Business and the Buddha - Selections

Doing Well by Doing Good


323 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861715442

Add to Cart »

CHAPTER 1: The Three Poisons: What’s Free about Free Enterprise?

Unethical business practices, while, sadly, increasingly familiar, are a good example of unrestricted or unregulated free enterprise. Free enterprise conducted to these extremes is what needs to change.

It is in the nature of capitalists to advocate the benefits of having as few rules and regulations as possible. (“Let the market decide” is the mantra.) However, when excess occurs, we see governments conducting investigations to determine the identities of the wrongdoers and to establish new rules or apply existing ones.

Alan Greenspan, when chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, referred to the current spate of corporate corruption— Enron, WorldCom, Tyco International, etc.—as symptomatic of “infectious greed.” He blamed this infectious greed for causing business executives to embellish financial statements and artificially inflate stock values. In one interview, Greenspan posited that the rapid growth of stock-market capitalization in the late 1990s created increased opportunities for avarice.

The Buddha would go even further. The corporate practices that spawned such greed are not the outcome of a particular decade on the stock market, but are endemic to free enterprise. And the solution is not increased regulatory vigilance, but a more mindful, holistic view that rethinks the way business is practiced in the West.

The Limits of Excess

The connection between wealth, selfishness, and the need for greater compassion is entirely consistent with the core tenets of Buddhism. If left uncontrolled, greed will lead to avarice, hatred, aversion, and all too often war.

The Buddha viewed greed (together with the other two poisons of hatred and delusions about reality) as one of the three primary causes of human suffering. Greed, our excessive attachment, is a characteristic that we all exhibit in knowing and unknowing ways.

One way to address the impulse toward greed is to actively practice its opposite: that is, demonstrate generosity, loving-kindness, and compassion in every action or behavior. We will explore this more in the context of skillful intention later in the book.

In greed we are driven by a craving or attachment: for more money, for power, for more and more material possessions, for a dogmatic grip on our ideas, opinions, thoughts. From a corporate perspective, if the focus and emphasis of a company is singularly on profit, then this bottom-line orientation will promote greed. It is not in the nature of capitalism to be satisfied with last year’s numbers.

If we are to live a life of non-suffering (a joyous life), the impulses toward greed must be mediated with self-discipline, with taking responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, and persistence in following the Path out of suffering. But controlling greed is not a simple task. It is difficult to live our twenty-firstcentury lives without strong motivations to have more, buy more, and achieve more. In Western industrialized societies we see the genesis of this motivation as competition.

Free enterprise does not dissuade the entrepreneur from excess— arguably it promotes the idea that “more is good and even more is better.” Thus the business community does not have a natural propensity to control excessive acquisition. So the only way society can say that enough is enough is via legislation, regulations, and our purchasing choices. That is, you and I must be the agents of change, once we have accepted the idea of reducing our desires and our cravings on a personal level.

There are many examples of this kind of societal intervention into free enterprise. Consider, for example, usury legislation. In Canada, it is illegal to charge more than 60% interest per annum and in the United States corporations cannot charge more than 50%. Arguably these are still extremely high rates of interest, but the point is that it was decided that modifying or regulating “unrestricted” free enterprise was in society’s best interests. A boundary was established within which business could be transacted. This precedent—to place limits on interest, which in some organizations directly influences the profitability of the corporation— is evidence that corporate excess can be (and has already been) controlled without causing the downfall of capitalism.

Such rule changes are not easily come by. Look at how successful the lucrative tobacco industry has been at lobbying against having its products listed as narcotics or cancer-causing agents. Even massive financial penalties—another intervention into free enterprise—have not stopped the stockholders of “Big Tobacco” and their executive teams from continuing to popularize their product.

Excess is a characteristic that investors and executives bring to the corporation, and we as shareholders reinforce it when we push for ever-higher returns on our investments. What’s more, this creates a diminished marketplace. That is, competitors, especially small and domestic companies, will be driven out of the marketplace. In turn, the marketplace will be influenced more by the corporation’s “invisible hand” than by that of the consumer.

The solution to excess then is fundamentally an individual one. No solution that will have a lasting effect can be imposed externally. To attempt to impose a solution would, arguably, be another form of abuse. It is only by individual intentions and actions that greed can be skillfully addressed.

It is critical to recognize that it’s not a “flawed” system or “ailing” society or “bad” corporations that are enticing and tempting us. The state of excess within which we find ourselves is about us, as individuals, and our own cravings. Nevertheless, excessive attachment, like any other unskillful behavior, can be turned around if we have the wisdom, generosity, and discipline to do so.


Based on the behaviors established in our Western capitalist system we, as consumers, are expected to crave for more—literally more of anything. As consumers, we continually recreate an economic system that causes suffering in order to meet our increasing needs and desires. The impulse toward greed is universally human, related in part to a hardwired need for self-preservation. But it can easily be taken to harmful extremes.

Are those who live in poverty (approximately four billion people) free from craving? In drought-ravaged countries, the starving frequently want more food, water, and aid supplies than they can use, thus depriving their neighbors. If the developed world permits this disenfranchisement to continue for generations, armed conflict, terrorism, and revolution will continue to be the outcomes. Here, greed walks hand in hand with hatred, another of the Three Poisons. Clearly if we are hungry or lack sufficient resources to earn a living then it will be much more difficult to care for ourselves and others and make a spiritual life possible.

