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Corporate Craving and Buddhist Compassion: Is There a Middle Path for Buddhist Business?

Dr. Jan Walls, Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University


I would like to begin by stating a few of my assumptions regarding Buddhism and Buddhists before entering into a discussion of the topic.

First of all, when I discuss Buddhism in this essay, I am not referring to Buddhism as a religion in the modern Western sense of the word.  In fact, we could even say that Buddhism is not comparable to Western religions because it is not “a system of faith and worship owing any allegiance to a supernatural being”.  Buddhism interprets and reveals the nature of existence, the principle of birth and death of the universe and the lives of its inhabitants. In many ways it is much more like an applied philosophy of enlightened living than a religion. To be more exact, believing in Buddhism is more like believing in a proven process of learning.  The Buddha was and is first and foremost a teacher, and the Buddhist is a student or disciple.  The Buddha was just an enlightened being. If you or I were to experience the same enlightenment, then we would become a Buddha too.

Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, was an enlightened person who lived around 2500 years ago.  A Buddhist may also believe in, practice, and worship gods in other religions, so long as their practices do not violate the fundamental principles of Buddhism. In this essay I am using the term “Buddhism” to refer to a set of beliefs, commitments and practices embraced by people who believe in the teachings of Gautama Buddha. 

I should also point out that I am not considered to be a Buddhist, even a “lay Buddhist”, by any Buddhist organization, although throughout the past decade or more I have been privileged to assist different Buddhist institutions in their efforts to be better understood by non-Buddhist English speakers.  My own personal “belief system” is a hybrid of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism — what Chinese people have always referred to as the “Three Teachings” (三教 sān jiào): Confucianism as an aid to understanding family and social relationships; Taoism as an aid to understanding the principles of Nature; and Buddhism as an aid to understanding the nature of suffering and how to relieve it in myself and in others.  All three of these teachings share one core belief in common:  the importance of “The Middle Path”.


Several books have been published recently on topics related to Buddhism and Business (see References at the end).  Most of them are quick to point out that it is a misconception to regard Buddhism as only for renunciants.  “Buddhists recognize that acquiring wealth is one of life’s fundamental activities, and the Buddha gave many teachings on the proper way to acquire wealth” (Payutto, 1994).  The Buddha stressed a purpose for wealth acquisition that is rather different from most non-Buddhist business people: He stressed that the purpose of wealth is to facilitate human development through three stages, which are:

(1) material comfort and security;

(2) mental well-being; and

(3) inner freedom. 

“Material comfort and security” are not seen as ends in themselves, but as the foundation upon which to pursue the second and third higher goals.  In the words of Payutto (1994), “If economics is to have any real part to play in the resolution of human problems, then all economic activities — production, consumption, work and spending — must contribute to well-being and help realize the potential for a good and noble life.”

The three stages of human development referred to above could be an alternate way of describing the three steps on which Buddhist practice is based according to the Visuddhimagga, namely: ethics (sila), concentration (samādhi), and wisdom (paññā).  Therefore, we could say that “ethics occupy the first place in Buddhist teaching.” (Nanda, 2010)  It follows that we may expect the primary concern of Buddhists in business to involve ethics.

Most publications on Buddhist economics waste little time pointing out that the fifth item in the Noble Eightfold Path is “Right Livelihood,” which is judged not by the amount of material wealth it produces, but by the well-being it generates.  Payutto (1994) points out that many livelihoods which produce a surplus of wealth simply cater to desires rather than providing for any true need.  This type of business would be frowned upon by a thoughtful Buddhist.

In the Pali canon, we find references to specific types of business a lay believer in Buddhism should not engage in: “Business in weapons; business in human beings; business in meat; business in intoxicants; and business in poison” (Vanijja Sutta: Business).  A thorough reading of the Tripitaka would yield a much longer list and discussion of businesses a lay follower should not engage in, but much has changed during the 2,000 years since these texts were first written down.  There are more useful definitions of “Right Livelihood” that involve less specific details of prohibition, and more general principles.  The venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, has written:

       To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others…  Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near,     of the way we earn our living.” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p104)  I find general moral or ethical considerations as stated above, to be more desirable than lists, because they encourage us to think about the consequences of our work. 

The Hippocratic Oath, traditionally sworn to by Western medical doctors upon graduation, includes promises not only to do good and relieve suffering, but to abstain from doing harm.  If we could expand this oath to cover all other trades and professions, I believe we would be committing ourselves to the practice of “Right Livelihood”.


In July, 2002, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan used the term “infectious greed” to describe the breakdown of corporate governance checks and balances and the need for reforms of corporate governance to help protect investors.  Mr. Greenspan was already aware that “corporate greed” had gripped most of the business community.  More recently, in an MSNBC network television interview on October 28, 2011, Senator Bernie Sanders stated candidly that “Corporate greed is running this country.  Corporate greed is destroying the middle class, and corporate greed is destroying the dreams and aspirations of millions of American people.”

