Economics for the Quality of Life

By PHRA PAISAL VISALO - October 7, 2017

Economics for the Quality of Life.

By Venerable Phra Paisal Visalo, abbot of Wat Pa Sukato (Thailand).

Keynote speech presented at The 8th International Buddhist Research Seminar & The 2nd International Conference on Buddhadāsa Studies on 24 May 2017 at the Buddhadāsa Indapañño Archives, Bangkok, in honour of the 111th Anniversary of Buddhadāsa.


Venerables, Colleagues and Friends in the Dhamma,

When I was first invited to give a keynote speech on ‘Economics and Sustainable Development,’ I was surprised. Firstly, because I am not an economist and secondly, I think that sustainable development has been involved with a lot of disciplines, not only economics but also politics and social science etc. Another reason is that economics has an impact and is connected not only with sustainable development but it can have impact on a large scale and on issues that are more important than sustainable development. So the title of my talk today will be ‘Economics for the Quality of Life.’ 

Ajahn Buddhadāsa was a great monk-scholar who made a lot of significant contributions to modern Thai Buddhism. One of them is to make Thai Buddhism relevant to the modern world. With his deep understanding of modern knowledges and Buddhism, he did more than any of his contemporaries in inspiring Thai western-educated people to embrace Buddhism as the guidance for living.

He has expanded the domain of Dhamma into the daily life of lay people. Dhamma practice is not necessary confined to monastery or temple. We can do it anywhere even in our home, our kitchen or our office as he repeatedly reminded us that “doing work is Dhamma practice.” Not only benefitting others, work can develop our mind. We can use any work as an opportunity to develop detachment, i.e. “doing any job with detached mind.” In other words, according to Ajahn Buddhadāsa, temporality and spirituality are not opposite poles. Any temporal or worldly activity is nothing less than dhamma. It always involves morality. He once said that,

“everything is about morality. Whatever human invented, organized or executed to solve human problems is morality.”

Thus, not only politics is a moral issue. In Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s opinion, “economics is a branch of morality” since it is the body of knowledge where

“we can make the most of nature, at its best, for the sake of humans and devas, and for the most benefit of the rich and the poor as well.”

For general people, economics and Buddhism has nothing to do with each other since economics is the about materials and money whereas Buddhism pays attention to the mind. From this view point, material and mind are in separate domains. Buddhism, however, does not see it that way. In reality, material and mind are closely interrelated. Mental development is possible because of material support, especially four requisites: food, clothes, shelter, and medicine. The Buddha once said that to realize mental development, we need seven suitable things (sappāya), two of which are suitable (and enough) food, and suitable abode. If we are hungry or have difficult living conditions, mental development is hardly possible.

This connection is illustrated clearly by a story in the Buddhist scriptures. One morning while the Buddha resided in Jetavana monastery, he was able to perceive with his psychic power that a poor peasant living near the city of Alavi was mature enough for enlightenment. So he set off walking to that city. When he arrived, the people of Alavi were delighted and welcomed him warmly. In the morning a lot of people came to listen to his talk. However, the Buddha stayed silent and waited for this poor peasant to arrive before starting the talk.

That poor peasant has arrived the place quite late because that morning one of his cows disappeared. Despite his eagerness to listen to the Buddha’s discourse, he decided to look for the cow first. Once he found the cow, instead of going home and take food, he went straight to the city to listen to the Buddha’s discourse. By the time he arrived the place, he was exhausted and hungry.

When the Buddha saw his condition he asked that the food be prepared for this peasant. Once this man ate the food and become refreshed, the Buddha started to teach. Upon listening to the talk, the man realized the first stage of enlightenment.

It should be noted that the Buddha considered it important for the poor peasant to have food before listening to his talk. He was aware that if that man was still hungry, it was difficult for him to understand his talk and attain enlightenment.

Not only spiritual enlightenment, decent or moral behaviour needs food and material support, too. The Buddha once related a story about a king called Mahavijita who was very rich with an abundance of gold and silver. One day he discussed with his minister-chaplain the plan to make a big sacrifice. The chaplain informed him that his country was now full of thieves and criminals. He disagreed with the king if the king wanted to get rid of the thieves by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment since the problem would not end. Instead he suggested to the king this plan to eliminate the thieves.

“To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom.”

The king accepted the chaplain’s advice and did accordingly. Later on the king found that his kingdom became peaceful. According to the scriptures,

“The land is tranquil and not beset by thieves, the people with joy in their hearts play with their children and dwell in open houses.”

