Scoop Review of Books

Rules of Acquisition

The Leader’s Way: Business, Buddhism and Happiness in an Interconnected World. By His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Laurens van den Muyzenberg


Allen and Unwin, $38. Reviewed by ALISON McCULLOCH

The Dalai Lama has converted to capitalism. Yes, the same Dalai Lama who is a practising monk, leader-in-exile of the Tibetan people, striver after The Six Perfections, believer in the law of karma. But what, you might wonder, does the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism have in common with the Ignoble Profit Motive of the free market? And what could His Holiness possibly have been thinking?

Don’t get me wrong, having Buddhism help guide the invisible hand is a nice idea. Imagine if the CEO’s of global giants like Shell or General Electric decided to shift their focus from the bottom line to the notion that the cessation of suffering is possible through the cessation of craving and greed?

The management consultant Laurens Van den Muyzenberg, the book’s prime mover and co-author, appears to have persuaded the Dalai Lama that this imaginary world is possible. Or at least that he could usefully put his name to a book asserting it is. The result is a self-help text that shows there is nothing and no one the free-marketeers won’t try to appropriate. Let’s say you’re a large media company who decides to lay off a bunch of workers. How do you get around the Buddhist notion of doing no harm to others? “The first point to consider in the decision-making process,” van den Muyzenberg writes, “is the intention behind the action.” Next, you must focus on the state of mind of the leader. “The challenge for the decision maker is to recognise the origination of any negative effects on the mind such as defensiveness or anger.” And of course you must be sure to practice mindfulness. Van den Muyzenberg acknowledges that the situation is particularly difficult “when it is impossible to avoid harming some people.” That can certainly be a bitch. But so long as you do your best to apply the concepts of Right View and Right Conduct, Buddhism – apparently – gives you the green light.

What does His Holiness have to say about all this? Not so much. The book essentially comprises excerpts from corporate press releases and management texts interspersed with snippets of whatever of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom might conceivably apply. Van den Muyzenberg is shamelessly uncritical in his praise for companies like Shell, Unilever and GE, using as source material their own accounts of their own virtuous practices, as a quick glance through the book’s notes shows: “Unilever’s corporate purposes statement”; “Fluor Corporation press release”; “IBM’s Global Procurement Policy Statement”.

Before his conversion, the Dalai Lama writes that he had a preference for socialism. Then in 1990 he got a letter from van den Muyzenberg suggesting that instead of trying to reconcile communism and Buddhism, “it would be easier to make a synthesis between Buddhism and capitalism.” What followed were a series of meeting between the business guru and the monk. Van den Muyzenberg attended some meditation retreats, lived in a tent in India for a few weeks and learned how to enjoy long queues at the airport (“I think of it as a perfect opportunity for training my mind.”) The Dalai Lama rethought his relationship with Mao and “[came] to put my faith in the free-market system.”

Seriously (sort of) though, what was His Holiness thinking? “At first sight,” he writes early in the book, “you might expect a large difference between business and Buddhism. But their common denominator is the importance they attach to happiness.” Consider again that large media company deciding to lay off a bunch of workers. Although the words “happiness,” “happy,” “joy,” “well-being,” “contentment,” “pleasure,” or “gladness” don’t appear in Fairfax’s recent announcement of its Business Improvement Program, just read between the lines (“a head count reduction of approximately 550 employees”; “$50 million in annualised cost savings”; “Cost synergies … produced a further $53 million in savings” etc.) and then tell me that chief executive David Kirk doesn’t put a high priority on Being Happy?

Considering the several dozen books the Dalai Lama has written over the decades on topics like kindness, freedom, truth, transcendent wisdom, bliss & emptiness and, of course, enlightenment, perhaps we too can practise Right Conduct and forgive him this brief detour from the path of light onto the toll road of darkness, along which Marx and Mao are reborn as Smith and von Hayek.

Alison McCulloch’s book reviews have appeared in The New York Times and other publications.