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date: 09 December 2019

Buddhist Economics: Scales of Value in Global Exchange

Abstract and Keywords

In addition to summarizing key concerns in Theravāda Buddhist Economics by scholars such as E. F. Schumacher and the Thai monk Payutto, this essay explores how descriptions of the West, Western development, and the “science” of economics serves in that literature to construct Occidentalist versions of Southeast Asian traditionalism and religious orthodoxy. It then introduces the previously unstudied work of Shérab Tendar, a prominent Tibetan Buddhist scholar in the contemporary People’s Republic of China who has written prodigiously on what he considers to be a scripturally based Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhist Economics. Comparing these three influential iterations of Buddhist Economics, this essay argues that this movement has less to do with economics proper than with what I call trans-Buddhist “scales of value”: site-specific desires and measures of sought after outcomes that here privilege the economy and economic behavior as a technique for individual, social, and environmental well-being and emancipation.

Keywords: Buddhist Economics, economy, value, Theravāda, Tibetan, Shérab Tendar, E. F. Schumacher, Payutto

Introduction: Economy and the Study of Buddhism

The purpose of Buddhist Economics is to use wealth in order to accomplish the happiness of oneself and others. In order to become wealthy, some people forfeit their happiness and health and destroy the happiness of others. Does such wealth have any essence whatsoever?

—Shérab Tendar (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:20)

The śramaṇa renunciant movement founded by Siddhārtha Gautama in the fifth century bce was formed by a new age of urbanization, merchant expansion, commercial relations, and monetization. Our earliest traces of Buddhist life are full of references to trading caravans, merchant guilds, urban development, market towns, and new modes of production for profit (Benavides 2004). Such sources convey “unambiguously that Buddhism was linked with economic advance and commercial expansion” (Bailey and Mabbett 2003, 63). Buddhist communities have traditionally thrived when there have been stable political conditions able to produce the economic prosperity and material surplus necessary to sustain monastic populations. The long-term successes and failures of Buddhist missionary advances into Central, Southeast, East, and Inner Asia attest to this trend (e.g., Heirman and Bumbacher 2007).1

Even so, the early German social scientist Max Weber’s 1916 analysis of the comparative sociology of Indian religions, which supposedly denied the early Indian Buddhist tradition an economic life tout court, seems to have set a precedent for leaving the relationship of Buddhism and economy largely unstudied to this day. However, this oft-repeated characterization of Weber’s position by those pressing for a turn to the material and to the economic in Buddhist Studies misses the subtlety and specificity of the former’s analysis entirely (Gellner 2011). The Buddha’s heterodox proposition was, in Weberian terms, a salvation religion that denied social responsibility and any kind of social ethic as “pernicious basic illusion.” Buddhist practitioners sought release from saṃsāra (cyclic existence) by pursuing an “arhat ideal” thoroughly disconnected from the “‘world’ of rational action” and “any actively conceptualized ‘social’ conduct” (Weber 1958, 213). On the basis of the few master texts available to him, Weber observed that “the Buddhistic type of salvation” was sought “in a psychic state” quite removed from either inner-worldly or even extra-worldly activity (213). In this sense, the Buddhist saṅgha was for Weber a community of the homeless and thus a community of the “economy-less” (214).

Of Mahāyāna movements that seem to have developed as more inclusive, laicized devotional traditions sometime around the turn of the Common Era, Weber argued that the holiness attributed to monastic inactivity was never paired with a holiness attributed to this-worldly work among the laity. In Weber’s comparative analysis, there was no doctrinal room in Buddhism for the sort of “methodological lay morality” that could act as the basis for developing the “rational economic ethic” he detected most clearly in strains of Calvinism but also in India among the Jains (Weber 1958, 216–217). This was for him the “essential peculiarity” of early Buddhism: “the complete elimination of any form of inner-worldly motivation to conduct or rational purpose [goal-directed action] in nature” (222). No doctrinal movements emerged to sacralize and center in-worldly social organization and conduct in early Buddhism, Weber determined. However, based as it was on a limited number of master texts available in translation, Weber’s conclusion is no longer defendable even within the purview of its original argument. It should certainly not be taken to validate a vision of early Indian Buddhist communities (or of any Buddhist community, anywhere) that existed beyond, or even outside of, its material and economic conditions.

That material and economic factors helped mediate Buddhist formation was in fact a widely accepted and regularly feature of Buddhist intellectual life through most of its history, including even in ancient India in the first centuries of its existence. As the product of a particular moment in ancient north Indian history defined by upward mobility and economic prosperity, Gautama’s was a movement tied to merchants and farmers which provided an useful ideology for elites wanting to retain whatever privilege they had acquired through their wealth (Bailey and Mabbett 2003, 52). As Gregory Schopen (2004) has shown with unparalleled clarity, breadth, and force, the archaeological, epigraphical, and even textual evidence is quite clear: Buddhists—including monastics and including even the earliest generations of the Buddha’s followers—have hardly been reluctant to engage in, or be formed by, their economic activity.

As some important scholarship of late has reminded us, the co-production of Buddhist and economic life has continued to happen through to today. In the late and postcolonial period, for example, scholars of Buddhism have explored icon commodification on the global market (Lopez 1998), practices serving as bourgeois markers of class (Rocha 2006), doctrines inspiring critiques of materialism (Pardue 1971), and the transit of Buddhism through the globalized religious marketplace (McMahan 2008; Obadia 2011). Mindfulness and other Buddhist technologies of the self have been widely commoditized in the self-help marketplace, circulating through corporate offices on Wall Street to Bay Area retreats and raves. In their mediating forms, content, and routes of circulation, Buddhist formations across the modern period have been and remain economic formations, regardless of their national or transnational contexts and soteriological aspirations.

This all runs against the enduring presumptions of a post-Protestant privilege usually accorded the transcendent over the material in the study of religion (Coleman 2004; Meyer 2008). It is quite clear that Buddhists have been active participants in the modern capitalist integration of Asia and have not just received but also given shape to what Weber was fond of calling the capitalist “process of rationalization as a world historical process.” Even Slavov Žižek is lately fond of arguing that certain mainstream Buddhist practices (like the New Age and self-help embrace of “Asiatic spirituality”) that aim to “accept social reality as it is” are in fact paradigmatic symptoms of our late-capitalist condition. (Such as “the case of a Western Buddhist unaware that the ‘truth’ of his existence is in fact the social involvement which he tends to dismiss as a mere game” [Žižek 2001; Møllgaard 2008].) Were Weber alive today, Žižek often remarks, he would ignore Protestantism and would write a book called The Taoist [or Buddhist] Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.

My point in all this is as unassuming as it is promising and underexplored: Buddhism happens economically. This is as true of the earliest recorded years of Gautama’s community, Tang China, postcolonial Burma, imperial Japan, and Soviet Siberia as it is of contemporary Buddhist life in Qinghai or Santa Monica. While still a marginal topic in Buddhist Studies, matters economic have attracted sustained reflection and critical engagement by many prominent Buddhist intellectuals in the last half-century, both in Asia and among sympathizers in Europe and the Americas. Both economic development models and economics as a science of economic behavior have been critically engaged by such intellectuals in light of an overriding concern for safeguarding the substance and continuity of the Buddhaśāsana (the Buddhist dispensation).2 The most consistent and deeply considered manifestation of those concerns—as fascinating for their interpretative creativity as for the breadth of their global exchange—is a trans-Buddhist movement that self-identifies as “Buddhist Economics” and which will occupy the remainder of this chapter.

