Applied Buddhism And Global Economic Crisis

By Buddhistdoor A. Barua, D. K. Barua, M.A. Basilio
Buddhistdoor Global | 2010-01-10 |

Modern Buddhism has become an intrinsic part of a globalized world. With its philosophy of the way of life, it takes special place in human and cultural identity. Buddhism in modern times had already incorporated either other genuine Asian traditions or Western traditions and merged with the socio-cultural backgrounds of many countries across the world. Buddhism stresses the principle of interdependence, which is also the foundation of globalization in economic interest.


An important truth is that no economic system is value-free. Every system of production and consumption encourages the development of certain values and discourages others. So, it is not possible for economics to be free of values when, in fact, it is rooted in the human mind. The economic process begins with want, continues with choice and ends with satisfaction. All of these are functions of the mind. We need to give up our attachments to material wealth and conquer greed and obsession for social recognition at individual level in order to make the economy value free.




The issue of globalization is directly or indirectly affecting all our lives. Globalization leads to the globalization of economy and the homogenization of culture. It can undermine local cultures and disrupt traditional relationships in a society with the assumption that free trade will also lead to the formation of a more democratic society. Unfortunately, the effects of the globalization of business and trade are often disastrous for underdeveloped nations. These nations provide the raw materials and cheap labor which are necessary to make globalization prosperous for the more developed nations. Though there are successes in the process of globalization, there is much unrest in the poor and underdeveloped nations which are deep in debt and suffer internal conflict, poverty, droughts and famines. [1,2]


The concept of globalization is important for Buddhism because Buddhism is a global, world faith. Buddhism in modern times had already incorporated either other genuine Asian traditions or Western traditions and merged with the socio-cultural backgrounds of many countries across the world. Buddhism stresses the principle of interdependence, which is also the foundation of globalization in economic interest. [1,2]

Buddhism and the Problem of Global Economic Crisis  


When we evaluate an economic system, we should consider not only how efficiently it produces and distributes goods, but also its effects on human values, and through them its larger social effects. The collective values that it encourages should be consistent with the individual Buddhist values that reduce the Dukkha. As the individual and social values cannot be delinked, the crucial issue remains as whether our economic system is conducive to the ethical and spiritual development of its members.


Much of the philosophical reflection on economics has focused on questions about human nature. Those who defend market capitalism argue that its emphasis on competition and personal gain is grounded in the fact that humans are fundamentally self-centered and self-interested. Critics of capitalism argue that our basic nature is more cooperative and generous that is, we are naturally more selfless. [3,4]


Buddhism avoids that debate by taking a different approach. The Buddha emphasized that we all have both unwholesome and unwholesome traits (kusala / akusalamula). The important issue is the practical matter of how to reduce our unwholesome characteristics and develop the more wholesome ones. The lotus flower symbolizes this process. Although rooted in the mud and muck at the bottom of a pond, the lotus grows upwards to bloom on the surface, thus representing our potential to purify ourselves.5 Our unwholesome characteristics are usually summarized as the three poisons or three roots of evil: lobha - greed, dosa - anger and moha - delusion. The goal of the Buddhist way of life is to eliminate these roots by transforming them into their positive counterparts: greed into generosity (D?na), anger into loving-kindness (metta), and delusion into wisdom (prajna). [5,6]


Economists talk about demand, but their concern to be objective and value-neutral does not allow them to evaluate different types of demand. The engine of the economic process is the desire for continual profits and in order to keep making those profits people must consume more. Harnessing this type of motivation has been extraordinarily successful depending on your definition of success. According to the Worldwatch Institute, more goods and services were consumed in the forty years between 1950 and 1990 (measured in constant dollars) than by all the previous generations in human history. According to the United Nations Human Development Report for 1999, the world spent at least $435 billion the previous year for advertising, plus well over $100 billion for public relations and marketing. The result is 270 million global teens who now inhabit a single pop-culture world, consuming the same designer clothes, music and soft drinks. [3,4]


 While this growth has given us opportunities that our grandparents never dreamed of, we have also become more sensitive to the negative consequences such as its staggering ecological impact and the worsening mal-distribution of this wealth. A child in the developed countries consumes and pollutes 30 to 50 times as much as a poor one in an undeveloped country, according to the same UNHDR. Today 1.2 billion people survive on less than a dollar a day and almost half the world's population live on less than two dollars a day. The 20% of people in the richest countries enjoy 86% of the world's consumption, the poorest 20% only 1.3%. Thus, the gap of globalization is increasing and not decreasing. [3,4]


From a Buddhist perspective, the fundamental problem with consumerism is the delusion that genuine happiness can be found this way. If insatiable desires (tanha) are the source of the frustration (dukkha) that we experience in our daily lives, then such consumption, which distracts us and intoxicates us, is not the solution to our unhappiness but one of its main symptoms. That brings us to the final irony of this addiction to consumption: also according to the 1999 UNHDR, the percentage of Americans who considered themselves happy peaked in 1957, despite the fact that consumption per person has more than doubled since then. At the same time, studies of U.S. households have found that between 1986 and 1994 the amount of money people think they need to live happily has doubled. That seems paradoxical, but it is not difficult to explain. When we define ourselves as consumers, we can never have enough. For reasons we never quite understand, consumerism never really gives us what we want from it; it works by keeping us thinking that the next thing we buy will satisfy us. [4,5,7,8]


Higher incomes have certainly enabled many people to become more generous, but this has not been their main effect, because capitalism is based upon a very different principle: that capital should be used to create more capital. Rather than redistributing our wealth, we prefer to invest that wealth as a means to accumulate more and spend more, regardless of whether or not we need more. In fact, the question of whether or not we really need more has become rather quaint; you can never be too rich. [4,5,6,8]


