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ARC Home > Projects > Asia projects :
Mongolia | Mongolian Buddhism and economics

Some thoughts on Buddhist philosophy and economics

Prime Minister Nambaryn Enkhbayar, President of ARC

Papers from the meetings of the Mongolian Buddhists Parliamentary Group and from the Mongolian Nomadics and Buddhist Economics Conference



Edited by Nambaryn Enkhbayar, Prime Minister of Mongolia and President of ARC

1. Let us start from one of the important differences which exist between Buddhism and monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity), because, I think, it will help in understanding the peculiarity of the Buddhist approach to economics.

According to monotheistic religions everything has been created by the God, or let us say by the very will of God. However, in Buddhism it is explained that everything has been created by cause or if I may so because of the cause. In other words there was and/or still is a cause behind everything and every phenomenon. So in a very general way one can say that in search for understanding the nature of every phenomenon or a complex of phenomena Buddhist philosophy aims at finding a cause or a complex of causes lying behind a phenomenon or phenomena. Here we can draw a parallel between Buddhist philosophy and economics in a sense that economics in a general way is or should be a science which aims at finding a reason or complex of causes behind every economic and social phenomenon.

2. The general understanding of the theory or causation regulating the very existence and/or activity of everything in the world according to Buddhist philosophy brings us to the next category of Buddhist philosophy, that is to the notion of karma. Karma is a kind of accumulated potential power or weakness gained as a result of each deed done in the past. The notion of karma shows:

a. The uniqueness of every human being (all human beings and in a broader sense all communities and/or nations are different from each other because of their deeds). The economic development of each nation is something unique in a sense that it is a kind of accumulation of bad or good things which have been done by the leadership of a given country after they have been given power to rule a nation.

b. The responsibility of everybody. That is everybody and/or every nation is to be aware of the responsibility for any action or inaction because it eventually, let us say, “accumulates” one’s or its present status in a broad sense. In other words, it could be summed up in the following way: “One is responsible for one’s present status however good or bad it is” (‘Each nation is responsible for its present status in the world’).

c. The understanding of everybody’s accountability. In other words karma indirectly means accountability. Everybody, every government, every nation should be accountable for its deeds. There is nobody without his or her karma, similarly there is no nation and/or Government without accountability.

d. The deep understanding or feeling of one’s right space (where) and time (when) of activities. Moreover it means that one should be aware of the necessity to stay within limits of space and time of one’s activities in order ‘to accumulate good deeds’.

3. In Eastern societies especially in societies where nomadic culture is still alive and very much enriched by Buddhist culture one can find very strong community feeling. It is interesting for us to approach the question of link between Buddhist philosophy and economics from this point of view because economics could be explained as a science which deals with how human beings can live better in communities. The strong community feeling in nomadic or semi-nomadic countries where Buddhism is the dominant religion could be explained:

a. First by the fact that nomads can survive only by getting together and helping each other. Being and living in a community used to mean surviving. In nomadic societies one used to survive not at the expense of other ‘weak’ fellows but by forming a community where ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ became relative and where one’s helping others to survive meant helping oneself to survive. On the other hand everyone who is more or less familiar with Buddhism should know that one of the Three Treasures of Buddhism is Samgha or Buddhist brotherhood or the community of monks. So the community, or living in the community, is considered to be one of the treasures of Buddhism. Living in community means learning of sharing. Sharing not only good but sharing suffering, happiness, sharing others’ pain. Thus one can draw a line to the modern understanding of economic and social development, according to which development can be achieved not at the expense and/or excluding someone or any nation into the process of development.

b. From the statement of learning to share other’s pain it is easy to come to one of the very important characteristics of Buddhism, namely, of Mahayana Buddhism. This characteristic is the ideal of Bodhisattva. According to Buddhist tradition Bodhisattva is one who has already perceived the meaning of life and reached the condition of readiness to attain higher, if not the highest level of existence non-existence. However, the Bodhisattva stays at the present level of existence because of great compassion and mercifulness towards the human beings, because of the great ability to feel others’ pain. On the other hand the deeper meaning of the ideal of Bodhisattva goes as follows: ‘If someone or some nations have reached the relatively better level of existence (in our case have reached the relatively better level of existence (in our case development) it is immoral and because of it, it is impossible to develop further without ‘feeling the pain of underdevelopment of others’ (both human beings and nations) in a broad sense. So the meaning of the Buddhist ideal of Bodhisattva could be put in the modern economic language in the following way: “The more you help others the better, faster and more qualitatively you develop yourself”. In brief, one can say that according to Buddhist philosophy development means assisting others; that the main difference of quantitative and qualitative developments is the latter means and includes morality, responsibility, accountability, feeling of community and of necessity to assist others, and uniqueness in each example of development.

4. Another important category of Buddhist philosophy we have to consider in our search to find links between Buddhism and economics is the one of attachment and non-attachment. According to Buddhism, attachment or passion for someone or something brings suffering. Once a person or a society (let us say consumer society) is attached in a broad sense to something, they start turning into a body absorbed only by one’s or its desire to satisfy insatiable demands. A person or a society starts loosing its mobility, adaptability to new challenges, and flexibility. In contrast to these examples one can say that the main characteristics of a nomadic society where Buddhism is a dominant religion are: a pollution free way of living, ability to adapt quickly to the new environment in a broad sense, mobility, a more or less harmonious relationship with the environment, and readiness to give up the demands or things which turn into a burden. On the other hand being unattached means not being not occupied by prejudices, being objective, maintaining harmonic balance between material and spiritual, between cause and effect.

5. In other words after discussing all the above mentioned subjects we inevitably arrive at a conclusion that Buddhism considers the creation of a good balance or, let us put it in a broader sense – of a healthy environment where everyone and everything can enjoy freedom to realise or improve its potential – is the condition for the qualitative development. In other words one can simplify that the realisation (or improvement) of one’s potential (or karma) is the development. At the same time one can explain that under the good balance of material and spiritual, of cause and effect, the interdependence (not contradiction) of everyone and everything is implied. In other words Buddhist philosophy proceeds from understanding that real, qualitative development is based not on theory of contradiction of two or multiple polarities (or interests) but rather on the notion of interdependence of everyone and everything. The famous theory of Sunyata (or v voidness) seems to be a philosophical basis for such understanding of economic and social development from the Buddhist point of view. If one is to be logically loyal to the general implication of the Sunyata concept, one has to admit that there cannot be permanent indicators of development from a Buddhist point of view, because everything is dependent upon causation and is in constant move and change, everything is impermanent and relative. However, the ideas we have been discussing so far in this paper could be the lines along which one can try to find indicators of development from Buddhist point of view. In the search for indicators one always has to proceed from understanding that the main, ultimate indicator of development is a human being.

6. And finally let us recall the very famous fable when Buddha kept silent when he was asked what was the ultimate meaning of life. He said that when one was wounded he would not try to find out who did the shooting, what is the size of the arrow, what is it made of? Instead he would try to remove the arrow from his body as soon as possible. So maybe it is worthwhile to remove as soon as possible arrows which wounded us: irresponsibility, lack of accountability, narrowness of mind, ignorance of the fact that everyone and everything is dependent on causation and on each other. And the indicator and the ultimate aim of the qualitative development is a human being.


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