kaye

Les Kaye main page

Interview with Les Kaye on Zen in Business dot com

Interview with Les Kaye on Zen in Business dot com [c. 2002] by Drew Dunn who wrote:

Dear Mr. Chadwick,

I thought I would alert you (and those fortunate enough to find your web site) of my web site:

I hope you and your readers will find it interesting, though I send it to you because I had the good fortune to interview Les Kaye (of Zen At Work fame) and I think the interview is well worth the visit to the site alone. Just click on the web site and navigate to the interviews page and you will see Les Kaye's interview listed. I trust and am sure those who have a chance to read the interview will enjoy it immensely. Les Kaye's book, Zen At Work, is, in my humble opinion, a classic and a must read for anyone who is driving to work each day after zazen.

I put the whole interview below, or you can read it on by going directly to this link: 

- DC

Zen At Work

An Interview with Les Kaye


Les Kaye is abbot of Kannon Do, the Zen meditation center in Mountain View, California. For more than thirty years he maintained both a career at IBM, in a variety of technical and administrative positions and an active and ever-deepening Zen Practice. In his book, Zen At Work, Les Kaye talks about these two worlds and how he found in work activities a path to greater spiritual understanding. He is currently working on a second entitled "Out of the Monastery, Down from the Mountain.." - Drew Dunn

Give us a brief background on yourself?

I grew up in the heart of New York City during the second World War. My family moved to San Francisco where I attended high school there. In 1956, I graduated from Cornell as an electrical engineer and then spent two years in the Army as an electronics instructor.

How did you end up at IBM?

In the early 1950’s, IBM offered what I felt was very interesting work plus it had an outstanding reputation as a good place to work. In addition, it had recently opened a new facility in the San Francisco.

How and where did you start your Zen Practice?

I became interested in Zen through reading a number of books, primarily by Alan Watts. My wife and I started Zen practice with a small group at Haiku Zendo, a meditation center converted from the garage of a private home in Los Altos, California. The group was led by Shunryu Suzuki (Suzuki-roshi) who came to the U.S. in 1959 and founded the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara monastery. Suzuki-Roshi's book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, was created from his lectures at Haiku Zendo.

How did your Zen practice initially begin to influence your work?

Meditation practice influenced my work by taking the edge off my personal ambition. I became less concerned about personal "success" and the intricacies of business politics, becoming more interested in treating work as part of spiritual practice: focusing on the value, usefulness, and quality of my activities, creating mutually supportive personal relationships, and maintaining high professional and ethical standards.

So many people believe to get ahead in the business world, to further their careers, they must focus on personal success and office politics. Are you saying these are unimportant?

The important thing is for all of us, as individuals, to decide for ourselves what is important in life. We need to bring our own ethical and spiritual values to the work we do and to the ways we relate to each other. So I would not want to prejudge these things for anyone else.

What would you say to someone who works in a business highly charged with the normal intricacies of business politics?

It depends. If an individual finds satisfaction in such an environment and is good at getting things done, what is there to say? On the other hand, I always enjoy having a lively conversation about the work environment.

Did you see your work influence your Zen practice?

My work in a large business organization convinced me that Buddhism and Zen are not outside the economic mainstream of society. It is not confined to monasteries or mountain tops, and does not require an "alternative" life style, as believed by many in the 1960's and 1970's. I came to understand that the workplace sharpens various skills – critical thinking, long range planning, organizing, developing strategies for solving problems, and maintaining good communication and courtesy -and that these disciplines, as well as the emphasis on working collaboratively with others to get a job done, are not in opposition to Zen practice but rather are expressions of it.

You mention work in a large business organization. Given your experience at IBM and of those you have talked with who also work at large business organizations, do you see the large corporation continuing to be a viable business model? What I am getting at here is do you believe there is a point of diminishing returns - as regards management, human resources, and leadership - when a company grows past a certain point? Can a company be too big?

A company can become too big and lose its focus. It happens all the time. I think that a "large", whatever that means, organization model is viable in certain circumstances. It has its limits, just as a "small" organization has its limits. Organization size needs to be appropriate to the given situation. And it may have to change if the situation changes.

How did the folks you worked with at IBM understand your practice?

Very few people at IBM were aware of my Zen practice, at least it did not come up in day to day conversation. I made a point not to call attention to it. The people at IBM who did know about my practice were courteous and interested but probably did not see a connection between spiritual practice and working in a high tech, business environment. That was something I was working on myself at the time.

I know from your book, IBM was supportive of your practice, even allowing you to go away for extended training periods. Was there ever any conflict from those you worked with regarding your practice?

There was no conflict.

Give us your thoughts on the "links" between Zen practice and work?

Through continued Zen meditation practice, one comes to recognize that work is a spiritual activity, not just a way to earn a living. As this recognition subtly grows and takes shape, the individual very naturally approaches work with a more giving, selfless attitude. Work becomes less stressful, more joyful and creative, more collaborative as the individual becomes more reflective and less reactive in responding to work situations.

Can you talk a bit more about subtle recognition? How does the attitude of selflessness manifest?

