When the Dalai Lama came to town this past September to support a fundraising campaign for the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education and give local business leaders a lesson in zen and the art of corporate conduct.
When the Dalai Lama came to town this past September to support a fundraising campaign for the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, he took part in a series of dialogues – including one with leaders of B.C.’s business community – and delivered teachings to breathless throngs of admirers. So does the 71-year-old Buddhist monk really have anything to teach corporate bigwigs? And why should we listen? A few months ago, Jim Gray found himself in Vancouver, preparing to meet the Dalai Lama with a host of fellow business heavyweights. But before that unusual encounter, he did something almost as peculiar. Along with the other corporate types, Gray attended a workshop called “Connecting for Change,” which brought him face-to-face with leaders who have dedicated their lives to helping others. At these sessions, the Calgary resident was to share ideas with a Vancouverite named Ken Lyotier. Gray is the co-founder of natural-gas company Canadian Hunter Exploration. Lyotier is the co-founder of United We Can, a non-profit that buys millions of bottles, cans and other recyclable containers from street people each year. Gray has had a long and successful business career; Lyotier is a recovering addict who lives in the infamous Downtown Eastside. Uncomfortable around Gray and the rest of the suits at the event, Lyotier felt he didn’t fit in, so he left. Instead of giving up on the chance to talk to him, Gray went and found Lyotier on his own turf. It was an area of town that Gray had never seen before, and he had lunch with Lyotier amid what he describes as the terrible, drug-infested conditions of East Hastings Street. For that entire afternoon, the two discussed the importance of creating connections between people like themselves. “We talked about [our] dreams and anxieties, challenges and opportunities,” Gray recalls. “It was beginning this conversation that we are all talking about through ‘Connecting for Change.’ It is the process of beginning trust and friendship between [social activists and business people]. Only by genuine conversation can we establish that trust.” Gray continues: “I am sure Ken thinks I am going to fly off back to Calgary and never see him again. But I’ll be back. I am going to learn all that I can about the Downtown Eastside, and I’ll be back because we’ve started the process.” The next day, Gray was one of 60 global and local CEOs and other senior executives who gathered for an intimate chat with the Dalai Lama. Alcoa Latin America president Franklin Feder was there, as were Portland General Electric CEO Peggy Fowler, Weyerhaeuser Canada chair George H. Weyerhaeuser Jr. and BC Hydro CEO Bob Elton. The occasion: His Holiness was making a weekend visit to B.C. to support a $60-million fundraising campaign for the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education (DLC). Due to open at a downtown location in 2009, this yet-to-be built 30,000-square-foot facility is already making its mark on the provincial economy. “The chance to listen to the Dalai Lama is, frankly, very interesting, from both a human and a business perspective,” says Elton. “He has a very simple way of talking about life’s problems that I think we can all take something from.” For the most part, the Dalai Lama’s Vancouver visit and its attendant events took place in the public spotlight. But “Connecting for Change” – like the private audience that followed – was an exclusive closed-door affair. In small groups that mixed oil-and-gas bigwigs with non-profit entrepreneurs and pulp-and-paper barons with environmentalists, participants explored the connections between business and altruism. As well, they looked for ways the DLC could be a global interaction point for their two traditionally opposed groups. Then it was time for a conversation with the 71-year-old monk himself. At the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, the long echo of a shofar – a ram’s horn blown like a trumpet, usually during the Jewish high holy days – invited the Dalai Lama to a circle of 16 chairs surrounded by 138 more. A delegation of Coast Salish people led by Grand Chief Ed John ¬welcomed him to their traditional land with song and drum. Lead organizer Charles Holmes of the Learning Strategies Group, the SFU business school’s customized-education outfit, ¬presented the Dalai Lama with a small stone given to him by his daughter. With it, Holmes asked His Holiness to cast many ripples in the world business community. The Dalai Lama didn’t let this reverence last long. He appeared most at ease when the 15 other chairs of the inner circle filled with delegates, making him a part of, rather than the centre of, the dialogue. Severn Cullis-Suzuki, co-founder of the Environmental Children’s Organization, asked the Dalai Lama how both parties in the room could create the will to engage with each other. In his reply, the Dalai Lama stressed that interdependence is more important now than ever before in human history. “I think the business group and social sector, there is a connection,” he said in a voice that resembled that of Star Wars’ Yoda, only deeper. “In the past, maybe different sections can work more or less independent. Today there is a new reality. All should work ¬together, particularly business people. Of course it’s a very important part of society. Without money you can’t do much. But that the business sector should concentrate only to make profit, it is not sufficient. [Business] should take responsibility for the society or the community, then satisfaction with their business improves and more profit, more respect.” According to some who attended, this ¬ unorthodox meeting of monastic robes, bleeding hearts and bullet-proof business suits may have – for better or worse – permanently altered the way the business world views B.C. And although it’s easy to dismiss the whole ¬exercise as good optics and empty