As illustrated by both stories, moral and spiritual development requires material support. Therefore, providing and distributing materials, which are essential economic activities, are the important steps for human development in Buddhist way. Since economics is the systematic study of production, distribution and consumption, it can be used as a tool for Buddhism to develop human quality of life.

However, if economics can be used to promote human development, it can have a negative effect on human quality if conceived or executed improperly. And this is what is happening with conventional or mainstream economics.

E.F. Schumacher is, arguably, the first who criticized modern economics from a Buddhist standpoint (though he was not a Buddhist). He questioned the assumption that economics is

“the science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions.”

Instead, he pointed out that, modern economics is based on presuppositions or values which are contrary to Buddhist ones. One of them is the presupposition about work. While modern economics regard work as ‘necessary evil’ or ‘cost to be reduced,’ and try to get rid of the workload by all means. Buddhism regards work as a means to develop human faculties and to overcome his ego-centeredness. What should be done is not to get rid of work, but to make work meaningful. From a Buddhist viewpoint, according to Schumacher, 

“to organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaning less, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal.”

The most important point in Schumacher’s critique is about consumption. Modern economics consider consumption “to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity,” assuming that “a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less.” The purpose of economics is, therefore,

“maximize consumption by the optimal pattern of productive efforts.”

While modern economics regard consumption as the end, Buddhism regards it as the means. If we use goods and services to provide satisfaction, the desirable economics from Buddhist standpoint should aim to “maximize human satisfactions by the optimal pattern of consumption.” In other words, maximum satisfaction with minimum consumption, rather than maximum consumption with minimum production (or resources), should be the aim of economics.

However, from a Buddhist viewpoint, maximum satisfaction with minimum consumption alone is not enough. Another factor that is very important is the quality of life or well-being. It is not desirable if highest satisfaction has been achieved with low quality of life. Therefore economics should aim for providing maximum quality of life with minimum consumption.

Economics that aims to maximize consumption, or maximize satisfaction through maximized consumption, is undesirable because it causes a lot of problems. Though modern economics succeed in creating material prosperity and a higher level of standard of living in many countries, quality of life of the people is not always improved. Though people are richer, they are not happier because they are encouraged to consume more and more, with no end. Consumerist culture that comes with modern economics tempts people to desire endlessly. The pursuit of material wealth all over the world leads to greed, passion, competition, and suffering. Extreme consumerism drives people to stress, anxiety, restless mind, and the feeling of emptiness of life. Despite having more wealth, people are increasingly disturbed by the sense of lack.

Consumerism is not only harmful to psychological or mental well-being, it also affects other aspects of well-being, physical, social and ecological.

On physical well-being aspect: overconsumption leads to obesity, heart diseases, and a lot of lethal chronic sickness which are the main causes of death in modern society. Not to mention sickness because of pollution and environmental destruction.

On social well-being aspect: desire for more wealth makes people more selfish and care only for themselves, resulting in weak relationships, broken family, exploitation, corruption, crimes, human rights violation, and a wider gap between the rich and the poor

On ecological well-being aspect: overconsumption is the main reason for environmental destruction everywhere. Natural resources have been rapidly depleted in large scale. Air, water and soil have been heavily polluted. Climate change or global warming becomes an imminent threat to human survival.

Desirable economics should aim for promoting quality of life or increasing well-being of the people in all aspects. According to the Buddha, there are 4 aspects or levels of well-being:

Physical well-being: healthy, free from hunger and sickness, free from natural disaster;

Social well-being: living in harmony with the others, free from crimes, oppression, exploitation, discrimination;

Mental well-being: experiencing happiness, inner peace, relaxation, no stress, free from ill-will;

Wisdom or spiritual well-being: deep understanding the true nature of life, resulting in spiritual freedom.

As previously mentioned, social, mental, and spiritual well-being of individuals require material support. Economics, though focus mainly on material stuff, can be used as a tool to promote not only physical well-being, but also other three aspects of well-being.

The key issue that need to be discussed here as far as economics and well-being are concerned is the issue of consumption.

Economics is defined as the systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means. If well-being is the given ends and consumption is the means, the question is how much consumption is considered as minimum or optimal.

