Buddhist Principles for a Just Economy
It is a difficult time in human history to be an optimist, or even a realist. In the face of so many dire truths in our world today, the easiest stance is certainly that of the pessimist. And yet the Buddha’s teachings demand realism, and perhaps even, as a balancing force for the overwhelming pessimism of our day, a bit of optimism.
The Buddha’s message for humanity begins with the Noble (or ennobling) Truth of Suffering. This human life is marked by the imperfections of our ignorance, greed, and hatred, all three re-enforcing one another in the ongoing cycle of Saṃsāra.
The second Noble Truth is that of the cause of our suffering: thirsting or craving. Where Buddhism becomes more optimistic is in the third and fourth Noble Truths: cessation and the path leading to cessation.
It is in that second truth, however, that Buddhism points directly to the heart of our economic crisis. At the root of our economic inequality is greed emerging from ignorance about what makes for a good and fulfilling life. In ignorance, we consume habitually and compulsively, and then we must strive harder for ever-greater wealth through which to maintain that consumption. We also develop hatred toward anyone we see as possibly taking our wealth from us; a tendency exploited again and again by politicians.
Buddhist economics, a term coined by E. F. Schumacher after he traveled to Burma (now Myanmar) in 1955, pursues a financial framework centered on human flourishing rather than metrics of consumption or spending. In 1973, Schumacher wrote “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered,” which went on to be translated into 27 different languages, and in 1995 was named by the The Times newspaper as one of the 100 most influential books written after World War II.
While this work effectively laid the framework for a new field of study, further books on Buddhist economics are still few in number. Clair Brown and George Kinder, both featured in past articles on Buddhistdoor Global, and our regular columnist Ernest H. C. Ng, are all working now to develop this area of study and present it in ways that can meaningfully change the lives of individuals and societies. However, there have been a number of attempts at further development of the ideas of Buddhist economics, ranging from the Thai scholar-monk P. A. Payutto to Bhutan’s development of the metric of Gross National Happiness as part of its governmental planning.
And in parallel to these developments has been the blossoming of the field of Buddhist environmentalism, which addresses issues that are in many cases identical to those found in Buddhist economics—given that our unhindered consumption hurts not only other beings in our economy but contributes to the ongoing devastation of our environment. Similarly, the field of Buddhist ethics has seen a number of publications and perspectives clarifying how Buddhist moral thought can be understood in the world today.
In my own ongoing work to survey the world of Buddhist economics, I have seen three steps that tend to unify the field:
1. Moral cultivation. Buddhist economists posit a virtue-centered approach wherein individuals come to recognize and then gradually eliminate their own greed, aversion, and ignorance.
2. Simplicity and sustainability (or sufficiency). Having given up habitual consumption, we naturally have fewer “wants” and possessions. The goal need not be anything like monastic simplicity, although the happiness of people with few possessions is often referenced.
3. The principle of interconnectedness. This forms a bridge from our individual moral work to the work of changing the world around us. The more we change ourselves, the more capable we are of helping others; the more we see how systems of greed cause suffering, the more we want to seek and develop alternatives.
To illustrate how Buddhist environmental thought can be of service, we can look at an article written by Rita Gross. She is known widely as the greatest scholar of Buddhist feminism of the 20th century and into the 21st. Before her death in 2015, she was also very active in the field of Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
In her 1997 essay “Toward a Buddhist Environmental Ethic,” Gross discusses the twin problems of consumption and overpopulation, telling the story of her own early life spent in a rural setting without central heating, indoor plumbing, or processed and packaged foods. She wrote that despite this, there was no sense of deprivation, and in fact that this life could serve as a model for others serious about developing an environmental ethic. Indeed, it could serve as an ideal in Buddhist economics as well: living in harmony with one’s environment, raising a significant portion of your foods locally, and radically minimizing waste.
In order for us to achieve this, Gross offers a Tibetan Buddhist framework of view, practice, and result. For view, she means reorienting people’s beliefs away from current materialistic/consumptive paradigms. For practice, she recommends meditations that specifically address our craving (trishna). As she put it: “A conventional lifestyle of indulging in desired levels of consumption and reproduction results in the misery of an environmentally degraded and overpopulated planet.” (342) She adds that, “Both rich and poor can be ridden with trishna and both can cultivate equanimity, though extreme poverty is not especially conducive to developing equanimity.” (344)
Under the heading of “Results of Buddhist Practice,” Gross notes that Buddhist practice is aimed first at developing clarity and equanimity in oneself, and then moving toward society at large. As she rightly points out, much of the Buddhist ethical project is predicated on relationships: developing generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness. Even the Buddhist paramita—or perfection—of wisdom into emptiness is based on the seeing through the misperceived existence of separate entities that are to be analyzed. It is through this analysis that one realizes the emptiness of such entities, including one’s separate self.
Realizing this, one overcomes compulsive, individualistic, and selfish craving, and instead embarks on activity—economic and otherwise—that naturally and spontaneously seeks to remove all suffering from the world.
Jumping forward another 15 years, the Thai scholar and activist Sulak Sivaraksa offered an almost entirely identical framework when he spoke at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University in 2012.
In his talk, titled “Buddhist Economics in the Age of Globalization,” he began by suggesting that Cartesian and Newtonian thought in Western philosophy could be seen as a likely starting point for our current economic problems. In response to these, Sivaraksa says that “Buddhist economics means, number one: be aware of greed, hatred, and delusion in yourself. And to do that, you cannot use the Cartesian approach. Your head alone is not sufficient. You must cultivate your heart.”
In the question-and-answer portion of his talk, when asked about practicing these principles, Sivaraksa again and again returns to the idea of connecting: to one’s neighbors, to poor and to rich, to people of all nations, excluding none. Relationality, just as Gross had discussed in her paper, comes to the forefront. With relationships comes community and the local connections, and local resources for local needs called for in Schumacher’s early work.
These principles: moral cultivation, simplicity or sufficiency, and interconnectedness and community identities have emerged from both theories and practices in Buddhist economics over the past 70 years. With these in hand, perhaps with some modifications or additions, it is up to Buddhist individuals and communities to undertake the work. When I am at my most pessimistic about the world I think about these principles, how they fit into my own life, and how my own cultivation can go toward connecting with the world around me.
The result is almost always at least a moment of optimism, an idea of what I can do, be it small or large, to cut back my own habitual consumption and reconnect with the Earth and my community.
Gross, Rita. 1997. “Toward a Buddhist Environmental Ethic.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Volume 65, Issue 2, p.333–53.
Buddhist Economics, by E.F. Schumacher (Schumacher Center for a New Economics)
Buddhist Economics, Clair Brown
Introduction to Buddhist Economics The Relevance of Buddhist Values in Contemporary Economy and Society, by Ernest C. H. Ng (Palgrave MacMillan)
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When Time is Undervalued
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Buddhist Economics with George Kinder: Creating a Mindful Golden Civilization
Buddhist Economics: The Beginnings of a Promising Approach
Bringing the Dharma to the Dismal Science: The Buddhist Economics of Prof. Clair Brown
The Buddhist Economics of Buddhist Economics
Happiness Before Profit: Bhutan Seeks to Redefine Business Using Buddhist Values