Buddha Gives Convocation Speech at Harvard

Harvard University’s MBA program made front page news today as Siddartha Gautama, also known as “the Buddha” addressed the graduating class of 2013.

“For many of you, ” Buddha said in his opening remarks, “this day represents a moment that you have anticipated and waited for — the success that you have craved for many years.  That, I would humbly submit, is where you have made a grave error.

As I have said in an earlier lecture, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.  What do I mean by that?

We spend our time seeking and wanting things in the future.  We dream and imagine them.   When we are not obsessed with things in the future, we are missing what we had sometime in the past.  As a result, even when our thoughts are of pleasant things, we are in mourning — for the absence of past pleasures or the desire to have future joys. We are everywhere but where we really are — in the current moment – where we actually are as we mourn what is past and we crave what might be.

And we are miserable.

We are caught in this spiral of craving and aversion.  I tell you this, ‘Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.‘ ”

What should we do in this present moment? One thing they must not do is, and he would reinforce this several times in his address, was regard this moment and it’s achievements as the thing that is special — a message laced with irony. Wasn’t the point of graduating from Harvard to establish yourself as unique, as above the average? Not to the Buddha.

“I, me, mine — this incessant chattering of our brains that tells us that we are separate, somehow special, that we are not simply part of all that is — this leads to nothing by suffering.”

Mr. Gautama went on to outline the framework he had developed twenty five hundred years earlier, which he called “Four Noble Truths”.  With exceptional modesty, what he failed to point out was that he had invented an analytical framework that would be imitated by academics and business writers for not just years or decades but for  millenia to come.

How did he do this?  He took a simple construct with a memorable title and used this to elucidate an idea and explore a much larger problem set. In doing so, he not only illustrated the concept, but also used the framework to identify the root cause in a way that was accessible to even a lay audience. To this day, business writers have used this device to explore problems of a company or an industry.  It has created scores of business books, white papers and fuelled the the titles of millions of blog postings.  It’s been the basis for large, strategic consulting assignments.

Yet as impressive as these sound, few, if any have tackled ideas of of the scale and sheer magnitude that Buddha addressed, namely, ending the the issue of suffering felt by all of humanity – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) if ever there was one.

In Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” the cause of all human suffering — or in his terminology, dukha — is rooted in our constant craving for experiences we find pleasant or our aversion to those we find unpleasant.  His strategic focus is clear.  “My ‘mission statement’ “, he said,  “is simple and focused.” “I teach only two things, suffering and the end of suffering.”

Even in this celebration he pointed out, was the root of suffering.  He cautioned  the group against being too proud of their new Harvard degrees or even of looking out at the accomplishments of others lest they covet the success of those others.  “Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind.”

These recent MBA grads appeared a little shocked at this advice. After all, isn’t the entire point of getting a Harvard degree to be regarded as part of an elite? Also, without some kind of envy, how would they find the ambition – how would they make the sacrifices to work the endless hours necessary to make partner in prestigious consulting or law firms?  How would they be motivated to make the sacrifices necessary to climb the ladder and get the C level jobs (and salaries)  that were their right as Ivy League graduates?   Did Buddhism not value higher education?

Anticipating their dismay, Buddha emphasized that he indeed did place a tremendous  importance on higher education and in training the mind. He quoted an earlier lecture, where he said “The mind is everything. What you think, you become.”

In addressing what they should expect from higher education, Bhudda appeared a little tongue in cheek as he said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”   At that point, he smiled whimsically.

In a stunning transition, he changed the mood as he sternly urged the group to take nothing at face value and to  question all that they had learned from their teachers and their teaching.  “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

He went on.  “So now, he said, what does your common sense tell you that you have become as a result of this process you have followed?  What has your degree given you?  Has it made you more compassionate? Has it increased your understanding of humanity? Do you truly feel that you are one with all of mankind? Do you feel metta (love) for all of the world? Have you become enlightened?”

“Maybe you believe that you have learned skills to face life.  Let’s test this.”  He stared at each and every one with a piercing look that riveted many in the the crowd but made others clearly uncomfortable as they tried and failed to look away.  There was something in his message that they could not escape.

“What if I were to tell you,” he said,  “that today, in as little as few hours, that you were going to die.  Would you stay here in this celebration?  Or would you go to do something else — something more important?   Would you be in fear of death?  Or would you be prepared to meet that fate knowing that you have lived each day to its fullest?”

