His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in town on Monday, but he was meeting with a slightly different crowd: the entrepreneurs and business leaders of Silicon Valley. Under the auspices of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, the Dalai Lama engaged in conversation with business leaders and scholars.
Attendees at the public talk made their way past a cluster of demonstrators from the disaffected Dorje Shugden faction of Tibetan Buddhism (you can read about the controversy on Wikipedia). It was odd, to say the least, to hear people shouting that the Dalai Lama was an enemy of religious freedom!
We then passed through the sadly necessary security checks before entering the Leavey Events Center on the Santa Clara campus. As a nominal head of state, the Dalai Lama is accompanied by a Secret Service security detail. There’s no specific threat, but the US doesn’t want anything to happen to him on our soil. Before the event, special guests were required to send their identification information to be checked before arriving.
As the session got under way a group of monks chanted in the deep-throated sound familiar from the Tibetan tradition. The Dalai Lama took the stage, and when he had pulled out his signature red eye shade, Santa Clara President Michael Engh brought him a new visor bearing the name of the University.
A group of students from the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto serenaded the assembly, and then James Doty, director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, outlined some of the challenges of the day. Local companies offer many perks for employees and quality of living is high, but stress and depression remain big problems. The Health Care system also deals with high levels of stress and depression among doctors and nurses. Could there be a different approach to the business of business and the business of health care that might address some of these concerns?
Sitting with the “Honored Guests” on the floor of the arena, we soon discovered that sound systems are not maximized for the players in a basketball game. It was often difficult to make out what what being said, especially by the Dalai Lama, who spoke softly and often lapsed into Tibetan to converse with his translator.
As it was, he did not really say anything startlingly new. What he said could easily sound trite coming from another speaker, one who had not embodied the values he was advancing. His Holiness reiterated his long-time message of the value compassion and cooperation. There is an aching need to teach compassion and develop empathy from the earliest age. Compassion not only smooths relationships among people, but builds confidence and inner strength. Compassion is not just a feeling; it requires application and acting out. And when one gives happiness to others, he pointed out, one receives much more. That may be selfish, in a way, but would it not be better to be “wise” selfish, rather than “foolish” selfish?
His conversation partner for the morning event was Lloyd H. Dean, CEO of Dignity Health, one of the largest health care systems in the country. Dean described how his company has worked to build a culture of compassion for both patients and workers. Three key components go into this effort: a commitment to values-based decision making; encouraging not-so-random acts of kindness; and exercising stewardship for the environment as a whole by asking not only how something should be done, but how it can be done to benefit all. “Compassion and kindness cost very little, yet yield tremendous returns,” Dean said.
If anyone had come looking for a quick and easy answer to how to address the problems of stress and depression in the workplace and to deal with the challenges of competition and rapid change, the Dalai Lama tossed the question right back. Noting that someone like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad might well need to learn compassion, the Dalai Lama suggested that it was most difficult to begin at this late state. As to incorporating compassion into the corporate world, he commented that he had not had experience in that area. Those who were sharing in the conversation, he suggested, might be better able to answer that question.
Following the morning session, His Holiness met with some 150 people at a luncheon sponsored by Santa Clara President Michael Engh, SJ, and then returned to a smaller group of people from local companies, Stanford University, and Santa Clara University, for another conversation. This conversation, moderated by Kirk Hanson, director of the Markkula Center, included Charles Geschke, co-founder of Adobe; Jane Shaw, former Chair of the Intel Board; and Monica Worline, a research fellow at the Compassion Lab at the University of Michigan.
Geschke and Shaw suggested some ways that values of kindness and compassion had been key in developing and running their respective companies. In founding Adobe, Geschke said, the goal was to “create a company we would like to work for.” In a business whose sole asset is its people, care for employees is not just altruism; it is core to the company’s mission.
Worline described the ways that company structures and routines amplify or inhibit compassionate responses. Given that companies by their very nature encompass a lot of pain, that people are generally good and want to respond compassionately, what is it that keeps them from doing so. Their research has discovered that compassion is inhibited by ignoring or failing to acknowledge pain, by rigid rules, and by fear of being “taken in.” Amplifiers of compassion include sensitivity to painful situations, networks of relationship, and leadership that demonstrates flexibility, offers role models for compassionate action, and shares stories that emphasize common humanity.
Whether Silicon Valley becomes a more compassionate place following these conversations remains an open question. As His Holiness observed, “merely talking about compassion is not enough; there must be action.”
Video of the morning and afternoon sessions can be seen on the Santa Clara University website.