Ten years ago I was an expatriate working for a newly established hedge fund in Singapore. The fund launched at an opportune time prior to the global financial crisis—witnessing the turmoil but also seizing great opportunities to capitalize on underpriced investments. It was the second financial crisis I had encountered firsthand—the first being the Asian financial crisis of 1997, when I was interning at the Hong Kong Futures Exchange. Water is a boon in the desert, but the drowning man curses it. The risks and returns of financial volatilities can mean great fortunes for some but also great havoc for others.
Experiencing these financial crises made me wonder: what are the Buddhist responses to the ups and downs in the market? If the Buddha offers great inspiration for those going through the unavoidable ups and downs of life, what insights do his teachings offer for those engaging with the ups and downs of financial markets? After all, both the markets and life can also be described as dreams and bubbles.
It is with these important questions that I began the interdisciplinary study of Buddhism and economics; looking into the intersection of spirituality and materiality, including potential Buddhist responses to the market economy, as well as potential opportunities to rethink market economics from the Buddhist perspective. My research was not motivated by the quest for more profit using Buddhist principles, but an inquiry into how Buddhism can address the challenges facing the market economy in the 21st century. In other words, since market economics has become an unavoidable part of life, can the Buddhist teachings guide us in making sustainable decisions? How could market economics truly contribute to the welfare and happiness of human beings?
While Buddhist economics as a field of research may still be new to many, it has been growing over the last few decades. The term Buddhist economics is believed to have been coined by E. F. Schumacher in his pioneering work from the 1970s, Small is Beautiful. Inspired by Buddhist philosophy, Schumacher believed that the economy should serve society “as if people mattered.” This subject was further expanded by the scholarly works of Simon Zadek, Apichai Puntasen, Glen Alexandrin, P. A. Payutto, to name but a few.
Nonetheless, textual studies of Frederic Pryor, Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula, Dharmasena Hettiarachchi, and, most recently, Oliver Abeynayake, remind us that the invaluable teachings of the Buddha in the social and economic dimension have a long history. They demonstrate that the Buddhist teachings are inseparable from socio-economic welfare and human well-being—the happiness of this life and future existences, from the perspective of both materiality and spirituality.
Meanwhile, the prevailing dominance of the market economy also makes obvious its shortfalls at the individual, social, and environmental levels, prompting many prominent scholars from mainstream schools of economics to contribute to different aspects of the study of Buddhist economics. The network of scholars has also begun to grow and gather in different parts of the world. Notably, Prof. Laszlo Zsolnai at Corvinus University of Budapest, together with his colleagues at the Community of the European Management Schools (CMES), and the European SPES (spirituality in economics and society) Institute, have assembled a reputable group of scholars focusing on the interdisciplinary studies of spirituality, ethics, values in business, and economic activities. Prof. Zsolnai has been engaged with the field of Buddhist economics for more than 25 years. Together with other scholars, such as Dr. Gábor Kovács, Prof. Knut Ims, and Prof. Hendrik Opdebeeck, Prof. Zsolnai has built a strong research base connecting different fields in Europe.
In 2017, Prof. Clair Brown at the University of California, Berkeley launched her seminal work Buddhist Economics in the United States. Like Prof. Zsolnai, Prof. Brown has found recognition in the traditional school of economics but has also realized the necessity of moving beyond traditional paradigms. Prof. Brown has been teaching an undergraduate seminar on Buddhist economics, which she believes to be “a framework that integrates global sustainability and shared prosperity along with care for the human spirit.”
Last month, Prof. Brown, together with other distinguished scholars from the US, such as Prof. Richard Payne, Dr. Peter Hershock, Dr. Charles Lief, and their European counterparts mentioned above, joined respected Asian speakers and panelists for an international conference titled “Buddhist Values and Economics: Investing in a Sustainable Future,” co-organized by the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong and the European SPES Institute. It was definitely not the first of its kind—there have been other conferences on sustainable and spiritual implications of economic developments.* What made this forum remarkable is the international and multidisciplinary efforts. In addition to the collaboration with Europe and scholars from North America and Europe, there were also speakers from Asia: Dasho Karma Ura from Bhutan, Rev. Paraskevopoulos from Australia, Prof. Chenhuang Cheng from Taiwan, as well as Prof. Ven. Jing Yin, Dr. Guang Xing, Dr. Georgios Halkias, Dr. G. A. Somaratne, Prof. Toshiichi Endo, Dr. Justin Whitaker, and myself from Hong Kong.
