“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play…”

Someone picked this one up on Facebook today and passed it on to me.

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, education and his religion. He hardly knows which is which; he simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.”

It had been attributed to the Buddha.

Several books, starting from 1992, claim that the quote is from a “Zen Buddhist text.” This attribution starts with Lester C. Thurow, in a book called Head to Head.

Later, it’s attributed to the novelist, James Michener.

The quote is from a 1932 book, “Education through Recreation” by Lawrence Pearsall Jacks. It’s a bit different in the original form:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

I’ve highlighted the changes in italic text.

The language of either version of the quote is entirely wrong for any class of Buddhist scripture. Things like “his vision of excellence” in particular stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

The general idea of the loss of distinction between work and play is, however, found in Mahayana teachings, where the Bodhisattva’s “work” in liberating beings from suffering is described as his “lila” or play. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism says, “In Sanskrit both the words līlā and lalita denote joyful abandonment in a state of spontaneous play.” Zimmer’s Philosophies of India says, “Mingled with the compassion of the Bodhisattva is a quality, therefore, or “great delight” (māhā-sukha) … These three worlds have been created, as it were, for—by—and of—the enjoyment of this immortal: they are his līlā, his “play.”

This “līlā” is what we would now call a “flow” state of joyful, selfless absorption in a task.

Having found the original source in L.P. Jacks’ book, I discovered that The Quote Investigator had already tracked it down to the same place. Their article is well-worth reading.

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