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
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
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.