A still from the film Walk with Me; Br. Phap Linh walking in NYC. Image courtesy of UA CineHub
When it comes to drawing inspiration from the Buddhist teachings for management practices, one monastic scholar half-jokingly argued that every entrepreneur should learn from the Buddha. Why? Because there is no corporation in history that can compete with the 2,500-year tenure of the Buddha, with the same global presence and branches on every continent. The teachings, vision, and mission of the Buddha have been passed on from generation to generation, and many practitioners (successors of the Buddha) have had to overcome unbearable hardships and challenges to continue this legacy, especially when they venture out into new grounds. The Buddhist teachings attempt to adapt themselves to local circumstances and lifestyles, without losing sight of the core principles and values. It offers a very inspiring localised and customized solution by which the Buddha’s legacy is adjusted to meet human needs.
To improve and sustain competitiveness over time and space, modern enterprises focus on business models and standardisation. They want to generate and maintain a good relationship with all stakeholders: customers, partners, investors, management team, and staff members. Like all other kinds of relationships, we want to sustain these relationships through good times and bad. We want them to “walk with me.” The Buddha’s approach, however, does not start from some grand design or plan. The “certification” or “endorsement” of the teachings does not require complex ISO or Six Sigma standardization. After all, Buddhist practices aim to purify our minds, and all those superficial measurements are incapable of fathoming the depth and rigor of a practitioner’s mind—one’s mind is beyond measurement and beyond assessment by an outsider. Just as a proof by a world-class mathematician is indecipherable to a layperson, how could an exchange between two Buddhist masters be easily comprehended? For thousands of years of human history, the most sophisticated transmission of knowledge has taken place as values and spirituality: culture, philosophy, religion, a family legacy, and so forth. And one of the most effective models of sustainable transmission is through apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship functions not just as a mere transfer of skill, it is a process of passing on an embodiment of the craft. For a Zen master, this embodiment is the daily practice of walking, eating, breathing, speaking, and listening to all that one encounters. It is a living practice beyond rigid theories. And because this living practice is a true mastery of the values, it is spontaneous, adaptive, and tailor-made to the situation. There is no “one size fits all,” and an apprentice needs to learn how to improvise and embody the teachings by observing every speech and mannerism of his master. It is not mimicking but a deep transfer of wisdom and cultivation of the mind.
Perhaps that explains why Clayton Christensen, the pioneer of Disruptive Innovation, emphasizes the importance of time spent with children as they grow up. If time is spent only on "productive" activities such as studying, exam preparation, and extra-curricular activities, and the parent tries to outsource other "non-productive" activities such as housekeeping, making the bed, spending time with family, etc., children will miss out on important aspects of life that can contribute to their long-term development and character building as an independent individual. Knowledge is not only taught but also caught. A classroom environment functions well, but it cannot fully replace the importance of learning from parents, mentors, and masters through daily interactions. It is, however, not easy to tell exactly when children are ready to observe and learn.
While the modern adaptation and standardization of mindfulness practice introduces the practice to the general public, and there is plenty of scientific evidence to support its usefulness and productivity, the true manifestation and teachings of a mindful practitioner, can not be easily mimicked or measured. A recent documentary titled Walk with Me, by Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh, beautifully depicts the contemplative journey of Thich Nhat Hạnh and his Sangha at Plum Village in France and beyond. While the Zen master allows for very innovative ways to present the teachings of the Buddha, the essence of Buddhism; namely the Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha (Dharma), and the community of practitioners (Sangha), have been well-respected in his teaching. The core practices of discipline, concentration, and wisdom have always been diligently observed in Plum Village. It is a perfect illustration of the balance between old and new, between fundamental values and adapting them to modern needs, as well as integrating the teachings in the daily life of people from diverse backgrounds.
To be truly sustainable as a business, a family, an organization, or a religion, all stakeholders need to stay together and walk together. For a community of practitioners to practice together, it requires a shared vision and a shared path. The Buddha proclaimed that there is a path leading to the cessation of suffering, liberation, and hence sustainable happiness. This “old path white clouds” has been walked by all the noble ones. This contemplative journey is not an easy one, but the Buddha and his students invite everyone to “walk with me.”