Putting Buddhism to Work
A New Approach to Management and Business
Shinichi Inoue
Translated by Duncan Ryuken Williams
Kodansha International: New York, 1997
144 pp., $18 (cloth)

What an appealing idea for a book: an examination of a Buddhist approach to business, written by Shinichi Inoue, a Japanese economist in Japan’s financial industry who has been a president of Japan’s Miyazaki Bank and is the chairman of the Foundation for the Promotion of Buddhism.

Putting Buddhism to Work promises the distilled experience of a person who “throughout his career has sought to combine the principles of Buddhism with his expertise in economics and management.” Such a work could offer a real report from the trenches: a deep personal meditation on the effort to be present to one’s life, and true to one’s inner search, in the chaotic world of capitalism and commerce.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t deliver. Instead, it offers a simplistic analysis of economic theories, “facts that cannot be disputed,” and a collection of almost cartoonlike descriptions of Buddhist entrepreneurs who have done well by doing good, all held together in a shallow and pedestrian assembly that might well be called “Opinions of Our Chairman.”

To be sure, there are good ideas in the book. How could there not be good ideas in a work that attempts to examine “an economics that benefits oneself and others, an economics of tolerance and peace, and an economics that can save the earth”?

For example, Inoue discusses the idea that Buddhist cosmology has the entire universe at its center, in contrast to the anthropocentric worldview characteristic of Christian culture. He goes on to say: “the need to balance market-based self-centered economics with the interests of society at large . . . lies at the heart of Buddhist economics.” He illustrates the thought that “the middle way is fundamental to Buddhist economics” by describing how the Buddha rejected the two extremes of asceticism and indulgence of desire. He mentions a new model of economic development, advocated by a Thai Buddhist activist, that takes into account “inner development” as well as material development, though he does not describe how this interesting idea might work. He reminds us that to have the strength to say no to the unessential products in life leads to freedom from the chains of consumption. The attitude of wanting only what is really essential reflects the Buddhist view of consumption: happiness is not achieved by consuming more and more products but by being able to enjoy the simple, beautiful things in life.

While Inoue tries to make a case for the power of Buddhist economics to help the world, much of what he describes is merely ethical behavior at its best. And the problem with most of the good ideas is that they are bland, bloodless, and scattered among disconcerting oddities. He asserts that quantitative approaches to economics “were more readily accepted in the United States, perhaps because of its original status as a British Colony.” He says economic cycles are bad because they cause suffering, and then argues against economic programs that try to alleviate the suffering caused by agricultural cycles. He takes the grim view that “economics is about the exchange of goods, and . . . at the root of that exchange lies greed,” and leaves completely unexamined the joy of willing labor and exchange.

Even noneconomists can understand the attraction of big cities: they can offer a wide variety of economic opportunities, access to culture and people, and a stimulating pace. In economic terms, cities can reduce economic risk by offering a wide portfolio of jobs, and reduce transportation transaction costs through proximity. So it’s puzzling to have Inoue dismiss big cities with this simplistic analysis:

Many rural areas in Japan have seen an exodus of young people, who have been lured to the big cities by the myth that cities are more prosperous. While it is true that the average salary in a large city can be double or even triple that in the countryside, when one considers the price of land and housing, the advantage is clearly weighted in favor of the countryside. The combination of a higher salary and the myth that more money equals more happiness continues to dazzle people.

Inoue’s model practitioner of Buddhist economics is an enlightened entrepreneur who uses the company he leads to support social goals, improve the lot of his employees, and reduce suffering. While this type of behavior is a good thing, Inoue’s focus on leaders is disturbing. If, at their best, spirituality and business can have universal and selfless goals, nevertheless they must start with our own experience. We can’t depend on leaders to do our business or our Buddhism for us. Each of us has to take responsibility for the experience we have of our own lives, for our actions in an economic system, and for the effect we have on the people and the world around us.

It might have been interesting to hear of Inoue’s personal struggles. Perhaps he’s saving them for another book. But a useful book about Buddhism and business is still waiting to be written.