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A Buddhist perspective on Economics

Amaranatho's picture

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As I started to formulate this article on economics part of me wondered what the word ‘economics’ means. The original meaning of the word comes from a Greek word meaning ‘one who manages a household’ 1 and only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has it taken on the meaning ‘the system of production and distribution and consumption’2. I always find these investigations interesting, as they ask fundamental questions about what we believe is happening. In my perception, economy has to do with money: who has it, how we use it, and who regulates it.



From a Buddhist point of view it is always important to question our assumptions, our views. The questions then for me are: ‘what are we producing?’; ‘who are we distributing the products to?’, and ‘who is consuming the products?’. Buddhism’s ultimate focus is the liberation of the heart, freeing the heart, so that one’s happiness is not dependent on things, products, people, or anything else that depends on something else. In the Buddhist country of Bhutan, the wellbeing of the country has not been defined in terms of products but in terms of happiness3, and this also applies to the way I live as a monk. So what is needed to have a economy based on wellbeing?


Our intention is what matters

Buddhism provides a framework both for understanding who we are and why we do the things that we do. It also has standards for an ethical way of behaving which is balanced with wisdom. This is developed through focusing the mind on both intention and attention. We give attention to do what we do, with the intention of not harming anybody, of expressing kindness and generosity through body, speech and thought. Developing attentiveness itself is not necessarily beneficial. It is the intention behind what we give attention to that gives the act of attention its ethical quality. A burglar, for instance, may be very attentive, but their intention is not very good. On the other hand, you could try to defend peace (a good intention) with an unethical action. So we become mindful of how our thoughts affect our actions and how our actions affect our thoughts. Wisdom then arises naturally. As the mind becomes quiet we can see this relationship between thought and action much more clearly.


By developing wisdom in this way, we can then adopt an ethical approach that is not based on what somebody else thinks is right, but on what is of value to us and to other people. Part of the ethical development the Buddha suggested is Right Livelihood, which he defined for lay people as not dealing in ‘… business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.’ 4 For a Theravadin monk it is even more specific to exclude such occupations as palmistry, reading omens and interpreting celestial events, interpreting dreams, geomancy, fortune-telling based on visions; giving protective charms; interpreting the calls of birds and animals (the list goes on and on)4.


A delusion

The Buddhist teaching thus gives us a framework in which to reflect on our actions. It speaks of three poisons which lead us into unwholesome actions: greed, hatred and delusion, where delusion means not understanding the way things are. When we understand the ways things are, we are truly happy. A very simple way of understanding this is that, if I give you something you like, you feel happy, but if you do not keep a check on how you are feeling, then this happiness will probably lead to greed for more of whatever brought the happiness about. So you eat some chocolate and it gives you a nice feeling. So your mind says ‘have some more’ and your stomach says you are full. Or, somebody comes up to you and takes your piece of chocolate, then you might feel hatred for them. Or you see somebody eating your favourite chocolate and you don’t have the money for it, and so you hate them for having something that you want. So you can go on and on with this, and this is all delusion.


Short-term happiness versus long-term contentment

So the economy now, as I see it, is based on providing us with short-term happiness with things. The short-term happiness of things does not lead to contentment, it leads to wanting more stuff. Part of the role of a Buddhist monk is to reflect back to society and hence individuals, about living a life of simplicity rather than complexity and contentment rather than productivity. It’s really about what you do not need rather than what you want, about being okay with enough. As a Buddhist monk in the Theravadin Forest Tradition, I live on the gifts of other as I have taken on various rules, one of which is not to use or handle money. This means living within an institution which is based on generosity and donation. So everything in the monastery has been given, either as some money to the charity that looks after the monastery, or as physical things from toilet rolls to the rice that we eat. The Buddha was not against wealth per se. Actually, he very clearly spoke about five benefits of being wealthy:


To be able to help your family, friends, society, to be able to give gifts to family, friends, society and in honour of the dead, and to give to anybody following a holy life.5


Making the right choice

I would like to offer a better economic system than the one we have, but I don’t have one to offer (you might want to have a look at note 6). The word Buddha means the awakened one, so what can we do to wake up to the way the economic system is? Well, we have the choice of how we relate to it, how we use it. So we have choices now more than ever: to use ethical banking, ethical buying and so on. Ultimately the Buddha was pointing to our own internal economy, of managing ourselves, the production, distribution and consumption of kindness, wellbeing and ultimate freedom. From a Buddhist point of view the internal and external are so intimately connected that this brings about the wider system. Change the internal system and the external system follows. So, are you willing to start this investigation?