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Buddhist Economics P. A. Payutto's Search for a Middle Way in the Market Economy
© David Hamilton

Payutto, a Thai Buddhist, examines how Buddhists can live within market economies and how they can develop a new way of economic thinking to help make the lives they want
P. A. Payutto's book Buddhist Economics is a look into the material realities to which Buddhists, just as anyone, are subject. He writes that economics are a large concern of Buddhists and that they understand that the economic concerns of practitioners are important to their spirituality because "hungry people cannot appreciate Dharma"(47), and while capital accumulation and opulent consumption is not desired or desirable, economic stability and the satiation of basic needs is seen as a catalyst to enlightenment on the eight-fold path. (40)

Payutto makes reference to the Buddhist teaching called the Three Attha. It describes the three goals of human life in this ascending order: initial, medium, and ultimate. Reasonable "economic security is central"(48) to the initial and medium goals, while the ultimate goal of enlightenment is beyond the physical realm. This teaching recognizes that while the ultimate goal is beyond the rules of economics, one must exist within the established economic order in the steps preceding this stage. In this book, translated from its original Thai, P. A. Payutto describes some ways in which Buddhism has a distinct market-based economic rationale, as well as criticizing traditional economic theory.

Some points made in this book are actually quite interesting from the Buddhist perspective. Economists are forced to overlook many economic conditions in society because they use money as a proxy for value. For instance, unpaid labour and anything that does not register in the market is not picked up by economists and therefore economists do not have a clear picture of the economy. A Buddhist's good deeds are not likely to appear in a country's GDP or affect

While the market economy values everything that is bought and sold, Buddhism only finds value in goods and services that bring value to the Buddhist. Products valuable to Buddhists such as books of religious teachings are positive, while products that Buddhists do not agree with, like those that contribute to pollution or destroy natural habitat, are negatives.(16-17)

The problem with this formula is that the values are already added in the theoretical framework of the marketplace model and if things are more important to Buddhists societies, this will be reflected in the supply and demand of such products, and consequently in the market value. In a Buddhist society, there would be no negative products or actions - and herein lies the message - that a Buddhist economy must be sustainable and free of things that bring the individual further from spiritual enlightenment.

One of the very interesting things about Payutto's attack on established economic thought is that it is so similar to what is becoming a predictable criticism of the inherent problems and contradictions in capitalist ideology.

Payutto attacks the neo-conservative model of the market that so many modern critics see as a path to salvation for the third world and a means of keeping a lead in the developed world. Payutto applies Shurti to address the out-of-control capitalism that the Buddha could not have seen historically in his lifetime. The greed and opulent wealth we sometimes attribute to classical economics (10) comes with capitalist accumulation, a detail specific to modern capitalism and not a general rule in the economist's concern with the general distribution of wealth.

Payutto notes that his inspiration for this work stems from E. F. Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful" that I was very fortunate to find a copy of and read the original text and Schumacher makes some very basic points about how Buddhists have to depend upon material distribution in order to function in the material world which they wish to leave and their economic activity is not necessarily a bad thing so long as the goods and services in which they indulge do not do harm to people or animals. This is more inline with an "economic" interpretation because it is less specific to a certain type of economics. Despite Payatto's problem in using the correct terms, he does little to make an interesting argument about capitalism's role in spiritual life. I would have liked to read about how Buddhism is affected by the global capitalism that is pervading Buddhist economies. Capitalism, being an organizational mode of economic production and consumption, brings with it its own ideology that many societies feel they have to adopt in order to exist in the new global marketplace.

Buddhism, like other religions, is comprised of a set of spiritual teachings as a vision of the ultimate truth and also a set of social teachings that are meant to guide peoples' actions in their more mundane day-to-day functions. While Buddhists who have achieved enlightenment have realized that the material world is an illusion and is empty of intrinsic value, they also realize that the material world is a very real thing to those who are not enlightened. It is from Smith, Marx and other philosophers that we understand the economic division of resources as the main underpinning of society, seemingly in contrast to the more spiritual Buddhist teachings, but Buddhists know that they cannot ignore the economics in their lives.


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