June 2001 The wise and moral man Shines like a fire on a hilltop Who does not hurt the flower. Such a man makes his pile As an anthill, gradually Grown wealthy, he thus And firmly binds his friends To himself. –Singaalovaada Sutra
“Buddhist principles can help cut inventory and reduce supply chain costs.” That advice was recently published in an information-technology trade magazine. And while the Buddha might not have had surplus equipment in mind when he advised his followers to reduce their attachments, it is a sign of just how far Buddhist teachings are reaching into the mainstream–even into the dog-eat-dog world of business.
A dozen books on Buddhism and business currently occupy bookstore shelves, a steady stream of conferences are being held on the topic, and an army of consultants has stormed the corporate trenches spreading the doctrine of mindfulness in the boardroom. The message: The Buddha never said profit was a dirty word.
|“If I’m trying to be a compassionate Buddhist, how do I run the human resources department of my company? What is compassion when I have to fire someone?”|
“Right livelihood [not doing work that causes harm to self or others] is a tenet of Buddhist practice, but that doesn’t mean we should all be social workers,” says Chuck Slotkin, a New York investment banker. “Being a Buddhist is not taking a poverty vow, but it’s also not being an avaricious a–h–e and stabbing people in the back.”
Mindfulness is the key element of Buddhism that many practitioners say they bring to their business lives. But it isn’t always easy. “I hear many business people say, ‘If I’m trying to be a compassionate Buddhist, how do I run the human resources department of my company? What is compassion when I have to fire someone?'” reports Andy Ferguson, an investment adviser who is organizing a Buddhism and business conference next year that will be attended by the Dalai Lama.
“I find it a daily challenge to incorporate the dharma into the rough and tumble world I work in,” observes Austin political consultant Glenn Smith, who has worked with such clients as former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. “I can easily fall into the trap of the competitive world and start beating my chest like the guy across the table.”
“It’s not like I’m pure and morally or ethically better than someone at a big Wall Street firm when it comes to money,” agrees Slotkin, a volunteer director at the New York Shambhala Center. “All I know is that if I practice regularly, everything is more workable. But does that guarantee my deals are going to close? No, I have to be out in the world.”
Many practitioners find that their more-measured, aware approach to business is no longer as alien as it once was. A small army of consultants is quietly incorporating Buddhist practices into American corporate life under a variety of other labels. Lama Surya Das, a well-known American teacher of Tibetan Buddhism and Beliefnet columnist, calls it “stealth Buddhism.”
The approach is reflected in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mind-body workshops for corporate executives, the spiritually aware management systems of MIT’s Peter Senge, and vipassana teacher Mirabai Bush’s work with corporations like bio-tech giant Monsanto.
“Basically, we’re teaching insight, mindfulness, and metta [loving-kindness] meditation, but we’re not teaching Buddhism,” explains Bush, whose Center for Contemplative Mind in Society coordinates programs on 75 college campuses that incorporate contemplation into professions from architecture to science–and even includes a program at West Point military academy.
“Many people fear that when you teach meditation in a business setting–particularly around a business making controversial products–you’re increasing their efficiency,” she acknowledges. “Our hope is that by offering an environment of awakening and trust, as people grow in the practice they will see more clearly what they are doing and make wholesome choices.”
Former assistant U.S. attorney Cheryl Conner teaches what she calls “dharma for lawyers” at the Suffolk University Law School. She also heads a group of 160 Boston-area attorneys who meet regularly for meditation and contemplation. “Being a trial lawyer is the quintessential warriorship job,” she says. “It really does promote dualistic and intensely competitive work, and those habitual habits are very deep.”
Conner was already a prosecutor when she met her root guru and began practicing Buddhism. Even though she found herself striving for the middle ground that allowed her to settle far more cases than her colleagues, she began to feel like the black sheep of the courthouse.
“I had the freedom to be a bodhisattva trial lawyer; I didn’t have to be Darth Vader,” she recalls. “But the pressures were high.” Now, with funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Fetzer Institute, she helps young lawyers-to-be prepare to face the stress of a profession with a high incidence of depression and alcoholism.
“I share with them basic Buddhist principles in a secular dissolution,” Conner explains. “We look at mind training and how it affects the way we think and work with others.”
The end result of such efforts is a steady–if slow–ratcheting up of the level of mindfulness in American business. “What people see me doing sort of fits with things everyone is learning about. I never get, ‘Oh, you’re Buddhist, you must have given money to Gore,'” says Democratic consultant Smith, who adds with irony in his voice, “though, of course, I did.”
Like many Buddhists in the business world, former Zen monk Josh Baran has found a way to combine his professional expertise with his practice. While working with a variety of corporations as head of the New York office of a high-profile public relations firm, Baran also seeks out socially active organizations as clients and has offered pro bono support to the Dalai Lama for the past decade.
“One of the teachings I took from my Zen days is that everything is the meditation hall. There’s only now, and that doesn’t really change whether you are in a spiritual environment or a normal environment,” he says. “It helps me stay calm in a crisis.”
In his book, “The Diamond Cutter,” Michael Roach, a former diamond executive who holds the advanced degree of
geshe in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, argues for an in-your-face integration of practice into the workplace, including a day off each week for contemplation to help enhance business creativity.
Roach embraced this approach after finishing his monastic training and receiving a challenge from his teacher: Join the workworld and turn a profit–following the Buddhist code of ethics to the letter. As his book describes, he succeeded, helping build a multimillion-dollar gem firm before returning full-time to monastic duties.
|“You have to let the business be a business and operate within that framework with a sense of individual responsibility. There’s a subtle balancing act you have to do,” says author Lewis Richmond.|
But can a practitioner really change the company in which he or she works? Lewis Richmond, author of “Work as a Spiritual Practice,” says you shouldn’t even try. “You have to let the business be a business and operate within that framework with a sense of individual responsibility. There’s a subtle balancing act you have to do.” But, he adds, “It’s a real challenge.”
Some practitioners decide they can best meet that challenge by leaving the corporate world and developing businesses based on Buddhist principles. Smith created a sideline that helps nonprofit organizations better use the Internet. It has now blossomed into a full-time job. “That’s a specific example of right motivation producing unexpected, beneficial consequences,” he says.
But not every Buddhist business executive advocates a kind and gentle approach. An erroneous interpretation of so-called Samurai Zen, for example, is the latest fad in Silicon Valley. “Samurai Zen emphasizes some of the least salutary aspects of American business–killing the competition, winning at all costs,” says author Richmond, who argues that it was precisely this corruption of Buddhist teachings that helped burst the Internet bubble.
“The whole get-rich-quick culture of the dot-coms was fiercely concentrated on the goal of making money,” he says. “They didn’t take care of people, they didn’t care about customer service. They didn’t show compassion.”
But at the end of the day, most businesspeople who follow the dharma say it all boils down to just being a decent human being. Slotkin offers what amounts to a Zen koan for business: “In Buddhism, you can’t really help other people until you have your own sh– together. But you can’t wait until you have your own sh– together before you help other people.”