“Even death is not to be feared by one who lives wisely”

“There’s the real question, ”  he summed up, “If this were your last day, would you spend it here?  The answer to that question will given you the true value of your new degree.”

In fairness, it’s not only Buddha who has challenged the value of the Harvard credentials. Others have critcized the famous MBA and its case study approach as inadequate. Critics like Henry Mintzberg have stressed hands-on experience over academic buffing and polishing. “M.B.A. programs train the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences,” said, the noted management professor at McGill University in Montreal. “You can’t create a manager in a classroom. If you give people who aren’t managers the impression that you turned them into one, you’ve created hubris.”

Buddha’s remarks added a new dimension to Mintzberg’s critique.  Buddha also stressed the need for action.  “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?”  In compelling language he urged the crowd to put their ideas into action but added a new dimension, indicating that their actions must take them along a specific path.   “There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth…not going all the way, and not starting.”

What was this road that he alluded to? In answering this, he referred back to another seminal model he had used in his teaching to describe the path to true enlightenment, which he had called the “Eightfold Path”.  That work which some have called the ‘spiritual version of Covey’s Seven Habits of Successful People’, challenges the reader to live a life based on eight key principles – right view, right thought, right speech, right actions, right vocation, right effort, right attention and right concentration.

For the first time in the speach, Buddha seemed to acknowledge that he was  speaking to a business audience,  as he specifically addressed the area of work and and business.

His “Path” acknowledges the need in our society for business and work.  Work is necessary to feed one’s family.  It also has another goal – to create value in society as a whole.  Seen in this larger context, our livelihood has more importance than we credit it with.  As a result, Buddha notes,  one must pursue not just any livelihood, but “right livelihood“.

It was at this point in the speach that the crowd visible perked up.  Were they finally past the problem statement and now onto the solution set — was this some practical career advice?  Mentoring from a truly enlightened being?

Buddha went on to explain his ideas.  “What was the right livelihood?” Simply stated, he said, “one must choose a job and an organization that does no harm to others.”

A hush moved over the audience as the impact of this simple phrase sunk in.  Given the actions of many large corporations, this could preclude a large number of companies  from consideration if these graduates were to follow Buddha’s advice.  The obvious to avoid included arms makers and tobacco which were already on the outs with many graduates – but who were offering exceptionally attractive packages for those who chose to embrace the dark side.  But it didn’t take the IQ of a Harvard graduate to realize that the implications of Buddha’s statement ran deeper than the obvious candidates?

As the audience struggled with this, Buddha pushed the envelope. In addition to right livelihood — who we might work for — he added that there ideas of how we must conduct ourselves.  Other aspects of the path – right speech, right actions and right intent charge us to the highest standards of conduct in all our affairs, both personal and business.

As the group had received the mandatory ethics training, this was not unfamiliar territory.  They followed on through the explanation, nodding in agreement as they had in class.  “We must not speak untruthfully. We should ensure that all our actions benefit and not harm others.”  After all, Buddha was merely outlining what  are admirable qualities and foundations of what we regard as moral behaviour.

But Buddha wanted them to go further.  He wanted them to apply these ideas in business on a daily basis.

He invited the group to consider just how different the world would be if his Eightfold Path was not just a philosophy, but also the standard in business.

The realization left many dumbstruck.  Could you imagine going into an ad agency or marketing department with the idea “right speech” –  committing to telling the entire truth?   How about legal work?  Consulting?  Could you really deliver strategies where you’d be forced to admit that you simply didn’t know the result?  How could you write a case study?  Or how to negotiate contracts and mergers in a hard nosed business if you were governed by “right intent”?

Buddha let his audience weigh these. Then he moved in to the heart of the  question. “Would the financial crisis have happened if business leaders refused to participate in misleading or harmful behaviour? Would the BP spill have occurred if the company was as focused on not harming living beings as it was on profit?  In example after example, Buddha invited his audience to imagine what our world would be like if they – the most highly trained business leaders — showed with their choices and their actual conduct that we as humans existed to make a real difference in the world, and not simply to climb a corporate ladder.

Buddha pointed out that his role was not to judge, but only to show the path to enlightenment and relief from suffering. He pointed out that to pursue the right path took courage, but that same courage had rewards far beyond the world of business.

For those who mastered it, the Eightfold Path promised an end to all day to day worries. It meant the courage to do the right things.  It required that everyone in the classroom should have a live life fearlessly — and as it should be lived.   If they could master that, nothing could stop them, not even the ultimate ‘termination’.  “Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.”

