Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Many who go through art school don't become artists.

I mentioned on Facebook that one of my former students was working as a janitor after going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I was apartment hunting with my son when he was going to start studying painting and we happened upon this former student. Seeing the student sweeping up in a basement produced a sad image in my mind of my son ending up becoming a poor janitor.

One of my former students on Facebook commented with the question, “What is wrong with being a janitor?” Another wrote, “If you wanted to be an artist, being a janitor is not the way to go.”

Buddha talked about right livelihood. Wrong livelihood encourages us to break the precepts, while right livelihood encourages one to keep them. A Buddhist should not sell liquor, weapons, or butcher animals.

Going back to Dogen (1200-1252), we see that a multitude of activities, if done with attention and devotion, are equivalent to meditation. Washing a grain of rice is a matter of great consequence. Dogen writes, “When washing the rice, remove any sand you find. In doing so, do not lose even one grain of rice. When you look at the rice, see the sand at the same time; when you look at the sand, see also the rice. Examine both carefully. Then a meal containing the six flavors and the three qualities will come together naturally.”

Even going to the tosu (toilet), if done correctly, can bring us into this moment. It doesn't matter what we do. The importance of a job isn't dependent on a pay scale or uniform.

I like the fact that the set of even numbers is as big as the set of all integers. In the same way, being a janitor, which has infinite opportunities to touch sentient beings and care for sacred spaces (all spaces can be thought of as being sacred), will change the world. And... I am glad that my son didn't get chosen for such a job and instead he's an animator and professor (partly because I would hear my parents lament that he wasted his talent, partly because having an idea (janitors change the world) and believing in that idea are worlds apart).

I learned recently about the idea of relegation rather than refutation. We can relegate being a janitor as an important but different job to that of being president of the US of A. Both are important jobs. Both change the world.

P.S. I was an unmindful janitor many moons ago in Champaign, Illinois at the Unitarian Church. I had to dust the pews, but it was so dark that no one including me could tell if I dusted or not. But when women wore white dresses, I worried.

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I told my grandson Charlie what my teacher told me 60 years ago... that a work of art is finished when none of the original idea remains. So...