The Buddha as a CEO
(Based on the new Penguin release –Innovation Sutra)
Gandhiji’s greatest fear was that he would hate the British. Nelson Mandela worried that he would hate his oppressors. The Buddha asks us to see the divine radiance, the ‘Buddha’s nature’ in the face of a leper and a legend. The goals and concerns of the more evolved souls, is so different from those of that concern most of us.
In tennis everything starts with “Love All”. In business, this concept can revolutionize the organization. The Dhammapada speaks of work being infused with increased helpfulness for beings and decreasing harmfulness. The Buddha asks that we a earn living by a way that causes no pain to any living creature. Many Buddhists will avoid professions which involve deceit, exploitation, killing, harming health, dealing in drugs, selling arms and ammunitions and trafficking in human beings. Many will not get involved in fishing or anything to do with the leather trade. “You can live in the battlefield of the business world and still practice Dharma” says a Buddhist scholar.
The Buddha once told the layman Dighajanu how to excel at work. There are four things
• to be mindful of:
• to be skilled efficient, energetic, earnest and learned in whatever profession one has;
• to conscientiously protect one’s income and one’s family’s means of support;
• to have virtuous, trustworthy, faithful friends; and to be spiritual.
Innovation Sutra: Looking at the opposite of conventional wisdom is future vision. Analyse carefully before acting.
Choose work you can love
“I had started my business to impress my dad”, says the hero of the book, Dharam. He was always giving me hell for not being responsible and hard-working. He was a doctor; he earned all his money by charging $200 from rich, overweight, neurotic old ladies for giving simple common sense advice. I wanted to show him that I could earn a million dollars in a single day, on one deal. The old fart would shut up then. That’s how I became an investment banker on Wall Street. The pressure, the excitement, the floor of the bullring, and the partying afterwards, did give me a kick. Then I started enjoying the perks—the willing women, meeting the big daddies. The adrenaline rush was exciting. But I couldn’t say I chose it because it was a vocation, or because it gave me joy.
In fact I could never connect joy with investment banking, the quick buck.
I heard from Professor Athreya Arya in Nalanda. (He was waiting for the university to open, and trying to help, like many others.) Meanwhile, he agreed to teach me about right livelihood in Buddhism; it stopped me short. My heart was thumping when I realized with a pang that in my life I had done the exact opposite of what would have made me happy. The professor started his first lesson far from home, with a quote from Kahlil Gibran. ‘When you work, you are a flute in whose heart the whispering of the hours turn to music. To love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s most intimate secret. All work is empty save when there is love, for work is love made visible.’ I walked out into the cool, dew-wet forest at dawn and thought about this sacred thought. I, who had got engaged for money and treated my fiancée mostly like a cash cow to fund my business, felt such nausea for my wasted youth that I just lay down on the grass and allowed the earth to calm me in her arms. The stars came out, bright as chrysanthemums, and the full moon hung low in the sky. I got up just to eat my curd rice and went to bed. How could the Lebanese poet know so much about the sacredness of work? I went out and bought his book The Prophet, and turned to the chapter on work. ‘What is it to work with love?’ a seeker asks the Prophet. ‘It is to weave the cloth from the strings of your heart as though your beloved were to wear it,’ says the master. I remembered the way my mother used to spend hours in her beautiful garden, coming inside later, flushed, sweating and happy as a child, to supervise things in the kitchen. There were always bhajans playing in the kitchen and dining room. Hers surely was a work of love. But could one be like that in the dog-eat-dog world of investment banking? I asked my professor. He laughed aloud and said, ‘Why don’t you leave that life to mad dogs. Even normal dogs don’t eat other dogs! And you are no mad dog!’
Had I made a critical mistake in my choice of profession?
Professor Arya was very particular about sustainable business models which included relationships with all stakeholders. This meant being fair to all concerned and working for the benefit of the whole community. It sounded very other-worldly, most unlike anything they said about building the competitive edge, or the killer instinct, so important to being aggressive. ‘Eat or be eaten’ was the law of the corporate jungle. What was he talking about? I told him this and he was really amused.
He said that one should earn a living by causing minimal pain to other living creatures.
How do you find work that could help you practise the love of others in every action? The Dhammapada speaks of work being infused with increasing helpfulness for beings and decreasing harmfulness. My professor spoke of harmful professions, which involve deceit, exploitation, killing, harming health, dealing in drugs, selling arms and ammunition, trafficking human beings . . .
I listened patiently to the long list, till he named junk-bond trading as a poor choice of livelihood. I really needed to find a new business. ‘You can live in the battlefield of the business world and still practise Dharma,’ said the professor with a twinkle in his eye, as he retired for the day. I sat on the silent veranda and listened to the wind blowing through the trees. Soon
I was fast asleep on the swing, something I had never done before.
