“What does the Buddha do when a pigeon shits on his head?” This koan – a riddle given to students of Zen Buddhism to meditate about – was told us on a meditation retreat in Germany by another participant. Our stay in Japan proved to be the best time to find an answer to this question.
We worked on the Japanese countryside in the beautiful state of Miyagi. Our task was to produce videos for a website offering a stay in and day trips around the rural area. In fact, the place was so rural that there was no public transport, and the next city was about 45 minutes by car away. Like in Buryatia, the bathroom was an outhouse. Rice fields to the left, corn fields to the right.
We were hosted by a family: mother, father, and daughter. However, our project was mainly organized by the mother and daughter. This circumstance made things difficult, as they both had differing visions of what should be in the videos. Also, we were asked to produce more videos than we could in the time that we had. On top of that, they interrupted us while eating or during our free-time to give us more work or to ask us to report on our work progress. Last but not least, we got less free-time that was promised to us in the first place. In short, we felt like pigeons were shitting on our heads.
Thus, the question we asked ourselves was: “What would each of us do, if each of us was Buddha?” Should we refuse to work any longer for our hosts and leave early? This we did not want since we had already booked flights that would leave in a week. Should we talk to them about our concerns? This, in fact, seemed to be the most reasonable option. However, just a day before we started thinking about how to deal with our concerns, the mother had strictly denied any dialog about similar concerns that another volunteer had addressed. So we were left with no option of direct communication.
It was in this situation of not knowing what to do that we came up with a new idea. If we didn’t get the work done fast enough because we were too professional about it and if our hosts didn’t explicitly ask for a professional video, it was just a matter of changing our work attitude. So we focused less on the highest possible quality and more on efficiency, which was very much valued by our hosts in the end. This shift in mindset also created more free-time for us as we were getting more done in less time. Lastly, we did not take the interruptions anymore as serious. Instead, we even laughed about it because it seemed so strange sometimes how many “things to do” Japanese people can come up with us in just a single day.
All of the solutions we applied had to do with changing ourselves rather than changing other people. We could not change what happened, but we could change how we reacted to what happened.
When we are no longer able to change a situation […] we are challenged to change ourselves.
Frankl, Viktor E. (1959): Man’s Search For Meaning
What would you do, if you were Buddha?
J & G
P.S.: Check out our Route map to see where we are.