BUDDHISM AND BUSINESS
Most Ven.Dr. Medagama Vajiragnana, Head of the London Bouddhist Vihara
It is sometimes thought that Buddhism is not concerned with material matters, such as economic development and the day-to-day business of earning one’s living. This is not so. For people attempting to lead their lives according to the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings can also be applied to one’s business activities and are a most helpful guide in learning how to conduct oneself properly.
There need be no tension between spiritual life and material life. Buddhism is certainly not opposed to economic development and raising one’s material life. Buddhism is certainly not opposed to economic development and raising one’s material standard of living. It would be quite wrong to think of Buddhism as having a disdainful or uncaring attitude to the material world. Poverty in Buddhism is not a virtue. On the contrary, the Buddha said that poverty (daliddiya) is the cause of immorality and crimes such as theft, falsehood, violence, hatred and cruelty. The Buddha explained that it is futile for a king to try to suppress crime by means of punishment. Instead, the king should eradicate crime by improving the economic condition of his people. Grain and other facilities for agriculture should be provided for farmers and cultivators, capital should be provided for traders and those engaged in business, and adequate wages should be paid to those who are employed. When people are thus provided for, with opportunities to earn a sufficient income, they will be contented, will have no fear or anxiety, and consequently the country will be peaceful and free of crime.
How can the Buddha’s teachings be applied to the world of business? The rules which govern business decisions should be the same rules which govern all other aspects of our lives. We cannot apply one set of ethical standards to business and another to our private lives. The life of a lay Buddhist is regulated by the five precepts or rules of training. These are not commandments in the sense of having been promulgated by an almighty god, but they are ways of behaviour which the Buddha recommended as leading to a happy and peaceful life, both for us and for others. Two of these precepts are especially relevant to the question of business ethics. These are the precept to refrain from taking anything that is not freely given, and the precept to refrain from false speech and telling lies.
To refrain from taking anything that is not freely given means rather more than merely abstaining from theft. It means not taking anything unless the other party gives it to us willingly and voluntarily. It includes not only material things such as goods and money, but also taking such things as information, services, and an employee’s time. It means not taking anything in a dishonest, fraudulent fashion or by unfair advantage. It is therefore wrong to try to cheat or swindle anyone with whom one has business dealings.
The precept to refrain from telling lies also means not spreading rumours and gossip, not saying anything which might in any way be harmful to other people. We must strive to speak the truth at all times and to say nothing which misleads or causes confusion. This is particularly important when reaching a business agreement, or in selling a product, by not making false statements or withholding the truth.
In general, all our dealings with other people should be regulated by the advice which the Buddha gave to his own son, Rahula, when he said, ”Rahula, for what purpose is a mirror ? ” “For the purpose of reflecting, Lord.” Similarly, Rahula, after reflecting should bodily action be done; after reflecting should verbal action be done; after reflecting should mental action be done. If, when reflecting you should realise:” Now, this bodily action that I am desirous of performing, would be conductive to my own harm, or to the harm of others, or that of both myself and others.” Then, unskilful is this bodily action, entailing suffering and producing pain. Such an action with body, you must on no account perform.
The Buddha goes on to say that such reflecting must be done before, during and after performing any bodily action. He then gives the same admonitions with regard to verbal and mental actions.
“You must reflect again and again doing every act, in speaking every word and thinking every thought. When you want to do anything you must reflect whether it would conduce to your harm or others’ harm or both, then that is a wrong act, productive of woe and ripening unto woe. If reflection tells you this is the nature of that contemplated act, assuredly you should not do it. But if reflection assures you there is no harm but good in it, then you may do it.” (Majjhima Nikaya, Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta).
So this must be the criterion which governs all our decisions. If business decisions are taken from a purely selfish point of view, then the results will often lead to unhappiness because this activity is self-centred, based only on ideas of “me” and “mine”, or “my company”, or “my business”. We should, however, regard wealth as something to be shared with other people. We would not dream of acting unethically towards members of our own family by taking unfair advantage of them or exploiting them. So why should we think we can treat other people unreasonably, just because they are strangers to us and beyond our family? If human beings could expand their love to include all other people, irrespective of their class, colour or creed, rather than confining it to their own people, then they might be able to part with things more willingly and honestly, without expecting anything in return, and experience more satisfaction in doing so. This satisfaction comes not from a desire merely to obtain things to make ourselves happy and prosperous, but from a desire for the well-being of others too. In decisions dealing with every sphere of economic activity, whether it is production, consumption, or the use of technology, we must learn to consider the consequences for everyone, not just ourselves.