Approaching Buddhist Economics as Scales of Value

Dissenting European economists and Theravādan Buddhist intellectuals first dove into a revisionist reading of the Pāli canon and of traditional Southeast Asian folkways using the rubric of “Buddhist Economics” in the 1960s. This movement—which was less concerned with unpacking colonial legacies than we might expect—broadly sought to define and then resist what it considered the “Western” episteme guiding the (increasingly militarized) material, social, and even ethical reorganization of Southeast Asia at that time. Their critiques targeted models of “Western development” (whether capitalist or Marxist) as well as the legitimacy and scope of the “science” of economics, a field of knowledge which was routinely rejected for being Eurocentric, overly objective, hyper-specialized, and blinded by a reductive notion of the human and of human desires.

In the decades since, Buddhist Economics has developed into a global movement that has, among other things, inspired Asian monastic scholars to undertake sustained re-readings of regional Buddhist canonical and exegetical literature in order to recover and disseminate the Buddha’s economic message. For their exegetical breadth and creativity as much as for their stated purpose of bringing Buddhist scriptural traditions, ethics, and interpretative techniques into critical conversation with visions of modernity tied inextricably to “the West” and the challenges of “Westernization,” Buddhist Economics shares much with other pseudo, trans-Buddhist movements such as, but hardly limited to, the Buddhism and Science dialogue, Dhammic Socialism, Buddhist Anarchism, and Deep Ecology.

In ways that I think applies to these related intellectual movements, in what follows I propose that we approach the study of Buddhist Economics as Occidentalist scales of value.3 Buddhist Economics among Asian Buddhist monastic scholars especially has sought to define hierarchies of desired worlds and to measure the outcomes of activities aimed at securing human (and, in some versions, environmental) well-being. These scales of value are always contrasted with, and formed in dialectic engagement with, currently hegemonic “Western” scales of value and influence. The response of Buddhist economic theorists has been to contrast subjective values and more robust models of human desire rooted in the Buddhist canon with what are rejected as shallow models of consumption and the maximizing individual underpinning normative economics. In response, certain prominent Buddhist scholars representing various regional traditions have identified in their classical sources full-fledged fields of knowledge about the economy that come equipped with alternative measures for well-being via economic behavior. Let us now explore ways that scales of value are at play in the work of two founding theorists of Buddhist Economics in the Theravāda Buddhist world of Southeast Asia (Schumacher and Payutto) before turning to a more sustained analysis of the more recent, and previously unstudied Mahāyāna and Tantric milieu of contemporary Tibetan regions of the PRC (Shérab Tendar).

Buddhist Economics in a Theravādan Key

They said: ‘Mr. Schumacher, economics is all very well, but what does Buddhism have to do with it?’ Schumacher replied: ‘Economics without Buddhism, i.e. without spiritual, human, and ecological values, is like sex without love.

E. F. Schumacher (1999, 38)

What I will call “Theravādan-based Buddhist Economics” is widely known through the works of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, A. T. Ariyaratne (1999), Sulak Sivaraksa (Sivaraksa, Kotler, and Bennett 2009), Padmasiri De Silva (1998, 2002), H. N. S. Karunatilake (1971), and Ananda W. P. Guruge (2008). However, two authors in particular are responsible for delineating what has become known as Buddhist Economics proper. The first is E. F. Schumacher, who coined the term in the 1960s. The second is Venerable Payutto, a Thai monastic scholar who infused Schumacher’s rather romantic reflections with the gravitas of scriptural citation. Because of Payutto especially, even Buddhist readers outside the Pāli-centric Theravādan fold have been inspired in recent decades to reread their own canonical and exegetical traditions to determine if the Buddha had indeed taught on matters economic, and then to determine what he meant (and then what he really meant) when he did.

E. F. Schumacher’s “Buddhist Economics”

Beginning with Payutto, the labor of most exegetes of Buddhist Economics has been to mine their Buddhist canon to glean recommendations for proper economic behavior. The resulting collections of scriptural citations provide strategies for determining both wordly and salvific outcomes. Interestingly, this operation was unknown to the actual founder of Buddhist Economics, the British economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1911‒1977). Schumacher was a German citizen schooled at Oxford and Columbia who, as a favored interlocutor of no less than John Maynard Keynes, became an influential economist with the British government in the postwar period. While serving as Chief Economic Advisor for the powerful UK National Coal Board, in the mid-1950s Schumacher resided in Burma as a consultant, where he was shocked by the disruptive effects of rapid development upon traditional, rural Burmese society. At the same time, Schumacher undertook personal explorations of Buddhism that would have a profound impact on his career after his return to Britain in the early 1960s. Once on English soil, Schumacher began conceiving a heterodox economics which rejected certain presumptions in the normative development economics in which he had been trained. In the late 1960s, Schumacher began promoting an anti-materialist position that looked to Indian social activists such as Gandhi and J. C. Kumarappa, author of The Economy of Permanence (1946), for a wholesale Asian alternative to “Western” models of economic thinking.

The most enduring result of this turn in Schumacher’s career was “Buddhist Economics” (1966), a seminal essay that remained little known until its 1973 publication in Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. A widely read and acclaimed collection of Schumacher’s dissenting economic theories, Small is Beautiful was dependent on caricatures of a romanticized and static “traditional Asia” that helped denaturalize the faulty organizing concepts of mainstream Euro-American economic thinking.4 The presumed universalities of the maximizing individual and of exponential consumption are well-worn examples in this piece. Largely a critique of what he called “Western economies,” Small is Beautiful and “Buddhist Economics” in particular invented alternative models of development for Asia and the West that would privilege human-scale technologies, decentralization, and sustainable uses of “natural capital.” Schumacher fervently attacked the social and environmental impacts of industrial, top-down expansionist development tied explicitly to Western materialism.5

In a line of critique taken up by many of his later monastic readers across Asia, Schumacher’s “Buddhist Economics” argued that Western economics, like all specialist forms of knowledge, suffers disastrously “from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that there is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are free from ‘metaphysics’ or ‘values’ as the law of gravitation” (Schumacher 1999, 16). Unburdened by the need to provide scriptural references for the Buddhism of his Buddhist Economics (as would be required for his Asian heirs described below), Schumacher writes incredulously that “no one seems to think that a Buddhist way of life would call for Buddhist economics, just as the modern materialist way of life has brought forth modern economics” (16).

In his writing, Schumacher defines pervasive references to the “Buddhist way of life” with rather generic summaries of the Four Noble Truths (Pāli cattāri ariyasaccāni) and, when there is any specificity, to the fourth of those, the Noble Eightfold Path (Pāli ariyāṭṭhaṅgikamagga). Teachings on one of those eight, Right Livelihood (Pāli sammājīva), were for Schumacher the principal site of the Buddha’s economic message.6 He juxtaposed the dehumanizing effects of Modern (i.e., normative, Western) Economics with the humanizing effects of Right Livelihood and Buddhist Economics more generally using themes such as labor, desire, mechanization, natural resources, and consumption. For example, using the logic of the normative economic theory in which he had been trained, labor for the employer is “simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation” (Schumacher 1999, 38). For the employee, labor forfeits leisure and remains only a means for securing wages.

