Tag Archives: Four Noble Truths

Leadership on the Eightfold Path

Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Eightfold Path of practice as the Fourth Noble Truth, as a path of liberation from suffering. Though this occurred more than two millennia ago, these teachings are relevant to leadership in modern times.

NOTE: The word “right” is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word “samma,” but that is a bit rough. The word samma does not have the understanding of right versus wrong. It has the meaning of integral or whole. Some have used the word “sound” as a translation. As in, “that is a sound decision.” This more closely reflects the sense of skillfulness that arises from the Path.

Right View – Our way of being in the world can be a way that increases our suffering, reduces our suffering, or liberates us from suffering. It is our fundamental view of the world, of our experience, that makes the difference. The Buddha taught that the view which would liberate us from suffering, rather than make it worse or mitigate it temporarily, is the view of emptiness. When Buddhists speak of emptiness it simply means empty of inherent existence, empty of the ability to arise completely independently. This makes sense intuitively. All things arise due to causes and conditions. They cannot come into being or cease to be without reliance on causes and conditions. Then, from this standpoint, you can begin to see why the corollary to emptiness is impermanence, the fact that people and things are always changing. The conditions of each instant are shifting and moving, in ways that you can see and in imperceptible ways. The ability to accept change, and understand that it is inevitable and neutral, is the starting point for sound leadership. That is, sound leadership accepts that change will occur. Sound leadership incorporates this fact in planning and makes the most of change.

Example: State governments requiring electric companies to develop wind turbine farms.

V838 c. NASA

V838 c. NASA

Right Intention – Naturally, it is not enough to know how to view the world. You must put it into action, but action stems from intention; it starts with our motivation. A great practitioner once famously said that he wakes up every day and cultivates his motivation. This is because actions and speech reflect intention, even when you don’t want them to. So it is important to establish right intention, which stems from the fundamental acceptance of change and the vow to work in harmony with it. This is not passivity, but rather seeing clearly what actually is, so that you can respond most skillfully. Right intention is based in the ability to respond, rather than react. Sound leadership flows from the motivation not to ignore or resist change, but to respond in a skillful manner.

Example: Establishing Virgin Galactic even while developing Virgin Atlantic.

Right Speech – The extent to which your words express acceptance of what is, and an intentional response, is the extent to which those words express right speech. There is a lot that can be said about right speech, but the Buddha offered five simple guidelines. He said that right speech is timely, helpful, truthful, kind, and not spoken out of ill will. These aspects of right speech remind you that words are meaningful, and it is important to consider their impact, both on yourself and on those who hear them. Sound leadership knows the impact of speech and uses it skillfully, to express an understanding of impermanence and an intention to harmonize with it. It uses speech to bring clarity to any situation.

Example: “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” – James Thurber

Right Action – Based upon a sound view of emptiness and impermanence, and a sound intention to live in accord with that view, your actions must also be in accord with the Way. As with speech, right action will provide clarity and harmony. Thus, right action is usually associated with ethical action. It involves finding a skillful way to operate in the world, guided by what is most fundamental. It acknowledges ambiguity, and does not use it as an excuse to set aside the necessity to respond. This is why the Buddhist precepts, or moral guidelines, are not commandments but rather vows, expressions of your underlying intention. Sound leadership recognizes ethics as an integral aspect of life. It acts in harmony with life.

Example: After finding a handful of bottles poisoned, Johnson & Johnson pulled Tylenol off the shelves.

Right Livelihood – This teaching is specifically about work. It is based on the understanding that, in emptiness, each instant contains within it the causes and conditions for the next instant. So this is the teaching that the work that you do has consequences, and it is important to consider those consequences and ensure that they create harmony in the world. Sound leadership recognizes that work is not different from other action. Sound leadership takes responsibility for its results.

Example: If you are a fisherman, not fishing a particular species into extinction.

Right Effort – This is the teaching of sustainability. The Buddha practiced asceticism to the point of death, and then realized that this kind of effort would not lead to liberation from suffering. So he taught the Middle Way. This is the way of wholehearted engagement, because anything less than that is not enough. Yet, it is also the way of embracing limitations, because your effort should not damage your capacity. It must be sustainable, or it misses the mark, risking the full rewards due to shortsightedness. Sound leadership knows that effort must be balanced in order to be effective.

Example: Staying home sick, instead of vomiting at a fancy dinner.

Right Mindfulness – While much of the Eightfold path is focused on activity, right mindfulness is about finding the still point in each moment. It is discovering the inherent steadiness of the mind, and the way that can be a foundation for everything else. This teaching is typically associated with meditation, stripping away momentary distractions to encounter the essence of what is already there. It is pausing to gather the mind, living in the present moment. Sound leadership values steadiness and a clear head.

Example: Phil Jackson teaching the Bulls basketball players to gather themselves before a game.

Sunrise c. NASA

Sunrise c. NASA

Right Awakening – The teaching of Buddhist wisdom is that this very life can be one of awakening to your innate freedom and the abundance of the world. It is within your capabilities, if you are willing to live in the present moment and respond skillfully, in harmony with the natural function of cause and effect. Wisdom is not something that can be given to you, yet it is manifest in relation to others. In Zen it is sometimes expressed as “not one, not two.” Wisdom is both an individual experience and a group function, and it is based in true discernment. Sound leaders are like great conductors, they help to make a symphony by energizing many individuals.

