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Monday, February 05, 2007

If You See the Buddha in Your Scrum, Say Hi

Around 2,500 years ago the Buddha may have created one of the first and longest lasting intentional communities, that when looked at in a certain light, looks an awful lot like a modern agile organization.

In Karen Armstrong's excellent book, Buddha, we learn soon after the Buddha became enlightened a rich merchant gave him some land and built a few huts so the Buddha and his followers could make a permanent camp. This organization was called a Sangha and was the forerunner of the Buddhist monasteries we see today. Until this time the Buddha and his followers were always on the road and took shelter wherever they could when the monsoon season rained in. Few would travel on the monsoon muddied roads so the Sangha became a place where Buddha and his followers could wait out the monsoons and continue their studies. Soon Sanghas were being created everywhere as appreciative students donated land to the Buddha's cause.

Whenever you get people together you need rules of governance. How should people interact? Who should be in charge? What are the duties and obligations of someone who has joined? What are the Buddha's answers to these questions?

I was surprised. The Buddha advocated decentralized administration and individual authority and responsibility. Since Buddhism is based on taking personal responsibility for finding ones own enlightenment, this organization makes sense, but for some reason I thought he would be more of a waterfall guy than an agile guy.

When one particularly nasty crisis involving different factions hit the Sangha, the Buddha refused to take sides. He thought the solution must come from combatants themselves for it was the egotism of the parties involved that made it impossible for each side to see each others point of view. Based on the idea hatred is never appeased by more hatred, he said treat both sides with respect, but that they had to work it out for themselves. Both sides could be defused with friendship and sympathy. And eventually they did patch things up.

The Sangha had no central authority and there was no real organization. All the members of the Order were equal because the Buddha refused to be a ruler that controlled everything. The Buddha was never much concerned about having a central leader because he taught every person was responsible for themselves. The Buddha thought coercion was against the spirit of the Order and that if one wanted to live in a way different than the Order then they are perfectly free to leave. Monks must make up their own minds and not be forced to follow anyone else's directives. People who left and came back were to be accepted with open arms.

What members of the Order did share was the same lifestyle and the same teachings. Every six years the different groups would come together to recite a common confession of faith, called the "bond." It's purpose was to bind the different groups together. What they pledged was:

Refraining from all that is harmful.
Attaining what is skillful.
And purifying one's own mind;
This is what the Buddha's teach.

Forbearance and patience are the highest of all austerities;
And the Buddhas declare that Nirvana is the supreme value.
Nobody who hurts another has truly "Gone Forth" from the home life.
Nobody who injures others is a true monk.

No faultfinding, nor harming, restraint,
Knowing the rule regarding food, the single bed and chair;
Application in the higher perception derived from meditation
-- This is what the Awakened Ones teach.

OK, it's not exactly the Agile Manifesto, but there's a shared spirit. This pledge was important because it's all that united the different Orders together.

What did the Buddha think would ensure the survival of the Order:
  1. Be mindful, spiritually alert, energetic and faithful to the meditative disciplines that alone can bring you to enlightenment.
  2. Avoid such unskillful pursuits as gossiping, lazing around, and socializing.
  3. Have no unprincipled friends and avoid falling under such people's spell.
  4. Do not stop half way in your quest and be satisfied with the mediocre.
  5. Become self reliant so you need not rely on any authority.
I am not trying to say there's a one-to-one correspondence between the Buddha's organizational style and Agile, but there are interesting parallels. I am not saying the training for finding enlightenment is the same as producing software, but there are interesting parallels. And this organization has survived almost every other for over 2,500 years and is still going strong. That's not a bad model.

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