Toast, Bodhisattvas, and the Zen of Being Right
I’ve worked at an environmental not-for-profit called Sustainability Trust, pretty much since I left Zen Mountain Center in California back in 2003. I’ve seen our little organisation grow over the past 19 years from a staff of 2 to over 70 employees. During that journey I’ve served in a number of roles including 10 years as Chief Executive. I stepped down from that role, just before Covid hit. I’m now leading the development of our electricity retail company (Toast Electric) to provide low-cost power to low-income households who struggle with the dilemma of heating or eating.
As part of my new role, I get to do a lot of advocacy. This includes peddling the narrative that it is possible for business to benefit all beings. The energy market is dominated by large corporates who are structured for profit. And while in order to trade, attract clients, and stay on the right side of government they need to have some social-licence, at heart the financial bottom line is the prime motivator. Within this space, our electricity company (Toast Electric) has to compete with these behemoths and carve out a niche so we can trade and return our surpluses in the form of support for low-income households rather than providing executive salaries, pointy shoes and high-carbon lifestyles. To not be squashed, we need to create constructive relationships with these organisations – appealing to their better natures. I’m happy to say we’ve got some healthy dialogue going and contracted some competitive wholesale prices we can now pass onto our low-income clients.
This is all good worthy work, and shines a light on humans’ in-built greed for wealth, fame, gain and insurance against uncertainty. And in our organisation, composed of left-leaning social entrepreneurs, we can get awfully self-righteous. Buying into that story of the goodies vs the baddies, us vs them is very attractive when you’re a bodhisattva in the social or environmental sphere and battling against titans. However, to quote the Buddha from The Diamond Cutter Sutra If Subhuti a bodhisattva holds onto the idea that a self, a person, a living being, or a life span exists that person is not an authentic bodhisattva. I see that to “hold onto” the idea that I exist separately from other selves, people, beings or indeed time doesn’t serve me well. And perhaps makes matters worse – the more “self” I create the more “self” the person or organisation on the other side creates.
So how to do this essential work, create a better world and acknowledge that we’re all reliant on everyone coming across. As the Buddha says, “Holding on” is the problem. Being so invested in being right and thinking we’ve got the whole truth is a problem. And it’s not the holding on that is the only problem, it’s. always holding on, or perhaps more importantly not knowing that we’re holding on. The only solution I see to this is practice. How else can we become aware of the arising of thoughts and see that none of this has any permanent abiding self. Seeing that basic fact, means we can work hard, but not get too tied up in results. Seeing this fact, we can also become aware that others are in the same predicament. It's long, slow, deep, deep work, but panacea for the soul. What else are you going to do with this short and precious life?