Religion & Business: A Buddhist Perspective

Seamus Phan, based in Singapore, is a thought leader on the Internet, digital media, e-learning, knowledge management, business process re-engineering, marketing, and holistic health. He is a frequent keynote speaker, motivational speaker, workshop and meeting facilitator, commissioned writer, journalist, editor, and published author.

He is the founder of KnowledgeLabs News Center (, a vertical news and research bureau that provides content to print, TV and radio media, as well as an independent broadcaster. He is a board advisor of McGallen & Bolden Group, as well as founder of McGallen & Bolden Knowledge Inc (, an international Internet, total quality management, and training firm. Prior to his current role, he was the Chief Information Officer for the group. Seamus is also an associate professor for distance learning graduate credit courses in media studies and sustainable development.

His latest book is Dot ZEN, a business leadership and entrepreneurship book that dispels many of the age-old aggressive philosophies such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Dot ZEN is co-authored with leading publicist and trainer Ter Hui Peng. He has authored other books, training tapes and videos.

He is a correspondent to many business and technology publications. He is the Contributing Editor for Network Computing and Intelligent Enterprise magazines in Asia and a frequent columnist for Ethix . He has been an analyst and correspondent for the likes of TechTV, CNBC Asia, Bloomberg TV, and Channel NewsAsia. He has hosted radio segments on TechTV and NewsRadio.

Seamus earned a Ph.D. in Business (Greenwich), and a Masters in Information Technology and Education. He has also done prior patent-pending biotech research on the autoxidation and its prevention, and coupled with health-related research, has been academically recognized at the postgraduate level.

What can Asia teach businesses about the principles of ethics, even as its laws may not be as developed as in some Western nations?

Three Buddhist concepts — benevolence, compassion and contentment — are values exceptionally powerful in building sustainable businesses and partnerships.

Benevolence is Long Term

In Book One of Hagakure it was said, “A calculating man is a coward because calculations have to do with profit and loss, and such a person is therefore constantly preoccupied with profit and loss only.” Therefore, in the true spirit of a samurai—a master and owner of his own destiny—it is important that one should not be calculative when running businesses or managing people.

Benevolence is not often a guiding principle for organizations today. The two values of benevolence and compassion seem like an antithesis to stock market gains, fast profits, global expansion at all costs, cheap labor, and short cuts. The wisdom of being a “junzi” (“gentleman”) means that you may not always win, and in some instances, may seem to lose out. But you always earn respect, and in turn, gain leverage and rewards for the long term. Therefore, the concept of “Junzi” is geared for sustainability rather than short-term or immediate gains.

The Power of Compassion

Many corporations and non-profits imply, “we believe in the highest ethical practices because we comply with all legal requirements.” However, the dictionary defines ethics as “moral philosophy” or “moral principles” and not legal compliance. To be moral (and thereforae training of the mind has to do with stepping back and examining things in greater perspective. For example, if you are thinking of striking an opponent down with expensive lawyers and more money thrown at a lawsuit, think twice, and play out the repercussions of taking your opponent to court. It might not even be about winning or losing in court, but it may well be public perception of your organization—that you are too aggressive, too trigger-happy, and lacking in empathy or compassion.

The Power of Contentment

His Holiness The Dalai Lama is one of my personal inspirations today. He speaks in a non-academic, non-intimidating, straightforward, powerful and yet disarmingly simple manner, and reaches you deeply with his light humor and deep wisdom. In the book Art of Happiness jointly written by HH Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C. Cutler, HH Dalai Lama mentioned that “happiness can be achieved by training the mind”.

If we believe that “mind” is merely the cognitive ability or the intellect, then we may not find happiness. HH Dalai Lama mentioned that “mind” actually means a more holistic concept, known as “Sem” in the Tibetan language, which is a combination of intellect, feeling, heart and mind, or loosely described as “spirit” or “psyche”.

Why is happiness, and the training of the psyche, important in business?

The spate of colossal corporate scandals, collapses and fraud may have something to do with myopia, that of being short sighted to the long term. The most successful and SUSTAINABLE businesses have always been built painstakingly through the decades. The dotcom era created a false sense of achievement and an illusory attachment to paper gains, without any regard to fundamentals, sound foundation, or sustainability.

Mencius, a disciple of Confucianism, said, “Only the benevolent ought to be in high positions. When a man devoid of benevolence is in a high position, he disseminates his wickedness among all below him.” If you examine the corporate value system of an organization, the best place to start is to grill the top executives for their beliefs and philosophy, and then interview junior employees and determine if they understand and identify with the top management’s philosophy. You may be surprised that some top managers are only results-driven, with little regard for the human element, except in lip service. In this scenario, it is unlikely the management or the employees will find happiness at work, because the organization lacks “heart”, part of the “Sem” HH Dalai Lama talked about.

A successful organization needs a powerful and convincing voice at the top, one that not only rallies his troops well to build sustainable businesses, but the same voice should convince external stakeholders such as financiers and stockholders. Many stockholders looking for quick gains should be dissuaded from their punting ways. Likewise, bankers and financiers looking for quick exit strategies, should ideally not be partners, or if not possible, the top managers should explain the dire consequences if the only consideration for the long term is an exit strategy—just look at the mega corporate fraud cases that led to spectacular collapses.

Contentment is not complacency, but a realistic view to what can be achieved, and how to sustain it. The Buddhist way is not one of cowardice, but one of mindful courage. Likewise, for managers and employees to be happy at their workplace, contentment, with the same mindful courage of a Buddhist warrior, will be the sustainable way forward.

Buddhism has 84,000 methods to reach enlightenment, and only perhaps a few thousand survived through the ages in archives today. Even then, the fundamental philosophy is the same, that of compassion and contentment.