chatter, the people who were there tell a different story. Darcy Winslow, Portland-based global GM for Nike’s women’s line, was one of the dialogue participants. She claims that a growing sense of interconnectedness has the biggest businesses in the world changing their behaviour. Not only that: according to Winslow, Vancouver can play a pivotal role through the DLC. “How you bridge the gap between the corporate world and the social sector is so important. It wants to happen,” she says. “To create a venue where you can bring people together and have true dialogue is pretty significant. Right now, Vancouver is the centre of the radar.” Why, though, when seemingly every major global industry is courting the Chinese, would representatives of so many prominent corporations show up at such an event? Why would they volunteer time from C-suite schedules to endorse a centre that will bear the name of one of China’s most vocal critics? What are the consequences of Canada granting the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship in a public ceremony at GM Place? To begin answering those questions, you need to turn to Bowen Island resident Victor Chan, executive director of the DLC. Chan is a swashbuckling ethnic-Chinese nomad, a personality part photographer, part card shark, part Zen monk. Although he’s not a businessman in the traditional sense, Chan has an easy charm that allows him to comfortably move in many social circles. He’s written several books (one with the Dalai Lama), once cycled through the Himalayas and has a Rolodex that houses the names of global business icons and heads of state. Chan is the kind of fellow who could tell you secrets about the sacred sites of Lhasa during one phone call and convince you to cut a cheque for seven figures during another. The son of a Hong Kong family caught in what he calls the inward-looking Chinese ghetto of the 1950s and ’60s, Chan rebelled against social pressures to become an engineer or a doctor. Instead, influenced by the countercultural revolution in the West, he left home and met the Dalai Lama in an unusual tale of kidnapping and a beautiful girl. (The woman, New York Buddhist Cheryl Crosby, convinced Chan to join her on a trip to meet the Dalai Lama. They were abducted in Kabul and eventually escaped unharmed.) Until he was 27, Chan had never even heard of His Holiness. But on an overland trip set against the backdrop of Afghanistan, Iraq and Burma in the early ’70s, he figured out a way to spend the rest of his life working as a part of the Dalai Lama’s inner circle. From that inner circle, he built the idea of the DLC. Chan launched the centre with help from such luminaries as Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, former UBC president Martha Piper and Premier Gordon Campbell. According to him, their pull gives Vancouver an opportunity to create a “cultural bazaar” that will affect business thinking everywhere. [pagebreak] “By virtue of the fact that the Dalai Lama is very involved with [the DLC] and he has very significant relations with powerful people around the world in places like Berlin, London, New York and Taipei, it is natural that what we do in the centre is tied to his friends in these places, [business] people who are very much concerned about making the world a better place,” Chan says. “These are the type of people who will now come to Vancouver because of the DLC, people who might not otherwise have come.” Roslyn Kunin is the B.C.-based director of the Business Development Bank of Canada and one of the country’s most respected economists. She agrees that a unique centre bearing the Dalai Lama’s name has the potential to attract academic and business leaders. In turn, this will boost the province’s reputation and its economic fortunes. “The Dalai Lama centre will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the B.C. economy, mainly in the areas of education and spirituality,” Kunin predicts. However, Zhang Weidong, a political counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, recently rebuked Canada’s support of the Dalai Lama in a Vancouver Sun interview. Zhang’s comments suggest that such an open display of affection toward the Tibetan leader is likely to further hinder relations ¬between the two countries – and may thwart B.C.’s Pacific-gateway aspirations. Canada is already having trade difficulties with China, especially when it comes to winning Chinese government approval as a preferred tourist destination. Without such a nod, it could lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tourism revenue. (The World Tourism Organization estimates that 31 million Chinese travelled abroad last year.) However, Kunin says getting along is important enough to both countries that the DLC probably won’t scuttle other trading efforts. “Although the Chinese government may have some issues about the Dalai Lama,” she explains, “the Chinese economic relationship with Canada as a market for their products and source of resources and materials are sufficiently important to both sides that they are unlikely to be negatively impacted by the DLC in Vancouver.” Chan is quick to point out that the DLC is both non-political and non-religious, but it’s hard to overlook the Dalai Lama’s connection to Buddhism, which is itself a significant global industry (see “Behind the robes,” p. 57). Besides thinkers and business people, the DLC could bring throngs of spiritual tourists to town. The latter may even come from China, which, according to Asian-affairs expert Robert Bedeski, is growing more tolerant of its Buddhist citizens each year. “There is absolutely a resurgence in Buddhist practice in China,” says Bedeski, retired professor emeritus of political science at the University of Victoria. “It is most evident in the southern provinces and through the expansion of the railway into Tibet, where tourism has grown.” Central to the Dalai Lama’s teachings is the importance of individual happiness, something the profit-driven business world isn’t wired to consider. “I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy,” he