Business and the Buddha - Introduction

Doing Well by Doing Good

INTRODUCTION: If the Buddha Were in the Boardroom

I have encountered very little “joy” in the thousands of workplaces I have visited during my more than thirty years as a management consultant. Joy, happiness, satisfaction with one’s life and career, or pleasure in the intrinsic value inherent in the work being performed: these all seem to be rare indeed. But should we reasonably have expected to find them in factories and workplaces across North America?

Joy is not a workplace requirement. It is certainly wonderful when it occurs but it is not part of any strategic business plan that I have ever reviewed. And meaningful job satisfaction as defined by employees is far too rare and elusive.

This does not mean, of course, that well-intentioned business leaders and employees prefer dissatisfaction. It means that, once we finish wishing for empowerment or satisfaction to be part of everyone’s job, including our own, we face the reality that we are in the profit business, not in the employee satisfaction business. We come to this conclusion because we have not been exposed to other options or alternative ways of thinking. Most people don’t look beyond our economic model—free-enterprise capitalism— to question whether it really is an acceptable and unchangeable system.

However, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, I have come to a far different conclusion. About a year after my daughter’s death, a friend suggested I read a book called The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, by the Vietnamese monk, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. This began for me a journey, which continues to this day, into the discoveries and teachings of a man called Siddhartha Gautama, better known to us as the Buddha.

The Buddha’s teachings were different from any Western philosophy I had ever discussed or read. Right from the get-go the Buddha’s message acknowledged that the suffering in my life (grief, depression) and the suffering I saw in the business world were all part of the human condition. It did not matter who the leader was or what organization I consulted with, suffering was, and is, a part of life. But—and this was the revelation for me—suffering could be overcome: joy too could be the hallmark of our professional lives, as well our personal ones.

To bring this about, one must start with oneself—as the Buddha did—and explore the reasons for suffering and discover how to break free from its causes and end up living a joyful life. We must own our suffering as we own our joy; both are results of choices we make every moment.

Suffering is a reality—and there are ways to move beyond suffering to joy, satisfaction, and happiness supported by wisdom, ethical behavior, and compassion. I propose that we can apply the Buddha’s message to our economic system and its most powerful creation: the corporation.

Global Concerns: We Are All Suffering

We are not a global society of healthy, well-fed, clothed, and educated people. Statistically, we are a society of extreme wealth, power, influence, and affluence on the one hand, and of poverty, illness, and powerlessness on the other. For every ten people living on this planet, at least nine live in poverty. The consequences of the minority’s relentless pursuit of money include regional and international economic disparity, poverty, health epidemics, a threatened environment, and much more.

The behavior of governments in developed countries and executives and shareholders of transnational corporations reinforces suffering. Take the case of pharmaceutical patents. 95 percent of the people living with HIV/AIDS reside in the developing world. Their governments do not have the rights to produce generic AIDS-related drugs for their citizens. In many ways, attachments that create the unwillingness to eradicate such problems are the most insidious and deadly sickness known to humankind. Yet the antidote—loving-kindness, compassion, and generosity—is available to us in abundant supply. This is our birthright as human beings—but until we reawaken to that potential, we cannot access it.

Our attachment to consumer goods and services—which stems from our cravings and desires—is a form of suffering. This attachment negatively affects humanity every day in virtually every part of the world, in the form of debt, physical and emotional illness and addictions, poverty, ecological abuse, and war. More unrestrained acquisition never resolves the pain; it either masks or exacerbates it. The glimmer of hope, our window of opportunity, is that we as a society and everything we have created are in a constant state of change. We can take hold of the direction of that change.

Buddhism as Part of the Solution

Buddhism is about avoiding the extremes in our life and finding happiness, joy, and inner peace through the Middle Way. Free enterprise is about generating profits through satisfying needs (regardless of who created them) in a competitive marketplace. These two systems may seem, on first blush, irreconcilable.

Yet, through twenty-five hundred years of Buddhist history and two-and-a-half centuries of capitalism, both have shown an ability to adapt to new ideas, cultures, and nations. The Buddha’s message of wisdom, morality, and compassion has proven itself remarkably adaptable. This is one reason why Buddhism, over the last five decades, has had such phenomenal growth in Europe and North America. It takes nothing away from a culture; it just adds values—personal responsibility, integrity, ethical behavior, and spirituality.

In the profit sector, the rationale has always been to earn sufficient profits to pay dividends or provide a return-on-investment to shareholders. Buddhism is certainly not opposed to this practice. Except that—and this is a significant issue—the Buddha was concerned with how wealth is acquired and the ways in which individuals become attached to it. Accordingly, the acquisition and distribution of wealth become crucial ethical and moral questions.

This book will offer a new approach constructed on skillful behaviors grounded in human-based intentions and values. At its core, this book will argue that we should bring a human-based values philosophy to a value-neutral economic culture. That’s what Business and the Buddha is about: providing a needed new way of thinking by offering a humanity-based value system to traditional free enterprise.

Humanity-based thinking is not as impossible in a capitalist environment as it might sound. Cooperation may well be a viable alternative to competition. Remember, people make profits, not the other way around.

This different perspective needs people like you and me to begin an intense dialogue on resolving human suffering. If our society has the intellectual capacity and financial resources to map our DNA, create weapons of mass destruction, and explore the furthest reaches of our solar system, we can be sure that it has the capacity to address problems associated with human suffering more effectively.

Indeed, I believe that free enterprise or capitalism can contribute to the diminution of suffering.

Buddhism for the Boardroom

It’s not likely that a single corporation is going to buck the system and be the only business in its industry to start including humane values and a concern for the broader society in its business plans. However, the recent popularity of ethical stocks and “green” investments are an example of where the marketplace can cause a board of directors to re-think its corporate values. But waiting for the marketplace is not good enough. By waiting for consumer feedback to decide against using child labor to manufacture textiles, for example, corporate leaders are clearly saying that profit is their only goal.        Of course no executive or entrepreneur is intentionally setting out to cause human suffering. However, when harm is caused it almost always is a result of leaders who, in one way or another, are attached to one or more of the Three Poisons (see box).

The goal of Buddhism is liberation from suffering. To be liberated, in Buddhist terms, is to be free from our attachments to things and ideas that are impermanent. To achieve this, the Buddha prescribed an eight-step path that leads away from suffering and toward an awakening of the whole person. This Path can only be followed when we understand our intentions, thoughts, and actions.

The Buddha’s teachings, the Four Noble Truths, are the model for the organization of this book. If we accept the Buddha’s first premise, or First Noble Truth, that “life is full of suffering,” we can understand his Second and Third Truths as logical steps on the way to finding a way out of suffering.

The Buddhist worldview is a holistic one: it finds that what relieves our suffering also relieves the suffering of others. By gradually disentangling ourselves from the Three Poisons and the excesses they bring to our practice of free enterprise, we begin to create a healthier and happier community for ourselves, our businesses, and society.

This book is for decision-makers. This book is also for those who are suffering and want a way out so they can begin to enjoy their life, family, career, and workplace to the fullest. This book is for people willing to open their minds to different ideas about how society can be structured and how organizations can be led. I invite you to be my companion on this journey through the world of business and Buddhism.

And as a quiet encouragement to make potentially challenging choices along the way, I invite you to visualize the Buddha sitting in your boardroom in quiet meditation, a symbol of wisdom, ethics, and compassion.

 

How to cite this document:
© Lloyd M. Field, Business and the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2007)

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