Working with Others

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The world of business

. . . I asked myself, 'Is business compatible with practice? Can it be done?'... I worked on this koan every day of my business career.

Working with others can be hard when the workplace becomes a battleground of power or a temple of "moneytheism." The business world poses special challenges for many contemporary Buddhists. Barry Keesan, a Zen practitioner who founded a company, reports: "Every day for many years I asked myself, 'Is business compatible with practice? Can it be done?'... I worked on this koan every day of my business career."

On a fundamental level, Buddhism and capitalism seem incompatible: Buddhism seeks to restrain desires, while capitalism seeks to increase them. On one side, there is Gandhi, who declared, "There is enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed." On the other side, there is Zsa Zsa Gabor, who explained, "A limousine is not an acquired taste. You get used to it immediately." The modus operandi of today's business world is Gaborian, not Gandhian.

If you cannot create your own Gandhian work, how can you practice within an environment in which profit is the modus operandi? How tied together are money and power in your work environment? In your mind?

The ecological cost of business

Business has so far been largely oblivious to its effect on the environment. The businesses trying in earnest to operate ecologically represent just a tiny fraction of total commercial activity. Often, essential operations (such as trucking products to market) have the same effect on the environment whether the company is green or not. "There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world," charges alternative economist Paul Hawken. In this light, issues of right livelihood acquire sharper edges. Sulak Sivaraksa writes

Believing that material wealth is the key to happiness, many people now trade in a free market that exploits humans and destroys the environment. . . . Companies move in to exploit our neighboring countries, acting like petty economic imperialists in the region. Cultural diversity is lost and identities are pre-packaged, manufactured en mass, and sold at the prevailing market prices. Biological diversity and natural beauty are also lost under the onslaught of logging, hydro-dams, and crop monoculture smothered in pesticides. In country after country . . . policies are now being adopted to serve the needs of global firms, undermining stable communities, clean environments, and dignified work.

Withdraw or reform?

Confronted with the faults and offenses of secular society, some religious groups prefer avoidance and insularity. That has been the strategy of the Amish and of Hasidic Jews, for example. Most Western Buddhists, in contrast, seek reform through engagement, even from within the belly of the beast. They are making determined efforts to bring spiritual awareness and values to the workplace, sometimes introducing the concept of right livelihood itself. According to Keesan:

Here and there, in the midst of our muddy capitalist swamp, some lotuses are blossoming. I see other people taking risks, trying to change the rules of business. My belief is that there will be more and more people from all traditions accepting spirituality in the world of commerce and business. My experience has shown that people are hungry for this in an environment with so little joy. Business leaders, too, want something more. The world desperately needs this type of engaged practice.