Beginner’s Mind is a special series from Buddhistdoor Global of insightful essays written by US college students who have attended experiential-learning-based courses related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with the Buddhadharma. All are sharing reflections and impressions on what they’ve learned, how it has impacted their lives, and how they might continue to engage with the teaching.
Walking into Hollander Hall on the first day of class, I had no idea what to expect from a Buddhist Economics class. As far as I understood, Buddhist economics was a contradiction in and of itself, with Buddhists not believing in economics and money. All I knew was that I had never thought about there being an issue with the current economic system and the course description’s allusion to certain systemic problems intrigued me. I thought it would be valuable to see things from a different perspective, especially given my intention to enter a career in finance.
Looking back, I think this course served the purpose I wanted it to, to some extent: throughout the semester, I learned to see the world differently—to consider people, not only money. I learned about the systematic violence that has been perpetuated by profit-maximization and was surprised by the extent to which people suffer as a result of capitalistic greed. I read about the detrimental effects of the complexity of finance and about the deterioration of nature to sustain economic growth. I was surprised. Of course, I knew that our economic system is imperfect, but never did I realize the extent to which it hurts people around the world. A fog had finally lifted.
The more we read and discussed issues tied to the economic system in place, the more I questioned the economic system. When we read Clair Brown’s Buddhist Economics, I asked myself if macroeconomics was based on the wrong numbers. When we discussed Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions, I pondered the purpose of complexity in finance, attempting to determine whether it could exist in a simpler form. When we contemplated the environmental impact of our economic system, I wondered if there was a different way. I was left with so many questions, and I felt a shift in my mindset.
Yet, when we attempted to propose solutions or to theorize about how to create a world without inequality, I was left wanting more. Buddhist economics did not seem to me to be a viable solution, for it rested on idealistic values and required a change in the disposition of the entire world population to even be practical. In more applicable forms of the economic system, Buddhist economics seemed to closely resemble socialism or economies such as that of Finland. The concept, unfortunately, did not convince me that there was a better, practical, implementable economic system than the one we have now. For me, the only way in which this world can continue to function without a period of desolation required for rebirth (that would arise with the tearing down of our existing economic system) is to maintain the current economic system and add a sustainability component, which we are already seeing implemented around the globe.
I wish that Buddhist economics could have convinced me of a feasible alternative, but I remain stalwart in my belief that simple modifications to our current economic system would be more practical and efficacious. Through our exploration of the problems in our economic system, I have definitely walked away with a better understanding about the people-component of economics, and I recognize the shortcomings that exist. I am now hopeful about the possibility of a viable alternative system and do hope that we, as a global community, can work toward finding and implementing such an alternative. For me at this moment, however, this is an intellectual puzzle that I see myself thinking deeply about as I move forward. One day we may come up with a solution, but until that day I shall work to try to improve our current economic system as much as possible, keeping in mind that expulsions will undoubtedly persist if no major adjustments are made.
In this way, our Buddhist Economics class introduced me to a problem that I had failed to realize existed, and helped me to better recognize the world in which we live. Although I did not come out convinced of a practical solution, I came out hopeful and more aware, which is equally important.
Our Buddhist Economics class encompassed a lot more than simply looking at our economic system, and I highly value our focus on mindfulness through experiential learning. Taking the time to understand the basics of Buddhism and trying to apply them in our lives was something I have never before experienced in a classroom setting. Trying to be more mindful through making our own notebooks and doing a silapractica and logging off from social media were great experiments that forced me to step back and reflect on my habits and intentions. I now realize how reliant we have become on technology and how we are moving so quickly, without paying attention to what we are doing and what is around us. I have come to appreciate some of Buddhism’s underlying ideas and am glad to have had the opportunity to understand this unique philosophy/religion. Looking forward, I know I will be more mindful and present, and more conscious of taking others into account. I will attempt to limit self-indulgence and focus on living in a more kuśala way. I will recognize the problems in consumption and the profit-maximizing attitude and try to create a balance for myself so as to mitigate the expulsions that are so detrimental. I will be a better citizen of the world.
Going forward, I see myself exploring the central theme of our class: finding solutions to problems exacerbated by our economic system. I see this as an intellectual challenge for myself. As I continue my studies in economics and continue to gain more real-world experience in finance, I am sure I will come across fundamental problems in the system with regard to equality. Here, I will attempt to apply what I have learned in this class and to bring in learning from other areas to pinpoint the root of such issues and to formulate practical solutions. As of now, I do not know if I will ever come up with such a solution or if anyone else will. All we can do is try. And we must try. For if we succeed, we will have a whole new world; a better one.
Sameer Jain wrote this essay for his course on Buddhist Economics at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Sameer is studying economics and mathematics (class of 2023). He has a keen interest in global economic systems and finance.
Brown, Clair. 2017. Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science. London: Bloomsbury Press.
Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.