Balancing Business With Buddha: More and more executives and entrepreneurs are bringing the dharma to the art of the deal (Beliefnet.com)

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.”

 

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