There is a teaching of the Buddha which appears throughout the Buddhist scriptures, included in the Ovada Patimokkha. That is ‘knowing moderation in consumption.’ As Venerable P.A. Payutto has pointed out: 

“Knowing moderation means knowing the optimum amount, how much is ‘just right.’”

He has elaborated further that, 

“we may define the right amount as the point at which human satisfaction and true well-being coincide, i.e. when we experience satisfaction through answering the desire for quality of life.”

In other words,

“when enhancement of true well-being is experienced through consumption, then that consumption is successful”

or being optimal. This can be called ‘right consumption.’ Therefore economics should aim for right consumption:

“The use of goods and services to satisfy the desire for true well-being.”

It should be noted that the right amount of consumption varies among different individuals. It depends on inner development of each person. People who have higher level of inner development, experiencing more inner happiness, would need less consumption than people who have lower level of inner development, and still rely upon more external or physical happiness.

Economic planning and implementation should consider the difference and diversity of people’s wants. People should not be forced to have same level of consumption or same standard of living. Therefore freedom of consumption has to be maintained to a certain extent.

For Buddhists who believe in the Buddhist ideal, it should be emphasized that Buddhist ideal can be realized only through Buddhist way of life. However, for Buddhist way of life to be possible, Buddhist economics is required. As Schumacher noted fourty years ago:

“No one seems to think that a Buddhist way of life would call for Buddhist economics, just as the modern materialist way of life has brought forth modern economics.”

It is not easy for individual to maintain Buddhist way of life while being fully immersed in modern economic system that incessantly stimulates maximum consumption and fuels extreme consumerism since the pursuit of material acquisition will only lead to greed, passion, competition, and violence which are against Buddhist values.

Consumerism is a powerful world-view which has deep effects on the attitude and way of living of people around the world. Through consumer attitude, virtually everything is transformed into commodity for sale. Health, education, culture, happiness, relationship, identity are all for sale or believed to be accessible in the market. With money, everything can be bought for consumption. Prosperity or material acquisition becomes the goal of life.

This attitude has influenced people’s approach to religion, including Buddhism.

Nowadays Buddhist monks in Thailand are expected to give blessings for prosperity, rather than give guidance for inner peace or true well-being. Even among those who desire the latter, money is regarded as the means for spiritual fulfilment. Spiritual experience is something that can be realized, not by practicing or making effort, but by buying, through ‘donation.’ Such mentality and practice not only divert many Thai Buddhists from moral and spiritual development, abandoning Buddhist way of life, but also corrupting the monks and Buddhist institutions as a whole.

Therefore it is very important for Buddhists to develop Buddhist economics that increase the quality of life and develop well-being in Buddhist way. Buddhist economics here doesn’t mean economics for the whole country. That is almost impossible in the present context. But we can develop Buddhist economics in small scale, in our own community, for example.

However difficult, an alternative to modern economics is badly needed. It’s increasingly obvious that modern economics is driving the world into crisis, especially ecological crisis that not only renders modern way of living increasingly unsustainable, but can be the threat to human survival.  Nowadays the call for reduced consumption is louder and louder all over the world in order to save the ecosystem. This doesn’t mean we have to stop economic development. As Ha-Joon Chang, the Korean economist, has observed:

“Even with lower aggregate consumption, human welfare need not go down… Welfare can be increased without increase in consumption by consuming differently, rather than consuming more.”

Economic development should continue, not to increase excessive material consumption, but to increase productive capabilities, which is necessary to reduce poverty and improve well-being all over the world.

In conclusion, what we need is the new economics that is radically different from the current one. The new economics that is beautifully defined by Edy Korthals Altes, the Dutch thinker:

“The purpose of economics is the responsible use of the limited means at man’s disposal in order to promote the common and individual well-being of present and future generations. Production, distribution and consumption of goods must be oriented towards a just and sustainable society in which the limits of nature are strictly respected.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the true well-being of the present and next generation of people depends on how we conceive economics and run the economy. In fact, even the survival of human beings depends upon the economics. Therefore, it is very important for us to rethink the economics and find the alternative one which is healthy and beneficial to the quality of life and friendly to the ecosystem.

It is a good opportunity that, to commemorate the 111th anniversary of Ajahn Buddhadāsa, we come to think seriously about this issue and redirect it the way it should be that is to provide the righteousness of all people’s life as far as material is concerned, and to render our life the maximum benefitas voiced by Ajahn Buddhadāsa.

Thank you.

Phra paisal visalo