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Question

I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the coordination of Buddhism and success in building business.

Context

Throughout my life, I have been provided guidance by Buddhist literature, sutras, and meditation. As an adult layperson, I felt I was doing myself a disservice and holding my spiritual development back by working on Buddhism alone in a vacuum. I realized I had no idea about 33% of the Three Jewels (the Sangha!), because I had never had a community or mentor.

It was the best decision I could have made. Although my local community didn't have any representation of the flavor of study which speaks to me most directly (madhyamika) -- "the teaching is the raft"! I got to think and talk about Buddhism with very smart and compassionate people. It gave me clarity and a sense of belonging to attend services and clean the temple. Additionally, to my surprise, some people really enjoyed the things I had to say.

Ok, so what?

Now things are different. I'm a man on a mission to success for my partners, my investors, and my team who all depend on me. This mission involves building lots of expensive technology that provides incredible value to people who need it.

I won't bore you with the details but for me it means means reams of legal liabilities, huge swings in uncertainty, building teams and providing tech leadership in extremely competitive markets.

I cannot imagine such a thing being possible without spiritual discipline. I have become better, more compassionate, a better communicator, and when practical and ethical issues arise, I feel like solutions exist that are derived from non-attachment that are real -- and they provide clarity and direction. I require that we treat our team members with compassion, refraining from false speech (teamwork, marketing and sales), and avoid taking what is not given (intellectual property, competition, finance).

Of course, it is irrelevant that this series of thoughtful steps conducive to everyone's happiness is called by me by some name. I certainly would hope that this isn't pushing my "religion" upon our organization, at least as it is understood in colloquial terms.

Realistically: this is the most effective, and in fact the only decision-making framework I am familiar with for producing a lifestyle suitable for a human being to live inside.

Finally

Well-meaning members of my sangha remind me that this path is incommensurate with the living practice of Buddhism. Somewhere in my heart, I feel like I've never been living it more than right now. How can I reconcile this understanding?

Thanks for your patience.

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I require that we treat our team members with compassion, refraining from false speech (teamwork, marketing and sales), and avoid taking what is not given (intellectual property, competition, finance).

None of the above is uniquely Buddhist or even religious. Its just ordinary human ethics expected in any ethical workplace. There is no need to ever refer to "Buddhism".

Well-meaning members of my sangha remind me that this path is incommensurate with the living practice of Buddhism. Somewhere in my heart, I feel like I've never been living it more than right now. How can I reconcile this understanding?

There is nothing to reconcile. Most Westerners don't understand Buddhism very well. They have never studied the Buddhist teachings for laypeople and believe Buddhism only teaches the hardcore teachings for monks & advanced yogis.

For a lay person, earning a living is part of Buddhism; which includes carrying on a business. As long as the business is ethical, the Buddha in the Pali scriptures praised laypeople who are successful in carrying on a business.

Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.

Vanijja Sutta


And what is the bliss of having? There is the case where the son of a good family has wealth earned through his efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of his arm, and piled up through the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained. When he thinks, 'I have wealth earned through my efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of my arm, and piled up through the sweat of my brow, righteous wealth righteously gained,' he experiences bliss, he experiences joy. This is called the bliss of having.

Anana Sutta


The wise and virtuous shine like a blazing fire. He who acquires his wealth in harmless ways like to a bee that honey gathers, riches mount up for him like ant hill's rapid growth.

With wealth acquired this way, a layman fit for household life, in portions four divides his wealth: thus will he friendship win.

One portion for his wants he uses, two portions on his business spends, the fourth for times of need he keeps.

Sigalovada Sutta

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An ethical decision making framework leads upward:

AN8.35:1.12: The heart’s wish of an ethical person succeeds because of their purity.

Yet, driven by intention and wishes, it also leads to rebirth, which is not the goal of the Noble Eightfold Path.

AN8.35:4.8: As they’ve settled for less and not developed further, their idea leads to rebirth there.

And rebirth presents a challenge:

SN12.23:6.11: Rebirth is a vital condition for suffering.

So although Right Livelihood is the fifth step on the Noble Eightfold Path, it does not end there. The end of suffering beckons three more steps beyond. So don't stop with Right Livelihood. Keep going!

Another way to reconcile this understanding is given in DN33:

  1. There are deeds that are dark with dark result.

  2. There are deeds that are bright with bright result.

  3. There are deeds that are dark and bright with dark and bright result.
  4. There are neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the end of deeds.

You are succeeding with #2. Your Sangha is also practicing towards #4. Keep going!

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