Buddhist Economics

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Buddhist Economics and its conception of 'work'

(From an article by the economist E.F.Schumacher in Resurgence magazine, 1968)

URL = http://www.worldtrans.org/whole/buddecon.html

"The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerveracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely, that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanization which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man's skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave. How to tell one from the other? "The craftsman himself", says Ananda Coomaraswamy, a man equally competent to talk about the Modern West as the Ancient East, "the craftsman himself can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsman's fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work". It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in the multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man's work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products. The Indian philospher and economist J.C.Kumarappa sums up the matter as follows:

"If the nature of the work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best he is capable of. It directs his freewill along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality." (http://www.worldtrans.org/whole/buddecon.html)

Buddhist Economics as Compassionate Economics


"The call for “wisdom, not algorithms” is an invitation to citizens as well as to economists. At root, the most profound economic questions of the day do not demand more sophisticated numerical calculations but more expansive imaginations and priorities. The task is to bring public advocacy into the formerly-sacred realm of economics, thereby helping to ensure a healthy society for ourselves and our neighbors. The recession should not instill a wholesale disavowal of economics; it should strengthen a popular commitment to reinvent the subject in a different image that we can co-create. Our current and future wellbeing depends on it.

With that task in mind, the first step is to take an inventory of core values. By sorting out first principles, we enter the economic thicket with a machete that can chop through jargon and obfuscation. As a practicing Buddhist, I’ve chosen compassion as a cornerstone of my economic understanding. Literally meaning “to suffer with,” compassion – in the words of revered Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh – entails a commitment to “remove the suffering that is present in another.” This value reappears in the more extreme Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva vow to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. Notice that the language here is not one of optimizing pleasure but of minimizing pain. In this sense, it flips American rags-to-riches exceptionalism on its head.

To understand what Buddhists mean by compassion, we need to revisit their conception of suffering. The Sanskrit term for suffering is “Samsara,” which refers to a persistent and deep sense of dissatisfaction - the sense that things aren’t the way that we want them to be. Buddhists believe that all sentient beings remain trapped in a cyclic feeling of this dissatisfaction, from which we constantly seek escape. The only way to liberate ourselves from Samsara is to transform the way we relate to the place in which this suffering arises: our own minds. Through practices like meditation, we gradually erode the urge to attach ourselves to pleasurable feelings or run away from painful ones. From that point on, we slowly attain a grounded sense of equilibrium and contentment which allow us to adapt fluidly to the ever-shifting circumstances of our lives.

What kind of economic approaches could facilitate the liberation of all sentient beings from this kind of suffering? One of the Buddha’s primary teachings – that of the Middle Path – helps to clarify this point. The Buddha taught that both extreme asceticism and extreme excess are hindrances to the path of liberation. Self-denial clouds the mind with the vestiges of fatigue and malnutrition, while indulgence indefinitely postpones the necessary depth of engagement with internal experience.

Therefore, a Buddhist economics should ensure that each and every sentient being has sufficient material and educational support to liberate themselves from suffering. For animals, this means that human consumption patterns should not cause avoidable harm. And for humans themselves, this approach calls for progressive taxation, redistributive social services, and accessible pre-college and college education.

The conservative critique of this philosophy is easy to anticipate, and not to be dismissed. Conservatives argue that government intrusion in the marketplace will hinder the individual’s entrepreneurial and expressive freedoms. Frankly I’m much more concerned about civil liberties than I am about the right to turn a good idea into lots of money, though I concede that the two overlap. I think Buddhism has a novel response to this concern, and one that isn’t often aired in the mainstream public debate.

For Buddhists, the individual presents a tricky paradox. On the one hand, the Buddha famously preached a belief in “no-self:” the concept that one cannot trace any inherent existence to his or herself due to the dual truths of interdependence and impermanence. That said, the Buddha also taught a challenging personal practice that counts on each individual to fully realize this truth of no-self, and thus attain enlightenment. So ironically, each individual Buddhist makes a personal commitment to a path that will eventually undo our most basic assumptions about individuated existence.

In this regard, Buddhists should bring a circumspect attitude toward an entirely centralized economy that would impede freedom of thought or expression. It is this freedom to radically engage with our consciousness that allows each of us to liberate ourselves from suffering. At the same time, Buddhists should acknowledge that unregulated market capitalism inevitably causes extreme inequalities of wealth that inflict unnecessary harm on billions of people worldwide. Hence the need for a new middle path but not one that resembles bipartisanship, Washington consensus, or the thinly-veiled politics of economic technocrats. This middle path demands a radical and sustained commitment to a new kind of empowerment for all: the power to transform our relationship with suffering. " (http://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/max-zahn/compassionate-economics)