Buddhist Perspectives on Sustainable Economic Development
This article is based on a panel address given by the author at the International Seminar on India’s North Eastern Region and Buddhist Heritage held on 18 December 2015 in Tripura, India.
In a profit-driven market economy, there seems to be an unavoidable conflict between the pursuit of profit and non-profit values—a constant struggle between doing good and doing well. Can we live in a market economy and achieve sustainable development consistent with Buddhist values? Can Buddhist teachings contribute to a sustainable economy?
There are at least three important areas in which Buddhist teachings could contribute to a sustainable economy. Moral discipline is the first. In this area, the market economy seems to be quite indifferent as long as our activities are legally permissible. Despite Adam Smith’s elaborated discussions on virtues in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the market seems to put more focus on self-interest and the invisible hand in The Wealth of Nations.
Milton Friedman suggested that social responsibility for a business corporation in a free market is to pursue profitability within the rules of the game. (Friedman 2002, 133) Ayn Rand opposed the conventional notion of morality because the call for the greater and social goods seems to consistently sacrifice the best interests of the individual. Objectivist ethics hold that “the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest.” (Rand 1964, x) Nowadays, these views are being misinterpreted in the market economy as a sanction for amoral, irrational, and self-centered behavior.
Morality is core to the Buddhist worldview and is evaluated by its skillfulness (Pali: kusala). To serve our best self-interest, Buddhist economics advocate a life based on moral discipline. When our mind and body are not deluded, we can achieve sustainable happiness and freedom.
The second important contribution from Buddhism is the teaching of selflessness (Pali: anatta). While the market economy focuses on self as the operating entity, the Buddhist teaching on dependent arising (Pali: paticcasamuppada) posits that there is no real self entity independent of other conditions. Our happiness and well-being are inseparable from those of our past, present, and future generations, our natural environment, and rest of the ecosystem. We cannot survive and operate in a vacuum. With this Buddhist perspective, we should abandon the silo mentality and see others’ problems as our problems, embrace their challenges as our challenges. It is a transformation from self-centeredness to selflessness.
In a sharing economy, we need to share good fortune and bad fortune. Without this sense of commonality, American political philosopher Michael Sandel argued that the very fundamental value of democracy supporting the market economy would be shaken. (Sandel 1998, 119)
The third Buddhist contribution is that changes at the individual and societal level are inseparable. Bhikkhu Bodhi argued: “Two dimensions of our lives [i.e. the internal and the external, the personal and the social] are inseparably intertwined and mutually conditioning, so that our values reflect social and economic realities, while social and economic realities are shaped by our values [at the individual level]. Thus, while it is in our personal lives that we have the most power to instigate direct change, any alternations in our personal lifestyles must also reach outwards and exercise an impact on our interpersonal relations, our social order, our political agenda, and our relationship to the natural environment.” (Bodhi 2000, 11)
CSR Asia founder and chairman Richard Welford also agreed that Buddhist economics could be a “peaceful individually based revolution.” (Welford 2007) We could all initiate change from within each of us individually, now, without the need to wait or confront with institutions or other incumbents through radical changes.
Indeed, many world leaders are driving these changes at the moment. Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund Bridgewater Associates discussed his rewarding experience from mindfulness practices and his focus on discipline and radical transparency. Billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have devoted their substantial fortunes to solving global problems with a business and scientific mindset. B Corps, a new class of corporation in the US, demonstrates that corporates can be driven by purposes and create benefit for all stakeholders, not only for shareholders. These are real-life examples of how do good can do well.
More research efforts could be focused on building a deeper understanding of the differentiating worldview between Buddhism and the market economy. This understanding could in turn contribute to new perspectives on the building blocks of sustainable economic development.
If we look at the core reasons why the market economy is unsustainable, greed (Pali: lobha), aversion (Pali: dosa), delusion (Pali: moha) at the individual and societal level contribute to many faulty and irrational decisions. With Buddhist Threefold Training in moral discipline (Pali: sila), mental concentration (Pali: samadhi) and wisdom (Pali: panna), specific changes are possible. This Threefold Training can be integrated into daily life so that we can live in a Buddhist Economy, contributing to sustainable economic development. We can change the world starting with ourselves today.
Smith, Adam. 1817. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. First American ed. Philadelphia: Anthony Finley.
Smith, Adam. 1843. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson.
Friedman, Milton. 2002. Capitalism and Freedom. Original edition, 1962. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rand, Ayn. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. x. New York: New American Library.
Sandel, Michael J. 1998. “What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets.” Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Brasenose College, Oxford, 11–12 May 1998.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 2000. Facing the Future: Four Essays on Buddhism and Society. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
Welford, Richard. 2007. “Examining, Discussing and Suggesting the Possible Contribution and Role of Buddhist Economics for Corporate Social Responsibility.” International Journal of Green Economics 1 (3/4):341–350