328th Meeting – Tuesday, November 23rd 2010
Buddhist Economics and
A talk and PowerPoint presentation by Don Swearer
Present: Elaine Fraser, Fran Collins, Nancy Swearer, David James, Mangkhoot Nilibol, Meg Savige, Pat Marini, Juergen Polte, Carl Samuels, Betty Nguyen, Steve Epstein, Bimal Dahal, Erkinbue Kamath, Wattana Wattanapun, Daniel Bellamy, Martha Butt, Victoria Mercer, Mairéad O’Grady, John Butt, Willem van Gogh, John Wickenden, Bob Vryheid, Ole Johansen, Mark and Diane Barber-Riley, Adrian Pieper, Hans Bänziger, Richard Nelson-Jones, Ivan Hall. An audience of 29.
A summary of his talk prepared by Don:
Donald K. Swearer
Constructing a Buddhist Economic Ethic
There is a substantial literature on Buddhist economics and subjects related to it written by Buddhists, and a considerable body of scholarly work about the subject by both Buddhologists and economists. The most notable of the latter is the British economist, E.F. Schumacher whose 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, has been and continues to be one of the most influential books in the field. In addition to Schmacher, I am especially indebted to Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu and P.A. Payutto, two Thai monastic scholars I have had the privilege of knowing personally and whose writings have influenced my understanding of Buddhism and economic matters, and to Sulak Sivaraksa, the noted socially engaged Buddhist activist and co-founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.
My remarks regarding a Buddhist economic ethic are organized around three broad topics addressed in this literature:
(2) Consumerism, Wealth, and the Value of Generous Giving;
(3) Right-livelihood and Well-Being.
theme of moderation, an economic ethic of non-excess, reflects
self-identification as a Majjhima
Pa†ipadå or Middle way. The
practical interpretation of
Another value associated with moderation or non-excess is non-greed. In Buddhist ethics greed (lobha) results from obsessive desires (taˆhå) and blind attachment. In the Påli Aggañña Sutta (The Sutta on Origins), obsessive desire is depicted as the instrumental cause of the decline of the natural, harmonious order of things. Numerous teachings in the Påli texts describe the unlimited nature of obsessive desire. One such tale is the Mandhåtu Jåtaka, the story of King Mandhåtu who gets karmic comeuppance for excessive greed. (The Jåtaka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, E. B. Cowell, vol. 1, no. 216-226 (New Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1997 reprint edition).
In a contemporary idiom, Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu, proposes that Buddhism's middle way of non-excess reflects the natural order of things (Påli, pakati=Thai,thammachat), one of balanced distribution and sustainability:
Nature would have each of us use no more than we actually need. For years people have failed to heed the way of nature, competing with one another to take as much as they can, causing the problems that we live with to this day. If we were to take only what is enough, none of these problems would exist. The question is, then, how much is enough? These days it seems that nothing is ever enough. There is a Buddhist saying, 'Even two entire mountains of gold are not enough to satisfy the desires of a single person.' What is needed is an approach that emphasizes not taking more than is needed and that at the same time accords with the laws of nature for then people would share their excess out of loving kindness and compassion (Påli, mettåkaruˆå)….The highest law of nature is to take for ourselves only what is needed, and to accumulate or produce beyond that for the benefit of society. This is not an artificial, human-made socialism, but the socialism of nature. (Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu, Me and Mine: Selected Essays of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, ed. Donald K. Swearer (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989), 174)
terms, A.T. Ariyaratna,
founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in
the case of Sarvodaya's
village development projects, a no-poverty society is defined in terms
meeting ten basic needs: a clean and attractive physical and
environment; a clean and adequate supply of water; balanced food
adequate clothing requirements; simple but adequate housing; basic
basic communication facilities; minimum energy requirements;
education; and meeting cultural and spiritual needs.[i]
Income and employment are only part of a no-poverty economy. The aim of production in a village economy is
not to accumulate profit but to satisfy the needs of a community, and
so to engage all members of the community in that
work, cooperation for the common benefit, education and learning
meeting common challenges, and solving common problems together. (A. T.
