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The Dalai Lama on the Global Economic Meltdown

by Steve Hamm, Business Week, May 5, 2009

New York, USA -- I’m a fan of the Dalai Lama thanks to the groundwork of my spiritual adviser, Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhism at Columbia University. It never occurred to me, though, that I’d have an opportunity to meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, much less have a personal audience with him, but that’s what happened this morning.

(The face-to-face session, which lasted 10 minutes, was arranged by Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, who clearly has some mojo in the Tibetan Buddhist community.)This is BusinessWeek, so I asked the Dalai Lama about the global economic meltdown.

If you’ve read his writings or heard him speak, you know he’s got a peaceful certainty about him mixed with a hearty sense of humor. Meeting him in person was for me both a calming and exciting experience, which may sound like a contradiction, but, in this case is not.

The meeting was in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Now that’s a discontinuity. Here’s this holy man dressed in his monk’s robes in a grand relic of 20th Century capitalism. He has a gentle handshake and friendly, direct gaze. It seemed like he was truly interested in me. He speaks softly, in a natural flowing style—like water bubbling over rocks in a stream. Every now and then, in the middle of speaking, he makes a low moaning sound. It reminded me of the gravel-voice Tibetan Buddhist chanting style—like a little chant trying to get out.

I was nervous, so my note taking was even worse than usual. It's lucky I took a digital recorder. Here's an edited-down version of some of his comments:

--On what caused the collapse:

I’m telling people, including some businessmen who are my friends, what this global economic crisis was caused by too much greed, speculation, and hypocrisy--not being transparent. These are the moral and ethical issues. So be transparent and honest right from the beginning.

--On the obsession with money:

There are those people who are only concerned with money: It’s just money, money, money, money. With such people, since the money crisis happened, there are much disturbances. Of course, money is important. Without money you can’t survive. However, it is not the only measure of value. We have other values: The happy family, compassionate family, the family full of affection, and the compassionate community. Those people have much less disturbances due to this money crisis. Therefore, this global economic crisis reminds us you should find some other values. Money value alone is not very certain. It’s a limitation.

--How people who have lost jobs and savings should deal with their anger:

Realistically, now, the tragedy has already happened. Instead of more frustration and anger, now think about other alternatives. Make an effort. That’s better. There’s a Tibetan saying: Nine times failure, nine times effort, without discouraging oneself.

--On the Buddhist approach to dealing with economic calamity.

According to Buddhism, these things happen due to their own causes and conditions. Through years or through decades this present crisis developed. All the causes and conditions were fully ripe. No force could stop it. It’s the natural law. So you accept it.

I later asked Thurman why business people should listen to the Dalai Lama. This was his answer: "In the new economy, after the collapse, ethics are returning to business. Ethics keep the customer. This is where long term prosperity lies."


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