Common questions

What attitude should Buddhists have about engaging in business?

 Some people may have the common belief that one cannot be in business and still be totally honest. It is like the old saying, “When Old Wang sells melons, he has to boast how sweet they are [otherwise no one would buy them].” If it is so, then should Buddhists be in business? Does engaging in business violate the precept against lying? Some others may ask, “Shouldn’t Buddhists be generous instead of acquisitive? Still, the purpose of engaging in business is to make money. So isn’t doing business contrary to the Dharma?” Also some may ask, since Buddhists should practice no harm to others, what should they do when their profit comes at someone else’s loss? And should Buddhists engage in speculative investments like stocks, bonds, and real estate? Others may even ask, if Buddhists trade in foods that end up as feed for livestock, isn’t that indirectly assisting in animal slaughter? All these are issues that absolutely need to be faced and examined.

 During the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, there were four castes in India: Brahmin, the religious class; Kshatriya, the political and military class; Vaishya, the merchant class, and Shudra, the laboring class, which included those who worked in slaughter houses. Shakyamuni Buddha did not encourage people to engage in Shudra occupations, but allowed, and even highly praised, all the other endeavors. This implied that engaging in business and industry was considered appropriate for Buddhists. 

 As for the belief that being in business means lying and taking advantage of others, this deserves further examination. Lying and cheating are not the necessary methods for business dealing; they are the results of people’s habits and mentality. The proper business ethics should be quality products, reasonable prices, honesty, and reliability. Only by being trustworthy and reliable can a business grow and last. Otherwise, why do so many stores and businesses boast of their decades or century-old brand names? 

 I once said, “If you do business with a devout Christian, you don’t need to worry about being cheated.” In contrast, if a Buddhist businessperson needs to cheat or lie to attract customers, then not only is that incorrect business ethics, it also the wrong Buddhist attitude. For sure, some merchants set their prices arbitrarily high, knowing that customers would bargain. But others in the same business set firm prices that impress customers as honest, without taking advantage of the elderly or the young. In fact, Buddhists should lead the way in practicing honesty. Their business may be slow in the beginning, with less profit, but after a while its trustworthy reputation will attract good business and profits.

 Generally speaking, Chinese people think about “rearing a son for one’s old age, storing grains against hunger.” It is natural to hope that starting a business with a small investment will return manifold profits, safeguard one’s livelihood, and leave a vast fortune to the heirs. However, times have changed and attitudes are different now. Modern entrepreneurs should not focus on benefitting just themselves; rather, they should use their wisdom and talent for the common good and the wellbeing of society and mankind. This is “giving back to society what you gained from society,” with achieving success as the goal, and benefiting mankind as the ideal, doing it so that all your endeavors are without greed. 

 Ordinary people with limited intellectual and physical abilities may not be able to contribute substantially to society, but they should at least have some kind of livelihood, and if possible, maintain a family and even employ a few people in a business. This is about working together and meeting the needs of many in the society. Therefore, everyone should contribute their abilities, whether financial, intellectual or physical. Buddhists in business should never focus only on their own interests, brushing aside the benefits of others. Since society is the collective causes and conditions of people, developing social relationships will lead to mutually beneficial effects. If we engage in business, we should have an attitude of benefitting self as well as others, earning the profit we deserve, and sharing the profits reasonably. We should not spend the money only on our own material enjoyment, and not indulge in reckless spending out of vanity. If we avoid those things, we will not be earning a profit just to satisfy greed.

 According to the Sujata Sutra, lay people should allocate their income into four areas: living expenses, capital for business, cash for emergencies, and interest-earning accounts. In the India of the Buddha’s time, this was a rather safe and reasonable arrangement. Today, a cash account which also earns interest can be viewed as a single area. In addition, we should also consider taking out a portion from the income for three other purposes: supporting parents; helping relatives, friends, subordinates and servants; and making offerings to the Three Jewels. The first four accounts are to secure livelihood, the last three are to provide for parents and support of social welfare and religious organizations. 

 The Dharma tells us to engage in right livelihood, which means an occupation that benefits oneself as well as others without causing harm. If so, then how could a Buddhist make money in a business which might incur loss to others? Of course, if a business is poorly managed or repeatedly loses money, the owner would consider selling or transferring it to others. Since everyone has different management ideas and styles, different social connections, and different knowledge and capability, the same business under different management can lead to different results. A business may lose money under one manager but be profitable under another. Basically, we should not have the intention of hurting others by passing to him the hot potato. Instead, we should wish him to take over the business and make it profitable.

 At the same time, do not think that others will fail simply because you have, and do not think that others will be negative about something because you are. As long as you do not falsely advertise your products, once someone is willing to take over the business, they will likely earn a profit. Even if unfortunately, the buyer loses money, it was not your intention, and the loss would not be related to you. In short, as Buddhists, whatever our profession, we should treat others with sincerity and honesty. But as far as the consequences of any business transactions are concerned, since they are no longer our responsibility, we should not feel obligated about the outcome.

  Stock and real estate transactions are considered legitimate investment vehicles recognized by all governments in the world. Stocks represent shares of ownership issued by large enterprises through the financial markets to raise capital for operation and growth. This is a way to develop commerce and industry and promote economic prosperity of the society. It is considered an appropriate investment. One problem is that some large stockholders may try to manipulate prices of the stocks to control the ups and downs of the market; this is unethical. Furthermore, only people with large amounts of capital can try to manipulate the market; ordinary investors, who can only trade by following the ups and downs, will unavoidably take considerable risks. In an economically mature and stable society, manipulating the stock market is illegal. Even investors with large amounts of capital would not speculate in or manipulate the market, as they could suffer severe negative consequences, and incur more harm than good. 

 Investing in real estate is a legitimate and normal business. What people usually criticize are land speculation and monopolistic control of prices. These are not considered normal business conducts and Buddhists should avoid them accordingly. However, if one engages in the real estate in a legitimate way and at reasonable prices, there is nothing unethical about being in that business.

 In addition, as far as lending money to earn interest is concerned, depositing money in a bank or credit union is also a way of investment. Similarly, people lending small amounts of money to each other to meet the needs of someone’s cash flow, or pooling money to invest in business, is considered a mutually beneficial behavior, which can promote economic growth and prosperity. These activities should be encouraged. Yet, lending money at extraordinary high interest to satisfy greed is like trying to pull chestnuts out of the fire – highly risky. Oftentimes lenders could even lose their capital. Buddhists should not be tempted to lend money at high interest rates – not only does it not guarantee results, but also exploits others and lacks mercy. It’s better not to do it. 

 As for livelihood, it was said that in ancient China there were 360 trades, but nowadays there are probably more than 3,600. There are no strict rules as to which professions Buddhists should avoid, but in principle they should avoid any profession associated with killing, prostitution and such activities, stealing, gambling, unscrupulous undertakings, and selling drugs. For example, a movie theatre that exclusively shows films with themes that encourage sexual misconduct or thievery is certainly not permitted for a Buddhist; but if it shows films of education, arts, and entertainment, it is regarded as an appropriate business. 

 As for selling grains and food, as long as the products are sold ultimately for human consumption, or to be processed for other industrial purposes, it is all right – even if the grains are bought to feed animals for human consumption, we are not involved directly in the slaughtering. Of course, if we know clearly that the grains and feeds are for animals that are destined for human consumption, we should consider some other business. All in all, Buddhism does not condone the slaughtering business or being in it; therefore, any business related to killing animals should be avoided.