The Practice of Buddhist Economics?: Another View
Zadek, Simon, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology
OVER RECENT YEARS there has been an increased interest in the relationship between religion and that most down to earth subject, economics. The reason for this developing debate is in itself of considerable interest, and is certainly relevant here. It concerns the central question of whether we can believe any longer that the secular trajectory of economic development typical of industrialized countries is sustainable over the long, or possibly over the not so long, term. One mirror image of this question is whether role of "religion" or faith, in some shape or form, offers a basis for evolving more effective mechanisms for survival, let alone reasonable levels of well-being, for the majority.
This paper is part of this evolving debate. Its starting point is the able contributions made by Frederic Pryor in this journal about the relationship between economics and Buddhism (1990; 1991). The possibility is explored of taking the debate beyond his focus on the canonical texts into the heartland of Buddhism, into "practice" itself. Indeed, the broad proposition here is that Buddhism offers considerable insight into our economic conditions and practices, but that an appreciation of these insights requires that one takes one's starting point as the "practice" rather than the purely theoretical or ethical aspects of Buddhism.(1)
The Practice of Buddhist Economics
PRYOR STATES at the beginning of his first paper ("A Buddhist Economic System--in Principle") that his "discussion of ideas in the formal Buddhist canonical sources does not tell us anything very specific about how Buddhism is actually practised today" (1990:340). Pryor maintains this focus in his second paper ("A Buddhist Economic System--in Practice"), despite its declared interest in "practice" rather than "principle" (1991:17). Pryor's work is an important contribution to the field, since it is necessary to explore the literal meaning of original texts with respect to matters of ethics and their possible implications for economic practice.(2) However, this approach also has its limitations. Texts (even "original" ones) are produced in a particular social, political and economic context. Their interpretation therefore needs to take account of both our understanding of that context, and the context in which we find ourselves today. The comments in this paper are therefore an attempt to edge sideways towards such an approach as a contribution to building bridges between the relationship of the texts to economics (as done by Pryor), and some of the day-to-day "realities" of economic and spiritual life. That is, since Buddhism is fundamentally concerned with a set of values realizable only through "practice," let us turn towards the puzzling question of what might be the practice of Buddhist Economics.
MOST TRADITIONS OF SOCIAL ANALYSIS argue that the well-being of individuals and groups is intimately related to the ethics and rationale of social organization. The Buddha, on the other hand, is often viewed as seeing increased well-being as arising from only individual practice, rather than through the development of particular forms of social organization. Indeed, the Buddha, argues Pryor, "had little concern for society as such and little conviction of its possible improvability" (1991, 20). The implication of this apparent approach has been that the meaning of the "small-scale" philosophy implicit in Buddhist economics (Schumacher, 1973) has remained largely divorced from analysis of larger-scale, modern society.
This divorce is not, however, either necessary or desirable. One route to establishing some relationship between the two is to consider the link between Buddhism and the organization of "community."(3) Chakravarti, for example, argues that the Buddha modelled the Sangha (the orders of the monks) on the ganasangha (Chakravarti, 1992). The ganasangha were one sort of political, territorial "clan" that existed in what is now northern India around the time of the Buddha, about 6th century BC. Two key features of these clans were that its members exercised a collective power,(4) and held all assets as common property. The organization of decision-making in the Sangha broadly follow the same lines; "no social divisions are recognized--there is the metaphor of people who come, and like the four streams, merge together. Decision is through consensus. You try to accommodate all points of view, but if that fails, then the majority opinion counts" (Chakravarti, 1992:16). This world of the monks is to be contrasted, argued Chakravarti, to the janapadas, the world of the laity. Decision-making in this lay world was dominated by the kings and the ganapathis (the owners of property who never work for anyone else). Here, decision-making structures were strictly hierarchical, and included little or no process of consultation with the wider populous.
It is wrong to conclude, therefore, that the practice of Buddhism does not offer insights into the matter of social organization, even if Pryor is right in arguing that the canonical texts do not suggest that the Buddha advocated one or other form. In particular, the form of social organization of the Sangha described by Chakravarti suggests that communal, non-hierarchical forms of decision-making were seen as offering an aid in discarding the pressures of desires rooted in the Self (ego), and thus an aid to achieving nibbana (nirvana). Thus, while the …
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Publication information: Article title: The Practice of Buddhist Economics?: Another View. Contributors: Zadek, Simon - Author. Journal title: The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Volume: 52. Issue: 4 Publication date: October 1993. Page number: 433+. © 1999 American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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