Ethical Economies

The “Buddhist” Part of Buddhist Economics

This post reviews some aspects of Buddhist ontology and the practical teachings that serve as the foundation for Buddhist economics. If you had some questions while reading the previous post, “Is Buddhist Economics an Oxymoron?” then this might help.

Buddhism’s central doctrine, the Four Noble Truths, teaches that there is suffering (dukkha); the cause of suffering is craving or desire (tanha); there is an end to suffering; and the Way to end suffering is the Eightfold Path (see below).

The Buddhist Theory of Conditionality, also known as Dependent Origination (paticca samuppada), offers insight into the origin of individual suffering through a 12-link chain of dependently arising conditions (ignorance, volitional impulses, consciousness, body and mind, six sense bases, sense contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and aging and death, which have despair as their byproduct). There is no First Cause, as each depends on the existence of another to come into being, and at the same time, each conditions the arising and existence of yet another.

On a few occasions, the Buddha also declared that all things in the world arise continuously in this same way: conditioned by another and subject to the natural law of cause and effect. The gloss that Buddhists believe in the ‘interconnectedness of all life’ stems from these more complex ideas.

Thus no entity exists independently or permanently, not even the self. Contrary to the Western assumption of an atomistic self, Buddhism teaches non-self (anatta) and the release of attachment to ideas of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. When the Buddha spoke of enlightenment, nirvana, he was referring to the absolute understanding of these Truths that ends suffering.

Returning to the Fourth Noble Truth, the Buddha outlined a practical Way to end suffering though the Eightfold Path. To escape the cycle of rebirth (samsara) and attain nirvana, individuals must practice the Eightfold Path according to their own capabilities. The eight aspects of the Path are right view, right effort, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right mindfulness and right concentration.

These eight components are practiced simultaneously and aim to promote and perfect the three divisions of Buddhist training: morality (sila), mental development (samadhi) and wisdom (panna). The texts elaborate on how to follow the Path and cultivate sila, samadhi and panna, but the various Buddhist schools and sects disagree as to which practices are most conducive to enlightenment.

While monks and nuns devote their lives to such endeavours, laypeople typically find them too challenging or incompatible with householder life. Fortunately, there is another doctrinally derived option available for lay salvation: karma, the consequences of intentional thought and action that may positively or negatively affect this life and the next.

Karma is not an exclusively Buddhist concept. Nevertheless, Buddhism holds that the laws of causal dependence governing nature encompass human behaviour, such that ‘good deeds bring good results; bad deeds bring bad results. Nothing can change past karma, but an individual may balance its negative effects by improving future karma through meritorious actions.

 Of course there’s much more to Buddhism than these general ideas but honestly, it’s much better to stay focused on the foundational ideas than to get caught up in the myriad debates–historical and contemporary–that have prompted the philosophical and practical division of Buddhism into the many schools, sects, and movements that exist today. The idea is to recognize core sensibilities and values that characterize Buddhist thought, which can inform our conception of Buddhist economics.

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