says. “From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience, I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life.” Lola Rasminsky, executive director of Arts for Children of Toronto, asked the Dalai Lama if he thinks creativity and imagination are vital to happiness. “Absolutely,” he responded. “I think we [humans] have a special type of brain that has a big capacity and potential for imagination, which allows us a certain type of creativity. I fully agree [it helps us to find ways of being happy].” “I wonder, then,” Rasminksy continued, “if you agree that if we can ignite the imaginations of people in the corporate sector, it will perhaps motivate them to do something good for the world.” “Yes! Yes! Yes! The business circle is a very important part of society. [Like I said,] without money you can’t do much. But the business circle has great potential to benefit society, benefit humanity. Immediately it seems difficult, even impossible, but one should not lose hope, not lose vision. Optimism and [imagination] are very important.” “Connecting for Change” participant and Vancity CEO Dave Mowat, who admits he’s a little skeptical of the Dalai Lama, never imagined today’s discussion would be so relevant from a business perspective. Mowat says the weekend reveals just how big a role Vancouver can play in helping the two sectors stand together. “The most striking thing... is the number of business people and the number of nonprofit organizations that are trying to talk to each other,” Mowat observes. “The Dalai Lama called the social sector and the business sector the sheep and the yak. I was a sheep and we didn’t have anything in common.” Today, that’s changed. “Non-profits are learning how to borrow money and business people are learning how to use their skills to help them. I think ultimately the big power of the [DLC] is going to come from enlightened business and non-profits who aren’t just tilting at windmills and bleeding hearts, but that understand how things are done, how the economy works.” Victor Chan stresses that whatever economic blessings may befall Vancouver, it must cultivate values that extend beyond business as usual. “People have a responsibility to do business in the right way, [to] do it ethically, and the Dalai Lama centre will be a catalyst, a beacon attracting other like-minded organizations to Vancouver as well,” he says. The word “sustainability” is almost a cliché now, ¬ a feel-good tag trotted out to sell everything from automobiles to the Olympics. Still, it seems rooted in the ascendance of many in Chan’s generation into the highest ranks of authority in various sectors, including business. Combined with the rise in economic stature of their 30-something children, they represent an empowered critical mass. But this isn’t a critical mass of malcontents tearing down Nike signs or having pot-smoking sit-ins to protest the war. Instead, it’s a group of educated, practical, ethically minded citizens who understand how the fates of business and society are intertwined. Together, they form a large, economically powerful portion of the consumer base that the business world can’t afford to ignore. Chan and the three other local DLC trustees, ¬ Evan Alderson of the Learning Strategies Group, lawyer Thomas Rafael, and communications guru James Hoggan, ¬ were undoubtedly influenced by the social change of the 1960s. During that turbulent decade, Chan had his first audience with the Dalai Lama, and Hoggan was reading wagonloads of Buddhist tomes. Rafael was living in a geodesic dome on Pender Island à la Buckminster Fuller, while Alderson was helping kick off the free-speech movement of 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley. Yet each of them balanced the optimistic ideals of the times with the realities of the business world, and they’re now enjoying financially successful careers. But what if so-called sustainability bids such as the DLC are simply glib love-ins that make aging business people feel better about themselves? After all, using Bob Dylan songs to sell SUVs is a lot different than actually finding a way to slow global carbon emissions. And hanging out with the Dalai Lama is great for the ego, but living a life as concerned about others as you are about yourself takes much more than a weekend retreat. [pagebreak] Peter Senge is an MIT lecturer and best-selling author who waived a six-figure fee to help design and facilitate “Connecting for Change.” According to him, any social transformation must come from sincere and prolonged effort. However, Senge says the changes he’s seeing in the business ¬ community through initiatives like the DLC will likely have more than just a superficial ¬effect on the global economy. “I think you have enough pockets of people interested in sustainability issues that things are changing very rapidly in the business world,” he argues. “An issue like global warming is a building crisis headed in a very clear, very serious direction. Our energy system is clearly not a good one and must change, but you have to have a dedicated mass of people committed to long-term solutions. [This] represents a tremendous opportunity for innovation, which is good for economies.” Alderson likens the shift in business norms to the abolition of slavery. He says companies are learning that they don’t just have to make and sell products. They must also operate in ways that are good for people and the planet,¬ and be at peace with these methods on a corporate and an individual level. “There is a growing sense among [business] people that their businesses ought to reflect human values, and those values are undergoing significant change,” notes Alderson. “Business people have to find the way to bring that awareness into practice.” In the Dalai Lama’s clearest message in “Connecting for Change,” he stressed the importance of interaction ¬between people like Jim Gray and Ken Lyotier, and the infinite rewards that can spring from their open-mindedness. “Compassion is not a religious business,” he said. “It is a human business. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity.” Click here for more Top stories