Ariyaratna, Buddhist Economics in
Practice: In the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of
Consumerism, Wealth, and the Value of Generous Giving
A contemporary Buddhist economic ethic critiques consumerism as the commodification of cultural and religious values. Sulak Sivaraksa characterizes consumerism as the new demonic religion; Pracha Hutanuwatra, Sulak's colleague and director of the Wongsanit Ashram on the outskirts of Bangkok, contends that even many monks are "obsessed with raising money from their newly rich parishioners to build ever-bigger Buddha statues and superfluous religious halls.;" and Phra Phaisan Visalo, the prominent abbot of Wat Pa Sukhato in Chaiyaphum laments:
The distinction between religious faith and consumerism is becoming increasingly vague these days … Nowadays, religious faith has been altered to the degree that it means purchasing auspicious objects to worship. One's faith (saddha) is no longer measured by how one applies it, how one lives [one's] life, but by how many holy or sacred articles one possesses. (Phra Phaisan Visalo, "Spiritual Materialism and the Sacraments of Consumerism: A View from Thailand." http://bpf /phaisan1.htm1.org/tsangha)
socially engaged Buddhists attack consumerism as the new global
Buddhism's middle way ethic does not reject the accumulation of wealth.
does, however, establish guidelines for its acquisition and use. Wealth
honestly gained is praiseworthy but attachment to wealth, even when
and lawfully gained, is blameworthy, as is stinginess--not to share
resources for the benefit and well-being of oneself, one's dependents,
others. Acquiring wealth is acceptable
then, if at the same time, it promotes the well being of a community or
society. (Phra Rajavaramuni (aka P.A. Payutto), "Foundations of
Social Ethics," in Ethics, Wealth,
and Salvation: A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics, ed. Russell F.
& Donald K. Swearer (
One of the most
moral values is the act of generous giving (dåna)
incumbent particularly on people of means. In the Theravåda
Although the story celebrates dåna, on another level—and one relevant to an economic ethic--it depicts a conflict between unstinting adherence to an absolute moral principle—in this case the principle of generosity—and the duties attendant to one's station in life. Vessantara's commitment to dåna conflicts with the duty to fulfill his responsibilities as a head of a state, as a husband, and a father. This reading of the story suggests that in terms of an economic ethic, while one is expected to share generously, it should not come at the expense of the well-being of self and others—both those near and dear as well as the stranger.
Within the customary ritual practices of Theravada Buddhism, dåna, is most germane to puñña, or merit-making. Through giving, especially giving to the Sangha or holy order of monks, the non-attachment of the giver is expressed and cultivated, and the merit of the giver is increased so that he or she may enjoy even greater rewards in the future. In an essay critical of conventional Thai attitudes toward giving to the order of holy monks that aims at self-aggrandizement, be it spiritual or material, Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu advocates for what he terms "the gift of emptiness":
Thais usually interpret the benefit of giving to the Sangha as a future reward, a better life in the future or rebirth in heaven. Such a belief is childish. One still remains stuck in the cycle of rebirth… The best dåna is the gift of emptiness. This means to give away oneself or to give up all one's selfish interests. Indeed, if we really give this kind of dåna there is no self which gives it. If you ask what is given the answer is—the self (Thai, tua ku). What is given up is attachment to the notion of a self. What is left is freedom, consciousness constituted by awareness, wisdom, and purity (Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu, "True Giving" [Hai Dana Thi Mai Sia Ngen]).
Right Livelihood and Well-Being
Buddhist understanding of work or labor.
