Buddhist Economics: A Social Philosophy

Dr. Leonardo Chapela

Buddhist Himalaya: A Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods

Vol. III No. I & II  (1990-1991)


Copyright 1990 by Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods




Modernization ideals in most developing countries go along with the western habit of thought and mode of life from which the economic system is no exception and, in most cases, governments are willing to adhere to and scholars are willing to believe. It is hard to deny that western economic theory has imposed almost a worldly hegemonic pattern of thought among scholars. Western economics have acquired a great deal of material knowledge and comfort, simply by doing what they believe 'to be done', and doing it well. However, behind the western civilization and achievement, lie an integrated 'belief value-system' supported by a peculiar habit of though and attitudes towards like. This  'central world-outlook' has been molded by a long spiritual and material history, which is causally related to levels of living and to the entire framework of western cultural institutions.


However, it seems that Asian countries are well aware of this westernization process and not without the concern. But does that means that the 'Eastern civilization' central belief system, is so weak to prevent itself to be overcomed ? Does Buddhism has something to say about ?


In the field of social research there has been clear signals of the development of a modern Buddhist Social Philosophy, which is true at large extent in the (may be called) Theravadin School of "Applied Buddhism'. Recent works on Buddhist Law, Buddhist Ethics, Buddhist Psychology, Buddhist Economics. Buddhist Environmental Ethics, among others, manifest itself this fact. And it is in this context that the aim of this paper is of relevance; that is, to encourage Asians social scientists and Buddhist monks to endevour themselves in the development of a Buddhist Social Science-with Buddhist Economics as a specific area of study within it. The author hopes that any effort generated in that direction may result for the benefit of all sentient beings.




In reality three is no neatly isolable range of cultural phenomena that cant be set apart under the head of the economic sphere, and distinctions between economic and non-economic issues are, at best, artificial.


" The economic interest does not act in insulation, for it is but one of several vaguely isolable interest on which the complex of teleological activity carried out by the individual proceeds. The individual is but a single agent in each case; and he  enters into each successive action as a whole, although the specific end sought in a given action may be sought avowedly on the basis of a particular interest; as e.g., the economic, aesthetic, sexual, humanitarian, devotional interests. Since each of these passably isolable interest is a propensity of the organic agent man, with his complex of habits of thought, the expression of each is affected by habits of like formed under the guidance of all the rest. ... .. what is true of the individual in this respect is true of the group in which he lives. All economic change is a change in the economic community a change in the community's methods of turning material things to account .. Economic science, must be a theory of the economic life process of the race or the community."


A reliable study of economics. there fore, should be based on a comprehensive approach, in which the overlapping cultural phenomena and the interrelatedness of social sciences are considered. In this sense Buddhist Economics is of prime relevance.


"Though the Buddha did not writ a treatise on philosophy  or even in the oral teachings, there is, implicit in His teachings, a concern with what may be called  world-view, a theory of knowledge, ethics and a social philosophy... in a sense the inter-connections between the various divisions of philosophy, which we analytically separate, is an important feature of Buddhism. It is an interesting holistic perspective where one might discern areas of study, like genetic epistemology or moral psychology." And, indeed, "Buddhism is a religion with a philosophy, It recommends a way of life, which follows from its view of life, which is justified on the basis of the philosophy of Buddhism."


Therefore, Buddhism provides a pint of departure; a theory of knowledge, supported by a central belief system, from which a Buddhism social philosophy would be able to integrate a world-outlook of human nature, its core-values and its cultural dimension. A social philosophy that would be able to unify, in an all-embracing value system, the cognitive 'is' and the normative 'ought to' beliefs. In order words, a world-outlook that makes the manifest reality (facts) comprehensive and meaningful (valuable), and at the same time, it should legitimize social institutions and the rule of governing authority.


An analogy of this, could be Dr. K. Jayatilleke's work on Buddhist Conceptions of Law. He affirms that these conceptions are closely related to Buddhist ethics and social philosophy, which in turn become significant only of the background of the Buddhist theory of reality, which again it derives its validity form a theory of knowledge and both these can have a bearing conception of Law.  


However, once Buddhist social Science has had integrated a higher order' world outlook, it has to be made explicit for scientific work an purposes. The development of this 'frame of orientation' is of a spiritual kind. It is, for the scientific purpose, an imputation of metaphysical coherence to the facts dealt with. Indeed, as Gunnar myrdal argues, "No social science or particular branch of social research can pretend to be "amoral" or 'apolitical'. No social science can ever be neutral or simply factual, neither 'objective' in the traditional meaning of these terms. Research is always by logical necessity based on moral and political valuations, and the researcher should be obliged to account for them explicitly.


Therefore, as for Buddhist Economics, this is a legitimate return to political Economy and to the times when Economics was a part of Moral Philosophy, an approach which was and is appropriate whenever the ultimate meaning of economic activity is in doubt.




Someone in the west has defined Economics as 'what economist do'. However if it were true certainly it would be very trivial. Since Economics. nowadays, has became increasingly isolated from other social sciences; therefore, reduced to a highly abstract technical exercise- with the use of the most advanced 'statistic-mathematic' techniques of a secular reasoning and a polemical discussion of disputed points of policy about a body of maxims for the conduct of a value-closed and ideal model of economic theory.


