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Beginner’s Mind: Duhkha Runs the World – Buddhist Economics, Labor, and Wage Economies

Beginner’s Mind is a special project from Buddhistdoor Global collecting 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.

My curiosity about the relationship between Buddhism and economics began a year before I formally took the Buddhist Economics (BECON) course at Williams. After taking a class on Indian Buddhist philosophy in Singapore, my mind was already primed with Buddhist concepts such as duhkha when I began working at a small legal clinic for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong in the summer of 2019. Not only did I learn of the physical, emotional, and financial abuses that individual workers suffered through, but I also witnessed the disregard for the well-being of migrant laborers that deeply permeates labor laws and institutions. These laborers are regarded and treated as an ultra-disposable working class. I saw it as an institutionalized form of duhkha. Could the same Buddhist principles that alleviate duhkha in the individual be expanded to address broader, systemic, economically driven forms of duhkha? I entered BECON with expectations of addressing this very question and left with much more.

I was only able to fully apprehend the absurdity of contemporary wage economies after I took BECON. Wage determination in markets driven by supply and demand fails to recognize pratityasamutpada (Skt. dependent origination). In microeconomics, we learn that more elastic supply and demand is associated with “low skill requirement” jobs and subsequently lower wages. For example, viewing a product as “essential,” or low competition markets, make demand more inelastic. Yet don’t these inelastic industries rely on the existence of elastic ones? In this way, doesn’t pratityasamutpada overturn the very notions of elastic and inelastic? And then, subsequently, the very rationale behind wages? All experiences and actions rely on the existence of “low-skill” labor. Migrant domestic workers leave their families and home countries so that their clients can perform non-domestic labor and produce wealth that will circulate in local and global economies. Shouldn’t this labor therefore be the most valued and compensated?

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that those who are most essential to continuing our ways of living are also the most mistreated. Isn’t it ironic how this pandemic has exposed our dependency on their labor and also exposed our system’s inability to protect them and ensure their health? Furthermore, the COVID-19 recession in the US has exemplified how detrimental it is to have people’s livelihoods depend on attachment, which inevitably causes duhkha anyway. Livelihoods depend on global demand constructed by a monopoly of corporations and thus they depend on the perpetuation of duhkha. In a vicious cycle, those who are complicit in perpetuating duhkha themselves feel duhkha, which they believe can be alleviated by participating in activities that fuel demand and subsequently more duhkha (either through consuming products or producing products for consumption to enhance living conditions).

Applying the concept of pratityasamutpada to economics has really changed the way I engage with the material world. From my curtains to tea bags, every single product has such an astounding amount of labor and meaning woven into it. It seems like universal fate that I was taking BECON alongside a labor-intensive print-making class, in which I was able to experience firsthand all the labor, material, and blood (literally) that goes into making a single print. These classes and conjunctions reframed how I value everything I touch.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about alternative economies, especially after reading about gift economies in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer. I wonder if gift economies are the answer to figuring out Buddhist economics, especially given that one of the pancasilas (Skt. five precepts) is not taking that which is not given. When I was reading the following excerpt from Braiding Sweetgrass, I couldn’t help but think about that sila: “In old times, when people’s lives were so directly tied to the land, it was easy to know the world as gift. . . . The people are hungry, winter is coming, and the geese fill the marshes with food. It is a gift and the people receive it with thanksgiving, love, and respect. But when the food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don’t feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return—that food may not satisfy.” (Kimmerer 30) Kimmerer also recalls visiting a market in a rural village in the Andes that functioned as a gift economy: “Had all the things in the market merely been a very low price, I probably would have scooped up as much as I could. But when everything became a gift, I felt self-restraint. I didn’t want to take too much.” The gift economy functions in two ways; the Earth is a gift, and the goods which we provide one another with are also gifts.

This structure means no wages, no land exploitation, and less human and animal exploitation. It reminds me of INEB* founder Sulak Sivaraksa’s idea of small self-sustaining economies. Both take into account that dependence on market demand is ruining our world in both a humanitarian and an environmental sense. It would also function in accordance with the pancasila to not take what is not given. Is that how returning to small, agrarian, self-sustaining communities would look? And is that even desirable? I’m assuming it would mean the end of big cities, which only exist because they serve as global financial centers, as Saskia Sassen explains in Expulsions. Smaller gift economies also undermine the existence of nation states, since gift economies are most effectively established in smaller consolidated communities. I am left to wonder whether Buddhist economics can function in any other model besides that of a gift economy, and consequently alongside cities and nations.

International Network of Engaged Buddhists

Eman Ali wrote this essay for her course on Buddhist Economics at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Eman recently graduated (virtually) from Williams College (class of 2020) with a BA in Religion and is currently pursuing a career in public interest law. She strives to comprehend her place in this world ritualistically through South Asian dance, vinyasa yoga, and visual art.


Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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