Throughout its 2,500-year history, Buddhism has engaged with its wider social and cultural environments. In its earliest days, it was tied to mercantile forces and traders traveling across Asia: businessmen would seek wealth, while the monks traveling with them sought followers. Temples would be built near or in the heart of bustling trade hubs and trade ports. From Indonesia to Central Asia, when business was thriving, temples prospered; and when cities lost their commercial advantages or prosperity, monasteries nearby struggled.
It was not just the monastics benefitting from the merchants and entrepreneurs, although it is true that the donor classes of ancient Buddhism came from merchants and bankers. Instead, caravan leaders actually invited monks to journey with them. Often having invested their life savings in the many bags or camel-humps’ worth of goods they were transporting across the Silk Road, they needed the spiritual weal and comfort the monks brought to keep them company during the journey. The relationship between Buddhism and business was both pragmatic and sincere.
We propose that modern mercantile (now corporate) practices could learn something from this balance of pragmatism and spiritual sincerity. In today’s world, mega-corporations and offshore companies shape the lives of billions, impacting everything from culture to politics. Some multinationals have annual profits that surpass the GDP of small countries. Children recognize the logos of companies such as Apple or Coca-Cola before they can name trees or emotions—something that would have been unthinkable in the past. In a world of highly influential conglomerates, Buddhism has a duty to explore what its wisdom and ethics can teach companies about corporate social responsibility.
Children now recognize logo's before they can name trees or emotions. From pixabay.com
The notion of corporate social responsibility is related to the idea that a private individual or a group has obligations to the public good. In the Greco-Roman republican tradition, this idea was termed civic virtue, meaning the cultivation of personal habits that would benefit the polity. This basic concept (which expanded into many streams of competing thought) has some affinity with the Confucian vision of an individual’s “proper” role in society, which aims to benefit the entire community, while perfecting the individual. Much like civic virtue, which cannot be enforced by the state and is developed through personal cultivation and betterment, corporate social responsibility also denotes self-regulation, not for the individual but the business entity.
It is important to distinguish between corporate responsibility and corporate social responsibility. The former is directed “inwards,” and means being accountable to shareholders and employees. The latter is directed “outwards,” where a company has a positive influence in its community. For Buddhists, especially Buddhists engaged in private enterprise, this might evoke parallels with the individual’s inner journey of attaining insight (prajna), which mirrors their outer vocation to benefit others with compassion (karuna).
Corporate social responsibility has many different expressions. Companies can demonstrate their sincerity through environmental initiatives, ethical labor practices, or philanthropy. Many businesses, particularly large corporations with an established history, have a long track record of charitable activities. Unfortunately, the philanthropy of many companies has often appeared to function mainly as a PR stunt. Corporate social responsibility should not be a mere marketing tactic devised in a boardroom, it should be a defining characteristic of the company because its directors, employees, and shareholders understand responsibility and conscientiousness to be the moral thing to do. This does not necessarily affect the company’s performance, in fact a study by Core Communications and Echo Research in 2013 seems to indicate the opposite. Corporate social responsibility can also be financially beneficial: 90 per cent of shoppers surveyed in the study said they were likely to switch to brands that support a good cause, given similar price and quality.
Binxian Big Buddha Temple, built along a thriving Silk Road route. From shanxichina.gov.cn
One example of a firm that approaches corporate social responsibility from, in principle, a Buddhist perspective is Hong Kong-based Green Monday, which sells organic and environmentally friendly vegan food from suppliers that emphasize sustainability. Green Monday co-founder David Yeung, a practicing Buddhist, has observed that collective enlightenment, which conveys the hope for social improvement as well as personal enlightenment, requires one to participate in society and not be detached from it.
As China pursues its Belt and Road initiative, corporate social responsibility will be an important tool by which Chinese companies can earn the trust and favor of other countries and businesses. China is pumping significant investments into countries across Eurasia, aiming to boost and reform its private sector with new businesses and innovation. As the prime movers in this immense project, the Chinese government and Chinese businesses have colossal responsibilities to practice and promote the hallmarks of corporate social responsibility. As observed in The South China Morning Post: “With the Belt and Road initiative, China is pursuing a new [economic] development strategy that will broaden its role in global markets and production networks, as well as its potential geopolitical influence. How it will shape the governance of labor, safety, and environmental standards on a global scale is a critical issue.”
The perceived contrast between doing well for oneself (focusing on the profits of the business) and doing good for the community is not only outdated but was never valid to begin with. To be informed by clear-eyed wisdom and authentic compassion means seeing the pursuit of profit in an ethical context—namely, that it is only one aspect of a company’s success. Profit certainly does define a successful business or provide its raison d'être, yet businesses will benefit the people and the planet as well as their shareholders if they muster the willpower to think beyond the profit focus. Adopting genuine social responsibility is not just the right thing to do, or the financially smart thing to do, it is also the Buddhist thing to do.