Example: Cooperative competition all over Silicon Valley.


A Monk Points Out the Dust

In today’s modern American koan, “No Monk Clean and Shining,” we are presented with two practitioners who are standing next to a recently waxed black car.

Black Bugatti

The first monk says, “That’s as close as any of us will ever get to being free from dust.”

The second monk says, “I can only hope to find peace in the midst of dust.”

The dialogue is brief yet, like all koans, it says a lot and raises a few questions. So let me offer a bit of commentary.

The tone of sarcasm from the first monk is inescapable. Clearly her world is thickly covered in dust. Do I detect a note of despair? The second monk is not clear either. Looking for peace is like crying out for thirst in the midst of water. Yet he won’t just conjure a drink, will he? Both are right that dust is inescapable. But how to be peace in the midst of the world’s dust? By seeing dust as no-dust!

Sunrise 12/21/12

California Sunrise 12/21/12

This koan harkens back to the dialectic in the Platform Sutra of Huineng. It was the late 7th Century at a monastery in China. The Head Monk was expected to become the successor to the Abbot. Demonstrating his practice, he wrote this poem:

The body is the Tree of Wisdom.

The Mind is like a mirror bright.

Polish it, polish it at all times.

So that the dust will not alight.

Hearing the above poem, Huineng wrote the following demonstration of his practice:

The Tree of Wisdom does not exist.

There is no stand for the mirror bright.

Originally, there is not one thing.

So where could dust possibly alight?

In the end it was Huineng who became the 6th Chinese Ancestor. The Head Monk didn’t have it all wrong. He’s right that we must practice constantly in order to manifest our inherent wisdom. However, it’s his way of practice that’s a bit off. Practicing in order to get rid of the dust in our lives – be it difficult relationships, money problems, fear of losing a loved one or a cherished belonging, or despair over the state of the world – is a mistake. It ignores the fact all things are expressions of the truth.

The fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that it’s possible to find complete peace and equanimity in the midst of a mundane life, which is inevitably full of problems and joys. For me, this is what makes the Four Noble Truths the inspiration of a lifetime. There is suffering (truth #1), and there is a path to the cessation of suffering (truth #4), not by getting rid of things, but by transforming that which causes suffering into that which manifests awakening. This is the true practice of the direct, embodied experience of emptiness, impermanence and the world as it is.

A few days ago I met someone who has a fervid belief in one of the Christian traditions. Inexplicably, as he was describing his faith he stopped and declared, “You must accept things as they really are.” How right he is! So, please, wash your car and see yourself as the pure activity of washing car, an expression of the perfection of a mundane life.

Ice Cream Won’t Help

A few days ago I read an article which stated that fully two-thirds of the American population is overweight and one-third is obese, and also stated that these figures are likely to rise in the future. This is a problem, one which is directly addressed in Zen practice.

Many Americans seem to be trying to feel better by eating too much. The problem is one of overwhelming the body with excessive consumption of food and drink. It is a problem which points to a nation of people who are reacting to their suffering by overwhelming their senses. These are people who are trying to put out a fire by eating, who are trying to stop their pain by putting greater quantities of food and less nutritious food in their mouths. However, what people generally experience when they try this method of managing suffering is that it is only temporary. You may momentarily feel less anxiety while you are eating the pint of ice cream, but a few hours or minutes later, it will be back. So then you feel the need to do it even more, and you learn that the suffering you are experiencing burns and burns no matter how much ice cream you throw at it.

Buddhism’s answer to this issue is to stop trying to end suffering by increasing desire. If you think about it that way, it seems completely illogical in the first place. How could you end suffering by increasing desire? And yet, that’s what seems to be happening here. The Buddha in the most basic of teachings suggests that suffering can only be addressed by finding some way other than reactivity. You have to find a way to respond, instead of reacting, and in order to do that you have to be able to slow down enough to see how your desire is a reaction to your suffering. This is what he revealed in the Four Noble Truths.

1) There is suffering. 2) Suffering is caused by a mistaken way of understanding the world. 3) There is a way to resolve suffering. 4) The way to resolve suffering is by applying practices that help you to respond to things more appropriately because you see how they really are.

This is where Zen comes in. Zen puts you into situation where things are simple enough that you can start to see how they really are. Zen asks you to be present in a place and in a way that minimizes the amount of sensory input you receive. The point is not to deprive you of anything, but rather to heighten your awareness, so that you can begin to understand what you are encountering and how you respond to it.

Think about it this way: In Zen, you sit in a silent room to minimize sound input. You sit facing a wall to minimize visual input. You sit still to minimize touch input. You don’t eat or drink anything while sitting, to minimize taste input. You even go so far as to train your mind to focus on your breath or on simply being present with your sensations and thoughts, to minimize thought inputs. Why? Because there is something to be said for not overwhelming the senses. There is something to discover in the mind that is sheer presence, something that cannot be discovered by simply adding more and more sensations, tasty as they may be.