What business can learn from Buddhism

>>What business can learn from Buddhism

Srilal Miththapala FIH looks at the connections between Buddhism, sustainability and business as related to the growing tourism success of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is ranked as the top country for travel in 2019 by the US-based guide Lonely Planet.

Buddhism sees the world from an eco-centric point of view which means humans are subject to nature, rather than in control of it. Both Buddhism and eco-centrism focus on protecting holistic natural entities such as species and ecosystems.

This is exactly what environmental sustainability is too. It is interacting with, appreciating and using nature as an integral part of our lives, and respecting it in whatever development that is done.

Many businesses do the minimum to meet compliance.  However, real sustainability should reach beyond. For example, larger corporations can pressurise suppliers to use more sustainable packaging ; they can ensure that their distribution channels for products follow Sustainable Consumption Practices.

A good example is the hotel and tourism industry. Most hotels now have a garbage sorting scheme in place. The sorted garbage is then taken away for disposal in a ‘sustainable manner’. Hopefully!  How many of these hotels really know what happens to their garbage? Is it really re-cycled?  Or is it dumped in some unused paddy field (out of sight, out of mind)?

Buddhism and the community

The Buddha teaches compassion to oneself and to the rest of the world, society and community, taking care of oneself physically and mentally. The Noble Eightfold Path, which encapsulates the core Buddhist precepts, talks about 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 about. It is one of the most neglected aspects of sustainability. It is about doing ones business and giving due consideration to the community that interacts with it.

Many businesses are started and operated without any thought about the people who are affected, and who interact with the business in a peripheral or indirect manner. Disregarding this important aspect may result in alienation of the community, distrust and antagonism, eventually leading to disruption to the business’s activities.

In Sri Lanka in the past, hotels were built in the most pristine and undisturbed environments, with scant respect to the communities surrounding them. The principle was to completely shut the community out of all activities. It is only in the last decade or so that the hotel industry has begun to reach out to the community, and try and involve them in some of the operational activities so that they can also reap some benefits. Some examples are buying locally-grown produce, experiencing a village life, and employing local guides.

Often one would not relate Buddhist teachings into the commercial corporate world. But looking at business activities through the lens of sustainability and Buddhism, we see several areas of importance.

Buddhist teachings call for the mind and heart to be balanced, objective, and have only mindful pride. Mindfulness has benefits that span many occupations and fields: being calm and not too obsessed about positive or negative feedback; enjoying the great moments of achievement, and reflecting on the moments of failure. These are all the hallmarks of good business management.

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

  • Define the goal
  • Rely on cause and effect
  • Develop empathy and compassion for the customer
  • Be mindful of impermanence and be flexible and innovative
  • Follow ethical principles and respect for colleagues and customers


Long before sustainability and environmental conservation became buzz words, the 2,500 -year-old teachings of The Buddha were promoting the same ideas.

Sri Lanka is considered to be a key centre of Buddhism and also one of the most environmentally-diverse hot spots in the world.

Hence there is no question that Sri Lanka has to be a shining example to the world, as a crucible of the rich teachings and practices of the Buddha, in a responsible and sustainable environment.

Detail from a Buddhist temple. Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war ended in 2009.

The million rupee question is: ‘Are we such an example?’

Srilal Miththapala FIH has over 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry.  He is a Visiting Guest Lecturer to the Business School of Plymouth University of UK, and also a Visiting Lecturer for the Final Year University of Plymouth degree programme being conducted in Sri Lanka.  He is a Chartered Electrical Engineer and possibly one of the only people to have a Fellowship of both the Institute of Electrical Engineers (UK) and the Institute of Hospitality.