This way of thinking has become natural for us, but it is uncommon in societies where advertising has not yet conditioned people into believing that happiness is something you purchase. International development agencies have been slow to realize what anthropologists have long understood. In traditional cultures, income is not the primary criterion of well-being and sometimes it is not even a major one.  The person who is sometimes ranked as poorest by the common people in a community is often a man who is probably the only person receiving a salary. [6,7,8]


Our obsession with economic growth seems natural to us because we have forgotten the hierarchy of needs that we often take for granted. We project our own values when we assume that a person must be unhappy by presuming that the only way to become happy is to start on the treadmill of a lifestyle increasingly preoccupied with consumption. However, the importance of self-limitation, which requires some degree of non-attachment, is an essential human attribute to remain happy according to Buddhism. This is expressed better in a Tibetan Buddhist analogy. The world is full of thorns and sharp stones (and now broken glass too). What should we do about this? One solution is to pave over the entire earth, but a simpler alternative is to wear shoes. Paving the whole planet is a good metaphor for how our collective technological and economic project is attempting to make us happy. Without the wisdom of self-limitation, we will not be satisfied even when we have used up all the earth's resources. The other solution is for our minds to learn how to wear shoes, so that our collective ends become an expression of the renewable means that the biosphere provides. [5,6,8]


Our evangelical efforts to economically develop other societies, which cherish their own spiritual values and community traditions, might be viewed as a contemporary form of religious imperialism. Conventional economic theory assumes that resources are limited but our desires are infinitely expandable. As we know, desire leads to frustration and it is a major cause of anger and hatred. Without self-limitation desire also becomes a cause for conflict. From a Buddhist point of view, our economic emphasis on competition and individual gain encourages the development of anger and hatred in the mind rather than cultivating the loving-kindness. A society where people do not feel that they benefit from sharing with each other is a society that has already begun to break down. The Buddha warned against negative feelings such as envy (issa) and avarice (macchariya). Issa becomes intense when certain possessions are enjoyed by one section of society while another section does not have the opportunity to acquire them. Macchariya is the selfish enjoyment of goods while greedily guarding them from others. A society in which these psychological tendencies predominate may be materially wealthy but it is spiritually poor. [3,5,6,7,8]


 The globalization of market capitalism is a victory for free trade over the inefficiencies of protectionism and special interests. Free trade seems to realize in the economic sphere the supreme value that we place on freedom. It optimizes access to resources and markets. But despite its success, it is only one historically conditioned way of understanding and reorganizing the world. However, if we view free trade from a different perspective provided by Buddhism, we shall understand that such an idea helps us to see presuppositions usually taken for granted. The Buddhist critique of a value-free economics suggests that globalizing capitalism is neither natural nor inevitable. [1,2,3]


The critical stage in the development of market capitalism occurred during the industrial revolution (1750 - 1850 in England), when new technologies led to the liberation of a critical mass of land, labor, and capital. They became understood in a new way for commodities to be bought and sold. The world had to be converted into exchangeable resources for market forces to interact freely and productively. But it was strongly resisted by most people at the time and was later successfully implemented only because of strong government support for it. For those who had capital to invest, the industrial revolution was very profitable. But for most people industrial commoditization seems to have been experienced as a tragedy. The earth became commoditized into a collection of resources to be exploited. Human life became commoditized into labor or work time and was also priced according to supply and demand. All these became means which the new economy used to generate more capital. [3,4]


 From a religious perspective, when things become treated as commodities they lose their spiritual dimension. The commoditized understanding induces a sharp duality between humans and the rest of the world. All value is created by our goals and desires. The rest of the world has no meaning or value except when it serves our purposes. This now seems quite natural to us, because we have been conditioned to think and live this way. For Buddhism, however, such a dualistic understanding is delusive. The world is a web; nothing has any reality of its own apart from that web, because everything is dependent on everything else. The concept of interdependence challenges our usual sense of separation from the world. The feeling that ‘I am here and the world is out there’ is at the root of our Dukkha and it alienates us from the world where we live. The Buddha experienced this non-dual interdependence of things when he became enlightened. The Buddhist path works by helping us to realize our interdependence and non-duality with the world and to live in harmony with it. [5,6,7,8]




Buddhism shows us the possibility of a better way of leading a stress-free life. However, from a materialistic perspective and the social science of economics, such philosophical and spiritual understanding of life are considered as superstitious and escapist. [5,6,8]


The teachings of the Buddha are based on a different way of understanding the relationship between the world and ourselves. From the Buddhist perspective, economic growth and consumerism are unsatisfactory alternatives because they evade the basic problem of life, which is suffering, by distracting us with symbolic substitutes such as money, status and power.




1.    Quang, T.T. 2009. “Buddhism and Globalization”. Bliss and Growth. Blag Biz.


2.      Loy, D. 2007. “A Buddhist View of Globalization”. Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Japan: BunkyoUniversity.


3.      Power, G. 1997. “Globalization and its Discontents in Development”. The Journal of the Society for International Development 40(2).


4.      Schumacher, E.F. 1975. “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”. New York: Harper.


5.      Payutto, P.A. 1994. “Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place”. (translated by Dhammavijaya and Bruce Evans) Second Edition. Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.


6.      Sizemore, R.F., Swearer, D.K., ed. 1990. “Ethics, Wealth and Salvation: A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics”. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina.


7.      David R. Loy, “The Religion of the Market in Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption and Ecology”, edited by Harold Coward and Dan Maguire (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.


8.      Hodge, H.N. 2009. “Buddhism in the Global Economy”. Berkeley,US: ISEC. 




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