Planet, Profit and People:

Buddhism, Sustainability And Sri Lanka

With time, the hotel industry has begun opening up village life to tourists.

Srilal Miththapala (08/03/2019)

Today, sustainability is fast becoming a very relevant and essential aspect of our lives. This has come about as a response to the high degree of consumerism that prevails in the modern world, and the resultant use of fast depleting natural resources, giving rise to global warming and climate change. In quest of sustainability, the competitive business landscape is already starting to transform, forcing companies to change the way they think about products, technologies, processes, and business models.

Sustainable growth and development requires a harmony between environment sustainability, economic sustainability and socio-political sustainability, commonly referred to as the three Ps- Planet, Profit and People.

However, the idea of environmentally sustainable growth is not of recent origin. Many cultures and regions over the course of human history have recognised the need for harmony between the environment, society and economy.

The principles of Sustainability

While there are a whole array of definitions of sustainability, I have amalgamate several, to coin the following- “Sustainable Development is development that meets the present needs while protecting and enhancing opportunities for all stakeholders for the future”

There are some key words in this definition that is of importance. ‘Present needs’ indicates that sustainability is not about stifling development, contrary to what many myopic environmentalists preach in the guise of sustainability. It actually encourages development, but at the same time there is the need, not only to ‘protect’, but also to ‘enhance opportunities for the ‘future’.   Hence this means that while current development must be encouraged, it is vital that the environment and socio-cultural aspects must be safeguarded and enhanced for the future in an all-encompassing manner.

It is thus obvious that Sustainable Development is about striking a balance between the Development (Businesses), Community (People) and the Environment.  This is referred to in business, as the ‘triple bottom line’ and also called ‘The People, Planet and Profit’ approach, as previously mentioned.

Buddhism is more than a religion; it is more of a philosophy or ‘way of life’ or philosophy, which ‘means love of wisdom’. The Buddhist path can be summed up as:

1) Moral guidelines based on non-harming

2) Central law of interdependence and causation

3) Belief in liberation from suffering through insight

4) Practices that strengthen intention and compassion.

The  Noble Eight-fold Path is the bedrock of Buddhist teachings and it calls for being moral, focussing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, and developing wisdom by understanding the Four Noble Truths and by developing compassion for others.

Hence in general, Buddhist teachings always encompasses the basic building blocks of sustainability. “Middle path’, ‘Moderation’, ‘leading a moral life’, being ‘mindful and aware of thoughts and actions’ are all part of the foundations of sustainability—concern for the environment, people and the business, operating in a moderate manner when it comes to consumption of all resources needed for the business.

sutainable development graphic

Buddhism and the environment

Buddhism teaches that there can be no human life without nature. This implies that every single life form on earth is considered interdependent and cannot survive without the help and existence of nature.

The Buddha taught people to respect human life and nature. Human life and nature should be in a great harmony, without overexploiting nature to get more than what is needed.

In one example, the Buddha said that the butterfly or the bee collected nectar without hurting or destroying flowers, and in return, flowers turned into fruits. That fruits gave more trees and flowers and this cycle would continue.

Both Buddhism and eco-centrism focus on protecting holistic natural entities such as species and ecosystems.

Today, every large development project requires an Environment Impact Assessment study (EIA). However, this should be viewed as only a minimum guideline, and real sustainable development needs to pursue a greater moral goal of protecting, nurturing and enhancing the environment. Many business entities simply ‘follow the letter of the law’ and do just what is needed to ‘pass the test’, within the confines of their enterprise.

For example, larger corporates can pressure suppliers to use more sustainable and environment friendly packaging (backward integration). In a similar manner they can ensure that their distribution channels for products follow Sustainable Consumption Practices (SCP). (Forward integration). Just because these actions are remote and away from the enterprise, it does not mean that its responsibility ends there—the ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ syndrome.

