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Buddhist Business Lessons to Share: Creating Right Livelihood
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
By Mark Waller
I first found myself sitting in front of Chogyam Trungpa 45 years ago at one of his early seminars in New York. With that began five years of retreats; cleaning his house in Boulder, Colorado, U.S.; living in and around the Naropa community there; attending seminars of many descriptions and sitting and more sitting. And, occasionally cracking a text.
Fairly quickly, the need to pay rent and put some food on the table had to strike a balance with my new bodhisattva path. Several years of sporadic entrepreneurial adventures intermingled with intense legal work as I developed a conscientious objector petition at the most intense period of the Vietnam War. When my CO status was granted (just about simultaneously with my receiving a high draft lottery number), I was out of excuses and needed to work on right livelihood while continuing to dance with the Dharma.
I spent my 20s jumping into and fighting my way out of a difficult marriage. (It seemed too good to pass up when Trungpa Rinpoche agreed to marry us in the middle of a winter night in Vermont. I take all blame except for a little smidgen I assign to the tantrika who was pouring the sake that night.) At the same time, I was gradually developing some entrepreneurial skill.
I developed some temporarily lucrative import lines with fashion and jewelry, a very profitable first adventure, which I enjoyed only for the income it produced and the independence it afforded, but certainly not for spiritual upliftment. Twenty trade shows a year and constant travel became a heavy price to pay for a cool pad on Oregon’s Bandon Beach and a ranch retreat in the Coast Range.
After the divorce, I moved back to Portland, Oregon, with short stops in Eastern Oregon, Government Camp and Eugene. I recruited a friendly banker and started buying up income property in secondary markets around Oregon. I even got involved as the pilot for a resort redevelopment in the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. And it seemed a brilliant idea until interest spiraled to above 20 percent and formerly profitable real estate properties blew up.
But life since then has taught me some business lessons that I want share:
Lesson 1: If you’re really stuck, go sit until you are inspired or the phone rings.
It was clearly time for a reboot and so I just sat and waited. Eventually a college acquaintance came along who was getting ready to complete a natural resource IPO in Canada. And then a year or so later, I was the president. (Over the next three decades, I’d be president of numerous other public companies and private ventures.)
Lesson 2: It’s not always critical, wise or profitable to be early in an emerging field. Fast followers, however, often live to fight another day or become the heroes. Find a hot trend and become better at it.
A lifetime love of the wilderness, attendance at an early global environment meeting in Stockholm and several happy coincidences led me to a first foray in clean technology. An early deal tried to match coal bed methane cogeneration power production with big miners who were venting or flaring the methane in advance of mining. Although it seemed self-evident that any reasonable person would be delighted to use the methane to fuel small power projects rather than venting or flaring it into the atmosphere, there were lots of utilities that didn’t want to be force-fed power from sources outside their own generating capacity. And, in the late 1980s, the prevailing view was that the atmosphere, the land and oceans were vast and unlimited repositories for any and every sort of toxic and noxious waste material. This resistance to cogen power was one of a multitude of early warnings that long standing habits of exploitation and abuse of the environment needed to be analyzed, addressed and changed.
Lesson 3: As the Dalai Lama said during his recent visit to Portland, Oregon, if your first path is blocked, try the second, third or fourth way.
Speaking of finding a fourth way, I have always been a big fan of yogis, Buddhists and other spiritual adventurers who do not run from the world but suit up and dive in. Some of us pilgrims seem to get so sensitive that immersion in the world becomes overwhelming. Aside from the occasional great souls like Ramakrishna and Kalu Rinpoche, who really do need to be insulated from the madding crowd, most of us aspirants need to get off our duffs and get in the fray. The world needs us and our growth requires the friction that comes from engagement.
Lesson 4: While there is always a place for the orchid in the temperature-controlled cloister, great trees with endless root systems can withstand the elemental forces.
The world desperately needs conscious and enthusiastic activists; we need to follow the advice of modern Buddhist leaders who continue to advocate socially engaged Buddhism. As a result of some untraceable linguistic slip, various members of our community seem to have become “Buttists,” not Buddhists. If your posterior becomes permanently fused to a meditation device, it can become challenging to later reengage in the world or take on an opponent!
In the last decade, my company, Bridgeworks Capital, has started, financed or supported four solar manufacturing companies (collectively raising almost US$500 million of capital); two wave energy projects; a smart window technology which can save gigawatts of yearly energy use; and a growing list of other innovative ideas with the potential to preserve or protect our atmosphere, water resources, land and living spaces.
Solar energy is a good case study for budding Buddhist capitalists. Billions of dollars of government money, and some industry money, supported the research and development of many emerging technologies in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
In 2006, there was a ridiculously successful IPO for a company called First Solar and the investing mobs arrived. Six years later, we’re only part of the way through dozens of business failures and nuked government loan guarantees. A combination of technical progress; cost of energy price disparities between cheap natural gas and coal and solar projects; vast dumping of solar panels by the Chinese; a nasty economic contraction; and the failure of many governments, most particularly the US government, to craft and enact clean energy policies have collectively flattened the solar manufacturing industry.
Lesson 5: When big ideas to save the planet struggle or crater, grieve for a moment, but don’t forget to turn off the lights, ride your bike and plant veggies on your roof!
Have no patience for any business or job that deviates from a strict standard of right livelihood. Don’t allow incremental destruction of the fabric of your soul, or your pristine and untainted mental continuum, by living or working unconsciously. And, as noxious as it often seems to be these days, stay plugged in enough so you can identify and support leaders who are servants of all sentient beings and don’t let the rascals have the run of the place!
Mark Waller planned his life to blend an active business career focused on right livelihood with extensive commitments to many non-profits including his current service as board chair of Portland Habitat for Humanity, past service as a trustee and board chair of the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, and ongoing service on the boards of the Oregon Environmental Council, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Self Enhancement, Inc. Mark also founded Bridgeworks Capital, a specialized provider of monetary and intellectual resources to bring innovative ideas to market, and sits on the board of Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon, USA.
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