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Buddhist Economics: The Beginnings of a Promising Approach

Photo by Chris Tweten. From
Photo by Chris Tweten. From

The academic study of Buddhism is a relatively young field, originating in the mid- to late 19th century. As the discipline has matured, a number of sub-fields have emerged and taken on lives of their own. Often these have developed around regional and linguistic borders: Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese Buddhist studies, for example. Other sub-fields have arisen based on topic: Buddhist art and architecture, Buddhist environmentalism, ritual studies, philosophy, meditation (which has recently ballooned into an amazing interdisciplinary endeavor), and ethics. 

More recently, the idea of “Buddhist economics” has been added to the list. Still in its earliest formative stages, it already has some long-standing (and ubiquitously cited) grounding in E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (Blond & Briggs). Chapter four is titled “Buddhist economics” and Schumacher there offers a number of contrasts between Buddhist and Western views of economics. In particular, he contrasts our relationship of consumption and the capitalist/utilitarian loss of sacred relations with the world:

Just as a modern European economist would not consider it a great economic achievement if all European art treasures were sold to America at attractive prices, so the Buddhist economist would insist that a population basing its economic life on non-renewable fuels is living parasitically, on capital instead of income. Such a way of life could have no permanence and could therefore be justified only as a purely temporary expedient. As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men.

This points to a recurring theme in Schumacher’s work and in much of Buddhist economics: a concern for the environment and an unswerving commitment to engaging with how humans and the natural world interact. Since then, the Thai monk P. A. Payutto and activist Sulak Sivaraksa have offered significant intellectual weight to the body of ideas known as Buddhist economics. Furthermore, the country of Bhutan has engaged in an intentional experiment in Buddhist economics at the national level with its initiative to measure and improve the Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than the Gross National Product (GNP), with conservation of the environment as one of its explicit goals. (Bhutan: Paradigms Matter)

More recently, a handful of books have been written from a variety of perspectives on Buddhist economics. One of these, Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science (Bloomsbury Press 2017), is from Clair Brown, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. 

In a recent interview with Buddhistdoor Global, Brown reiterated the Buddhist drive toward an economics of relationships, including with the environment: 

We know how to move to a Buddhist economy. What we need is the political will coupled with the skillful means to create meaningful lives based on caring for one another and for the environment. Neuroscientists have shown that helping others makes us happy and has validated that buying more “stuff” does not lead to long-term happiness. Let’s turn off our devices and screens, stop being influenced by celebrities and advertisers, and enjoy our relationships and the world around us.*

More recently, the Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics (Oxford University Press 2018) included a chapter by one of its editors, James Mark Shields, on Buddhist economics. Shields brings a wealth of knowledge to the topic with previous books on engaged Buddhism including Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan (Oxford University Press 2017) and Buddhist Responses to Globalization (co-edited with Leah Kalmanson, Lexington 2014), as well as Radical and Revolutionary Buddhism(s) in Thought and Practice, a special issue of the journal Politics, Religion & Ideology (edited with Patrice Ladwig, 15, No.2, 2014). 

Shields’ article surveys past work on Buddhist economics and concludes with thoughts about the tension between widespread neoliberal economic models of growth and what seem to be fundamental Buddhist goals of overcoming greed and clinging. Must Buddhists today and in the future seek simply to work within economies of consumption? According to Shields, “Schumacher, Ambedkar, Sulak Sivaraksa, and a few others have been more critical, inclining toward the latter view, where there is something fundamentally incompatible between certain, perhaps non-negotiable Buddhist values and contemporary global capitalism.” 

Shields concludes the article with five “theses” toward a radical Buddhist economics. Paraphrased, these are:

Thesis 1: Buddhist economics must take progressive and radical theory seriously, including understanding the contemporary tendency to separate the spheres of politics and economics from “religion” (they must be understood as they are very much overlapping); and understanding the significance of work or labor in all of its forms on the Buddhist path.

Thesis 2: Historical and philosophical materialism—in the work of Marx and anarchists, as well as that found in earlier thinkers in the West and Asia—should be explored by Buddhists in their ethical reflections on labor, production of commodities, and community and relationships.

Thesis 3: E. F. Schumacher’s thesis on the significance of “scale,” of societies becoming ungovernable at too large a size, is crucial to Buddhist economics. Similarly, anarchist critiques of hierarchies and power structures can be coupled with Buddhist organizational ideals.

Thesis 4: Mahayana Buddhist reflections on the mutual interpenetration of self and society can help break down individualist conceptions of awakening, which often recapitulate and reinforce neo-liberal and capitalist assumptions.

Thesis 5: The traditional Asian virtue of “propriety” (Li in Chinese), along with other contemporary ideas about our place as individuals in society and in the world, can help us bring together our critique of the current systems as we build new communities and systems based on emerging Buddhist economic ideas.

Photo by Caterina Sanders. From
Photo by Caterina Sanders. From

These theses are, as Shields says, an “opening gambit in a much larger project.” The specifics of these theses might not appeal to everyone working in this emerging field, which is growing to include laypeople, monastics, and academics from a number of disciplines. Nevertheless, they set out clear directions that can be taken by any who are curious to develop them further.

Add to this the activist and philosopher David Loy’s newest work Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis (Wisdom Publications 2019), in which he writes a great deal on economics as a driving force for climate change, and we have even more material for the very new, but growing discussion on Buddhist economics. In part, Loy writes in his introduction:

As we begin to wake up and realize that we are not separate from each other, nor from this wondrous Earth, we realize that the ways we live together and relate to the Earth need to be reconstructed too. That means not only social engagement as individuals helping other individuals, but finding ways to address the problematic economic and political structures that are deeply implicated in the eco-crisis and the social justice issues that confront us today. Ultimately the paths of personal transformation and social transformation are not really separate from each other. Engagement in the world is how our individual awakening blossoms, and contemplative practices such as meditation ground our activism, transforming it into a spiritual path.  

With this in mind, beyond the historical and artistic interest, beyond the meditative teachings and brilliant philosophy, the most important thing that Buddhism could offer the 21st century might be just this economics of environmental sustainability, individual sufficiency, relationships in community and spiritual transformation.

Bringing the Dharma to the Dismal Science: The Buddhist Economics of Prof. Clair Brown (Buddhistdoor Global)

See more

Bhutan: Paradigms Matter (Bertelsmann Stiftung)

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