Not many people know that I used to work at Starbucks. It was about 30 years ago, I was right out of college, living at home and playing with my band Jiggle the Handle.
A friend thought I’d be a good fit for the job — I don’t know why he thought that, but I’m glad he got me the job because it was a very significant part of both my life and my path as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist.
I have many memories of working there. People that I worked with, the customers I interacted with, what I learned about coffee. Food service is not an easy job, and when caffeine is involved — watch out! People can sure be grumpy in the morning … I could tell all kinds of stories about my time there, but instead, I would like to share two thoughts I distinctly remember:
One: I felt like I wasn’t “good enough.”
I was investigating Buddhism at the same time that I worked at the coffee shop. I didn’t have a teacher, but I had discovered books, especially used books!
Living outside of Boston, I had access to some wonderful book stores, especially since Cambridge was nearby. I was basically stumbling around, trying to make sense of Buddhism. But I knew that it wasn’t just about “enlightenment” (whatever that meant), it also asked me to look at myself and how I treated others.
So a coffee shop was a perfect place to try and be Buddhist! Plenty of different emotions and situations and relationships. I remember at some point, probably a couple of years into my employment, thinking that I couldn’t commit to Buddhism yet because I “wasn’t good enough” — I wasn’t treating people as well as I should be if I were to be a Buddhist. And I didn’t feel like I had become Buddhist until I went to visit the New York Buddhist Church and “accidentally” recited the Three Treasures.
That is another story that I can’t tell here, but the outcome was that I realized that 1) Now I was Buddhist, and 2) I could be Buddhist without being perfect! I now felt that I had to try and be more aware of how I could behave in a more proper Buddhist way, even under the pressure of distributing caffeine to people at the start of their day.
Two: “I like people!”
The other thought I remember was probably after another few months. It was a sudden realization, as I stood behind the register, that I liked people. I grew up as an only child, and due to a variety of circumstances, was very shy, introverted, and insecure. I wasn’t particularly comfortable around people, I was even afraid of some of them! But working at the coffee shop led to this realization. I also recognized that this included the difficult people as much as the friendly ones.
This could be interpreted simply as a result of my continuing interaction with people and a gradual maturation. But I don’t think that’s all it is.
I could easily have become cynical, judging others for the faults I perceived. Instead, I think it came from my engagement with Buddhism that I partially outlined above. Even though I was probably not behaving well in a Buddhist sense at all times, my viewpoint had been transformed. Not through any effort of my own. I didn’t set out thinking, “How can I improve my valuation of humanity?” The realization that I liked people just dawned on me.
Would it have happened if I hadn’t recited the Three Treasures in New York City? Maybe, maybe not. But reciting the Three Treasures and taking on the challenge of “being Buddhist” definitely changed me.
I would go on to discover the Institute of Buddhist Studies, quit my band, move out to Berkeley, etc. In my studies since then, I have learned so much more.
One set of concepts that apply here are “self-benefit/benefiting others” and “other’s benefit.” The first two are a pair. These are related to bodhicitta, the mind aspiring for enlightenment and to save all beings, but I think we can also understand them in a mundane, everyday sense as well. I took the coffee job for my own sake — I needed money! I also benefited from the interpersonal interactions. And even further, I came to enjoy helping others.
Ultimately, however, I see that it was me receiving benefit from others. From my customers, from my co-workers, and in the big picture, from Amida Buddha, even if I wasn’t aware of it yet at the time. Who knew coffee could have such an impact?