Buddhist Economics
A Middle Way for the Market Place
By Ven. P. A. Payutto

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Translated by Dhammavijaya and Bruce Evans
Compiled by Bruce Evans and Jourdan Arenson

Download the PDF (253 KB) / Buddhist Economics




Chapter One

    The Problem of Specialization
    The Two Meanings of Dhamma
    How Ethics Condition Economics

Chapter Two

    The Buddhist View of Human Nature
    From Conflict to Harmony
    Ethics and the Two Kinds of Desire
    Ethical Considerations in Economic Activity

Chapter Three

    Buddhist Perspectives on Economic Concepts
    Production and Non-production
    Competition and Cooperation
    Life Views

Chapter Four

  The Role of Wealth in Buddhism
    Right Livelihood
    Knowing Wealth's Limitations
    Mental Attitude to Wealth
    The Major Characteristics of Buddhist Economics

Chapter Five

  Teachings on Economics from the Buddhist Scriptures
    The Monastic Order
    The Inner Perspective
    Seeking and Protecting Wealth
    The Happiness of a Householder
    The Benefits of Wealth
    Wealth and Spiritual Development


Translator's Foreword (first edition)


These days Buddhist meditation techniques are well-known in the West and Buddhist insights into the human condition are, at least in academic circles, exerting a growing influence. Unfortunately the popular image of Buddhism is often an overly-austere one and many people still consider it to teach a denial or escape from worldly concerns into a private, hermetic realm of bliss. However, if we take the trouble to go to the words of the Buddha himself, we find a full and rich teaching encompassing every aspect of human life, with a great deal of practical advice on how to live with integrity, wisdom and peace in the midst of a confusing world. Perhaps it is time for such teaching to be more widely disseminated.

    In this small volume, Venerable Dhammapitaka (P. A. Payutto) offers a Buddhist perspective on the subject of economics. While not seeking to present a comprehensive Buddhist economic theory, he provides many tools for reflection, ways of looking at economic questions based on a considered appreciation of the way things are, the way we are. I hope that making this work available in English may go at least a short way towards resolving what has been called the current 'impasse of economics,' and to awaken readers to the wide-reaching contemporary relevance of the timeless truths that the Buddha discovered and shared with us.



May, 1992 



Author's Preface

BhkPIt is well known that the study of economics has up till now avoided questions of moral values and considerations of ethics, which are abstract qualities. However, it is becoming obvious that in order to solve the problems that confront us in the world today it will be necessary to take into consideration both concrete and abstract factors, and as such it is impossible to avoid the subject of moral values. If the study of economics is to play any part in the solution of our problems, it can no longer evade the subject of ethics. Nowadays environmental factors are taken into account both in economic transactions and in solving economic problems, and the need for ethics in addressing the problem of conservation and the environment is becoming more and more apparent.

    In fact, economics is one "science" which most clearly integrates the concrete and the abstract. It is the realm in which abstract human values interact most palpably with the material world. If economists were to stop evading the issue of moral values, they would be in a better position to influence the world in a fundamental way and to provide solutions to the problems of humanity and the world at large. Ideally, economics should play a part in providing mankind with opportunities for real individual and social growth rather than simply being a tool for catering to selfish needs and feeding contention in society, and, on a broader scale, creating imbalance and insecurity within the whole global structure with its innumerable ecosystems.

    I would like to express my appreciation to Dhammavijaya, who translated the first Thai edition of Buddhist Economics, which was published by the Buddhadhamma Foundation in August, 1988, into English. His translation was published in May, 1992, and that edition has served as the basis for the second edition. I would like to also express my thanks to Bruce Evans and Jourdan Arenson, who were inspired enough to compile and translate further sources of teachings on Buddhist economics from among my talks and writings published in both Thai and English, and thus produce a more comprehensive treatment of the subject. I would also like to express my appreciation to Khun Yongyuth Thanapura and the Buddhadhamma Foundation who, as with the First Edition, have seen the printing through to completion.


Ven. P. A. Payutto 

July, 1994 



This book has been compiled from material in the following works by the author:

    1. Buddhist Economics, the original booklet of a talk given by the author at Thammasat University on March 9, 1989; translated by Dhammavijaya.

    2. "A way out of the Economic Bind on Thai Society" (Tahng ork jahk rabop setthagit tee krorp ngum sungkhom thai), published in Thai by the Buddhadhamma Foundation, translated by Bruce Evans.