In contrast, Schumacher argues that for a Buddhist Economist (the never-defined and conveniently malleable protagonist of Schumacher’s work on this topic), labor itself is valued for its humanizing function and not for its potential to produce surplus capital. In other words, labor is an end in itself. This is so in three ways: “To give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence” (38). A becoming existence, “one of the basic truths of human existence,” is at the heart of Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics, such that “work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure” (38).

The maximizing individual and the sort of base consumption assumed in the normative models of Modern Economics that Schumacher had earlier professed now elicited a special disdain in him. The Buddhist Economist, he mused, must always privilege an optimal (not maximal) pattern of consumption that would require less effort and provide more leisure (Schumacher 1999, 42). Since ownership and consumption in Buddhism is supposedly a means to an end, Buddhist Economics “is the systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means. Modern Economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production—land, labor, and capital—as the means” (42). Buddhist consumption is here an expression of Buddhist (i.e., non-Western and traditional) scales of value that privilege simplicity and nonviolence. They also aim to consume little, use local trade, refrain from exploiting nature or other human communities, and thus fulfill “the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: ‘Cease to do evil; try to do good’” (42).

In ways such as these, Schumacher imagined a (unsourced and ahistorical) Buddhist Economics that was nonmaterialistic, spiritually imbued, and as such, a non-modern and non-Western spectrum of knowledge, behavior, and values. Whereas “modern economics … considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production—land, labor, and capital—as the means,” Buddhism in Schumacher’s essay was simply a cardholder for “the systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means” (Schumacher 1999, 42). This first iteration of Buddhist Economics was thus simply an utopian Other to “an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence” (38). It would be up to one of his Southeast monastic readers to clearly root Schumacher’s general statements about Buddhism and economy to specific Buddhist canonical sources and to the authority of received tradition.

Venerable Payutto’s Buddhist Economics

While Schumacher’s static contrasts between Buddhist and Western “ways of life” was enough to enchant counterculture audiences in Europe and the Americas in the 1970s, Theravāda Buddhist scholars in Southeast Asia who were inspired by Schumacher’s project needed to develop a more robust, canonically based iteration. This was due to the ultimate authority attributed to the Buddha’s word recorded in scripture and to the interpretations of those words on the part of realized past masters who wrote authoritative commentaries. Instead of waxing philosophical about the inclinations of some abstracted “Buddhist economist,” they set out to know what exactly the Buddha had said about economic behavior. In what canonical sources were those words recorded? What Pāli terms were used to convey those teachings? Where in the Buddha’s body of teachings were economic topics discussed? On the basis of extensively mapping such scriptural citations in the Pāli canon, these Theravādan scholars sought to map economic behavior praised or criticized by the Buddha twenty five centuries ago onto contemporary economics. They sought to answer, for example, whether the authority and global reach of so-called Western-based economics (and of the dominant forces of modernization more broadly) could be subsumed into Buddhist models of human desire, behavior, and desired routes of personal and social development?

Prayudh Aryankura Payutto (b. 1939), also known as Venerable Dhammapitaka, was the first and still the most widely read Theravāda scholar to supplement Schumacher’s concept with actual canonical references and the authority of the Buddhavacana (the Buddha’s recorded words). Payutto put the Buddhism into Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics, in other words. The five essays collected and translated in his 1992 Buddhist Economics is meant to extend Schumacher’s “Buddhist Economics,” a work he notes gestured only very broadly to the fact that the Buddha had delivered an economic message in his teachings on the Noble Eightfold Path. Via Schumacher, Payutto agrees that the Eightfold Path does indeed offer the kind of holistic approach desired by his German predecessor, and that Right Livelihood especially transposes economics into a dhammic key so that economic behavior may fully become “capable of solving the problems of life” (Payutto 1998, 18). Payutto’s scholarly credentials and expertize in the Pāli canon allowed him to construct a Buddhist Economics fit to travel through Buddhist scholarly networks across Asia, often along unexpected routes, such as from Southeast Asia to the eastern stretches of the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai (as we shall see below).

Like Schumacher before him, Payutto was preoccupied with contrasting “Western” and “Buddhist” values and models of well-being. In that way, Payutto’s theories react strongly to the perceived failure of Western fields of knowledge, their methods, and their predictive models to meet the challenges of our times, especially outside of “the West.” Even more than for Schumacher, Modern Economics is found wanting for Payutto, since it is too rooted in the limited episteme of a hyper-specialized and Western-centric science. As a scientific field of knowledge prioritizing objectivity, economics is the product of what he pejoratively labels the “the age of specialization” in Industrial Revolution era Europe. As such, economics operates with too narrow a disciplinary focus. Its constricted optic results in “a stunted body of knowledge” that artificially separates certain fields of economic activity from other spheres of human life, such as moods and motivations, social relations, environmental responsibility, and so on.

While economic thinking has been in existence since the time of Plato and Aristotle, the study of economics has only really crystallized into a science in the industrial era. Like other sciences in this age of specialization, economics has become a narrow and rarefied discipline; an isolated, almost stunted, body of knowledge, having little to do with other disciplines or human activities.

(Payutto 1998, 15–16)

In refrains that became widely repeated amongst later Buddhisct economical thinkers, Payutto argued that normative economics cannot in the first place adequately account for the complexity of either the human or human interaction with society and the environment. Furthermore, as a discipline striving for objectivity, economics misses the subjective drivers of economic activity such as fear, desire, morality, and compassion. Also, the measures of well-being used by economic models do not differentiate, for example, between economic surplus and growth stemming from war and charity, for example, or alcohol sales and attending religious teachings (16). Just as egregiously, economics (like all the social sciences, Payutto suggests) focuses exclusively on socially constructed phenomenon (“conventional truths” such as wages and inflation) instead of “fixed cause and effect relationships” such as the environmental impact of our material desires. Economic solutions to ethical, social, and environmental problems thus remain elusive, since the scales of value that are at their base remain so constricted.

His alternative, unsurprisingly, is to elaborate on Schumacher’s ideas and turn to the Buddhist tradition to recover a more properly dhammic and comprehensive measure of well-being via economic behavior. This Buddhist Economics would be “not so much a self-contained science, but one of a number of interdependent disciplines working in concert toward the common goal of social, individual and environmental well-being” (Payutto 1998, 17). Claiming to be an objective science, normative economics most egregiously ignores what Payutto calls “subjective values.” These include the fear and desire that motivate our everyday saṃsāric human behavior, the mental and emotional factors that actually generate harmony and well-being, and the broader question of ethics and economics. These are component parts of natural processes of cause and effect that, in Payutto’s telling, is the exclusive purview of the Buddhist tradition. Without accounting for cause and effect, “Economists look at just one short phase of the natural causal process and single out the part that interests them, ignoring the wider ramifications. Thus, modern economists take no account of the ethical consequences of economic activity” (16). The economics the world needs cannot be separated from the dhamma, that “complex and dynamic process of causes-and-effects that constitute reality” (20).