Growing awareness of widespread “corporate greed” has engendered “ethical business” movements around the world.  The Asia Pacific Honesty Enterprise Keris Award

 for example, recognizes that healthy, sustainable business development cannot happen without sincerity and honesty in all business transactions. The organization that administers the Keris Award challenges the misconception that amassing wealth through business activities can only be accomplished through deceit, fraud and corruption. Their position concurs with Gotama Buddha’s admonition that:

“wealth ought to be earned righteously or ethically with one’s own sweat through Right Livelihood – the fifth item of the Buddhist Noble Eight-fold Path. …The Exalted One also admonishes that one should only act if one’s action does not harm oneself, others or both oneself and others.”

See K.S. Chow’s article: “Honesty Enterprise”

Dr. Kazuo Inamori, founder and now retired Chairman of the incredibly successful Kyocera [Kyoto Ceramics] Corporation, became personally engaged in linking corporate activities to the benefit of society, arising from his lifelong belief that people have no higher calling than to strive for the greater good of humankind and society. (Inamori, “My Life as a Follower of Buddha’s Teaching”)  The “Management Rationale” of the Kyocera Group is “To provide opportunities for the material and intellectual growth of all our employees, and through our joint efforts, contribute to the advancement of society and humankind.”  It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that the Kyocera Group is totally committed to “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR), which acknowledges that a profitable, sustainable business must be accountable to the society and the world in which it operates.  Again, it should come as no surprise that, after retiring from the chairmanship of Kyocera, Inamori was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest.

“The Right Livelihood Award”

in Norway embodies the principle that each person should practice an honest occupation, one that fully respects other people as well as the natural environment.  It means being responsible for the consequences of our actions and taking only a fair share of the earth’s resources.  They obviously have been strongly influenced by Buddhist thought and practice.  Several new “ethical business” concepts have arisen in response to the growing awareness of widespread “corporate greed”, including “CSR” (Corporate Social Responsibility), “CMR” (Corporate Moral Responsibility), “TCR” (Total Corporate Responsibility), “SRI” (Socially Responsible Investments) and “CSV” (Creating Shared Value).  Industry Canada is now promoting “CSR”, which it sees as involved in “creating innovative and proactive solutions to societal and environmental challenges, as well as collaborating with both internal and external stakeholders to improve CSR performance”.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

 launched on November 1, 2010 the new ISO standard on social responsibility–ISO SR26000. The SR 26000 is a voluntary guidance standard focused on seven principles of social responsibility (accountability, transparency, ethical behavior, stakeholder interests, rule of law, international norms of behavior, and human rights).  The Government of Canada strongly encourages Canadian companies to align their operations and practices with the guidance provided in ISO 26000.


“Enlightened self-interest” is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others, or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong, ultimately find that they are serving their own self-interest. (John Ikerd, Rethinking the Economics of Self-Interests”)  Those who propose this model use potential for profit as a basis for justifying acts that are ethical. They suggest that by behaving ethically, companies gain a competitive edge and are more respected in the marketplace, while businesses who make a short term investment in order to behave ethically will reap rewards in the long term.

In recent years this attitude and practice has been spreading rapidly around the globe, and inspiring case studies are easily accessible (cf. References: Article 13, “CSR Case Studies”).  For example, a leading private sector business-to-business express delivery company makes a long-term commitment to charity through fundraising and personal involvement of staff.  The result: improvement in the lives of physically, mentally or socially disadvantaged children, and strong team working ethics within the company.  The company (TNT Express Services UK and Ireland) seeks to lead the industry by:  “Instilling pride in our people; Creating value for our shareholders; and Sharing responsibility for our world.”  What many now see and accept as “Corporate Social Responsibility” fits well under the category of “enlightened self-interest”, which holds that by acting to further the interests of others, we serve our own self-interest.

I’m sure that the earliest promoters of “enlightened self-interest” in the West were uninfluenced by, and probably even unaware of, the ancient and contemporary Buddhist concept of “enlightenment”.  But just think about it for a minute.  What was the first topic of the first sermon given by the Buddha after his own enlightenment?  It was on the virtue of following “the Middle Way”.  For purposes of this essay, the best summation has been made by E.F. Schumacher in 1966, in his famous article on “Buddhist Economics”: 

“It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short of finding Right Livelihood”.

The Dalai Lama has also given some thought to the issue of contradictions between corporate and Buddhist interests:

“The former, primarily concerned with production, profit, and growth, seems to stand in contrast with the latter, which concerns itself with compassion for others and the well-being of humankind and our planet.  Take a closer look, however, and we find that business practices and Buddhist principles are both concerned with happiness and making the right decisions.  They are not such an awkward coupling after all; indeed, when working in concert they can address some of the foremost problems of our time.” (The Leader’s Way)

But the “enlightenment” of “enlightened business practice” or “corporate social responsibility” will not come from legislated ethical compliance alone.  It must come from a profound awakening and realization that short-term bottom-line profit does not lead to long-term well-being.  Long-term well-being comes from achieving optimal balance (the Middle Way) between greed and benevolence.  The evidence presented above indicates a gradual “soft core” convergence in mindset and practice of “hard core” businesses whose initial motive was only to accumulate and maximize wealth, and “hard core” Buddhists whose initial motive was only to achieve and share enlightenment.  Might this be summarized by the traditional Chinese maxim which acknowledges “Different paths to a similar goal” [殊途同歸]?

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For article REFERENCES section and full text of this essay to download, please see our Buddhist Treasures section of Buddhistdoor:

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