Over the past 100 or so years, humanity’s relationship with the Earth has undertaken a radical transformation. A powerful illustration of this is found in the juxtaposition of photographs taken at the 1903 flight of the Wright brothers at Kittyhawk and the 1969 photograph of astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon. We can travel today in ways that our ancestors could hardly have imagined. And in the last 50 years, we have used this ability to swiftly increase the exploitation of resources in one part of the world on behalf of people far away. In particular, wealthy, developed economies have “offshored” as much mining, drilling, and production as possible to poorer and developing countries. And as is so often the case, this great ability we have developed comes with a cost.
As we have seen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, problems in one part of the global supply chain can ripple out across the world, leaving few untouched by empty shelves and delayed goods. At first it was something as seemingly mundane—comical even—as toilet paper: after a rumor spread in Hong Kong that supplies from mainland China could be interrupted in early February 2020, panic-buying ensued.
Then, as lockdowns began to ripple across the United States and Europe, toilet paper was again a traget of panic-buyers. This was despite the fact that more than 99 per cent of toilet paper used in the US is manufactured domestically.
A year later, our television screens lit up with images of a giant container ship run aground in Egypt’s Suez Canal. Not only was the ship—the Taiwan-owned MV Ever Given—stuck, but its massive hull lay across the width of the canal, blocking all container-ship traffic through the waterway. As tug-boats pushed and a giant back-hoe dug, a growing number of ships sat moored in the waters outside the canal and yet others began the six-week journey around Africa to reach ports in the Americas and Europe.
Now, in the fall of 2021, we face yet another crisis of global supplies. As many economies emerge from the worst of pandemic-motivated lockdowns, spending is taking off—but in ways not anticipated by global manufacturers and suppliers. The surge has left cargo ships again stranded, this time as ports scramble to unload them, while China, the world’s largest manufacturing country, is facing an energy crunch, leading many factories to slow output even as demand grows. So once again many of us are being told to prepare for empty shelves and higher prices on everything from food to automobiles.
Can all of this change? Is there a path for raw materials to manufacturer to consumer that might avoid such chaos? Alas, the Buddha gave no teachings on global supply chain management. Nonetheless, his diagnosis of the human condition included greed as one of the three unskillful roots of behavior. And economics—the management of our personal, national, and global homes—is where much of human greed plays out. The Buddha did give advice to leaders and rulers, some of which pertains to what we would call economics. Later Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna likewise offered advice on how to order society.
A Buddhist approach to the global supply chain crisis must follow the fundamental purpose of the Buddha’s teachings, namely to eliminate ignorance and reduce suffering. This is in opposition to the current global model which leads with greed, asking what consumers want and then using our best minds and technology to fulfill those desires.
Nagarjuna’s advice to a king, found in his Precious Garland, is a marked contrast to the desire-fulfillment model we see in the world today. Instead, Nagarjuna advises that the king use his treasury to establish healthcare, housing, parks, and food for the people throughout the land. He writes:
Please establish rest-houses
In all towns, at temples, and in all cities
And provide water-vessels
On all arid roadways.
Always care compassionately
For the sick, the unprotected, those stricken
With suffering, the lowly, and the poor
And take special care to nourish them.
Until you have given to monastics and beggars
Seasonally-appropriate food and drink,
As well as produce, grain, and fruit,
You should not partake of them.
At the sites of the water-vessels(Verses 242-245)
Place shoes, umbrellas, water-filters,
Tweezers for removing thorns,
Needles, thread, and fans.
The direction of economic thought is a complete reversal of today’s method—basic needs are placed at the forefront, particularly those of the poor, the sick, and the homeless. Some of this can be found in modern societies under the umbrella of “socialized” or “public” goods. Societies have recognized the benefit of parks open to all, as well as the importance of clean water and free medical care.
For the most part, these goods cannot be outsourced and thus left to the whims of the global supply chain. What country would willingly rely on a far-away land for its water or clean air or medical care? In a process known as “reshoring,” many developed countries are determining which critical things have been left to foreign marketplaces—due to excessive faith in global capitalism—and ensuring that in the future they are sourced domestically, despite higher costs.
The move toward bringing greater sufficiency home echoes the sufficiency economy espoused in Thailand by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1927–2016). At the time, Thailand wished to stay independent from the Cold War battles between communist and capitalist societies. Without becoming isolationist, the ideal of the sufficiency philosophy was to protect vital natural resources while ensuring the dignity and flourishing of the people.
Just as important as the actual goods produced in a sufficiency economy is the underlying ethos: no one needs to be extremely wealthy; no one needs to hoard supplies or land or money; and no one should be extremely poor. In a statement in 1974, the king said: “I ask all of you to aim for moderation and peace, and work to achieve this goal. We do not have to be extremely prosperous. . . . If we can maintain this moderation, then we can be excellent . . .” (The Chiapattana Foundation)
The economic shift in focus is one from commodities to humanity: each of us has basic needs that should be available and secured by our society. And things like parks and public transport help us to flourish as humans. To make this shift, politicians and other leaders must give up the dogmas of current economic paradigms, namely that each of us is a rational individual best suited to choose what we consume. Instead, leaders can recognize what the Buddha saw 2,500 years ago, that humanity is clouded by greed, which when followed leads to suffering. Society cannot do the work of spiritual development for us—we each are the owner of our own karma—but it can pave a path of security and beneficial development before us.
As long as we allow people’s desires, which can change quickly and be driven by panic or rumor, to form the foundation of global economics, we are certain to face yet more dire crises. However, an economic system that satisfies universal human needs and that helps to direct growth and development for all can create more stable societies, for the benefit and welfare of all.
Hopkins, Jeffrey, trans. ND. The Precious Garland of Advice for a King: By the great Master, the Superior Nāgārjuna. Prepared for the web by Piero Sirianni. https://www.lamayeshe.com/sites/default/files/preciousgarland_eng2.pdf
How the Coronavirus Created a Toilet Paper Shortage (College of Natural Resource News)
Giant ship blocking Suez canal partially refloated (The Guardian)
With Suez Canal Blocked, Shippers Begin End Run Around a Trade Artery (The New York Times)
Inflation, supply chains, COVID: The global economy has a lot of worries (The Los Angeles Times)
Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy (The Chiapattana Foundation)
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