Even more fundamental than his concern with the causal horizon of normative economics, however, is Payutto’s effort to expose and problematize the ill-defined notion of desire that Modern Economics uses in its predictive modeling of maximizing consumption. While Payutto accepts that Modern and Buddhist Economics may agree that human beings have unlimited desire, the measure of desire adopted in the former is remarkably ill-informed and reductive from the vantage of his Thai Theravāda tradition. A solution is to turn to the Buddha’s teachings on virtuous and non-virtuous mental factors in order to construct an economics that can in the first place differentiate between taṇhā and chanda. These are two types of desire understood by Theravāda exegetes to motivate human activity but with different goals and with different causal effects. Taṇhā (craving, ambition, restlessness, thirst) is, in Payutto’s words, “directed toward feeling; it leads to seeking of objects which pander to self interests and is supported and nourished by ignorance” (Payutto 1998, 34). Chanda, a desire necessary for actual well-being founded in wisdom (Pāli pañña), is “directed toward benefit, it leads to effort and action, and is founded on intelligent reflection” (34). A more robust theory of desire, according to Payutto’s Buddhist Economics, can help unlock the latent subjective, ethical, social, environmental, and even soteriological possibilities of economic behavior effaced by the limited scale of the normative, Western-centric science of economy.

As with Schumacher, work and labor are representational of the ways Payutto constructs—or, as he would say, recovers—a canonically sourced Buddhist Economics founded on the distinctions between taṇhā and chanda. In Modern Economics, he writes, taṇhā-fueled work is never done for its own sake. It is, rather, a means to satisfy our desires for sense gratification, leisure, and pleasure outside of work; the means obstructs the ends, at least over the short term. Work motivated by chanda, however, extracts satisfaction and well-being from work, since it places value on performing work that is of benefit and does no harm, or which at the very least is done with pride and to the best of our ability.

With only taṇhā to get their salary but no chanda to do their work, people will only go about the motions of performing their duties, doing just enough to get by. The result is apathy, laziness and poor workmanship…. When taṇhā is the motivating force, workers and employers are trapped in a game of one-upsmanship, with each side trying to get as much for themselves as they can for the least possible expense.

(Payutto 1998, 50–51)

The rate of debt and corruption in developing countries is evidence enough for Payutto to conclude that consumers cannot tolerate delay between working and consuming the objects of their desires (47–48). Payutto’s Buddhist Economics—where reducing taṇhā and encouraging chanda become the measure of a healthy economy, and where non-consumption and even non-production are sometimes the best route to well-being—is contrasted with the limited view of Modern Economics that assumes the economy would halt if desire-based consumption could be abandoned.

Payutto, like many of the Theravādan theorists of Buddhist Economists that would later build on his work, makes no serious claim that his ideas could act pragmatically as a model for actual economic policies on production, circulation, and consumption. Rather, his Buddhist Economics critiques normative by offering a more expanded view of the desires that motivate our activity, of the web of interconnection that binds us to each other and to the environment, and of the non-maximizing forces that lead to human well-being (such as non-production and non-consumption). By turning to his Pāli sources, Payutto’s works also infused Schumacher’s original formulation with actual Buddhist doctrine. But just where in the canon do such insights and prescriptions reside in Payutto’s telling?

To clarify his appropriation of economic terminology from the Buddhist scriptures, Payutto notes that in the first place the Buddha never praised anything like “poverty” (Pāli dadiddiya) as a route to either worldly happiness or saṃsāric release. What he regularly praised was contentment (Pāli santuṭṭhi) and limited desire (Pāli appicchatā) and, on occasion, the accumulation of wealth especially among the laity (Payutto 1998, 60). Some of the most widely recorded and helpful of the Buddha’s lay disciples, Payutto reminds us, were quite rich and did great works with their wealth (like Anāthapiṇḍika). The Buddha even occasionally praised monastic disciples such as Sivali for the offerings they received, since this seemed to recognize the quality of their renunciation.

The main theme in the Scriptures is that it is not wealth as such that is praised or blamed but the way it is acquired and used…. Blameworthy qualities are greed for gain, stinginess, grasping, attachment to gain and hoarding of wealth [amongst monastics]. Acquisition is helpful in the practice of the Noble Path, or if it benefits fellow members of the Order.

(Payutto 1998, 61)

On that basis, Payutto praises those who have developed the wisdom to become detached (Pāli nissaraṇa-paññā) from their possessions, since “he can live cheerfully and unconfused without being spoiled by worldly wealth” (69).

That said, Payutto decides that the Buddha never specifically taught on a general field of knowledge on anything like economics. However, he did give many teachings that contain lessons on virtuous economic behavior from which a cumulative Buddhist Economics may be culled. For example, “although the Buddha never specifically taught about the subject of economics, teachings about the four requisites—food, clothing, shelter and medicine—occur throughout the Pāli Canon. In essence, all of the teachings concerning the four requisites are teachings on economics”; or else “a teaching on mental training, for example, may include guidelines on economic activity” (Payutto 1998, 71). A scripturally based Buddhist Economics is available in Payutto’s view, but “we must extract them from the teachings on other subjects” (71).

The sum of Payutto’s extensive mining of the Pāli canon is what he calls a Middle Way Economics. This is founded first in values of moderation (Pāli mattaññutā): “the awareness of that optimum point where the enhancement of true well-being coincides with the experience of satisfaction…. Thus, in contrast to the classical economic equation of maximum consumption leading to maximum satisfaction, we have moderate, or wise consumption, leading to well-being” (Payutto 1998, 69). Second, Payutto’s Middle Way Economics centers the ethical injunction not to harm self or others, one of the “subjective values” he alleges are excluded from the hyper-specialized and objective field of Modern Economics:

In the classical economic model, unlimited desires are controlled by scarcity, but in the Buddhist model they are controlled by an appreciation of moderation and the objective of well-being. The resulting balance will naturally eliminate the harmful effects of uncontrolled economic activity.

(Payutto 1998, 43)

And this is the crux of Payutto’s elaboration on Schumacher’s original term, one that has resonated with monastic readers across Asia to this day: we ought to measure the worth of economic behavior in light of the broadest possible view of causality, that karmic scale which is the exclusive area of specialization of the Buddhist scholar. From that vantage, a healthy economy is measured by the sorts of desire that motivate economic behavior and the long-term harmony and well-being that our economic lives ensure between the individual, society, and nature.

Shérab Tendar’s Mahāyāna and Tantrayāna Buddhist Economics

Some Tibetan monks and laypeople are completely unfamiliar with this topic and believe that Buddhist Economics was just a creation of my garbage mind. I don’t blame them; their world is like a small waterwheel.

—Shérab Tendar (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:40)

Since Payutto, many Theravāda scholars and Euro-American commentators have sought to elaborate on the idea of a canonically based Buddhist Economics fit to challenge the damaging influence of “Modern Economics.” Rooted in the Pāli canon and postcolonial sociopolitical and environmental concerns in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Theravāda Buddhist Economics has been the project of intellectuals who, according to some of their critics, are as guilty as Schumacher for projecting urban, middle-class values “upon a ‘fantasy’ of pre-colonial village life that never really existed” (Deitrick 2007, 183). Such dismissive assessments, however, fail to account for the sophistication of some of their readings of economics and of canonical literature. Still, it is true that in the hands of monastic scholars such as Venerable Payutto in Thailand or intellectuals of the Sarvōdaya Śramadāna movement in Sri Lanka, Theravāda Buddhist Economics has remained a rather static juxtaposition of tradition with the West. In that way, regardless of the sophistication of their canonical scholarship, Theravāda Buddhist Economics has stayed firmly in the Occidentalist tradition of Schumacher.