Buddha was quick to add that his philosophy wasn’t about life after death.  He noted that his philosophy was not about rewards and punishment.   You could imagine the compensation and HR consultants in the audience cringing when he delivered this line,  “Ultimately,” he said,  “you need to make your own choices, without coercion or promise of reward.”

He pointed out is that our actions — karma — have consequences to others and to ourselves. You have to decide what you want and what kind of world you want to have.”

In conclusion, he moved onto the ultimate question, the “elephant in the room” – would this work in business? Buddha pointed out that the answer to this could indeed be found at Harvard.  After all, it was graduates of Harvard in 2009 that created the MBA Oath (www.mbaoath.org). The oath includes the following statements, some of which hearken back to the ethical principles of Bhudda’s famous EightFold Path. They include:

• I will manage my enterprise with loyalty and care, and will not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society.

• I will understand and uphold, in letter and spirit, the laws and contracts governing my conduct and that of my enterprise.

• I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.

• I will protect the human rights and dignity of all people affected by my enterprise, and I will oppose discrimination and exploitation.

• I will protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.

• I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.

• I will invest in developing myself and others, helping the management profession continue to advance and create sustainable and inclusive prosperity. In exercising my professional duties according to these principles, I recognize that my behavior must set an example of integrity, eliciting trust and esteem from those I serve. I will remain accountable to my peers and to society for my actions and for upholding these standards.

Bhudda commended the group, noting that thousands of MBAs had signed on.

“This is a start,” he noted. “Remember that when I first went out to teach the path to enlightenment, I started with only five.  Over time we have reached millions and perhaps, I am told, billions.

“People have commented that if I were on Facebook I would have more friends than Bill Gates has dollars,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been told that I won’t be allowed a Twitter account because they are afraid of the traffic. I’m quite fond of this Twitter idea — after all, it’s difficult to put your thoughts into a succinct one line message.  How similar it is to real life.”

In closing, he challenged the group to defy the conventional wisdom. “You can be ethical and still be successful. You can work in business and still make the world a better place. You do not have to sacrifice your integrity. You do not have to win at the expense of others.”

Once again quoting an earlier teaching, he urged them to think, as “Long Tail” author Chris Anderson had so aptly termed it and reject the old scarcity models that have dominated business thought in our time.   “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of one candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

While the crowd was very receptive to this idea, there were some critics in the audience.

“He hasn’t published anything in over twenty-five hundred years,” said one exasperated faculty member. “And frankly, his graduate students did all the writing. All he did was lecture. How hard is that?”

The university itself declined to comment on Bhudda’s reputed rejection of their offer of an honourary degree.

Bhudda himself was polite but insistent, “I’m not concerned with titles, I’m concerned with the idea of enlightenment,” he said, “that’s what the name Bhudda means. It means one who is awake – who is enlightened.  Then, a little tongue in cheek he added. “Does a degree from Harvard make one enlightened?”

The rest, although common sense, did not sit well with all the attendees. One student expressed shock and frustration. “For what I paid for this damn degree, do you mean I’m not going to be enlightened? Why didn’t they tell me that BEFORE they took my money?”

Despite the controversies, the university was exceptionally pleased with the event.

“We’ve been wondering how we could ever top the 2005 Stanford address made by Steve Jobs,” said one Harvard insider, “and, I guess this certainly puts us back on top.”

The source also dismissed any negative feelings from Bhudda’s refusal to accept the honourary degree. “Hey, Jobs was a drop out and Stanford is still proud of him.”

Most agreed that the publicity was good news for Harvard. The school has been facing a decline in enrolment over the past years and there has been general criticism of the MBA’s.

All — even the critics — did have to admit that despite any concerns about the value of the degree, today, with the appearance of Buddha, they had received their money’s worth.   There was much talk about “how any other school could top this”.

In that vein, there was some speculation about who might be the next surprise speaker. For his part Bhudda acknowledged that this would be his last appearance in this millennium.  But he would not confirm the rumours that Christ and Mohammed were slated to speak together at an unnamed middle eastern university. He would only say that if they did, some people who have claimed to have been speaking for them were going to have some “real explaining to do”.  “If you think I’ve been tough on this audience,” he said, “just wait for these two to arrive.  They are both more than a little upset about some of the interpretation of their work.”


The real quotes from Buddha are all market with italics.  

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