A good example is the hotel and tourism industry (where I come from). Most hotels now have a garbage sorting scheme in place. The sorted garbage is then taken away by a contractor for disposing of it in a ‘sustainable and environmentally manner’. Hopefully!  How many of these hotels really know what happens to this garbage (that was so carefully sorted) when taken away? Is it recycled in an environmentally friendly manner or just dumped in a paddy field?

Tourists join village women in a round of traditional drumming.
Tourists join village women in a round of traditional drumming.

Buddhism and the community

The Buddha preached the need for having compassion towards oneself and to the rest of the world, society and community and taking care of oneself physically and mentally.

The Noble Eightfold Path, which encapsulates the core Buddhist tenets stress the importance of cultivating positive emotions such as generosity, gratitude, loving-kindness and devotion and making a living in an ethical and productive way.

This is what the community angle of sustainability is all about. It is one of the most neglected aspects of sustainability. It is about doing one’s business, giving due consideration to the community that interacts with it. Many businesses are started and operated without any thought for the people who are affected, and interact with the business in peripheral or indirect manner. Disregarding this important aspect may result in alienation of the community, distrust and antagonism, eventually leading to disruptions to the business activities.

In days gone by, hotels were built in the most pristine, and undisturbed environments, with scant respect for the communities therein. The principle was to completely shut the community out of all tourism-related activities. It is only during the last decade or so that the hotel industry has begun to reach out to the community, to try and involve them in some of the operational activities so that they would also reap some benefits from the business. Some examples are buying locally grown products, exposing village life to tourists, and hiring of local guides.

Buddhism teaches the basics of sustainability through moderation, middle path and leading a moral life.
Buddhism teaches the basics of sustainability through moderation, middle path and leading a moral life.

Buddhism and business

The wise and moral man shines like a fire on a hilltop
who does not hurt the flower.
Such a man makes his pile as an anthill, gradually
grown wealthy, he thus and firmly binds his friends to himself.

— SINGAALOVAADA SUTHRA

Often one would not relate Buddhist teachings to the commercial corporate world of business. But when business activities are viewed in the light of sustainability and Buddhism there are several areas of importance.  Buddhism teaches its followers to take greater personal responsibility for their actions, to have a healthy detachment where necessary, and embrace a wholesome view of their actions. This focus will assist in the-day-to-day decision making in business.

Spiritual rationales for goals and activities can complement commercial ones. When the work environment is based on moral and ethical precepts there are immense benefits that accrue both tangibly and intangibly.

“None can live without toil, and a craft that provides your needs is a blessing indeed. But if you toil without rest, fatigue and weariness will overtake you, and you will  be denied the joy that comes from labour’s end.” – DHAMMAVADAKA

Buddhism lays emphasis on mindfulness and balance. It is therefore acceptable to enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Develop the mind of equilibrium. You will always be getting praise and blame, but do not let either affect the poise of the mind: follow the calmness, the absence of pride.” – SUTHRA NIPATA

Buddhist teachings call for a balance between the mind and heart. Mindfulness is of immense benefit; being calm  and not too obsessed about positive or negative feedback. Enjoying the great moments of achievement, and reflecting on the moments of failure, are all the hallmarks of good management of businesses.

He who is skilled in good, and wishes to
attain that state of Peace, should act thus:
he should be able, upright, perfectly upright,
amenable to corrections, gentle and humble.
— METTA SUTHRA

In a nutshell the basic Buddhist principle that can be applied to businesses are:

  • Defining the goal
  • Relying on cause and effect
  • Developing empathy and compassion for the customer
  • Being mindful of impermanence and being flexible and innovative
  • Following ethical principles and respect for colleagues and customers.

Conclusion

From the foregoing it is quite evident that that Buddhism reinforces the concepts of modern day sustainability. Long before sustainability and environment conservation became buzz words, the 2,500 year old teachings of The Buddha promoted the same ideas. Sri Lanka is known the world over for Theravada Buddhism and as one of the most environmentally diverse bio diversity hot spots in the world.

Hence Sri Lanka must set an example to the world in responsible and sustainable development.

 

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