Rethinking Buddhist Economics after the Conference

I attended the Buddhist Values and Economics conference on April 13–14 at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). The conference was organized by the Centre of Buddhist Studies of HKU and the European SPES Institute.

The conference had an international “all-star” roster of speakers to audience (includes myself) who have touched upon the intersection between Buddhism and economics. Speakers included Prof. Clair Brown, who taught Buddhist Economics at UC Berkeley and is the author of Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science; Prof. Laszlo Zsolnai (unfortunately could not attend at last due to health issues), a Hungarian economist who has been influenced by E. F. Schumacher and published books on Buddhist Economics since 2006; and Prof. Richard Payne, editor of essays collection How Much is Enough?: Buddhism, Consumerism, and the Human Environment. And we have representatives from Bhutan to present about Gross National Happiness (GNH). Prof. Venerable Jing Yin (淨因法師), Abbot of the Po Lin Monastery in Hong Kong and former Director of the Centre of Buddhist Studies, also gave a presentation on Buddhist Perspective on Wealth.

Apart from scholars, the conference held panels on the practical aspects of integrating values into businesses. Speakers include Jed Emerson and Annie Chen, who are influential on impact investing and sustainable finance; David Yeung from Green Monday and Francis Ngai from Social Ventures Hong Kong, who are iconic figures in the area of social entrepreneurship; and Andrew Fung, George Leung and Ernest Ng, who had been very successful in their banking and finance careers.

(From left) Dr. Ernest Ng, George Leung, Venerable Hin Hung, and Andrew Fung

So, What is Buddhist Economics?

As a Buddhist and a seasoned finance industry practitioner, I have been deeply concerned about the flaws of modern textbook economics which lead to increasing wealth inequality, environmental degradation and unhappiness despite rising GDP and average income in the past decades. Such a world is not sustainable, and we need to search for alternatives. Buddhism is the teachings of the Buddha, the ‘enlightened one’. Seeing the economy with enlightened eyes, we should be able to find insights into how we can do better for ourselves, our society, and the environment. So “Buddhist economics” is something I am interested to explore. Every scholar has his/her version of “Buddhist economics” in mind when proposing the idea of Buddhist economics. But in general, the common theme is to integrate Buddhist values into economic thoughts and systems.

In Small is Beautiful, the classic text in which E.F. Schumacher brought the term “Buddhist economics” to the western world for the first time, Schumacher cites Right Livelihood of the Noble Eightfold Path at the start of his chapter “Buddhist Economics”. His work inspired generations of thinkers, and a variety of Buddhist economic ideas emerged, each emphasizing different parts of insights from Buddhism as his/her version of Buddhist economics.

At the conference, venerable Jing Yin approaches from Buddhist sutras to formulate a Buddhist perspective of wealth, in which (1) material wealth is essential to survival and acts as basis of spiritual life; (2) wealth should be used properly to benefit others and the society; (3) emotional and spiritual wealth are necessary and need to be in balance with material wealth; and (4) attachment to wealth is the obstacle to liberation. Prof. Clair Brown cites interdependence, impermanence, and compassion as the three principles of Buddhist economics. Prof. Laszlo Zsolnai and Gabor Kovacs list 5 principles of Buddhist economic actions, namely (1) Minimize suffering (2) Simplify desires (3) Practice non-violence (4) Genuine care and (5) Generosity.

It All Sounds Good. But What Next? How Do We Get There?

For conference participants, it is common to think, “Those ideas are fascinating. But how to bring that into practice to transform our economy and society in facing the challenges we have right now?” Some of my reflections here:

  1. Do not confine Buddhist economics to Buddhists. Not everyone needs to be Buddhist, but the economy is for everyone. We promote Buddhist economics for the benefit of all beings, not to “convert” people into Buddhism. Buddhist ideas is used as a wisdom to point out the pitfalls of our current economic theory and systems. If other traditions offer similar insights, they should be our welcoming allies. Interfaith dialogue on economic issues is helpful. After all, every kind of economics relies on basic principles and assumptions about human beings and how the world works. The difference is just that Buddhist economics (or “Christian” or “Islamic” or “Taoist” economics) has an explicit ideology behind, while modern economics does not aware of its ideology (which every human is a separate individual and only cares about its own rational self-interest) and disguises itself as “value-free science”. Maybe “economic science” as we know it is not that scientific at all. Instead, they are more appropriately named “Atheist economics” or “Darwinian economics”.
  2. Look for real-life examples. We need to do a better job identifying corporates who follow (at least partly) Buddhist values and performed well in a sustainable way. It was a bit embarrassing on the first day of conference when the name of Patagonia was mentioned four times in a single day as an example of business adhering to Buddhist economics and gained success. Looking for more corporates which incorporate Buddhist values is necessary, not only to show that such values can be valuable to the companies, but to provide examples to corporate owners and managers the way to run the firms if they want a change. Japan may be a good place to look for cases, such as how Japan Airlines was saved by a new CEO who was ordained a monk. But we also have to be careful to distinguish whether the companies emphasized Buddhist values “on surface” or “in essence”. I cannot imagine how embarrassing it would be if the conference was held two years ago and the HNA Group was quoted as a “successful enterprise” who followed Buddhist principles.
  3. Define success carefully. Promoters of Buddhist economic ideas can one day find themselves confused at how to judge whether they are a success. A few things are certain: (1) We can never turn every country into Buddhist country to practice Buddhist economics; (2) superficial indicators (such as book sales, citations, social media likes, or rhetorical endorsement from government and business leaders) are not something to chase after; (3) real outcomes in the economy is more important than the appearance of “Buddhism” at face value. Success in Buddhist economics should be defined as the improvements of lives adopting practices that reflect the Buddhist values, without necessarily attaching “Buddhist” terms to any policy address or government budget. Indicators such as the Sustainable Shared-Prosperity Policy Index compiled by Prof. Clair Brown (without attaching “Buddhism in its name!) to compare how economic policies align with Buddhist economic values is something in the right direction.

It is quite surprising at first that a conference on Buddhist economics would be held in Hong Kong with more than a hundred participants, given that Hong Kong is not a place keen on academic discussions and Buddhist economics is at the very fringe of economic ideas. But the mounting challenges on the global economy we are facing also open up spaces to explore alternative ideas and insights in economics. We would need to engage in sustainable research and communication of these ideas in order to work for a sustainable future benefiting all sentient beings.

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