Ever wondered, the two most important things that we practice in our daily lives and yet how their relation goes unnoticed?
Maybe because we believe they run on a different perspective or, maybe we ignore the possibility of it complementing each other.
One of the examples could be religion and economics, we pray almost every day and we also carry out economic transactions on a daily basis. On a surficial level, it looks like both are trying to teach us completely different philosophies in life, on one hand where most religions in the world tell us that greed should be given up, and on the other hand economics constantly emphasize increasing production and income for welfare. But when examined carefully, at a deeper level both these philosophies could be combined and that’s exactly what Buddhist economics tries to achieve through its mid path approach.
The common ground where Buddhist economics tries to come in is through the assumption of “welfare”. While traditional economics assumes that welfare for all can be achieved by satisfying people’s needs and wants i.e. by providing them more of everything, Buddhist economics, on the other hand, tries to explain the concept of welfare in a different manner, it focuses on the question of “what truly makes a human happy?” and tries to differentiate between the very idea of needs and wants.
Officially speaking, the concept of Buddhist economics was first presented by E. F. Schumacher in his well-known collection ‘Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered’, however, some of the historical texts also suggests that its applications were also present at the time of Ashoka the Great, who is well known for his philanthropic works of making hospitals and parks and promoting good governance, etc.
According to Payutto, Ven. P. A. in his “Buddhist Economics – A Middle Way for the Market Place” Buddhist economics holds that truly rational decisions can only be made when we understand what creates irrationality. When people understand what constitutes desire, they realize that all the wealth in the world cannot satisfy it. When people understand the universality of fear, they become more compassionate to all beings. Thus, this spiritual approach to economics doesn’t rely on theories and models, but on the essential forces of acumen, empathy, and restraint. It tries to understand human desires and teach them how to control them in order to be happy spiritually rather than just materially.
So, the philosophy of “middle path” which essentially means to neither completely accept a strictly ascetic lifestyle nor completely engage oneself in worldly pleasure the question arises, How can this philosophy be put in economic terms? Buddhist economics suggests dividing life into two parts, one consumption, and second meditation. Consumption will allow the person to have their needs satisfied and be in touch with the external world, while meditation will allow the person to learn self-control and restrain its desires. In ‘small is beautiful’ it focuses on the aspect of “right to livelihood” which is among the eightfold teaching of Buddha. What the book was trying to convey was that the employers are always trying to minimize their input expenditure which includes human labor and the employees at the same time do not like to work for long hours and sacrifice their leisure. This means that too much human labor is not beneficial for either of the parties concerned. According to Buddhist perspective, work has a much wider-reaching function: it is viewed as a means to give the worker a chance to utilize and develop his or her faculties, to enable the worker to overcome his or her self-centeredness by working with other people to achieve a common goal, and to produce the goods and services necessary for a ‘becoming existence’. Here work is an integral part of human activity, necessary not only for producing the things we need and use but also to attain self-actualization, enjoy community participation and experience the satisfaction of creation. Creativity in the activity is important so that work becomes nourishing for the people just like food and keeps them happy.
The principle of being “better off” in economics by consuming more is challenged by Buddhist economics because it explains it in a different fashion. Since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. The aim is simplicity which avoids conflicts like capitalism, inequity, etc. hence, promoting non-violence (well, one the reason it got popularisation was that it emerged right after World War-II, for a generation which had seen enough of violence this branch of economics sure sounds promising).
This seems like a difficult principle to apply in today’s globalized world where consumerism, frequent trade wars, and huge imports and export rates are some of its defining traits. Seems like a lot doesn’t it?
Apart from the different perspectives on employment, wealth and consumption traditional economics also differentiates from Buddhist economics in places like environmentalism, so like traditional economics believes that in order for an economy to grow it is necessary for it to shift its focus from agriculture to other sectors, however, Buddhist economy supports community agriculture which creates utility as well as keeps the body healthy. Also, traditional economics gives importance to gross national index whereas Buddhist economics gives importance to a gross happiness index. Its influence can be seen in countries like Bhutan and many places in Burma. The four pillars of GNH are 1) sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; 2) environmental conservation; 3) preservation and promotion of culture; and 4) good governance. Various domains on which it focuses include education, health, psychological well-being, community diversity, etc.
The welfare motive of this branch of economics is strong and in today’s world where issues like the growing gap between the rich and the poor, health problems and even climate change are rising, Buddhist economics does sound like a promising approach to attempt to solve them. We are caught in a world war III, so why wait when a peaceful way is possible before it’s too late?
It starts with a simple acceptance that it is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them.