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The Zen of Impact: Contemplating the Purpose of Capital

Jed Emerson. From
Jed Emerson. From

The practice of Zen (or Chan in Chinese) transcends artificial constructs and touches one’s heart directly, beyond words. It demands that the practitioner think outside the box and asks the core questions relating to the true essence of phenomenal existence, its impermanence, and selflessness. That’s why in many testimonials of enlightenment (koan 公案), there are frequent stories of a sudden blow and shout (棒喝) by the grandmasters, intended to shake the fixated thoughts or practices of their students. Zen practices also place an emphasis on casting doubt (疑)—not on the teachings or practices, but on our perceptions and preconceptions, pushing us to go deep into our initial motivation (初心) to observe the true nature of reality (本性).

As a pioneer and, as many recognize, the godfather of impact investing and sustainable finance, Jed Emerson is somewhat like a Zen grandmaster. Over the past few decades, he has originated and relentlessly advocated the importance of blended value, of economic, social, and environmental value creation, and of the total portfolio, which embraces the full array of an asset owner’s capital, including philanthropic monies and near-market investments, as well as market-rate investments. Despite his rock-star status in the impact investing and sustainable finance community, he is continuously reflecting and asking deep questions along the way.

The Purpose of Capital is just one of his recent attempts to look inward. While impact investing has become trendy and much-hyped, partly thanks to his decades of effort, Emerson is not resting on his laurels. He is not spending time taking a victory lap or doing a grand tour about how he thinks investing should and could make an impact—over the past few years there have been enough new self-made “experts” who are keen to teach their theories on impact investing. Like a Zen grandmaster, Emerson is asking the bigger and deeper questions about the “why” behind impact investing. Emerson is pointing directly to each of our hearts and minds, asking us to pause and think about our intentionality and motivation.

Undoubtedly we could reply mechanically through our default thought mode that we are motivated by “doing good and doing well.” But if we drill deeper: What is the purpose of impact investing? What is the purpose of making an impact? What is the purpose of investing? What is the purpose of capital itself? What is the point of making money?

The “why” questions are not rhetorical. Emerson is not asking questions and then giving the answers, like most “how-to” authors; this book is certainly not an “impact investing for dummies.” It is, if anything, an invaluable “how-to” guide for asking the question why. Emerson invites us to join his reflective expedition to explore the purpose of capital. He is keeping his mind open and sincerely wishes that we also search deeper inside ourselves, for this is the only way each one of us can really know why we are making one choice over another. It is the only way through which we can be truly convinced that we are on the right path, and not merely following the dictates of authority, custom, or market trends. We are convinced that we make the right choices because we have asked ourselves the tough questions.


In confronting deluded and conflicting views in the world, the Buddha also taught us not to subject ourselves to authority and popular opinion. We need to know for ourselves through deep reflection:

Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness”—then you should enter and remain in them. (Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas. AN 3.65)

While it is encouraging to see impact and sustainable investing becoming mainstream, they are too important to be allowed to come and go like any other trend; to allow impact investing and sustainable finance to become merely another investment style or brand. We need a sustainable resistance to engender systemic change—encouraging, motivating, and pressuring the status quo of endless greed, desire, and destruction. Economic maneuvers are meant to enhance human well-being. Yet the harm and exploitation of society and the environment associated with markets are irreversible and the costs are too big to ignore.

In one of his recent Dharma sharings, the Czech Theravada monk Venerable Dhammadipa put the teachings of the Buddha succinctly: “When we don’t understand ourselves, we don’t understand others; and when we don’t understand others, we don’t understand our external experienced world.” For we don’t understand ourselves, we don’t understand the phenomenal world, we suffer and fail to live happily no matter how much capital we have amassed.

For if we don’t understand our hearts and minds, we don’t understand our own purpose. If we don’t understand our purpose, how could we understand the purpose of capital, what it means to others, and the capitalistic society we have built together? The Purpose of Capital offers a precious but rare dialogue on how we separate our understanding of economic/financial from social/environmental value and how we separate ourselves from our neighbors, our community, and our planet. It encourages us to cast doubt on our existing ways of economic life, our value systems, and our relationships. Hopefully through this reflection we can rediscover the purpose of capital and the meaning of money in capitalism, and evaluate what can be achieved for each of us individually and in relation to others. Instead of celebrating the success of broad impact (or cheap impact), this contemplation may elevate us to the pursuit of deep impact and beyond to the pursuit of mutual impact. As Emerson argues, the impact is deep and mutual because it is:

. . . the ongoing integration of the value we create through the course of a life as expressed through our relation to the Other (to those who are the objects of our impact efforts) as well as the Planet (from which our wealth originates and in which we are rooted), with each of these combining in a timeless presence of how we understand who we are relative to community, to society, to the Earth and its diverse creatures and energies).

Emerson is certainly ready to “walk the talk”—he is offering the electronic version of his book for free and the hardcopy for purchase. It is an open invitation to an amazing contemplative experience. He is also ready to “talk the walk” through deep conversations with thought leaders from various fields with an open mind. The question now is are we ready to begin asking ourselves the deeper questions and make deep and mutually beneficial impact?


Emerson, Jed. 2018. The Purpose of Capital—Elements of Impact, Financial Flows and Natural Being. San Francisco: Blended Value Group Press.

Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,

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