The usefulness of Zen in management culture
EIHEIJI, FUKUI PREF. – The prime minister’s appearance as Mario at the Rio Olympics has amused the world. We know now that Abe is willing to put on any cosplay outfit that can help boost people’s interest in Japan and its economy. Daruma, the Indian Buddhist monk (Bodhidharma in Sanskrit) who introduced Zen to the East is another local hero’s outfit that he may want to consider to re-energize Japanese corporate culture.
More than a religion or a philosophy, Zen is a radical approach that has colored the Japanese way of life with a touch of absolute. In 1938 for the original edition, and 1959 for the revised version, the Japanese philosopher D.T. Suzuki published his work “Zen and Japanese culture,” in which he explained the profound influence Zen has had on Japanese culture.
This Zen from Japan has contributed greatly to the introduction and now flourishing of contemplative practices in Western countries. Japanese monks have paved the way for Europe, America and Oceania. They have established Zen centers and temples, taught meditation techniques, and explained their views and understandings of true happiness and the path that leads to it. Along with other Zen schools from Korea and Vietnam, and the Tibetan and other South and Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions, the Zen of Japan that landed as an intriguing “Oriental” ancestral practice about 100 years ago has now taken root on Western shores and has become an inspiring way of life for many.
Zen has provided some answers that the Judeo-Christian religious traditions and the modern European philosophical approaches have themselves forgotten or failed to transmit.
Interestingly, this flourishing of Zen in the West is not limited to the personal lives of its new practitioners. It has also been making headway into the corporate world and now impacts the professional lives of many employees and managers. Since neurobiologists demonstrated the impact of meditation on (long-term) meditators’ brain structure, numerous firms from small IT ventures to giant financial institutions are now encouraging their employees to use contemplative practices for self-development. It is good for the employees and good for the companies, since relaxed and more compassionate employees make sounder managerial and business decisions. Meditation is taught at Harvard Business School. Meditation groups are a common sight at Google Inc.’s campus and on the premises of other leading technology firms. Politicians and business leaders are invited to mindfulness sessions at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Western nations are starting to rethink their capitalism, their driving economic principles of unsustainable growth and environmentally abusive manufacturing practices that have led to the 2008 financial crisis, numerous corporate governance and tax evasion scandals, and the depletion of global environmental resources and the resulting global warming phenomena. New business models that respect the well-being of employees inside and stakeholders outside the firm and that minimize humanity’s ecological footprint are now emerging. The meditative practices of Zen are an inspiration for many of the leaders in the West promoting these changes.
But apparently not in Japan. Of course there are many Zen temples where individuals have been, and still are, practicing meditation. Some are gradually opening their activities to passing audiences, offering Japanese and foreign visitors a glimpse of what zazen (seated meditation) is. It is also not unusual to find a mainstream magazine talking about meditation, introducing a place of practice or an activity inspired by Zen principles. But Zen seems almost nonexistent in modern corporate culture. It is almost nonexistent in educational curricula as well, the latter probably explaining the former.
Here is just one example, but a particularly symbolic one. My own academic institution is located in the Eiheiji district of Fukui Prefecture. Eiheiji is the name of a famous Zen temple, the head temple of the Soto sect, founded by Zen master Dogen. Dogen’s teachings are among the most acclaimed Zen texts and regarded as some of the most profound contributions to world philosophical and spiritual literature. Our campus is only 15 km from Eiheiji Temple, yet our curriculum seems impermeable to Dogen’s teachings.
Why is Zen kept apart from modern educational curricula? One main impediment is arguably history, as some Zen sects provided dubious legitimacy to the aggressive policies of the Japanese government in the early 20th century. But the errors made by the twisted leaders of those times should not lead us today to neglect the wonderful teachings of their traditions. This is a common curse that students of organizational sociology study. The profound and legitimate aspirations of organizational founders are sometimes, if not often, perverted by the mistakenly opportunistic agendas of their successors. The perversions have to be condemned, but the original message has to be rediscovered.
Fukui needs to be reconnected to Eiheiji. Management and business cultures need to be reconnected to Dogen and others’ fundamental Zen teachings.
Like an increasing number of colleagues in academic institutions abroad, I am one of those university educators who strive to introduce students to meditation. I did it when I taught in Singapore and Hong Kong before, I do it in Fukui now. Students need to learn how Zen can help them as individuals as well as future employees and managers of public and private organizations.
Different approaches are available. Mine is using Apple Inc. as a case in a course on corporate strategy. I explain to my students how the practice of meditation helped the firm’s former leader, Steve Jobs, challenge the unsatisfying organizational status quo around him and become the innovative thinker he is famous for, and how it led others to follow him and fulfill their professional aspirations. And then I show them how to start a simple meditative practice and encourage them to follow through regularly.
Japanese workers tend to have a negative perception toward their job. In the latest Gallup survey of international employee satisfaction, 69 percent of Japanese employees reported not feeling engaged in their job, and 24 percent hate their work. In similar international studies, Japan has ranked lowest among OECD countries and the Group of Eight in work satisfaction. In the United Nations’ recently released annual World Happiness Report, Japan ranked 53rd. The practice of meditation can improve individuals’ satisfaction and increase collective engagement. It can help turn an unfulfilling workplace into an inspirational environment.
As Zen master Dogen, D.T. Suzuki and many others taught us, Zen is not just a religious practice. It is a fundamental human path to individual and collective happiness. As such, it should be an integral part of educational curricula, and an inspiring driver to business practices. It is time for Zen to inspire Japanese management culture again.
Didier Andre Guillot is a specially appointed associate professor at Fukui Prefectural University.