Business decisions should promote wholesome activities. This means avoiding any kind of activity which is harmful to other living beings. For example, the Buddha said 2 500 years ago that it is not skilful to trade in meat, liquor, poison, armaments, or human beings. In general we can say that it means we should not indulge in underhand or dishonest practices, exploiting other people or the environment unscrupulously. The Buddha likened the situation to a bee which collects pollen from a flower without destroying either its beauty or its fragrance. Similarly, we should endeavour to lead a harmless existence. Employers should not mistreat their employees, and employees should always act honestly towards their employers. Employers should not be too attached to wealth and property, and employees should be given the opportunity to increase their wealth through honest and harmless means. The Buddha told Anathapindika, the wealthy banker, that there is a fourfold happiness for the lay person. First, the happiness of ownership (atthi sukha) of things justly and righteously acquired. This brings economic stability. Secondly, the happiness of wealth shared and spent liberally on family, friends and meritorious deeds (bhoga sukha). This prevents hoarding and miserliness. Thirdly, the happiness of debtlessness (anana sukha). Peace of mind comes from being able to say that one has no debts. Fourthly, the happiness of blamelessness (anavajja sukha), whereby one’s actions of body, speech and mind cause no hurt or harm to other beings.
In the Sigalovada Sutta (Digha Nikaya), the Buddha sets out the mutual obligations and duties which should govern our closest relationships, including that between master and servant – in today’s context, that can also include employer and employee. An employee should assign work according to the ability and capacity of the employee; adequate wages should be paid; medical needs should be provided for, occasional donations or bonuses should be granted. In turn, the employee should be not lazy, but diligent, honest, obedient, should not cheat his employer and be earnest in his work. This is a reciprocal relationship with mutual rights and responsibilities, and neither side should seek to exploit or mistreat the other.
From this we can see that the Buddha certainly wanted to encourage economic development by the running of successful business and so on, but he was also emphatic that unrestrained greed for material things should not be encouraged. Such greed can lead to selfishness, cruelty, jealousy and many other forms of unhappiness. The purpose of wealth is to facilitate the development of the highest human potential. Wealth is only a means to an end, so that spiritual progress may flourish.
Similarly, a prosperous business is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. The Buddha never prescribed a ceiling on income. Wealth as such is neither praised nor blamed, it is the way it is acquired and the way it is used which are important. Blameworthy qualities are greed, stinginess, grasping, attachment, hording. Acquisition is acceptable when it is used for good causes like furthering spiritual progress and helping other people, but not when it is only a selfish activity.
Ethics should lie at the heart of all business decisions. If we devote ourselves entirely to amassing material things, without regard for the ways in which they are acquired, and thereby neglect matters of moral, spiritual and intellectual well-being, then that is not skilful. Material progress should always be accompanied by moral and spiritual progress, otherwise it cannot be considered as true progress. A certain level of economic development is vital for a happy, peaceful society, but this should not be an end in itself, rather it should be a base on which one can build spiritual development.
Contentment is a quality highly praised in Buddhism. Contentment is a state of mind and it is not dependent on external circumstances. If however, we allow ourselves to become immersed in the endless pursuit of profit and pleasure, then we are like an ant which has fallen into a pot of honey, stuck there and drowning in the very pleasures he wants to enjoy. The path to true contentment involves reducing the artificial desires for sense-pleasures, which are endlessly stimulated by much of modern culture, while actively encouraging and supporting the desire for a quality oriented life. We must therefore call into question the ethics of promoting unbridled consumption, of selling the largest quantity of goods without regard for whether there is a real need for them and without regard for the environment. The present trend towards maximisation of economic activities is short-sighted. Not only is this wrong way to find happiness and fulfilment, it is also leading to the over-exploitation of the environment. The world’s fragile ecosystem is being jeopardised by man’s thoughtless pursuit of material pleasures and gain. We are now seeing the consequences of our environmental depredations and the consequences of global warming are beginning to show in irregular weather patterns and climatic disruptions, such as droughts and floods. Hardly a month goes by without our being told that in some part of the world a climatic record has been broken. Social and environment factors should always be taken into consideration when one is trying to make a profit.
What is the ultimate reason for acting in an ethical fashion? It is sometimes observed that the dishonest dealer and the ruthless exploiter go unpunished; people who speak and act in unwholesome ways “get away with it”. This depends, however, on the length of our perspective. In Buddhism, we believe that if one acts in a wholesome fashion, the result will be beneficial; but if one acts in an unwholesome fashion, the results will be unhappy. This is the law of cause and effect, what we call kamma. Sooner or later we always experience the kammic consequences of all our volitional acts, but they may not always be experienced in this very life – some may be delayed until a later life. So in the long run, we shall indeed experience the results of our actions. If we have acted unethically, then the unwholesome consequences for ourselves are inescapable.
Wealth is wrong if it is obtained dishonestly, or one becomes enslaved by it or one uses it to create suffering. A lucrative economic activity that is conducive to well-being can contribute to human development – the accumulation of wealth for its own sake cannot. We may finish with a quotation from the Anguttara Nikaya:
“…he who seeks after wealth lawfully, not arbitrarily, and in so doing makes himself happy and cheerful, and also shares his wealth with others and further does meritorious deeds therewith, and yet makes use of his wealth without greed and longing, without infatuation, and heedful of the danger or alive to his own salvation…this one is best and chief, topmost, highest and supreme.” (Anguttara Nikaya,Ch.X, 91)