    3. Parts of the chapter called 'The Problem of Motivation,' translated by Bruce Evans from the book Buddhadhamma.

    4. The section on Right Livelihood, which makes up part of the chapter on morality (sila) from Buddhadhamma, translated by Bruce Evans.

    5. Part of the chapter entitled "Foundations of Buddhist Social Ethics," written in English by the author, which appeared in Ethics, Wealth and Salvation, edited by Russell F. Sizemore and Donald K. Swearer, published by University of South Carolina Press, 1990, Colombia, S. Carolina.





The Spiritual Approach to Economics

Our libraries are full of books offering well-reasoned, logical formulas for the ideal society. Two thousand years ago, Plato, in The Republic, wrote one of the first essays on politics and started a search for an ideal society which has continued to the present day. Plato built his ideal society on the assumption that early societies grew from a rational decision to secure well-being, but if we look at the course of history, can we say that rational thinking has truly been the guiding force in the evolution of civilization? The reader is invited to imagine the beginnings of human society: groups of stone age humans are huddled together in their caves, each looking with suspicion on the group in the next cave down. They are cold and hungry. Danger and darkness surround them. Suddenly one of them hits on a brilliant idea: "I know, let's create a society where we can trade and build hospitals and live in mutual well-being!"

    Such a scenario is not likely. Early humans, and the first societies, were probably bound together more by their deep emotional needs for warmth and security than any rational planning. And over the millennia, our societies have evolved to a large extent at the directives of these emotional needs. To be sure, rational thinking has played some part in the process, but if we take an honest look at our so-called advanced society, we must admit that our needs for security today are not so different from the cave man's. While our societies are certainly more complex, the propelling force is still emotion, not reason.

    If we are to honestly discuss economics, we must admit that emotional factors -- fear and desire and the irrationality they generate -- have a very powerful influence on the market place. Economic decisions -- decisions about production, consumption and distribution -- are made by people in their struggle to survive and prosper. For the most part, these decisions are motivated by an emotional urge for self-preservation.

    There is nothing inherently bad about fear and irrationality; they are natural conditions that come with being human. Unfortunately, however, fear and desire drive us to our worst economic excesses. The forces of greed, exploitation and overconsumption seem to have overwhelmed our economies in recent decades. Our materialistic societies offer us little choice but to exploit and compete for survival in today's dog-eat-dog world. But at the same time, it is obvious that these forces are damaging our societies and ravaging our environment.

    In the face of such problems, the science of economics adopts a rational approach. The job of economists is to devise well-reasoned models to help society rise above fear, greed and hatred. Rarely, however, do economists examine the basic question of fear and the emotional needs for security that drive human beings. As a result, their theoretical models remain rational solutions to largely irrational problems, and their economic ideals can only truly exist in books.

    Perhaps a little idealism is not so harmful; but there is a danger to the purely rational approach. At its worst, it is used to rationalize our basest, most fear-ridden responses to the question of survival. We see this tendency in the corporate strategists, policy advisors and defense analysts who logically and convincingly argue that arms production is in our best interests. When rationalism turns a blind eye to the irrational, unseen irrational impulses are all the more likely to cloud our rationality.

    The book you are reading takes a different approach -- a spiritual approach. As such, it does not delve into the technical intricacies of economics. Instead it examines the fundamental fears, desires and emotions that motivate our economic activities. Of all the spiritual traditions, Buddhism is best suited to this task. As we shall see, the Buddhist teachings offer profound insights into the psychology of desire and the motivating forces of economic activity. These insights can lead to a liberating self-awareness that slowly dissolves the confusion between what is truly harmful and what is truly beneficial in production and consumption. This awareness is, in turn, the foundation for a mature ethics.

    Truly rational decisions must be based on insight into the forces that make us irrational. When we understand the nature of desire, we see that it cannot be satisfied by all the riches in the world. When we understand the universality of fear, we find a natural compassion for all beings. Thus, the spiritual approach to economics leads not to models and theories, but to the vital forces that can truly benefit our world -- wisdom, compassion and restraint.

    In other words, the spiritual approach must be lived. This is not to say that one must embrace Buddhism and renounce the science of economics, because, in the larger scheme of things, the two are mutually supportive. In fact, one needn't be a Buddhist or an economist to practice Buddhist economics. One need only acknowledge the common thread that runs through life and seek to live in balance with the way things really are.

  Bruce Evans and Jourdan Arenson 


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