Two Buddhist Approaches to Economics and Development
Buddhist Values: Schumacher
In his essay ‘Buddhist Economics’, E.F (‘Fritz’) Schumacher says
“Right Livelihood is one of the requirements of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. It is clear, therefore, that there must be such a thing as Buddhist economics.”
The value of human labour is a central element of all economic theories but conventional, materialist economics devalues human labour, seeing it largely as a cost that should be stripped out of the production cycle completely or ‘offshored’ to a cheaper location. Materialist workers themselves often idealize the elimination of their own labour through dreams of winning the lottery so that they never have to work again!
Fritz Schumacher says that on the other hand
“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” (my italics).
Under this definition work has value in and of itself; it is not merely a means to an end which should be eliminated if possible.
“It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.”
Schumacher goes on to say
“While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is ‘The Middle Way’ and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well-being. It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of Buddhist economics therefore is simplicity and non-violence. . . Simplicity and non-violence are obviously closely related. The optimal pattern of consumption, producing a high degree of human satisfaction by means of a relatively low rate of consumption, allows people to live without great pressure and strain and to fulfill the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: ‘Cease to do evil, try to do good.’”
Because simplicity and the value of human labor are at the heart of Schumacher’s conception of economics, his strong preference is for technologies which enhance rather than diminish these factors. He distinguishes two types of technology, “one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave”. The second type of technology is often the focus of western ‘development’ aid: huge dams or road-building projects for example which displace people from their traditional ways of life and force them into the cities. On the other hand the first type of technology can be termed ‘appropriate technology’ as it enhances people’s traditional ways of life.
Followers of Schumacher have devoted great time and energy to sponsoring the development and deployment of appropriate technologies, embodied in the work of the NGO Practical Action.
Buddhist Terminology: Sarvodaya Shramadana
As well as the core Buddhist values of simplicity and non-violence, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka also utilizes explicitly Buddhist terminology in its economic and development activities.
‘Sarvodaya’ is Sanskrit for ‘the awakening of all’. The movement began in 1958 when, inspired by Gandhian and Buddhist ideals, a high school teacher named A.T. Ariyaratne took a handful of his students and started social work programs in poor, remote villages. Today the movement has spread to over 15,000 towns and villages and is now the largest NGO in Sri Lanka, offering an alternative to the Western industrial model of development. The Sarvodaya movement defines development as
“not necessarily the transfer of technology or foreign aid schemes or steel mills or nuclear plants, but a “waking up” on every level — personal, spiritual, cultural, economic.”
(from Joanna Macy’s essay ‘Sarvodaya: For the Awakening of All’, which can be found on Buddhanet. Subsequent quotations are also sourced from this article.)
“Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with very beautiful people who are beset with the crushing problems endemic now to Third World societies — inflation, joblessness, deforestation, growing poverty, and hunger. In the Sarvodaya experience, Buddhism serves as a resource for social change. It is used to define what development is in terms that are meaningful to the people.”
The awakening of Sarvodaya means
“waking up to the degenerate condition of our village, waking up to work together and harness our energy, waking up to our capacity for compassion and joy and responsibility. The Four Noble Truths are even expressed in these terms, painted with illustrations on the walls of village centers . . . It is not expressed abstractly, but very concretely in terms of repaired roads, de-silted irrigation canals, nutrition programs, and schools . . . On Sarvodaya charts and murals the Four Noble Truths are illustrated with wheels of causation featuring the interrelationship of disease, greed, and apathy, or between nutrition, literacy, ‘metta’, and self-reliance, for example.”
The method for waking up is Shramadana, where ‘dana’ means generosity and ‘shrama’ means human energy. ‘Dana’ is a central Buddhist virtue and what the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement has done is to widen the scope of ‘dana’ and present it not just as alms-giving but as the gift of one’s time, energy, skills, goods, and knowledge to the community. In practical terms the movement offers
“collective work projects which a village chooses and undertakes, such as cutting an access road, digging latrines, roofing the pre-school.”
At the heart of the movement is the practice of the Four Brahmaviharas: (1) love is the loving respect for all beings that liberates you from self-involvement; (2) compassion is getting out there, “digging or dancing, to improve the common lot”; (3) joy is the pleasure found in service; and (4) equanimity keeps you going in spite of criticism and setbacks. The Four Brahmaviharas
“are on the lips of every village organizer and painted on the walls of village centers. Every meeting, whether it is a village gathering or a committee on latrines, begins with two minutes of silence for ‘metta’ meditation, extending loving thoughts to all beings.”
Joanna Macy writes that
“some fellow scholars of Buddhism, whom I had consulted, considered Sarvodaya’s reinterpretation of doctrine — such as in its version of the Four Noble Truths — to be a new-fangled adulteration of Buddhism, lacking doctrinal respectability. To present release from suffering in terms of irrigation, literacy, and marketing cooperatives appears to them to trivialize the Dharma. When I asked very learned Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka what they thought of this recasting of the Four Noble Truths, I did so with the expectation that they, too, would see it as a corruption of the purity of the Buddha’s teachings. Instead, almost invariably, they seemed surprised that a Buddhist would ask such a question — and gave an answer that was like a slight rap on the knuckles: “But it is the same teaching, don’t you see? Whether you put it on the psycho-spiritual plane or on the socio-economic plane, there is suffering and there is cessation of suffering.” In other words, you are not diluting or distorting the Noble Truths by applying them to conditions of physical misery or social conflict. Their truth lies in the contingent nature of suffering, however you view it. Because it has a cause, it can cease. Because it co-dependently arises, it can be overcome.”
She concludes that
“the notion of dependent co-arising is empowering to social action, because there is not one single cause you have to seek out and attack — be it malarial mosquitoes or local interest rates. Everything is so interrelated that whatever you do, whether you decide to organize a pre-school, a community kitchen, or a craft cooperative, each is equally valid. Each endeavor toward human well-being pulls a prop out from under the house of suffering. I find that very applicable to social change here in North America. Whatever our contribution, it is of great value; we need not feel torn between responses to different aspects of the global crisis: “Oh, should I go out and try to protect the whales, or should I go march for disarmament at the U.N.?” If you simply stick with trying to stop the strip-mining, you’re helping to save the whales, because it is all interwoven.”