Mark McGuinness: How the Buddha Solved His Marketing Problem


When you think of the Buddha, you don’t think of marketing.

At least I hope not.

The Buddha was a spiritual teacher, with zero interest in profit. In fact, he forbade his ordained followers from even handling money.

But if we agree with Seth Godin that marketing is about spreading ideas, then you could say the Buddha was one of the greatest marketers of all time.

Over the last 2,500 years, his teachings have influenced the lives of millions of people, spreading first across Asia, and eventually to the furthest corners of the globe. For several hundred years, in the absence of written records, his ideas survived purely by word-of-mouth. And for well over two thousand years they crossed continents without the benefit of mass communications.

The Buddha’s example is particularly relevant if you work for a non-profit, in a ‘helping profession’, or if you want to change the world by communicating your message.

But even if you’re running a business for profit, you’ve probably noticed that generosity and purpose are critical to success in the 21st century.

It’s also a nicer way of doing things. 🙂 So you may be surprised how much you can learn from the Buddha’s approach.

The story of the Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama – later known as the Buddha – was born into a life of privilege and luxury, the son of a king. His father did everything he could to shield him from the realities of life, bringing him up within the confines of splendid palaces.

Yet when the young prince grew to manhood and ventured outside the palace walls, he was jolted out of his complacency by three troubling sights: first, a wrinkled old man; next a man suffering from a terrible illness; and then a dead body being taken away for cremation. Finally, he saw a wandering holy man, a symbol of an alternative way of life.

Realizing that all his pleasures and possessions would be taken from him by old age, sickness and death, Siddhartha abandoned them, along with his family and royal status, and set out on a quest to find a way of transcending suffering and death.

He travelled across India, learning from many different teachers, and trying many different philosophies and approaches. He meditated, fasted, practiced yoga and experienced all kinds of weird and wonderful states of mind.

But like all the pleasures of life, he discovered that sooner or later, these blissful states soon came to an end.

He even tried torturing his body by denying it food, sleep, and any kind of sensual indulgence. He wasted away until his body was a living skeleton, but this brought him no nearer to the truth. So he gave up extreme asceticism and started eating properly again, restoring his body to health.

Having exhausted the paths taught by the gurus, Siddhartha retired to a quiet spot in the forest, sat down cross-legged under a tree, and resolved to stay there until he had found the truth. And after 49 days of solitary meditation, he found what he was looking for.

The word Nirvana literally means ‘blowing out’ – the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion that are the roots of human suffering. Once these are gone, there is no more suffering, no more fear of death.

After he had experienced Nirvana, Siddhartha was known as the Buddha, meaning “the awakened one”.

Now, I’m not going to presume to talk to you about the Buddha’s teachings after his enlightenment. (If you’re curious, I recommend Steve Hagen’s excellent book Buddhism Plain and Simple.) Instead, I will show you some of the ways he transmitted his teachings, and got his ideas to spread to millions of people, for thousands of years after his death.

If you want to get your message across in an ethical and effective manner, whether you call it marketing, teaching or simply communication, here are some suggestions for following in the Buddha’s footsteps.

Even enlightened masters have marketing problems

One of the first things that occurred to the Buddha after his Enlightenment was a marketing problem.

Sitting under the tree, reflecting on the experience of Nirvana, he said to himself:

This cannot be taught.

Having known the unfathomable experience of Nirvana, and looking at the levels of ignorance and confusion among human beings, he concluded it would be futile to even try to educate them.

So if you’re feeling discouraged by your lack of success as a marketer, take heart! You can have great knowledge, amazing skills and a lot to offer the world, but marketing is a whole different ballgame. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a different kind of expertise to the one you already have.

If an enlightened master like the Buddha can own up to a marketing problem, it gives hope for the rest of us!

Don’t try to reach everyone

When the Buddha concluded there was no point trying to explain his discovery, he was visited by the god Brahma, who encouraged him, saying there were some people “with only a little dust in their eyes” who would be able to see the truth.

So the Buddha set out to find these earnest souls who were actively seeking enlightenment and would be receptive to his message.

A classic marketing mistake is to look for everyone who could benefit from your product, service or message, and try to persuade them of its value.

The problem with this is that however much someone may need what you’re offering, they won’t be receptive to your offer unless they want it. Otherwise we’d all be super-organized, fit and healthy, and financially secure, thanks to the helpful marketing of productivity gurus, health and fitness coaches and financial advisers.

If we follow the Buddha’s example and focus on the people who actively want what we’re offering (not just the ones who need it), we’ll have a much smaller potential audience — but a much better chance of a positive response.

Telling the truth is not enough

The Buddha’s first attempt at teaching is generally considered a failure.

Walking back into town from the forest, he met a wandering ascetic who could instantly see there was something unusual about him. The ascetic asked the Buddha what he had discovered. Here’s his reply:

I am the perfectly enlightened one, the Buddha!

The other guy scratched his head. “Sure you are,” he thought, as he made his excuses.

The funny thing was, the Buddha was telling the plain, unvarnished truth. He wasn’t being egotistical. (By definition, a Buddha has transcended the ego.) And he was giving his teaching away for free.

But that didn’t make any difference to his audience.

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to sell. You’d just tell the truth, or show people your product, or describe your service, and people would instantly see the value and accept your offer. But even for Buddhas, this isn’t an ideal world.

