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Ripples in the Pond

When I was a kid, I saw a book on my parents’ reading pile called The Organization Man. Published in 1956, it was described the Editors of Perseus Publishing as one of the most influential books on management ever written.

Of course, society has changed dramatically since then. Both the pace and discontinuity of change have accelerated. Nevertheless, our current normative model for social organization is still an urban-centric, corporate structure focused on production for human benefit and tethered by government constraints—each facing a tangle of public/private decision trees.

What is humanity’s greatest achievement? Typical answers include moonshots, earthshots, 24/7 city life, global relief efforts, environmental activism, art, love, and so on.

I would argue here that societal organization on a large scale—the creation of institutions—is our greatest achievement. We have built vast and complex networks of relationships that allow us to create or acquire resources and then refashion them into increasingly complex products and services with a mind-boggling array of benefits.

As we are now aware, this evolution of the organization has not come without costs. One does not have to look too far to see examples of egregiously dysfunctional institutions that not only fail to successfully live up to their vision statements or meet the challenges we face, but in many cases actively and systemically disadvantage some members of our global society and the Earth itself for the privilege of others, resulting in trauma.

Much public discourse these days is around the future. Specifically, about how the future is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA).

Many “solutions” are presented, but rarely do they stray far from the normative constraints of our present organizational paradigm, even as we watch our foundational institutions coming apart at the seams. It is hard to think about different ways to organize society, although that is probably the master switch for all the other solutions to succeed! As Leonard Cohen sang in “The Future:” “They sentenced me to 50 years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within.”

Even revolution is cast in ideological tropes that make it difficult for people to conceive of alternatives that are non-violent. Disruptors and disruptive technologies merely offer more of the same.

There are so many challenges in our society, and so many different areas of expertise among us. When I hear and see others addressing our shared challenges from their own spheres of expertise in ways that deal with organizational development, my ears prick up. Such public conversations are hard to find amid the din. We’re all walking backwards into the future with our eyes firmly fixed on the past and ringing in our ears.

As a Buddhist of some long standing but not quite in my dotage, I wonder if I can stand by the side of the road and help direct those backward walkers forward without them falling down or giving up.

The Buddha and the Dharma have not changed, but the Sangha certainly has. The organizational development of Buddhist communities and contributions everywhere is now a much higher priority than further analyses of ancient Buddhist texts, wellness balms, recreations of golden ages past, and so on. But there is even more work to do outside of the sangharama.

I spent about five years as a monastic when I began my Buddhist journey. That was unsustainable, but something sure stuck with me! Now, here I am, some 50 years later, spending a few minutes with you. Whatever Buddhist wisdom I picked up along the way has had to be entirely portable, applicable in any setting—physical, cognitive, or emotional.

Several of the books I’ve been working on recently involve trauma-informed spiritual care. That’s not a perspective I’ve heard much about, but it is one that is deserving of much more amplification in public discourse. We are experiencing trauma! What do we do about it?

One can ground one’s investigation in such Buddhist concepts as dukkha and ahimsa, but the traditional narratives about suffering, and its nature, causes, and cures, may not suffice. Psychological training in the four brahmaviharas is valuable. The application of Buddhist ethics is equally valuable. I am always heartened when I hear someone talking about Buddhist education and community service in the same conversation.

For example, the Buddhist scholar Dr. Kin-Cheung Lee has a new book coming out later this month from Routledge, titled The Guide to Buddhist Counseling. It looks interesting, although its focus on the “one-to-one” explores territory familiar to me, since I’ve published a handful of books dealing with the same types of Buddhist therapeutic interventions.

Similarly, the Shingon Buddhist priest and researcher Dr. Nathan Jishin Michon also has a new book coming out in June from North Atlantic Books, titled Refuge in the Storm: Buddhist Voices in Crisis Care, an anthology of 24 essays. This is the closest to what I have in mind, addressing institutional contexts.

Buddhist practice is revolutionary. It cannot confine itself to those few hours each week we may spend in formal Buddhist settings, however nourishing those encounters may be. It is impossible to be “well-adjusted” in a sick society. Buddhist practice that ends with personal psychological evolution is Hinayana, regardless of the lineage of the practitioner.

My goal is not to walk away from or jettison the secular institutions we have created, but to inform them with a Buddhist perspective along the spectrum from counseling to chaplaincy to social work to activism, embedded in large secular institutions such as hospitals, colleges and universities, first responders, the military, NGOs, and so on.

I am not talking about evangelism or proselytizing. I’m saying that participating in secular and interfaith organizational development initiatives, embracing systems thinking, creating more opportunities for pluralism with a Buddhist approach, is Right Livelihood—an aspect of the Eightfold Noble Path that often receives short shrift. You might call it engaged Buddhism with a lowercase “e.”

For example, I have been lobbying my local school board to develop a strategic foresight curriculum for high school students, in order to familiarize them with the tools that futurists use to game and plan responses to scenarios just becoming visible over the horizon and beyond. Several years ago, I ran a similar program developing project management curricula that was quite successful across the province. This builds on that work.

How do I see things as a Buddhist? Well, the world is in for a whole mess of dukkha over the next 100 years. It’s not going to be you or me who will have to deal with it. What’s the best legacy we can leave behind, the best combination of wisdom, compassion, and skillful means? These are the breadcrumbs we leave in the forest, the ripples on the pond, the butterfly effect, the turning of the Dharma Wheel.

See more

The Organization Man (Wikipedia)
Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (Wikipedia)
The Guide to Buddhist Counseling (Routledge)
Refuge in the Storm: Buddhist Voices in Crisis Care (Penguin Random House Canada)

Related features from BDG

The Future of Work
Buddhist Predictions for the Future
Sanghas in the West: Looking to the Future
Sustainable Change Management: Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom
Meaning, Part Two
Ven. Hin Hung Interview: “Buddhism confronts an uncertain but exciting future”

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