            Capitalism is based on the principle that the acquisition of material goods and/or the accumulation of wealth should be limitless. However, Buddhists would argue that the line between the excessive acquisition of things and the creation of personal or societal suffering is invisible. Craving or desiring more, and acting on these desires, means that we, by necessity, are preventing others who are in need from having some part of what we have. This demonstrates our attachment or our greed, causes us to suffer, and leads to the suffering of those who have much less or nothing at all.

The acts of greed or craving may lead us to jealousy, to harming others, or to having unwholesome thoughts and intentions, which even though they may not be acted upon, still leave a subtle imprint on our minds. In fact, greed can result in emotional anxieties and psychological tensions brought on by the struggle to attain what is craved, the fear of not succeeding in the attainment, and the fear of losing what has been attained. Greed ensnares us all!

Though a solution is at hand (and has been for twenty-five hundred years), we have not learned to detach ourselves from the Three Poisons. Why? Some have not detached from greed because their worldview only comprises the view of unrestricted free enterprise and other models have not been investigated or considered. For others, it is likely that the pain of suffering is not consciously felt; they have cocooned themselves in the delusion of possessions and wealth. These cravings and desires become attachments. Dissolving this glue requires us to discipline our minds.

But new choices are available to us. Although corporations are legal entities and not people, people (whether individually or collectively) create and operate corporations. It is these people who, through their personal experiences, can reshape corporations and move away from the Three Poisons.

Since each one of us is a consumer, we too can reshape corporations through our purchasing decisions. Each time we buy a product or service we are supporting a manufacturer or service provider. Each purchase reinforces corporate practices and behaviors.

Each of us needs to ask him or herself, with each purchase, “Is this really what I want to do?” We need to empower the individual because society—corporations and governments (both good examples of institutions that are highly skilled at selfpreservation)—is the result of what individuals want. If we are to assist in influencing the direction of present-day free enterprise, we must fully comprehend the significance that greed plays in our society—both in the developed and developing worlds—and the role we can play in ending suffering.

The Middle Way

The entrepreneur would argue that in the pursuit of selling goods or services there must be no predetermined or overriding limits. Limits, if any, should only be the result of how creatively and innovatively the seller designs, produces, and markets his/her products. Buyers determine the effectiveness of this process by how much or how little they purchase. If they purchase a lot, the seller becomes wealthier and the buyer presumably feels better off for having made the purchases. So the entrepreneur would argue that capitalism works without any intervention except that which the seller and buyer impose on their relationship. Under these circumstances, the idea of excess does not enter the picture. Wealth, for example, is not considered greed; it is the reward for being a successful businessperson or an astute trader. Wealth is the ultimate result, in capitalist terms, of having successfully used the economic system creatively.

Greed enters the discussion when we consider the extremes of wealth acquisition. The Buddha’s teachings caution us to avoid extremes, at the peril of one’s happiness, joy, and tranquillity. The overriding extreme is wanting, desiring, or demanding unfettered materialism. From a Buddhist perspective success is not necessarily wealth but is most certainly wisdom, love, and compassion. If one has wealth and is wise and compassionate, one has much to be pleased about. However, as the Buddha and countless others have discovered, people become very attached to their possessions, which can lead to hoarding, stealing, or even war in their attempt to protect their material wealth. To avoid attachments (that is, the extremes), the Buddha taught moderation, generosity, and kindness toward all living beings: the antithesis of greed or excessive acquisition.

How then can Buddhism contribute to untying the Gordian knot that binds free enterprise and human suffering? How do we as individuals arrive at a place where we see the need for balance in our own lives and see the need to compassionately end the suffering of others? As a Buddhist, I believe the answer is the Middle Way, the path between extremes such as poverty and great affluence.

In the Buddhist view, happiness in life (or the absence of suffering) begins by following a Middle Way. To follow a path between extremes means behaving “skillfully,” applying wisdom and compassion to one’s intentions and actions so that one can live one’s life without the harshness of deprivation or the excesses of extreme wealth.

Such an approach creates two problems for traditional business practices: first, the goal now is happiness, not profit; and second, capitalism is not an expression of the Middle Way, but tends toward an extreme.

What I am proposing is not to overthrow capitalism, but to expose the ways in which Buddhist thinking can ameliorate some of the more negative outcomes of free enterprise. The Buddhist Middle Way can have a very positive and progressive relationship with Western capitalism. Indeed, Buddhist philosophy is not opposed to the creation of wealth, to private ownership of property, free trade, or even to the idea of limited government intervention.

We can cause change to occur in the economic system—it is changing on its own every moment. The current direction of this change is unrestricted globalization. Why could this direction not include a factor that described “success” as the accumulation of wealth and the well-being of all? We can pursue financial success while at the same time acknowledging that there is suffering in the world caused by the operation of free enterprise, and work to do something about it.

If the Buddha were in the Boardroom today, he would teach that the real issue is not capitalism versus socialism (or Right versus Left) but right intention: the intention that through our actions (in business and elsewhere) we may diminish suffering and treat all beings with respect and compassion. With this intention, we aspire that all beings have access to food, water, shelter, medical care, and such other things that are our birthright. Let’s begin to explore what this might mean.


How to cite this document:
© Lloyd M. Field, Business and the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2007)

Creative Commons License
Business and the Buddha by Lloyd Field is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at