I thought I would think about practising the right livelihood in my daily life and asked my teacher for examples. ‘Think about millions of homemakers like your mother,’ he said. My eyes filled with tears as I remembered her crawling into her room after all the lights were switched off at midnight daily, only to wake up again at 5 a.m. to open the gate for the kolam to be drawn on the doorstep before the first rays of the sun hit the last step. Unpaid work, I thought, of her unconditional love; she surely had realized her Buddha-nature in a thousand acts of service for the family. How could we use our hands, heads, hearts and souls to make the world a better place?
I thought of how I had seen my teachers carefully packing up broken glass to prevent it from hurting the hand of the garbage collector or the ragpicker children in the town dumpyard. I learnt that the Dalai Lama was an expert at repairing watches and clocks. I thought of my widowed mathematics teacher helping me at his house before school and also giving me breakfast, before we both rushed out. Work provides a major opportunity to engage with the world. It is an opportunity to practise Dharma every minute of our lives. Alisha, a Mahayana mind trainer in Tibet, could mend shoes. We can focus on being selfless in everyday activities like sharing work or even food. The Buddha once told his monks,
‘Don’t hide your extra share of vegetables under the rice.’ In other words, do not selfishly grab more than your share.
The Buddha’s advice on livelihood is deeply practical:
• Be professionally skilled, efficient, energetic and learned.
• Work hard to protect your income and sustain your family.
• Keep the company of faithful friends and seek spiritual betterment together.
• Live within your means.
• Do not take away what others have legitimately earned.
What a wonderful five-way test to apply in these troubled economic times. But conflicts do arise—in protecting the family’s means of support and cutting costs, one can be tempted to compromise on the quality of the product. This will, of course, reduce the number of customers in the long run. Dharma is to be practised every day—keeping a secret, guarding another’s reputation, paying full attention to one’s
work even when worried. There are many who think spiritual precepts are only to be practised in a temple, maybe in a church every Sunday. But they are really supposed to become as much
a part of us as breathing. ‘Meditative awareness can help one to carry out small acts of consideration even on Wall Street,’ said my professor, and I immediately perked up. ‘Caring about your customers, speaking the truth, sharing your gains with employees . . . each of these and more, you can practise on the floor. Helping someone when they have lost everything on a bad day at the stock market could save them from jumping off the thirtieth floor, right?’ he asked. My eyes were wide open. ‘You’ve got to find something you love,’ Steve Jobs said once, when the possibility of dying of pancreatic cancer hit him. He was speaking at Stanford about how he dropped out of the expensive Reed College, but stayed on to drop in at the calligraphy class. This was a love that redefined typography in computers forever. When he lost his job at Apple (a company he had founded), he said it was the best thing that had happened to him. ‘The heaviness of being successful was replaced with the lightness of being a beginner again.’
The professor sent me to an old lama, Lama Gompa, to start my training in mindfulness—what he called focusing on the present moment. Looking at Lama Gompa, with his sweet, wizened face, was an education in mindfulness. Everything he did radiated loving kindness and mindfulness. When I was with him, he was totally focused on me. I was enveloped in his affectionate, unconditional regard.
‘Be fully present in your life. Accept unconditionally, and embrace all the events of your life. Be a participant, not a spectator,’ he said.
He gave me a simple exercise to root me in the present. ‘Just for a minute, focus on your breathing. Nothing else, just follow the breath . . . In—hold—out . . . In—hold—out . . .’
He sat with me, and I realized how long the total awareness of one full minute was.
He asked me to be totally, carefully present in everything I did in the day—walking, eating, sleeping, even using the toilet. On that day, I was not allowed to read, talk or watch TV.
It was a day of being by myself, silent. ‘Going to the wall’ it was called, with nothing to distract me from being a mindful participant in my own life. ‘Watch your thoughts,’ said my teacher. ‘Let them float
across your mind like birds in the sky, till the thoughts stop and there is just blue sky.’ That was tough. ‘Don’t worry, it will happen with time. Just let go!’ It took a long time, and I realized how cluttered my mind had always been.
I was wondering about a common problem—can you follow high principles and still make a profit? Steve Jobs had his flirtation with Buddhism, but his style was anything but loving kindness. Yet, his design had the elegance of a Zen poem. His home had hardly any furnishing or
furniture because of his minimalist taste. But he was abusive to his staff and hated inefficiency. People are complex, and maybe Buddhism is only a lightening streak through their lives, to be called in when required.
I looked at a printed list:
Top Ten Buddhist Celebrities:
1. Tiger Woods
2. Orlando Bloom
3. Tina Turner
4. The Dalai Lama
5. Leonard Cohen
6. Herbie Hancock
7. Richard Gere
8. Kate Bosworth
9. Steven Seagal
10. Aung San Suu Kyi
Here is a chart listing four immeasurables that the Buddha might have followed were he a CEO. As a prince, he was like an assistant CEO, but did not get to really run the kingdom. In fact, when he decided to leave the palace, the first thing he did was try and improve the lot of those his father, King Suddhodana, had banished. His father had created an unreal world for him, and banished all those who were old or sick to a neglected spot, where they waited to wither and die. Among them were the king’s wives whom he had lost interest in. Here, Gautama the wanderer got to use the four immeasurables for these unhappy people, with mixed results. The immeasurables are intangibles. Just like it is impossible to exactly measure the effect of sunlight on plants, it is also impossible to measure the exact impact of loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity, on the corporation. But without them, in some measure, no human institution—including business—can exist.
