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Buddhist Economics: Toward a Happier Society

Anam Thubten Rinpoche

I recall the time that Prof. Clair Brown from UC Berkeley mentioned to me about something called “Buddhist economics.” It was perhaps the first time such a term had entered my mind; it sounded a little esoteric to me, even oxymoronic, yet today we can say with confidence that it has developed into an independent discipline alongside physics, mathematics, or history. Books have been written on it, lectures have been delivered on it. Buddhist economics is still at a stage that needs more of our attention, yet with the potential to evolve into a richer and more complete social science carrying a deeper wisdom—one that is lacking in modern economic models. It is a fascinating topic, because it is relatively novel as well as being a merger between social science and spiritual tradition. Buddhist economics has been developed mainly in the West, whose culture is rooted in Judeo-Christian religions, but people in the East are beginning to pay attention to it. Prof. Brown told me that she had received invitations from as far away as Sri Lanka to give talks on this subject. I personally would like to see Buddhist economics embraced by more people from diverse professional fields: those who stand at lecture podiums at institutions of higher education as well as by people in government who make the policies that impact society at both the macro and microeconomic levels.

The question is, why do we need to develop Buddhist economics? These days, many of us are critical of the usual economic practices that lack some important facets: selflessness, altruism, true generosity, contentment, and unconditional happiness. There is a need and longing for something like Buddhist economics that encompasses all of these principles, which are indispensable to the well-being of any nation. This does not mean that Buddhist economics opposes earthly happiness or material comforts. Nor does it propose some mystical state of mind as the only worthy goal to seek. Many Buddhists regard the well-being of society as something that can be developed through the four auspicious values: the Dharma, prosperity, pleasure, and liberation. In many Buddhist liturgies, verses can be found praying for nations and the world to be enriched by these four auspicious values. There is a popular Tibetan ceremony known as Yangbod conducted to magnetize these four values. People in Tibet often invite lamas to perform this ceremony for families and weddings.

While emphasizing the importance of inner contentment and virtues, Tantric Buddhism even developed a precise conceptual model for a good society, governed by enlightened leaders and where citizens enjoy these four values. As of today, looking around, it’s hard to find one country that meets these criteria. Upon arriving in the United States many years ago, I felt that the US could be chosen as living proof that humanity could create an ideal nation on earth, such as Tantric Buddhism proposes. Outwardly, the US harbors freedom of religion, cultural pluralism, abundant resources, and an impressive GDP on paper. My initial naïveté didn’t last long as I became aware of all the woes of the country.

Modern economics has flourished through the system of free markets for quite some time, and this has been a blessing for many. But many more people have been left out and are mired in a vicious cycle of poverty that threatens their basic human dignity. This situation is not improving and, in many cases, is becoming worse. Yet, there is a certain dogma that allowing a free market to thrive, driven by unchecked greed and so-called rational self-interest, will benefit the whole. This theory is riddled with holes. The infamous “invisible hands” are not sharing the economic pie with everyone, but leaving only crumbs for most people to survive on. This is why many feel that it is time to introduce a new economic model that is both rational and fair. And this is where Buddhist economics can offer an excellent alternative that sheds light on the better nature of humanity, the relationship between happiness and practicing inner values, and the interdependent web of nature and living beings.

Prof. Clair Brown. Image courtesy of Clair Brown

Soon the world is going to face an unprecedented scarcity of resources due to overconsumption and climate change. We may no longer be able to continue with “business as usual.” Each year, this bitter reality is going to become more palpable to the point that the “comfort” of denial will not be affordable. Right now, most parts of the world are lost in a dream of endless economic growth, with developing countries on a fast trajectory to reach the club of rich countries. Everyone envisions leading the American lifestyle. In reality, this might not even be possible, unless I’m missing something here. This beautiful yet fragile planet will have a hard time supporting 7.8 billion Americans.

Buddhist economics doesn’t reject the relationship between human well-being and economic growth. It would be hard to create a true democratic society in which citizens across all social strata enjoy a high living standard if poverty prevails over prosperity. Bhutan, a small Buddhist country in the Himalaya uses Gross Domestic Happiness as a measure of sustainable development instead of focusing solely on economic activity. This sounds quite enlightened on paper, but it performs quite poorly on some international happiness indexes. It turns out not to be one of the happiest countries, whereas Scandinavian countries regularly dominate the ranks of happy countries.

A happy society is a result of having spiritual principles as core values, of having equal access to good education and healthcare, with all genders and social groups empowered. This is not an impossible task. We just have to expand our caring toward everyone and be ready to take the necessary steps. We might not see a perfect world, but surely we will see a world in which people are well fed, contented, and enjoying individual rights and dignity. Buddhist economics can guide us toward such a target with our willingness to apply it as guiding wisdom for defining our basic values. 

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