'Sometimes,' said Vajraketu, the managing director and, like all his staff, a member of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, 'I wonder how people manage to run a business without Buddhists.'
Windhorse Trading has made a profit every year since it was formed in 1981, selling trinkets in Camden market, north London. Vajraketu, a wiry man in his forties from Solihull, joined in 1988 after founding a Buddhist building co-operative in East London and embarked on an aggressive plan of expansion. Now it imports artefacts, handicrafts and household items by the truckload from the Third World.
'It's extraordinary in places like Bali,' said Vajraketu. 'The handicraft economy is so sophisticated. Whole villages specialise in one product for the Western market. There are cushion-cover villages, or cast-iron candelabra villages.'
Vajraketu picks up anything from futons to decorative condom holders and sells them to shops throughout Britain, including Evolution, Windhorse's nine high street outlets. The profits from this nice reversal of the old method of colonial trade (off-loading knick- knacks on the natives) are donated exclusively to Buddhist causes.
'The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order developed from a hippie, alternative thing in the Sixties,' said Vishvapani, the FWBO's liaison officer. 'At first we thought we could just hang out, do what they do in India and rely on charity. Later on we realised that to survive we needed to make money. So Windhorse was established. And we found we were rather good at it.'
Windhorse's headquarters on a trading estate in Cambridge is a model of efficiency. In the offices men with beards and sandals pore over computer screens, sending out invoices and checking orders of Tibetan fertility masks. In the warehouse, men in overalls unpack cartons of Balinese wind chimes or frog-shaped soap dishes from Thailand. The first question any visitor would ask, however, is how can the business support so many staff?
'We draw salaries on a need basis,' said Vajraketu. 'We all live communally in half a dozen houses in another part of Cambridge. The men and women live and work separately. There are fewer distractions that way. All our living expenses are met communally from the business. So nobody takes more than pounds 25 a week pocket money. Even me, and I'm the managing director. But we don't employ people unnecessarily. Our pride would be hurt if we discovered we were overstaffed.'
Still, it is a way of maximising profits that the sweatiest of sweatshop owners would envy. 'Well, it's not really about maximising profits,' Vajraketu said. 'Our philosophy is: give what you can and take what you need.' And few of his staff, presumably, have any need for life's consumer peripherals, such as are sold by Windhorse.
'You have to be committed to work here,' he said. 'We don't take an ordinary Joe off the streets, though at pounds 25 a week I'm not sure how many ordinary Joes would be interested. It's a package; we live and work together and part of our aim is to promote the spiritual well- being of our staff.' Hence the early- morning meditation and annual six weeks off - not holiday, this, they go off on retreat to meditate. All at Windhorse strive to adhere to the four Buddhist principles of communication - telling the truth, speaking kindly, speaking usefully and speaking to the point - edicts that seem somewhat incompatible with running a modern business.
'On a day-to-day level, it can be very difficult,' smiled a man at a computer terminal. 'Though if we come across a particularly unpleasant supplier, we don't argue, we just stop dealing with them.'
'At first,' said Vajraketu, 'I was a bit reluctant to sue bad payers. Now I go to court cheerfully. You have to. Where running a business does sometimes compromise your spiritual life is that one can get very caught up in it. Sometimes when we meditate I think: 'Oh God, I've got to order some bloody wind chimes', when I should be developing positive feelings towards living things.'
Vajraketu showed us round the Evolution shop in Cambridge; it was crammed with schoolgirls buying trinkets. The three staff were constantly gift-wrapping candles, bangles and crystals. Watching the sales ring up, Vajraketu talked about 'point-of-sales areas' and 'dead retail zones'. He then announced that even Buddhists get hungry and headed for a nearby pub specialising in vegetarian food.
'There's nothing that stipulates that you have to be vegetarian,' said Vishvapani. 'But since you are supposed to show respect to all living things, it's a sort of given . . . also practical when you think about it.
'It's the same with drinking,' Vajraketu added. 'We have to keep control of our mental faculties. If you can drink three pints of beer and remain in control, fine. I can't. So I don't'
With their pragmatic approach to Buddhism in a Western context, it seems odd that Windhorse's staff adopt Indian names. 'Our given names were Christian,' said Vishvapani. 'When you are ordained, it seems natural to adopt a Buddhist name.' But isn't it confusing making sales calls with these names? 'Actually, I do use the name I was born with when I first make contact with people,' said Vajraketu. And what name is that? He looked at his cheese and onion quiche and mumbled: 'Er, Bob Jones.'
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