However, what are the alternatives? and what we can do about it? As far as the objective of this paper, our concern is to explore the Buddhist alternative; that i alternatives, if any. So, towards that end, a set of considerations are accounted for which includes a brief description of the western antecedent and the Buddhist perspectives under the following headings: On economic human nature; On economic ethics and morality; On economic human behavior; On economic institutions; On economic policy and technique; and, On economic habit of thought. And thus, as it will be shown. Economics is much more that 'what economist do'.


a) On Economic Human Nature.


In the history of western economic thought (XVIII-XX centuries) the Theory of Value has been the philosophical pillar around which the entire building of economics has been built upon. Economics is essentially a theory of value. This is altogether the dominant feature of the body of doctrines, the rest follows from or is adapted to this central discipline. The Classical economists and the subsequent school of economic thought employed the concept of a theory of value to explain what they believed to be the substantial ground of economic reality-the economic human nature-and to justify and legitimize a preconceived economic order.


Along this line, the Buddhist Theory of Knowledge should be able to provide an interpretation of human nature in order to formulate a Buddhist Theory of economic Value': the touchstone from which Buddhist Economics can be elaborated In particular, it is the opinion of the author of this paper that a Buddhist interpretation of the economic human nature, could be derived; from the Mahayana's Doctrine of Interdependence or Emptiness (Sunyata), and from the Theravada's Theory of selflessness (Anatta) among other philosophical insights. This is an open field for study and research, since nothing at all has been written on the Buddhist Theory of Economic Value.


b) On Economic Ethics and Morality.


When the western Age or Enlightenment began (XVII century), economics was still a branch of ethics and ethics of theology. All human activities were treated as falling within a single scheme, whose character was determined by the 'spiritual destiny' of mankind. The secularization of political thought, which was to be word the next two centuries, resulted in a dualism which regarded the secular and religious aspects of life as a parallel and independent provinces. And later, in the development of the industrial civilization (after the XIX century), The formalization of reasons gradually emptied it of its normative contents; this is true of a good deal of modern social theory and thought.


However, man can not live without values, and the normative is an essential aspect of the total human existence, In this sense, Buddhism, like most religious and ethical systems. presents a way of life which include a moral code for the layman as well as the monks. Although, as Padmasiri de Silva observes, this ethical aspects "are deeply rooted in a reflective inquiry about the basis of this way of life and rules of conduct".   


From the point of view of the Buddhist economic ethics, the concept of Right Livelihood is or great relevance. The Buddhist concept of the Middle Way, also called the Noble Eightfold Path, avoids the extreme of self-indulgence and self-mortification while emphasizing the importance of Right Livelihood, the fifth Factor in the Path as one of the main determinants of happiness and success in Worldly life.


Therefore, Buddhist Economics, or rather Buddhist Economic Ethics, should be able to integrate the philosophical and ethical ideas of Buddhism with certain attitudes, to form a Buddhist "Ethos' that would be able to generate desirable social consciousness among people, to replace ignorance with knowledge, greed with generosity, and lack of respect with attributes of compassion and loving-kindness for all forms of life and the environment.


c) On Economic Human Behavior.


Economic are willing to define their discipline as dealing with the problem of allocation of scarce means toward alternative ends. assuming that the human needs, wants, and desires are infinite, Modern economic theory endeavors itself in "explaining" man's economic motives and goals.


Microeconomics upholds a theory of demand (or consumer behavior), a theory of the firm (or production behavior) and a price theory (or market behavior). Microeconomics, by the same token, takes into account the aggregate (national) economic behavior.


However, behind the rationality of modern economic theory, and its mathematical behavioral-models, there lies a psychological 'explanatory pattern' for human economic behavior, whether called hedonism, utilitarianism, rational economic man', etc., which is not more that a prescription of how individuals and the 'sum' of them should behave in a market society.


In this context, schumacher's statement should be seriously considered: "A Buddhist way of life would call for Buddhist economics. as just the modern materialist way of life has brought forth modern economics". A Buddhist psychology-which deals with the concepts of mind, consciousness' and behavior, motivation, emotions and personality should be able to proved a 'meta-economic' interpretation of human behavior which mental and physical health require; a new discipline of human wellbeing. That is, Buddhist Economics.


d) On Economic Institutions.


According to Max weber," rational. systematic and specialized pursuit and utilization of science has only existed in the west in a sense at all approaching its present dominant place in our culture. An the same is true of the most fateful force in modern life, capitalism.... it is a question of the specific and peculiar rationalism of western culture, that the scientific, political and economic development of China or India id not follow". Although, the social and institutional structure of the Asian countries is different from western developed countries, most important are those differences in the totality of the habits of thought and life and core values that cause behavior to be what it is. These are the attitudes that have been moulded by a long spiritual and material history, and are causally related to levels of living and to the entire frame world of cultural institutions.


Venerable Piyasilo, in his "Socioanthropology of Buddhist Prayer, indicates: " the sociologist of religion attempts to accurately show the relationships between religion and other spheres, such as economics. politics and science... Millions of people throughout the world performs rituals, engage in worship or belief in some sort of religion, Many of these contemporary religious activities have always been an important part of continuing traditional cultures.


Therefore, since much of the Asian culture is grounded in Buddhist religion and values, Buddhist socio-anthropology should b able to trace the cumulative working out of the habitual methods and institutions in dealing with the material means of life, in the cultural sequence of a Buddhist bearing; that is, the Buddhist economic institutions.