And even if you’re making a free offer — say a subscription to your blog or newsletter, a free trial of your software or even a free consultation — you still need to sell it.

People are busy, overwhelmed or just plain confused, so it’s up to you to cut through the mental clatter and persuade them of the value of your offer.

Packaging makes a difference

The Buddha tried again.

Meeting five of his friends and fellow seekers in the Deer Park at Varanasi, they asked him what he had learned and he told them about The Four Noble Truths — fundamental principles that explained the nature of suffering and how to transcend it.

This was much more successful — the story goes that all five achieved enlightenment, and became the first Buddhist monks. To this day, the Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhist teaching.

By breaking his teaching down into four basic steps, the Buddha made it easy for his listeners to understand, remember and share with others.

This was especially important given that he was teaching in a pre-literate culture — it would be several centuries before his teachings were written down, so until then they had to spread via word-of-mouth.

The Buddha’s teachings contain several other examples of complex concepts broken down into numbered elements, such as The Noble Eightfold Path, The Triple Jewel and the Five Aggregates. It’s almost as if he’d been reading Copyblogger’s advice on writing headlines. 🙂

So if you’ve ever looked at headlines with numbers and thought they were too cheesy or simplistic for your audience, consider that the Buddha’s teaching is one of the most subtle and profound ever expressed.

If he wasn’t too proud to use a numbered list …

And if you provide a complex service or sophisticated product, you will get better results by breaking it down into simple elements when talking to prospects. Give them three key benefits, or talk them through the three stages of your training program.

You can explain the fine detail later, but packaging your offer in this way makes it easier for people to grasp.

Positioning is critical

The Buddha described his path to enlightenment as the Middle Way.

This was to distinguish it from two popular alternatives he’d tried himself.

As a rich young prince with abundant possessions, servants and a beautiful wife, he had had plenty of opportunity to indulge in sensual pleasures, but he came to realize he couldn’t find relief from the suffering of the human condition in external pleasures, or even a loving relationship.

Later, as a spiritual ascetic, he had tortured his body by fasting, meditation and denying himself any kind of pleasure.

But that didn’t work either.

Finally, he adopted a more balanced approach, steering clear of the two extremes of indulgence and self-mortification. He learned to see pleasure and pain as two sides of the same coin, and to transcend them through the experience of Nirvana.

When he set out to teach, he knew he was entering a crowded marketplace, with all kinds of gurus, yogis, swamis and other teachers eager to attract students. Calling his approach the Middle Way allowed him to instantly differentiate it from competing philosophies.

Just like the Buddha, you need to position your message so that it stands out from the crowd.

You need an effective business model

It might seem strange to think about the Buddha having a business model — after all, he and his disciples had renounced money and possessions.

But just like everyone else, they needed food and basic necessities like clothing, medicine and shelter. Which meant they needed a business model — i.e. a system for coordinating transactions with the people who could supply these things.

Unlike most of us, however, they didn’t depend on commerce.

Instead, they were supported by a gift economy, driven by donations and generosity instead of money and desire. Each morning the monks went on an alms round, taking their food bowls for the local villagers to fill up. Their clothes and other equipment were all donations. In exchange, the monks provided teaching and conducted ceremonies for the laypeople.

This system survives to this day among Buddhist monks and nuns, not just in Asia but in the US, Europe, Australia and other advanced capitalist economies.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with you, consider Seth Godin’s proposition in Linchpin:

The hybrid economy we’re living in today is blending the idea of capitalism (‘do your job and I won’t fire you’) and the gift economy (‘wow, this is amazing.’)

If you want to thrive in this hybrid economy, you’ll need a purpose that goes way beyond making money. You’ll also need to be genuinely generous — not just handing out ‘free gifts’ in the expectation of a payback:

the essence of any gift, including the gift of emotional labor, is that you don’t do it for a tangible, guaranteed reward. If you do, it’s no longer a gift; it’s a job.

(Linchpin)

Community is the bedrock

When we think of the Buddha, we think of a solitary figure sitting cross-legged in meditation. And it’s true that he attained Nirvana alone.

But he also realised that most of us need a little more help along the way.

So he established the Sangha — a community of truth seekers, comprising monks, nuns and lay followers. Members of the Sangha supported and encouraged each other, in a community that persists to this day, with millions of members worldwide in the various branches of Buddhism.

One day, the Buddha’s closest disciple Ananda, realizing how much he had come to value the Sangha, said to the Buddha:

Lord, I think that half of the of the Holy Life is spiritual friendship, association with the Lovely.

And the Buddha replied:

That is not so; say not so, Ananda. It is not half of the Holy Life, it is the whole of the Holy Life.

(Quoted by Ajahn Amaro, Spiritual Friendship)

If you aspire to make a positive difference in the world, by working through your business, your profession, or your nonprofit organisation, ultimately your success comes down to the difference you make to people around you.

So one of the first steps you should take is to find your village of like-minded people — the people you can help and support, and who will help and support you in their turn.

The people who will be most receptive to your message.

The people who make all your efforts worthwhile.

How about you?

Does the Buddha’s example resonate for you? What can you learn from it?

Have you ever solved a similar marketing problem? Let us know about it in the comments.

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