Four Lines by Jillian Tamaki

The 4 Noble (Economic) Truths

Buddhism and Economics are Very Different but Share the Same First Principle: That Life is Suffering.

I remember my first economics class. It was day one of school at San Juan Bautista during my exchange year in Madrid Spain. My teacher was a Spanish woman with thin lips, Arab eyes, and sharp cheek bones. Unlike the other teachers, she didn’t waste the first class puttering through a syllabus; she started out straight away by writing on the board the first two truths of economics:


Now almost 14 years later after studying economics and political philosophy, becoming a quaker, then a buddhist, living and meditating in Thailand, and finally living in San Francisco and meditating at the SF Zen Center. These words come back to me so clearly, but now they represent to me an expression of the Buddhist first Noble Truth: Dukkha saccã — “Life is suffering.” Here are the four Noble Truths:

Dukkha saccã — There is suffering
Samudaya saccã — There is an origin (to suffering)
Nirodha saccã — There is cessation (of suffering)
Magga saccã — There is a path or practice (of suffering)

It seems weird that something like economics which seems so contrary to spiritual or Buddhists concerns actually shares roughly the same first principle. So how do the two become so different? What is the difference in posture that each takes to this fundamental truth? And what does it mean for them (different as they are) to share the same fundamental truth? Should economics and Buddhism be considered long lost siblings in the family of knowledge?

Economics takes descriptive posture towards dissatisfaction with an emphasis on the production and trade of goods and services. Economics skips an inward analysis of the cause of dissatisfaction, and jumps straight to identifying and describing the methods and processes people take to reduce the dissatisfaction inherent in being alive. What does economics find? It finds people producing goods and providing services, trading, the invention of money, interest, and eventually jet planes and high frequency trading stock exchanges. Economics sets out to describe the patterns and methods by which people try to reduce dissatisfaction by satisfying as many of their wants as possible.

The Buddhism takes a posture towards distress that seeks the root cause solution to dissatisfaction. To understand more, we need look no further than the next three Noble Truths. The second Noble Truth directs our attention behind the first Noble Truth, in search for an original and fundamental cause of dissatisfaction in experience. The third two Noble Truth suggests that dissatisfaction can be ended, insinuating that the end can be found after understanding the fundamental cause in the second Noble Truth. The fourth Noble Truth suggests that there is a method or path to accomplish the end of dissatisfaction in the third Noble Truth.

Dukkha saccã—There is suffering
Samudaya saccã — There is an origin (to suffering)
Nirodha saccã — There is cessation (of suffering)
Magga saccã—There is a path or practice (of suffering)

So both Buddhism and economics has to do with life’s infinite dissatisfactions and they are both concerned to some extent with putting an end dissatisfaction (who wouldn’t!). However, in contrast to economics, Buddhism sets out to explain a method for removing the root case of dissatisfaction, whereas economics sets out to describe the patterns and methods people take to solve dissatisfaction after its originated. Its worth mentioning that while the four Noble Truths largely encapsulate Buddhist thought, economics is not limited to a limited set of principles. Economics sprawls out to manifold disciplines, one for each pattern it describes: trade, labor, monetary, institutional, behavioral, political, welfare, etc; and in each discipline you find manifold deductive principles and inductive patterns; the whole of which taken together forms a fascinating and complex tapestry of human action.

If Buddhism and economics share the same fundamental first principle are they truly separate? If economics is the study of how people put an end to dissatisfaction and Buddhism is one plan for how to do that, perhaps Buddhism is just a part of economics and maybe someday will be called “Subjective Economics”? That is an interesting proposition! But is it true?

Historically economics moved directly to production of goods and services without considering the cause of dissatisfaction. Economics ignored the subtly of human experience and considered every individual to be completely rational risk-minimizing, welfare maximizing automatons. Only very recently with the advent of the study of Behavioral Economics has human experience been considered itself to be a cause and principle in economics. Moreover, economics is very young (only 300–400 years old), so perhaps in the future economists will continue to plumb the depths of human experience and will end up considering Buddhism as a branch of economics; a sort of ultimate plan or method that nips dissatisfaction in the bud.

But if Buddhism is an ultimate plan for removing dissatisfaction, in that case doesn’t Buddhism contain economics? Why study economics at all if we can remove dissatisfaction directly? To answer this, imagine a society made up completely of Buddhas. This population would still need to eat, clothe themselves, build homes, educate their children, travel, etc. The patterns by which they would accomplished these ends efficiently are wholly described and in part determined by the principles of economics. To create policies and rules in a society made up completely of Buddhas would require some understanding of economic processes and patterns.

Hence Buddhism and economics share a common first principle, but do not contain each other and both offer insights that are valuable to anyone seeking to reducing the dissatisfaction and distress of life.

Tune in next week for an article about a Buddhist perspective on Gross Domestic Production (GDP) and Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH).

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