Economics plays a significant role in the lives of the majority of ordinary people. A number of teachings of the Buddha that relate to material wealth—its acquisition and production—have relevance in today’s economy. To help improve the quality of people’s socio-economic life, the Buddha uttered some suttas that are recorded in a number of teachings in the Pali canon. These can technically be considered to be the Buddha’s reflection on economics.
However, the concept of economics is not introduced as a self-contained system, but rather lies within a broader framework and an educational and social context. Therefore, advice on economics is rooted in a multidimensional and holistic consideration of humanity. The overall context must take note of such issues as social degradation aggravated by poverty, employment, investment, savings, income, resources, expenditure, and livelihood, as well as the structure and integrity of morality. All these issues are interrelated with economics. Through the welfare-based teachings of the Buddha, we can regard the Buddha’s socio-economic advice as the seed of modern welfare economics.
Buddhism is a religion which aims to develop spirituality through ethical and moral cultivation. Daily life should therefore be in accord with moral and ethical standards. By the same token, our socio-economic activities should also abide by moral and ethical principles.
The Andha Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya (AN.3.29) discusses wealth and ethics as follows: “Bhikkhus, there are these three kinds of persons found existing in the world. Which three? The blind person, the one-eyed person, and the two-eyed person” (Bodhi 2012, 224). The blind person is one who does not have the eyes to see how to acquire new wealth, nor how to increase the wealth that he does have. Also, the blind person does not have the eyes to see the ethics of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. The one-eyed person is one who has the eye for acquiring wealth—and who knows how to increase his wealth—but doesn’t have the eye to see the ethics of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. This means that, while he can create and increase wealth, he does not cultivate ethics. The two-eyed person is one who has both the eye to acquire wealth and the eye for ethics and wisdom. In other words, the two-eyed person can cultivate not only wealth, but also good conduct and faith.
The Buddha spoke of poverty as being “suffering in the world” (AN.6.45). When a person does not have the basic means of survival, it is hard for him to think of ethics. Instead, he will be focused on how to earn enough to satisfy his basic needs. What this tells us is that human happiness cannot be achieved either through spiritual advancement alone, or through material advancement alone. Both these aspects of our lives must be equally developed if we are to acquire happiness.
To illustrate the point: the Buddha never gave teachings to a person who was hungry. There is one story about a Brahmin who was planning to listen to a talk by the Buddha. Unfortunately, when he awoke he discovered that his bullock was missing. Being a very poor man, he could not afford to lose the animal, so he set off into the jungle to find him. It was not until midday that he was able to return to the village, hot, tired, and hungry. He rushed to hear the end of the teaching, but to his surprise the Buddha had not yet begun. As soon as the Buddha saw him, he kindly asked whether he had eaten anything. The farmer replied in the negative. Immediately, the Buddha asked one of his attendants to serve the man food before he started his talk. “Some of the people and the Bhikkhus thought it was very strange and not quite right that the Buddha should concern Himself about the food of a person who was only a householder, not a Bhikkhu, and not even a follower of His at all, but a Brahmin. But the Buddha’s kindness and thoughtfulness for the Brahmin who wanted so much to hear Him preach was well rewarded, for the Brahmin’s heart was touched by the Buddha’s consideration for him, and when the sermon was over he became the Buddha’s follower for the rest of his life” (BuddhaSasana).
Moreover, in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta (DN.26), the Buddha talks about the economic inequalities that divided the world into rich and poor. The sutta identifies the basic problem as being the country’s food supply, which if solved first, will lead to the resolution of all the other problems. The sutta tells a story about a particular thief who was brought before the king. The thief explained that he had stolen simply because he was poor. So the king gave him some money and helped him to start a business. On hearing the story, another man decided to steal something, hopeful of the same result. However, this time the king executed the thief. This action led to thieves arming themselves and killing those they robbed, to get rid of any witnesses. The Buddha explained the moral of this tale: “Thus, from the not giving of property to the needy, poverty became rife, from the growth of poverty, the taking of what was not given increased, from the increase of theft, the use of weapons increased, from the increased use of weapons, the taking of life increased, and from the increase in the taking of life, people’s life span decreased and their beauty decreased” (Walshe 1995, 399).
Therefore, people’s basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing should be satisfied first. The Kutadanta Sutta (DN.5) also tells a story about a king called Mahavijita, who wanted to organize a large-scale sacrifice to ensure his comfort and welfare for many years to come. His chief minister, however, advised him against holding this sacrifice, noting that robbers and thieves were destroying the economy of the country. The sutta quotes the chief minister as explaining, “If your Majesty were to tax this region [to pay for the sacrifice], that would be the wrong thing to do. Suppose your Majesty were to think ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment,’ the plague would not be properly ended.” The chief minister then offered a solution, thus: “To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle let your Majesty distribute grain and fodder, to those in trade, give capital, to those in government service assign proper living wages” (Walshe 1995, 135).
The king followed these three instructions and gave what was necessary and relevant to the people. As a result, everyone was happy and dwelt with joy in their hearts. In this sutta, the Buddha recognized the major economic problems of state and he recommended immediate measures. According to the sutta, the root of all problems in any country is the issue of food production and distribution. The state should first provide food to people through organizing cultivation, then provide capital to traders and a reasonable salary to government servants.
In summary, we can say that the economic concepts discussed in the Buddha’s teachings are neither of a capitalist market economy, nor a fully socialist economy. Instead, the Buddha provides for a developmental approach to the solution to human poverty. In the context of the 21st century, when global inequality is once again on the rise, the teachings of the Buddha remain highly pertinent.
Walshe, Maurice. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 2012. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
A Young People’s Life of the Buddha (BuddhaSasana)