"Subtle" means that something is going on but we are not aware of it at a conscious level. Like getting wet when walking in fog; you can't really say when you got wet. You see the "big picture" without having to think about it, or you can envision the likely consequences of a potential act without intellectual analysis.

Selflessness shows itself when our priority for pursuing a personal objective becomes tempered with an increasing emphasis on achieving a common purpose, even in giving up the effort - and the prospect of personal gain - if it is determined that the results will not be beneficial.

In several of your answers you talk about collaborative relationships and creating mutually supportive personal relationships. Is this one of the recognitions that came from your practice?

I have always felt the vital need for people to work together towards common goals that are good for everybody. Solutions to problems are better, people feel included in the solution and so help to make it happen, relationships and trust are strengthened, minimizing the risk of future problems arising.

Zen Practice did not change my mind or attitude. Instead, it validated my belief and intuition in the necessity of continually reaffirming our inherent oneness, expressed in working together in a communal way whenever feasible.

How do you believe your Zen practice impacted your career?

I don't believe the practice affected my career one way or the other.

In looking back since your book was published, what would you add to what you have covered in your book?

My book included my own personal stories of how my practice expressed itself in my work situations. What I would add is stories of other people's experience of practice in their work life. Hopefully, this will be covered in a second book that I am working on.

With the recent events, both in the world - 9/11, and in the business world - Enron, tech sector decline - give us your perspective on the business world and the work we face each day?

The world of work has become much more difficult these past two years: a down economy, layoffs, corporate scandals. People need to have a high degree of resilience, the capacity to bounce back from disappointment. They also need to have a way to retain optimism and hope. Spiritual practice can provide that support by enabling people to develop creative responses to stressful situations. Practice helps us recognize that things constantly change, that very little of the world is within our control, and that when setbacks do occur, we can choose not to take them personally. In addition, the increased awareness that is nurtured by meditation practice enables us to more readily remain in the present and so not be caught up in setbacks and disappointments of the past.

This makes me think of your discussion of the gift of fearlessness in your book. Can you talk a bit about this fearlessness, again, especially in light of the current events?

None of us can say with certainty what will happen in the next moment or the next hour or a year from now. The best that we can do is to be ready to respond to whatever happens and to whatever situation we find ourselves in. The things we worked so hard to achieve and that we cherish – health, possessions, love, safety, reputation, comfort - may disappear without notice. We need to be prepared to let go.

Trusting our own readiness is based on the understanding that there is something more important in life to take care of than what we are constantly at risk of losing. I think this is the basis of fearlessness.

People who put their comfort or safety at risk for the benefit of others understand this point. In some way they have learned to recognize that humanity is not merely a collection of separate individuals going their separate ways. With their life, they express the understanding that it is a community of thoughtful people entrusted with the responsibility of caring for each other and for sharing that responsibility.

Fearlessness is the basis of the spiritual life, what I would call the fully engaged life. It is not about "overcoming" the external world, as in standing up to a bigger opponent in a football game. Like happiness, it is not obtained by material gain. It is about maintaining equanimity even in the midst of fear or a life-threatening danger. It is expressed when we are fully engaged in the present moment, even our final moment.

Many of the jobs you held at IBM were technical or management oriented; typically considered white-collar jobs. There are many people who daily hold down jobs which they consider menial or unfulfilling career wise. What does Zen at Work have to say to those people? Does Zen at Work apply to the minimum wage earner at the factory putting washers on widgets?

Zen practice can help an individual come to the realization that all work and every human activity is fundamentally spiritual in nature. When that recognition starts to occur, he or she may begin to stop judging certain kinds of work activities as "menial" or "unfulfilling," or that another activity is somehow more valuable than the activity he or she is working on at present. To feel this way about work includes a bit of ego, due to misunderstanding the nature of "work" and our relationship to it. It is like saying, "This activity is beneath me" or "I deserve better." A more healthy attitude is simply for one to make his best effort in whatever task he is faced with in the present moment, no matter how the situation came about.

At the same time, if someone feels that there is other work that has the potential of being more satisfying, that will enable him to make a larger contribution to society, or that will enable him to better provide for his family, he should move in that direction, especially if he has the skills.

And if he doesn't have the skills but has an interest in that other kind of work, he should do whatever he can to try to obtain those skills and move on. This is pretty normal and goes on all the time with motivated people, including minimum wage earners in repetitive jobs.

What the practice can do is help people see where they are "stuck" regarding their work situation and provide the basis for making proactive and creative choices, rather than criticizing the work or feeling like a victim of the work environment.

In your book, "Zen At Work", you talk about "facing the world," and "leaving our cave." You also talk about what you called "public practice" as not so simple. From your experience, how does the determination to express our practice manifest in the "real world" of business and work?

When we understand our spiritual and ethical values - compassion, generosity, charity, patience, responding to suffering, giving full attention to what we are doing - and make a conscious decision to live our life accordingly, it means we have made a promise (or a vow) to always act in these ways. This includes the business world, the world of work, where we may be faced with many temptations to compromise our principles for the sake of meeting a goal of the enterprise or a personal goal. The tension that comes from the need to make a decision that may impact our career requires careful consideration of the tradeoffs, critical thinking, and seeing the big picture in the search for a creative answer that benefits everyone.