I was listening last night to a recent podcast by the Buddhist Geeks. It was an interview with Norman Fischer about what Fischer sees as the need for Buddhism to branch out beyond its traditional appearances, i.e. Buddhist temples and centers and the accompanying set of rituals and teachings that are distinctly labeled Buddhist.
Beyond his regular teaching work, which includes leading the Everyday Zen sangha in Oakland, California and five other zen groups along the West Coast, he also teaches in a variety of “non-Buddhist” settings, including, most famously, at Google. Yes, that Google!
You can listen to the podcast, “Buddhism May Need a Plan B”, here. (By the way, the Buddhist Geeks are looking for financial support for expanding their programming, so if you like what you hear, consider checking out their new projects and donating.)
The interview is partly a follow up on both an article written by Fischer about why he thinks Buddhism needs “a Plan B,” and also an article about the work being done at Google.
Mostly, I want to talk about the work with Google. One of things I have always been leery of is spiritual work being brought together with large, profit-making enterprises. Think of the mega-churches in the United States that have coalesced around the tenants of the prosperity gospel, which essentially teaches that being wealthy is a sign of God’s favor, and that capitalism and Christianity are twin engines in the drive towards salvation. I personally don’t believe it for a minute.
While I’m sure some people are benefiting from attending these huge institutions, there’s also a ton of money being made, and clearly enough scandals – financial, sexual, and otherwise – to lead one to wonder about the missions of these places.
Clearly this isn’t just an issue in Christianity. We need only look back a few decades to what happened at San Francisco Zen Center to see that a drive for wealth, and power, can cause a hell of a lot of suffering. Along these lines, here’s an interesting article by Stuart Lachs examining the role and history of lineage and power structures of zen communities. Lachs offers that “the trouble at the San Francisco Zen Center, and at many other prominent Zen Centers, across the country to this day, is caused by a lack of understanding as to how the ideas of Dharma transmission, unbroken lineage, and Zen master have been used historically.” (Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi) Although it may feel like a digression, my point in bringing up all this is that when you mix power and some degree of wealth, problems and distortions of the truth often occur.
So, even though I want to get excited about the work being done at Google, I find myself being skeptical, especially when I hear quotes like this one from Norman Fischer. He had been talking in the Shambala Sun article about how the people at Google ask refreshingly open questions because they want to know why they should take meditation and other Buddhist teachings seriously. Then Fischer says of Google, “Their main value is not the hard-nosed, hard-edged, profit-seeking mind. It’s the creative mind, the altruistic mind. They really believe that if you give room to foster the creative altruistic mind, you will make money and you’ll be able to do good things.”
Now, Google is definitely known for being a different kind of workplace. They don’t have traditional boss-worker hierarchies, they seem to emphasize play and experimenting over-structured sets of work duties, and employees have a lot of freedom to develop projects that inspire them.
Why does all this matter? Well, one might say that a program like the one started at Google could transform the way business is done in the world. It could, as Fischer and those working with him hope, lead to more peace and less greed driven, bottom-line driven companies.
And, in my opinion, it also could be a great tool for expanding the wealth of corporations, and at the same time not really lead people to address the gross economic inequities being created, nor the social and environmental damage being done by the same companies. You might have happier employees who are much more mindful in their personal and professional lives, but will this translate into a deep transformation of corporate culture and practices?
The lead player behind the Google effort, and the one who convinced Norman Fischer to join the effort, is a very energetic, super happy looking man named Chade-Meng Tan. An early employee at Google, he became a wealthy man after Google’s stock was taken public. He sees the work of the program at Google as a method to create world peace. And when you see this guy, and read his writing about the project, it’s difficult to dismiss the work all together. He’s positive, but also seems grounded in research. The fact that, in Fischer, he chose a respected Zen teacher to help lead the work also lends credibility to the project.
I have to say, I want projects like this to succeed. At the same time, I also want to see that they are doing the hard questioning that has to be done around wealth, capitalism, and social injustice. As of now, I don’t see it with the work at Google. Maybe it will come in time; the program is only a few years old. But I also wonder if this will become just another spiritual project co-opted by capitalism, and turned into another commodity to enhance earnings and make people feel good in the process.
“G” addition by chrisholtphotos.com
Previously published in all or part by Dangerous Harvests August 24, 2009. Published with permission.
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