Working with Others

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Reform through engagement

Working with others is often hard, and work as practice is often hard. Too often, the workplace becomes a battleground of power or a temple of "moneytheism." The business world poses special challenges for many contemporary Buddhists. Barry Keesan, 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.

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.

Which occupations adequately honor our responsibility to future generations? Is it wrong to want money?

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.