It becomes really easy if we believe that each of us is an atma, which is a part of the Paramatma or God—a drop of water in the ocean of divinity. But the Buddha says simply that all living beings are interconnected. Everyone is a part of our being. But the idea of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ is tough—even impossible—to overcome, which explains the cruelty and pain—jealousy, desire and greed—we inflict on those who do not belong to us. Imagine the culture of a whole business based on the four immeasurables. The Honda philosophy—Joy to the Nation, Joy to the Customer, Joy to the Employee—reflects this. Honda has healthy bottom-lines. But, in business, one believes in retaining the competitive edge, getting what is most profitable for you, sometimes at the cost of customers, employees, and even the country. Winning is being street-smart, aggressive and ‘me-oriented’. If you were to turn this upside down and work to bring maximum joy to everyone around you by loving and giving rather than taking, imagine how everyone would support and help you, and what energy they would bring to their jobs. Think of the give-based economy. How cool it would be to spend your time thinking of lovely new ways to inspire more joy and happiness in the people around.
Loving kindness or metta: How different from the sad, despairing world of take-based economics—that demonic business ethic, which is an unquenchable thirst with the ‘what’s in it for me?’ model.
Compassion or karuna: To feel the pain, joy and aspiration of others in your own heart. To feel this even about your enemies. The Dalai Lama once said that his greatest fear was not being able to feel compassion for the Chinese.
Appreciative joy or mudita: Replacing envy with ecstasy. Enjoying and nurturing the joy of other living creatures. Feeling the happiness of a plant as you water it. Enjoying the thirst-quenching thrill of a bird sipping water from a bath you have set up. Turning tears to joy by your actions. Enjoying the success of your friend as though it were your own. The world is not your competition, it is just another part of you. Imagine facing triumph and disaster with the same calm mind. Equanimity or upekkha: Inviting the possibility that every person at every position is your teacher. What could a janitor teach a Nobel-winning physicist? What could a short order cook teach a global CEO? What could a child in the
playground teach a world-class athlete? What value could these people offer to each other? Everything, if you’re willing to open your mind to the notion that everyone is not only your equal but also your teacher. They trigger dopamine shots that make us feel better and want more. Perhaps my master felt what I was thinking. ‘Relationships are our chance for self-development. In the thick of life’s battles, the people we love and hate, those who draw us into
fights, those who provide us with intimate relationships, are like firewood in the bonfire of awareness,’ said my teacher. He was taking me deep into tantric knowledge where everything, every experience, melts into the path.
‘What about enemies?’ I asked.
‘They are the best opportunity for you to develop compassion and loving kindness,’ he smiled. ‘Just like a grain of sand irritates the oyster to create a pearl, such relationships can challenge you to higher levels of development.’ ‘Why is Lama Aropa getting divorced?’ I asked slowly. ‘Well, both of them were not creating bodhicitta together, so they decided to leave each other. It is critical to have the right companion for the path.’ The professor was grinning. I went off to think about this. Here I was, a fugitive from the law, thinking about enlightenment. Why not?
Buddhist principles every CEO can apply:
• Working together
• Communicating effectively
• Encouraging every team member
• Sharing ideas selflessly
• Thinking as a single unit
• Equality under the Dharma
• Decentralized leadership:
• Shared support and responsibility:
• Mutual respect and harmony:
• Communication and interaction
• Democratic governing
Suddenly, I thought: Every being has the potential for moksha or nirvana. Anyway, my path was generating wealth: the world of business. I just needed to find a way of creating wealth in an honourable and ethical way. Of course, the most important thing was finding something I could love to do, not just earn money from.
I was surprised to find how much my views had changed. It must have been because of the people I was meeting. A cook who does not love his work and the people he feeds cannot be great at his work. The food itself could be poison—or, at least, unhealthy—for those who ate it. Of course, in the creative arts,
love for the work is essential. A painter who does not love his work is not even fit to be a painter of road signs. I wanted to find that work for myself. I would stretch for goals that inspired me, which filled me with joy and enthusiasm. And I definitely did not want to be a monk. I wanted a life in the marketplace of the world and a companion who would make the journey fun. I wanted a family and kids to celebrate life with and share my learning and resources with. I stopped short when I realized that what I wanted was much more than what 90 per cent of the human population had. But the Buddha’s way had an answer even for that….
-As told by Dharam to
Dr. Rekha Shetty
Author of Innovation Sutra, bestseller