An extremely interesting and as yet unstudied contemporary formulation of Buddhist Economics from well outside the Schumacher-Payutto Theravāda fold comes to us in the work of Shérab Tendar (Tib. Shes rab bstan dar, 1968‒ ). Otherwise known as Gyadröl (Tib. Rgya grol), Shérab Tendar is a prominent and controversial Tibetan monastic scholar from Qinghai Province in the People’s Republic of China who publishes and lectures on topics as diverse as the history of “valid knowledge” (Skt. pramāṇa; Tib. tshad ma) to the authenticity of the mythic snow lion.

His most famous works (and infamous, if measured by the volume of discussion it has generated in online Tibetan forums) explore Buddhist Economics (Tib. Nang bstan dpal ‘byor rig pa). In several Tibetan language works on the topic that have been published in China in recent years, Shérab Tendar recalls that reading Schumacher and Payutto’s essays in (sometimes partial) Chinese translation inspired him to find currents of economic thought in his own tradition (e.g., Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:1–2).7 Like Payutto in the Theravāda Buddhist world, Shérab Tendar’s contribution to Buddhist Economics has been to mine the vast scriptural inheritance of his Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Importantly, this has resulted not only in recovering what he considers to be the Buddha’s Mahāyāna and Tantric teachings on virtuous economic behavior but also, much more controversially for contemporary Tibetan audiences, he promotes a traditional “field of knowledge” (Tib. rig gnas) on economic behavior (Tib. dpal ‘byor kun byod) long lost in Indo-Tibetan scholasticism.

For the sake of brevity, in what follows I provide a summary of Shérab Tendar’s version of Buddhist Economics drawing primarily primarily on a representative selection of his many Tibetan-language essays. Two introductory essays and an interview are included in a fairly long 2012 collection entitled Buddhist Economics (Tib. Nang bstan dpal ‘byor rig pa). These three pieces have circulated widely on their own in Tibetan and Chinese journals and have been re-posted and commented upon countless times in the blogosphere. The two essays (in their 2012 versions) are called “A Brief Description of Buddhist Economics” (Nang bstan dpal ‘byor rig pa mdo tsam gleng ba) and “Another Description of Buddhist Economics” (Nang bstan dpal ‘byor rig pa bskyar du gleng ba). The interview I consider below is entitled, rather plainly “An Interview on the Topic of Buddhist Economics” (Nang bstan dpal ‘byor rig pa’i skor gyi bcar ‘dri). To further illustrate the sort of Indian and Tibetan texts Shérab Tendar evokes as authoritative sources for his Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhist Economics, I will also reference a fourth piece entitled “A List of Titles Which Concern the Sources for Buddhist Economics from the Buddhist Śāstras” (Nang ba’i bstan bcos las byung ba’i dpal ‘byor rig pa’i skor gyi dpe cha’i mtshan tho). Needless to say, a fuller study of Shérab Tendar’s work in light of socio-religious trends in contemporary Tibet is needed but beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Like Payutto, Shérab Tendar acknowledges that the economic teachings of the Buddha are not recorded in any one place but are scattered throughout the Buddhist canon. Unlike the Pāli and Theravādan-centrism of all previous Buddhist Economic monastic thinkers in Asia, however, Shérab Tendar elaborates his version of Buddhist Economics on the basis of the Mahāyāna and Tantric sūtras, śastras, vinaya, tantras, and their authoritative Indian and Tibetan commentaries familiar to his Buddhist milieu. Like his Theravāda counterparts and unlike Schumacher, Shérab Tendar’s concern is to establish the scriptural authority of Buddhist Economics; or, in emic terms, an identifiable and unbroken “scriptural tradition” (Tib. gzhung lugs) of the Buddha’s teachings on wealth and the economy. As he says in the introduction to the 2012 collection of essays on the topic. He outlines his project characteristically as follows:

The Teacher [Buddha] greatly illuminated those [topics] directly in numerous pronouncements, which in turn make up the scriptural tradition of Buddhist Economics. Therefore, the concept (Tib. tha snyad) of Buddhist economics is not contained in the main body of any one text. Instead, its foundations are dispersed across [the Buddha’s] teachings.

(Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:1)

Turning to the Tibetan canon and their commentarial traditions, Shérab Tendar’s recovery operations explore all or some of nine subtopics: the nature of wealth (dpal ‘byor gyi ngo bo); the connection between people and wealth (mi dang dpal ‘byor bar gyi ‘bral ba); connections between society and wealth (dpal ‘byor dang spyi tshogs bar gyi ‘bral ba); the beneficial power of wealth (dpal ‘byor gyi phan nus); meaningful wealth (don dang ldan pa’i dpal ‘byor); meaningless wealth (don dang mi ldan pa’i dpal ‘byor); how to generate wealth (dpal ‘byor sgrub stangs); connections between wealth and behavior (dpal ‘byor dang kun spyod bar gyi ‘bral ba); and the essential meaning of wealth (dpal ‘byor gyi don snying).

Readers will already have noted the slip in language here between economy, economics, and wealth. The semantic haziness which comes from translating foreign terms like “economics” into cultural spheres with already developed literary and religious fields on closely related concepts (such as wealth generation rituals and right livelihood) produces precisely the generative ambiguities Shérab Tendar exploits in order to find a vast “Buddhist Economics” in his Mahāyana and Tantric scriptural tradition. For these reasons, I translate Shérab Tendar’s statements on Buddhist wealth, economy, and economics strategically to highlight certain key differences in the Tibetan. As we shall see, Shérab Tendar’s ideas actually acquire their force (and controversy) by creatively exploiting minimal differences between, for example, the desired outcome of a Nāga offering ritual and the disciplinary focus of a contemporary social science.

An Economic Message from the Mahāyāna Sūtras and the Four Classes of Tantra

In the first place, Shérab Tendar’s Buddhist Economics is rooted in an expansive karmic causal scale familiar to us already from Payutto’s work. If we set out to model the acquisition or loss of wealth, Shérab Tendar remarks in a familiar refrain, we are remiss to ignore karma from previous lives, the ultimate source for causes and conditions of richness and poverty. The “inner condition” of wealth is generosity and morality, while the inner condition of poverty is stinginess and non-virtuous actions such as theft (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:10). The point of mundane economic behavior is to become prosperous, in addition to making the right kind of effort at acquiring wealth (e.g., running a business or participating in a wage-labor economy without harming others). For that reason, we need also to account for the way imprints of virtuous actions from previous lives come to fruition as wealth in this life and the potential of virtuous actions in this life to produce wealth in future lives (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:10).