Contributions from professional practitioners also offered unique insights into the relevance and significance of Buddhist values to economic circumstances: Jed Emerson and Annie Chen spoke on the purpose of capital and sustainable finance; Ven. Hin Hung and Bonnie Wu presented on the Mahayana Buddhist approach to stress management; Julia Culen, Christian Mayhofer, Dr. Anthony Lok, and Dr. Keren Tsuk shared perspectives on leadership, management, and transformation; Debra Tan spoke on the significance of water protection; Francis Ngai, David Yeung, and Raymond Lam presented on social entrepreneurship; while Andrew Fung and George Leung spoke on sustainable finance.
The speakers and panelists brought together a wide spectrum of academic and professional dialogues on Buddhist values and economics from the perspective of sectoral, doctrinal, and textual studies; philosophical and metaphysical analyses; and applicational and contemporary explorations. The gathering was also designed with a strong sense of engagement in mind to ensure that enough time was allocated for audience interaction and discussion.
Its fruition was the dependent-arising of all the wisdom and efforts of the organizers, speakers, participants, and volunteers involved. It was also a valuable manifestation of the true spirit of Buddhist economics, which involves non-instrumental uses, genuine care, and generosity. Although many of the speakers were senior academics and professionals in their respective fields, they were truly generous, caring, and humble about sharing their expertise with others to make an impact. Throughout their celebrated careers, their successes have also contributed to the successes of their peers and successors. They aspire to build a global network that can enable economics to bring real benefit to mankind.
Some recent publications, such as The Routledge International Handbook of Spirituality in Society and the Professions by Prof. Zsolnai and Dr. Bernadette Flanagan, The Economy and Meaningfulness. A Utopia? by Prof. Opdebeeck, The Purpose of Capital by Emerson, and Buddhist Economics by Prof. Brown, mark the latest achievements in the field.
Prof. Brown also announced her recent work at UC-Berkeley on a Sustainable Shared-Prosperity Policy Index and an upcoming book series with Palgrave-Macmillan on Studies in Buddhist Economics, Management, and Policy, edited by Prof. Brown and Prof. Zsolnai. The Buddhist aspect of the field of Buddhist economics research suggests that—with genuine care, generosity, compassion, wisdom, and determination—an economy that really serves society “as if people mattered” is not merely a dream. As expressed by Prof. Brown, Buddhist economics is making valuable contributions to a shared goal of creating “meaningful lives for all people in a sustainable world, now and in the future.”
It is nonetheless critical to continue to make the subject more relevant to a broader audience and put Buddhist economics into action. As Prof. Brown advocated: “To embrace and practice Buddhist economics, you need courage to change, courage to protect the environment, courage to promote justice, and courage to live with joy.”
* Such as those organized by the European SPES Institutes in Europe, American Academy of Religion (AAR) Seminars in Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism, International Conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH), International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), and many other important conferences in Taiwan, South East Asia, and rest of the world.
Schumacher, Ernst F. 1984. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Sphere Books Ltd. Original edition, 1973.
Brown, Clair. 2017. Buddhist Economics. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Emerson, Jed. 2018. The Purpose of Capital. San Francisco: Blended Value Group Press.
Opdebeeck, Hendrik. The Economy and Meaningfulness. A Utopia? Brussels: Peter Lang.
Zsolnai, Laszlo and Bernadette Flanagan (ed.). 2019. The Routledge International Handbook of Spirituality and Society. London: Routledge.
Brown, Clair. 2016. Buddhist Economics on Courage. December 13, 2016. https://buddhisteconomics.net/buddhist-economics-on-courage/
Buddhist Values and Economics: Investing in a Sustainable Future. Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong. https://www.buddhism.hku.hk/conference2019/index.html
For Genuine Business Ethics: Twenty-five Year Report 1993–2018. Business Ethics Center, Corvinus University of Budapest. http://laszlo-zsolnai.net/sites/default/files/3/documents/BEC-25-Year%20Report_1.pdf