E.F. Schumacher delineates the Buddhist view of work into three
an opportunity to develop human faculties; to overcome ego-centeredness
joining with others in a common task; and to bring forth goods and
needed for a satisfying life. For purposes of argument, Schumacher
sharp contrast with modern Western economists who, he contends, look at
a kind of necessary evil. For employers,
labor is an item of cost to be reduced to a minimum; for workers labor
seen as a sacrifice of one's leisure and wages as compensation for the
sacrifice. (E. F. Schumacher, Small is
Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (
Modern economics, Schumacher argues, considers consumption to be the purpose of economic activity, and ties the maximization of human satisfactions to an optimal pattern of consumption by the optimal pattern of productive effort. From the standpoint of Buddhist economics, this approach is does not lead to happiness and certainly is not conducive to virtue. . In contrast to the modern Western economist who measures wealth by GNP and standard of living by the amount of annual consumption, for Buddhist economics consumption should be viewed as a means to human well-being. The aim should be to gain the maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption.
From Schumacher's perspective, Buddhist economics postulates that the essence of human flourishing is not in the multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. It is, if you will, a view of economics from the perspective of the maximization of human flourishing rather than consumption. Above all, work should promote human dignity and freedom. To organize work primarily for efficiency and profit so that it becomes meaningless, stultifying, or nerve-racking is a calculus that assigns greater value to goods than people. Hence, the sub-title of Schumacher's book, "economics as if people mattered."
For P.A. Payutto, the separation of work and leisure has two detrimental consequences: work becomes something we're compelled to do in order to obtain money for consumption; and it associates happiness and satisfaction with leisure time so that work and satisfaction are opposed. Buddhism, Payutto contends, holds the view that when work stems from the desire for true well-being then there is satisfaction in the direct and immediate results of the work itself.
For both Schumacher and Payutto, economics as a field has been overly narrow and fragmentary. Schumacher suggests that it should be complimented by "metaeconomics." Metaeconmics derives its objects from the study of what it means to be human and the natural and social environments in which human beings are situated. Payutto contends that "economics has become a narrow and rarefied discipline; an isolated, almost stunted body of knowledge having little to do with other disciplines or human activities." Buddhist economics, by contrast, offers a different approach not as a self-contained science or discipline but "one of a number of interdependent disciplines working in concert toward the common goal of social, individual, and environmental well being."
The 2007 UN
Development Report in Support of
The currency of the term, Sufficiency Economy is attributed to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in particular, his birthday address to the nation on December 4, 1997:
"Recently so many projects have been implemented, so many
factories have been built, that it was thought
The 2007 UN
Report pointed out that for forty years
Time does not
allow the opportunity
to explore the practical development and application of these
In 1999-2000 a working group drew up a tripartite characterization of sufficiency economy. As reported in the UN document it included the following: (1) SE is an approach to life applicable at every level—individual, family, community, nation; (2) it promotes a middle path in an era of economic globalization; and (3) it requires sound judgment in planning and the implementation of economic development theory. Later the philosophy of SE was expanded to include the following principles: moderation (pho phraman), reasonableness (mi het phon), self-immunity (phumikhumkan nai tua), wisdom and insight (khwam ru), and integrity (khunatham). Each of the components of "sufficiency" (pho phieng)--enough in the sense of not too little and not too much; a middle way between want and extravagance—resonates with Buddhist teachings: pho phraman--Buddhism as a majjhima patipatta or middle way; mi het phon--the natural law of idapaccayata, cause and effect, that structures everything; phumikhumkan nai tua—that in the face of dukkha or suffering each person has the potential to develop the mental ability to understand (quam ru) and overcome dukkha; and khunatham--that such knowledge entails the moral qualities of empathy, compassion, fairness, and generosity. However, the philosophy of sufficiency economy is not based in Buddhism, nor should it be understood as an economic theory, much less an economic policy. The operative term is "sufficiency" (pho phieng) a guide to human flourishing that has as much or more to do with the development of character as with economic sustainability.
It is beyond the scope of this these remarks to explore in detail the critiques of Sufficiency Economy. They include debunking it as a political strategy the military junta and Democratic Party employed to discredit, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the TRT Party; as a class response to the economic crisis of the past decade; as a theory that misunderstands the nature of rural livelihood; and as to a disguised tool of economic neo-liberalism.
application of "Sufficiency Economy" emerged in