But why focus on the acquisition of wealth in the first place? Like Payutto, Shérab Tendar’s reading of his canonical tradition has convinced him that the Buddha not only accepted but also insisted that his followers engage in disciplined economic behavior as part of their practice of self-cultivation. They must do so depending on their position in the fourfold-saṅgha (as monks, nuns, laywomen, or laymen). For example, lay Buddhist political leaders require wealth to properly assist their subjects:

Though you may be a leader who is a Dharma practitioner without [personal] desire for wealth, you are not allowed to think that wealth may be ignored [for the sake of others]. The reason for this is that your aim in becoming a leader is the happiness of your followers. Wealth is the principal condition for your follower’s happiness. Without wealth you cannot venerate the Triple Gem and you cannot give [charity] to people in positions lower than yourself.

(Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:11)

Quoting the Buddha who said that none of his patrons would ever become poor, Shérab Tendar argues that matters economic are foundational to Buddhist life since: first, by definition patrons require wealth to make donations to the monastic order; second, the Buddha himself was concerned with the wealth of patrons; and third, we are urged in the scriptures to accumulate and use wealth “according to the Buddha’s underlying intention” (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:13).

To that end, in addition to discussing the karmic scales of wealth familiar to us from Theravāda Buddhist Economics, Shérab Tendar dwells extensively on the value of wealth and its appropriate usage among householders and monastics in light of topics such as the role of economy in government and the requirement that Buddhists make as much wealth as possible to contribute to the broad welfare of society. Considering the fourfold-saṃgha specifically, Shérab Tendar writes that the Buddha’s economic message is targeted mainly to patrons of the teachings and lay devotees. Unlike regular householders, those who have taken on the upāsaka (Tib. dge bsnyen, laymen) upāsikā (Tib. dge bsnyen, laywomen) vow have a requirement to accumulate wealth for the sake of benefiting others and for making offerings to the Triple Gem.8 This is the ultimate value of wealth and of economic behavior.

Improvising on another major topic in Payutto’s Theravāda Buddhist Economics, Shérab Tendar dwells at length on the role of wealth and of economic behavior in monastic communities, those ordained members of the fourfold saṃgha whose:

Responsibility … is to be satisfied with little desire and with the renunciation of contemplative meditation. For that reason, they must abandon the wealth and desires of householders. If they accumulate wealth then they break many rules [of the vinaya]. For that reason, the Buddhist teachings say that wealth is like a nest of poisonous snakes or embers in the ashes of the fire: this all pertains [specifically] to the monastic community [and not the laity].

(Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:15)

And what of Buddhist monastics accumulating and using wealth? Quoting the Buddha’s pronouncements from the vinaya, Shérab Tendar states that monks may do business, but only for the sake of the Triple Gem and for the saṅgha and not even for the benefit of others (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:15).

On the basis of these general observations, Shérab Tendar defines the contours of a specifically Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhist Economics by describing the position of the so-called “Lesser Vehicle” (Skt. hīnayāna) school (to which, for Tibetan Buddhist scholars such as himself, Payutto’s Theravāda tradition belongs).9 For example, rewording the great eighteenth-century Tibetan polymath Jamyang Shépa’s Decisive Analysis of the Perfection of Wisdom,10 Shérab Tendar notes that Arhats—realized practitioners of the Hīnayāna who have followed either the Śrāvaka or Pratyekabuddha path—have developed renunciation and so have no attachment to wealth, “like a carnivorous animal in front of grass” (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:15).11 Still, like their differing soteriologies more generally, this laudable but limited Hinayāna negotiation of wealth pales in comparison to the more holistic and ultimate negotiation prescribed in Mahāyāna and Tantric scripture.

For example, Shérab Tendar “recovers” the Mahāyāna message on wealth and economic behavior by dividing his analysis between behavior appropriate to laity and to monastics. Rather than just Right Livelihood (Skt. samayagājīva; Tib. yang dag pa’i las kyi mtha’) amongst lay Buddhist devotees, as in Schumacher and Payutto, in this Mahāyāna formulation the economic behavior of both sides of the Buddhist community is beholden to “the perfection of generosity” (Skt. dānapāramitā; Tib. sbyin pa’i pha rol tu phyin pa), and more specifically, to the three types of giving usually described in Tibetan commentaries to Indic words such as Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra (Tib. Byang chub sems dpa’i spyod pa la ‘jug pa): giving material benefit, fearlessness, and Dharma instruction. A Mahāyāna householder, Shérab Tendar is at pains to note, must actively seek wealth in order to practice the generosity of giving material things for the benefit of other beings. In this way, economic behavior becomes a requisite practice for the accumulation of merit required to accomplish a Buddha’s Form Body (Skt. rūpakāya; Tib. gzugs sku).

However, Shérab Tendar decides that this sort of generosity is reserved only for the laity, as is clearly stated in Indic canonical works such as Candrakīrti’s Entrance to the Middle Way (Skt. Madhyamakāvatāra; Tib. Dbu ma la ‘jug pa): “most of the three perfections, such as generosity and so forth, was advice the Tathagāta [i.e., the Buddha] gave to lay practitioners” (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:16). Even though her or his mind is unsullied by attachment to wealth for themselves, a Mahāyāna nun or monk must maintain appearances and renounce accumulating wealth. Instead, they may practice other types of generosity, such as giving Dharma teachings and giving fearlessness to other beings (e.g., by saving the lives of animals destined to be butchered).

A Buddhist Field of Knowledge on Economy and the Place of Tantric Methods

We will recall that one of the ways Shérab Tendar argues for the centrality of matters economic in Buddhist life is by drawing attention to ways his Indo-Tibetan scriptures urge the fourfold-saṅgha to accumulate and use wealth “according to the Buddha’s underlying intention.” Unfortunately, recognition of the Buddha’s intention, never mind his underlying intention, is hardly mutual and consensual! Deciding what the Buddha meant (and what he really meant) is the foundational problem of all Buddhist exegetical traditions, and it is the foundation of the so-called “ten fields of knowledge” (Tib. rig gnas bcu), widely recognized in Tibetan Buddhist scholastic traditions. These solidified into five major and five minor fields on purported Indic models in the latter half of the seventeenth century.12 While not included in the usual ten, Shérab Tendar tries to show that alongside them there is a scripturally based field of knowledge about economics (Tib. Dpal ‘byor rig pa). This version of Buddhist Economics, he argues, was evident in Indian Buddhist scholasticism but was forgotten in Tibet.

Some have said, “Even Buddhism has a field of knowledge about economy?” They are surprised and stare, and may have doubt [thinking that] whoever is delivering such a message is lying. They think that Buddhist Economics simply mimics a modern subject and that no such subject exists in [traditional] Buddhism. Because of that, they dislike whoever delivers such a message.

(Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:33)

To his own mind at least, Shérab Tendar’s Buddhist Economics possesses a “textual tradition” (Tib. gzhung lugs) in three parts: sources that describe (1) the manner of accomplishing wealth; (2) the manner of acquiring wealth; and (3) connections between wealth and human beings. Shérab Tendar is keen to collect these teachings together not only to provide economic guidance for his readers but also to correct the “wrong view” of his Tibetan contemporaries who reject the idea that the Buddha gave economic teachings and, more egregiously, who allege that Buddhism is an obstacle to economic prosperity in Tibet today (e.g., Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:5).

