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APPLIED BUDDHISM IN PREVENTION OF GLOBAL

ECONOMIC CRISIS

ANKUR BARUA

The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong

Kong &

Buddhist Door, Tung Lin Kok Yuen, Hong Kong

Corresponding Address of Author:

Dr. ANKUR BARUA

BLOCK – EE, No. – 80, Flat No. – 2A,

SALT LAKE CITY, SECTOR -2,

KOLKATA – 700 091

WEST BENGAL, INDIA

Tel: +91-33-23215586

Mobile: +919434485543
Email: ankurbarua26@yahoo.com

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APPLIED BUDDHISM IN PREVENTION OF GLOBAL

ECONOMIC CRISIS

Abstract

Globalization is the latest expression of a long-standing strategy of development based

on economic growth and liberalization of trade and finance. 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 to lead to a more democratic society.

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.

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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 practice of ‘Dāna’ or

‘giving’ is the traditional Buddhist way of redistribution of wealth. Dāna is selfless giving.

It is giving in the spirit of Non-clinging. Non-clinging is the Wisdom of Insight into the

Insubstantiality (Anattā; Nairātmya) or Emptiness (Śūnyatā) of all things. The emphasis

on ‘Dāna’ and merit-making is the Buddhist contribution to the healthy and uniform

economic globalization.

Key words: Dāna, Globalization, Buddhism, Applied, Redistribution, Wealth,

Economy.

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APPLIED BUDDHISM IN PREVENTION OF GLOBAL

ECONOMIC CRISIS

Introduction

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

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A Buddhist Perception of Globalization

Globalization is the latest expression of a long-standing strategy of development based

on economic growth and liberalization of trade and finance. This results in the

progressive integration of economies of nations across the world through the

unrestricted flow of global trade and investment. The mainstream approach is generally

rooted in the underlying assumption that globalization brings jobs, technology, income

and wealth to societies. In order to make this strategy of globalization successful, all the

societies must be willing to submit to the principles of the free market—limiting public

spending, privatizing public services, removing barriers to foreign investment,

strengthening export production and controlling inflation. However, this is very difficult

task to achieve within a short span of time. As a result, most often, globalized

production has led to a litany of social and ecological crises: poverty and powerlessness

of the majority of people, destruction of community, depletion of natural resources and

unendurable pollution.1,2,3

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.

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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. This process is symbolized by

the lotus flower. 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 (Dāna), 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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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. This non-dual interdependence of things was experienced by the Buddha

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

Application of Buddhist Economics in Prevention of Global Credit Crisis

The traditional Buddhist teachings have many important social implications. Buddhism

does not separate economic issues from ethical or spiritual ones. The notion that

economics is a "social science" related to discovering and applying impersonal

economic laws always obscures two important truths. First important truth is that the

concept of who gets what and who does not depends on moral considerations. So,

production and distribution of economic goods and services should not be left only to

the supposedly objective rules of the marketplace. If some people have much more than

what they need while others have much less, some sort of redistribution is

necessary.1,2,5,8

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Thus, the practice of ‘Dāna’ or ‘giving’ is the traditional Buddhist way of redistribution of

wealth. Dāna is selfless giving. It is giving in the spirit of Non-clinging. Non-clinging is

the Wisdom of Insight into the Insubstantiality (Anattā; Nairātmya) or Emptiness

(Śūnyatā) of all things. The emphasis on ‘Dāna’ and merit-making is the Buddhist

perspective on the economic globalization.1,2,5,8

The second 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. The economic process begins with want, continues with choice and

ends with satisfaction. All of these are functions of the mind. Abstract values are thus

the beginning, the middle and the end of economics. So it is impossible for economics

to be value-free. Yet many economists avoid any consideration of values, ethics or

mental qualities, despite the fact that these will always have a bearing on economic

concerns.1,2,5,8

At present, without the help from government and industry for boosting a new direction

in policy, people are starting to change the economy from the bottom up towards more

human-scale structures which are more consistent with the Buddhist viewpoint. This

process of localization has begun spontaneously, in countless communities all around

the world. Because economic localization means an adaptation to cultural and biological

diversity, no single strategy would be applicable everywhere.3,4

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The range of possibilities for local grassroots efforts is as diverse as the locales in which

they take place. In many towns community banks and loan funds have been set up,

thereby increasing the capital available to local residents and businesses. This system

is promoting people to invest in their neighbors and their community, rather than in a

faceless global economy. In other communities, ‘buy-local’ campaigns are helping

locally owned businesses survive even when pitted against heavily subsidized corporate

competitors. These campaigns not only help to keep money from leaking out of the local

economy, but also help educate people about the hidden costs in purchasing cheaper,

but distantly produced products. In some communities, Local Exchange and Trading

Systems (LETS) have been established as an organized, large-scale bartering system.

Thus, even people with little or no ‘real’ money can participate in and benefit from the

local economy. LETS systems have been particularly beneficial in areas with high

unemployment. The city government of Birmingham, England, where unemployment

hovers at 20%, is a co-sponsor of a highly successful LETS scheme. These initiatives

have psychological benefits that are just as important as the economic benefits. A large

number of people, who were once merely ‘unemployed’ and therefore treated as

‘useless’, are becoming valued for their skills and knowledge.3,4

One of the most exciting grassroots efforts is the Community Supported Agriculture

(CSA) movement, in which consumers in towns and cities link up directly with a nearby

farmer. In some cases, consumers purchase an entire season’s produce in advance,

sharing the risk with the farmer. In others, shares of the harvest are purchased in

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monthly or quarterly installments. Consumers usually have a chance to visit the farm

where their food is grown, and in some cases their help on the farm is welcomed. While

small farmers linked to the industrial system continue to fail every year at an alarming

rate, CSAs are allowing small-scale diversified farms to thrive in growing numbers.

CSAs have spread rapidly throughout Europe, North America, Australia and Japan. In

the United States, the number of CSAs has climbed from only two in 1986 to 200 in

1992, and is closer to 1,000 today.3,4

Buddhism provides us with both the imperative and the tools to challenge the economic

structures that are creating and perpetuating suffering the world over. We cannot claim

to be Buddhist and simultaneously support structures which are so clearly contrary to

Buddha’s teachings, unethical to life itself. The economic and structural changes

needed should involve rediscovering the deep psychological benefits of joy of being

embedded in the community and this fundamental shift would also involve the

reintroduction of a sense of connection with the place where we live. Buddhists in China

also faced with this same reality earlier. Thus, over the time Buddhism became more

focused to become engaged. However, as the Buddha taught, our spiritual awakening

comes from making a connection to others and to the nature. This requires us to see

the world within us and to experience more consciously the great interdependent web of

life. In this way the principles of impermanence and interdependence exhort us to

interact with others and with nature in a wise, compassionate and sustainable way.5,6,8

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Conclusion

Buddhism shows us the possibility of a better way of leading a stress-free life. The

teachings of the Buddha are based on a different way of understanding the relationship

between ourselves and the world. 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. 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

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. Some

scholars recommend ‘Post-Buddhism’ as a proper term for the new infusion of ideas

and practices in an increasingly globalized world. However, modern Buddhism has

showed its potential to transcend the crucial problems of modernity.

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References

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: Bunkyo University.

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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