Book review: A philosophy for living from a Buddhist turned banker
Buddhist monk and former investment banker Michael Dobbs-Higginson has written a rip-roaring account of an astonishing life that has included success and failure in equal measures. His book offers lessons on running a balanced life.
By Phil Thornton
Arriving in Liberia in the late 1970s for a meeting with the African Development Bank about its first ever Eurodollar bond, CSFB director Michael Dobbs-Higginson found his favourite hotel had misplaced his booking.
With a large coffee convention in town and all hotels booked, Dobbs-Higginson asked a taxi driver to take him to the best brothel in Abidjan. Arriving at a gaudily lit house, the banker asked the madame for the “best girl”, who he immediately paid $100 for her room for the night.
So far so good, but in the middle of the night, he realized the brothel’s top prostitute was in great demand and he spent a sleepless night shouting at sex-deprived clients to get lost, in sailor’s French.
“It was an effort to concentrate through my meetings with the AfDB, but I had to put my best face on it,” he writes in his autobiography ‘Raindrop in the Ocean’. “I could hardly tell them I had not had a wink of sleep because I had spent the night in a whorehouse.”
Such stories adorn a fast-paced account of the life of a man born in a house without electricity in colonial Rhodesia who went on to become chairman of Merrill Lynch Asia Pacific.
The farmer’s son took a complicated journey towards a business career, and it is those adventures as a logger, sailor and drug smuggler to name just three that provide the most laughs in an account of a life Walter Mitty might have dreamed of.
Dobbs-Higginson worked his way across the globe as a stevedore in San Francisco, a navigator in a seven-metre sloop across the Atlantic without GPS, and a teacher of English to Japanese students.
From windsurfing to Buddhism
But the defining experience that informed his attitude to life was the gruelling training he undertook to become a Buddhist monk. Dobbs-Higginson persuaded a Japanese tourist he met in Hawaii to give him an introduction to a Buddhist monastery in exchange for teaching him to windsurf.
As a result, he found himself knocking on the door of a monastery on Mount Koya, where he would spent three months of extreme austerity, learning Buddhism in a freezing wooden complex while surviving on rations designed only to fuel the body.
Ordained a monk at just 22, he became the first Westerner to be accepted into the Shino-in monastery in its 1,200-year history. “The whole experience had been a deep-end immersion from which I emerged stronger and with a different outlook on life,” he writes.
It also left him fluent in Japanese and with a love for a country that in the early 1960s was still not popular with foreigners.
He persuaded his future wife, Marie-Thérèse, to join him there in 1968. But four years later he found himself facing financial ruin.
He had built up a successful operation together with an American former GI, acting as the representative for Western tour operators such as Thomas Cook.
They had branched out to redevelop a petrol station, adding a 10-storey office block above. One night, Dobbs-Higginson walked into the building and saw operatives bugging the floor his partner had been keen to let to the Libyan embassy.
The operation was run by the head of Tokyo’s CIA station, who first tried to recruit Dobbs-Higginson as a spy and then, being swiftly rebuffed, offered him a choice of handing over his share in the business or having a “ bad accident”.
Understandably furious he had been robbed of $50 million and forced to leave the country he loved, he once again drew on his monastic training to fend off complete despair.
“Hating may feel justified and even cathartic at a time of great injury or upset, but in reality it is a terrible waste of energy,” he writes.
Picking himself up, he looked for work at the investment banks that were starting to eye up Japan, choosing White, Weld & Co, which was taken over by Credit Suisse and then First Boston, where Dobbs-Higginson secured a seat on the board and helped pioneer the Eurobond market in Asia.
After changes at CSFB made working there less enjoyable, he became the first person to lead a walkout of a big team in the Eurobond market when he defected to Merrill Lynch.
As chairman of Merrill Lynch Asia Pacific, he pursued the eccentric ways that had marked him out from his British and American colleagues.
He wore a kimono to a signing ceremony in London and a sarong in Hong Kong. Indeed Euromoney, marked his appointment with a cartoon of him in a Samurai kimono wielding a sword.
But the question most readers will ask is how a Buddhist monk can pursue a career in investment banking while living in accordance with their religious commitments.
He insists there is no contradiction between being a Buddhist and pursuing a commercial career. There is no reason, he says, why one cannot aspire towards spiritual experience and truth while also leading an outwardly successful life.
Dobbs-Higginson, who quit banking in the 1990s, has been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and given two years to live. He is using his remaining time to work on startups in Asia and Africa and to put down his life lessons for posterity.
At the heart of those has been a battle to minimize the ego that he says constantly demands satisfaction by focussing that energy on creating something of tangible and lasting value to humankind. He has harsh words for the culture of greed and bonuses he says led to the global financial crisis. Today’s bankers could take a leaf out of his book.