In his first essay on the topic, Shérab Tendar makes a very interesting argument that a Buddhist field of knowledge on economy is most clearly articulated in texts associated with only two of the five major fields of knowledge: craftsmanship (Skt. śilpa; Tib. bzo ba rig pa) and medicine (Skt. cikitsā; Tib. gso rig pa). For example, quoting The Ornament to Mahāyāna Sūtras (Skt. Mahāyāna Sūtra Ālaṃkara; Tib. Mdo sde rgyan), Shérab Tendar points out that by perfecting skills in arts and crafts and in medicine, his lay readers will accumulate wealth for services rendered. “Having become rich,” he continues, “the world will respect you and you can then benefit others by means of wealth” (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:28). In other works, Shérab Tendar argues that even minor fields of knowledge, such as tailoring, astrology, grammatology, and incense making, all represent the Buddha’s teachings on economic behavior (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:37).

Having defined his Buddhist Economics as both a pragmatic model for action and a field of knowledge describing the meaning and ultimate goals of economic behavior, Shérab Tendar makes the noteworthy move to explore varieties of tantric ritual aimed at attracting and increasing wealth. In “A Brief Description of Buddhist Economics” Shérab Tendar identifies the ritual propitiation of a small cluster of wealth deities as the primary tantric arm of Buddhist fields of knowledge on economy.13 The proper propitiation of these buddhas manifested as wealth-granting yakṣa-spirits are critical, Shérab Tendar concludes, since by their propitiation people receive wealth and longevity “like rainfall” (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:25). More generally, popular tantric practices such as making requests to the female Buddha Tārā and reciting her mantra is ultimately a particularly skillful form of economic behavior aimed at quickly growing one’s “collection of excellences” (T. legs tshogs) in order to create the causes of accumulating future wealth.

For Shérab Tendar, then, Mahāyāna and Tantric Economics represent a pragmatic set of instructions on generating wealth. In this way, despite the Mahāyāna-Hinayāna polemic, his conclusions are quite similar to those of Payutto. Responding to critics who mistakenly claim he promotes a Buddhism only concerned with business, or worse, that he has invented a false scriptural tradition based on foreign ideas, Shérab Tendar routinely argues that like medicine or valid knowledge (i.e., universally recognized fields of Buddhist knowledge in Tibet), economics is also not explicitly described in a single Buddhist scripture. Instead, regular references to the central place of economic behavior in Buddhist soteriology amount to a field of knowledge, and ought to be recognized as such (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:38).14

Conclusion: Buddhist Economics, Scales of Value, and the Enchantment of Global Capitalism?

Neither Schumacher, Payutto, nor Shérab Tendar presume to quantify Thailand’s GDP growth, predict an upcoming recession in Burma, or quantify first quarter aggregated production in Qinghai. Curiously, this seems to be ignored by swaths of scholar-practitioners around the world keen to help construct an alternative economic model to late capitalism based on, say, selective quotations from the Pāli canon or vague references to Buddhist virtues (the work of László Zsolnai is a much more dynamic example of such contructivist work: 2011, 2013, 2015; László Zsolnai and Ims 2006).

In Schumacher’s invention of Buddhist Economics, the values of desired worlds imagined in Buddhist scripture and society became placeholders for “the basic truths of human existence.” Buddhist Economics was for him “an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality.” From the point of view of Modern Economics, “the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern—amazingly small means leading to extraordinary satisfactory results” (Schumacher 1999, 40–41). Buddhist Economics, Schumacher suggested, ought to part of a course of study in normative economics even “for those who believe that economic growth is more important than any spiritual or religious values…. It is a question of finding the right path to development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, in finding ‘Right Livelihood’” (Schumacher 1999, 45). Buddhism became a muse that helped Schumacher imagine an alternative measure for standards of living based on values other than maximizing consumption, a convenient Other projected on to traditional Southeast Asian society and assumed to lie in Buddhist scriptures that the author leaves unopened.

Payutto called for a more robust scaling of human desire in economic theory, for centering “subjective values” like ethics into economic modeling, and for acknowledging that non-consumption and even non-production are sometimes the best measure of well-being. These all provided different scales of value for measuring a healthy economy and healthy individual economic behavior. In Payutto’s version, matters economic were important to the Buddha, since he had rejected extreme asceticism in his own life and forbid it for his followers.15 Here Modern Economics and Theravādan Buddhist Economics are leveled into competing “views” (Pāli diṭṭhi) that apply different values to scale and describe human nature, causation, and well-being in light of different models of desired outcomes.

While Shérab Tendar’s Mahāyāna and Tantric “field of knowledge” on economic behavior treads very different doctrinal territory than his Theravāda interlocutors, this recent Tibetan iteration is also productively approached as the construction of an alternative scale of value to that of a dominating materialism and Western-inflected models development.16 For example, Shérab Tendar laments the deplorable effects of the “contagion of wealth” (Tib. dpal ‘byor gyi nad gzhi) in today’s competitive, anger- and desire-ridden global marketplace (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:31). Buddhist Economics, he writes, contains very important perspectives to help correct the dominant “Western economics” (Tib. nub phyogs kyi dpal ‘byor rig pa), which leads only to producing unhappiness for oneself and others in this life and the next (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:31).17 Thus for Shérab Tendar, as for Schumacher and Payutto before him, Buddhist Economics is a thing quite apart from economics proper. It is instead a Buddhist scale of value aimed not only to confront but actually to absorb the authority of normative, “Western” economics and the dominant forces of materialist development in Asia.

And here we come full circle to the need for developing a robust study of Buddhism and economy from outside of Weber’s long shadow, something my analysis on the economy-lessness of Buddhist Economics now seems to negate. However, as Stanley Tambiah was at pains to point out, Weber himself saw the unending impulse to create rational structures as working at cross-purposes with “some of the most cherished values of individual freedom, creativity, intimacy and so on” (Tambiah 1990, 145). Western civilization was beset by irreconcilable tensions between enduring ethical values (Wertrationalität) and the cold instrumental logic of formal rationality (Zweckrationalität): Weber saw progressive “disenchantment” leading to a dark future in ways that dovetailed with Marx’s diagnosis of the “alienation” of modern industrial capitalism (Tambiah 1990, 145). Similar concerns beset Schumacher and were taken up by Payutto and Shérab Tendar in their own ways. In a sense, these widely read versions of Buddhist Economics offer up measures of well-being and value systems that promise to re-enchant not just models of production and consumption but also the cold and Eurocentric episteme that underlies such modeling. Perhaps Weber would be heartened by their efforts and affirmed by the other worlds they so desire?


