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Looking to Buddha for management tips

February 13, 2004

Photo of Ron Purser and Dwarko Sundrani, the last living disciple of GandhiManagement Professor Ronald Purser's recent visit to India was part business, part personal.

In January he met with the last living disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, Dwarko Sundrani, who has dedicated his life to working with the poorest residents of Bodh Gaya, India. Purser conducted pro bono consulting services and absorbed Sundrani's knowledge and beliefs not only for his scholarly research, but also for his own spiritual reasons.

A practicing Buddhist for more than 20 years, Purser incorporates elements of Eastern cultures into his research on management strategies and time efficiency for organizations.

"Part of my research is to look at leaders who lead by using principles outside the traditional mold," said the 48-year-old Purser, who joined SFSU in 1997. "I think we have a lot to learn from people outside of corporations who work for a purpose."

Sundrani, 81, is the founder and managing director of the Samanway Ashram, a residential school for about 50 children, and the Center for Nonviolence Research, where pacifists can develop their spirituality and engage in nonviolence projects for community development. Purser's consulting work consisted of a strategic planning effort for the center.

Purser quotes Sundrani as saying, "The purpose of life is to give service. From birth to death, we are continuously receiving service, whether it is from our mothers or the plants in our backyard, and it is our duty as human beings to give back to the interconnected circle of life."

Integrating business management practices with community service, nonviolence and the Buddhist approach of exploring one self's mind will likely be the basis for Pursers' long-term book project tentatively titled "Mind at Work." He expects the book will be completed no earlier than 2006.

"In the West, wealth creation is measured by a single metric -- profit," said Purser, whose next book "Creativity and Innovation in Organizations" will be published in 2005. "I believe Eastern cultures are able to reconcile the best the Western world has to offer in terms of technology and economic development, but without losing sight of their deeply rooted communal and spiritual values."

Interested in Indian culture, Purser's friend Wendell Hanna -- an assistant professor of music -- accompanied him on the two-week trip. Inspired by the trip, she plans to incorporate some Indian cultural values into her music education work.

"They have a clear, compassionate vision of the world that we have lost in the West," she said.

Purser hopes his work with Sundrani will lead to a partnership between the center and SFSU, in which students of any major could study in Bodh Gaya and earn community service learning credit.

The San Bruno resident hopes those students can return to the United States with the same state of mind he has had since coming home.

"Our identities (in Western countries) are based on an insatiable desire to keep acquiring more things, more profits, more money, more social status," he said. "Thus, there is a link between institutionalized forms of violence -- such as the increasing gap between the rich and poor, ecological degradation and other social ills -- and our collective states of mind. From this respect, I think the trip confirmed for me that real social change has to be driven by the need for personal transformation."

-- Matt Itelson


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