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Benavides, Gustavo. 2005. “Economy.” In Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, edited by Donald S. Lopez, 353. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Buswell, Robert E., and Donald S. Lopez. 2013. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Coleman, Simon. 2004. “The Charismatic Gift.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10, no. 2: 421–442.Find this resource:

Davidson, Ronald M. 2002. Indian Esoteric Buddhism a Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Deitrick, Jim. 2007. “Buddhist Economics and Ecology.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism, edited by Damien Keown and Charles S. Prebish, 181–183. London and New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

De Silva, Padmasiri. 1998. Environmental Philosophy and Ethics in Buddhism. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Find this resource:

De Silva, Padmasiri. 2002. Buddhism, Ethics, and Society: The Conflicts and Dilemmas of Our Times. Clayton, Vic.: Monash Asia Institute.Find this resource:

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‘Jam dbyangs bzhad pa’i rdo rje. 1974. “Phar Phyin Skabs Brgyad Pa’i Mtha’ Dpyod Bsam ‘Phel Yid Bzhin nor Bu’i Phreng Mdzes Skal Bzang Mig ‘Byed.” In The Collected Works of ‘Jam-Dbyaṅs-Bźad-Pa’i-Rdo-Rje, 8:539–673. New Delhi: Ngawang Gelek Demo.Find this resource:

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Kumarappa, Joseph Cornelius. 1946. The Economy of Permanence. Wardha: All India Village Industries Association.Find this resource:

Lopez, Donald S. 1998. Prisoners of Shangri-La : Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

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Meyer, Birgit. 2008. “Religious Sensations: Why Media, Aesthetics, and Power Matter in the Study of Contemporary Religion.” In Religion: Beyond a Concept, edited by Hent de Vries, 704–723. New York: Fordham University Press.Find this resource:

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Sulak Sivaraksa, Arnold Kotler, and Nicholas Bennett. 2009. The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century. Kihei, Hawai’i: Koa Books.Find this resource:

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Zsolnai, László. 2015. The Spiritual Dimension of Business Ethics and Sustainability Management. Cham: Springer.Find this resource:

Zsolnai, László, and Knut Johannessen Ims. 2006. Business within Limits: Deep Ecology and Buddhist Economics. Oxford and New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Chakravarti, Uma. 1987. The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism. Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Gernet, Jacques. 1995. Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Guṇavardhana, Raṇavīra. 1979. Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka. Tucson: Published for the Association for Asian Studies by University of Arizona Press.Find this resource:

Harvey, Peter. 2013. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Obadia, Lionel. 2011. “Is Buddhism like a Hamburger? Buddhism and the Market Economy in a Globalized World.” Research in Economic Anthropology 31: 99–122.Find this resource:

Schopen, Gregory. 1997. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.Find this resource:

Sizemore, Russell F., and Donald K. Swearer. 1990. Ethics, Wealth, and Salvation: A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Find this resource:

Spiro, Melford E. 1970. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Vicissitudes. New York: Harper & Row.Find this resource:

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1976. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:


(1) More immediate cooperating factors in Buddhist success outside India included a command over coveted administrative skills (like writing), medicine, and later, the ritual reproduction of political authority based on a sacralized model of feudal kingship from post-Gupta India (Davidson 2002).

(2) Important surveys of limited scholarship on the topic of economy and Buddhism are found in: Harvey 2000; Benavides 2004, 2005; Deitrick 2007; and Guruge 2008.

(3) I would like to thank Professors Simon Coleman, Pamela Klassen, Monique Scheer, and all the participants at the “Scales of Value” workshop at Tübingen University in May 2014 for sharing their insights on the potential of this term in the study of religion.

(4) For example, Small is Beautiful received the Prix Européen de l’Essai Charles Veillon in 1977 and was cited by The Times Literary Supplement as one of the most influential books published after World War II (“The Hundred Most Influential Books since the War” 1995).

(5) Schumacher’s ideas were not without controversy, however, especially among other activist-scholar movements of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, in the pages of “Buddhist Economics,” Schumacher extols “traditional” social orders that ideally have women barred from work and confined to the household.

(6) The Eightfold Path is further divided into the “three trainings” (Skt. triśikṣā) or the “higher trainings” (Skt. adhiśikṣā), whose culmination is considered to be the various versions of ultimate realization and enlightenment. The first of these is “training in higher morality” (Skt. adhiśilaśikṣā), the second “training in higher concentration” (Skt. adhisamādhiśikṣā), and the third “training in higher wisdom” (Skt. adhiprajñāśikṣā). In a particularly popular scheme, Right Livelihood is combined with Right Speech and Right Conduct to make up training in higher morality (for a general definition, see Buswell and Lopez 2013, 66).

(7) Shérab Tendar also references certain unnamed tracts on Buddhist Economics by Han Chinese Buddhist scholars as marginally inspiring his work, but as yet I have not been able to identify them.

(8) The “four roots” are to refrain from killing, lying, stealing, and sexual misconduct. The other primary commitment of an ordained lay disciple is to avoid intoxicants. Unlike regular householders, those lay disciples may not accumulate their wealth by means of wrong livelihood such as selling animals, selling weapons, selling liquor, or selling poison (something Payutto also notes in his presentation).

(9) The “Lesser Vehicle,” or Hinayāna, is never used self-referentially by any Indian Buddhist tradition or by any contemporary Theravādan Buddhist school in contemporary Sri Lanka or Southeast Asia. It is a pejorative label used in Mahāyāna Buddhist thought to discredit rival Buddhist schools that traditionally have not accepted the Mahāyāna (and certainly not the Tantrayāna) scriptures as actual records of the Buddha’s teaching. The term thus functions in Mahāyāna literature as a shorthand for Buddhist paths directed only to attaining personal liberation from cyclic existence (and not the full enlightenment of Buddhahood for the welfare of all beings, which is the stated aim of the bodhisattva practitioner, the hero of the Mahāyāna path). Hinayāna schools, from the perspective of Mahāyāna doxography, include the paths of the śrāvaka and the pratyekabuddha specifically, and the eighteen non-Mahāyāna schools of Indian Buddhism generally.

(10) Tib. Phar phyin skabs brgyad pa’i mtha’ dpyod bsam ‘phel yid bzhin nor bu’i phreng mdzes skal bzang mig ‘byed. See ‘Jam dbyangs bzhad pa’i rdo rje 1974.

(11) Even so, he stresses, the motivation of such beings is still to “see [wealth] as an object of abandonment and also as a means to a temporary goal; these two are not contradictory! … In order to achieve the final goal [of liberation from cyclic existence], the environment and wealth are very important” (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:16; emphasis added).

(12) These usually include: (1) the “five major fields of knowledge” (Tib. rig gnas chen po lnga): craftsmanship (Skt. śilpa; Tib. bzo rig pa), logic (Skt. hetu; Tib. gtan tshigs), grammar (Skt. śabda; Tib. sgra), medicine (Skt. cikitsā; Tib. gso ba), and the “inner field of knowledge” (Skt. dharma; Tib. nang don rig pa); and (2) the “five minor fields of knowledge” (Tib. rig gnas chung lnga): synonyms (Skt. abhidhāna; Tib. mngon brjod), mathematics and astrology (Skt. jyotiṣa; Tib. skar rtsis), performance and drama (Skt. nāṭaka; Tib. zlos gar), poetry (Skt. kāvya; Tib. snyan ngag), composition (Skt. chanda; Tib. sdeb sbyor).

(13) These include, among other beings, Pongsel Drölma (Tib. Phong sel sgrol ma), Namsé (Tib. Rnam sras), the many manifestations of Dzambhala (Tib. DzaM b+Ha la; and the collection of Norjinma (Tib. Nor sbyin ma) deities (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:25).

(14) For example, he writes: “The conclusion of Buddhist Economics is to show that through economic behavior we can engage in Buddhist practice. That is economic behavior that is in harmony with the Dharma. We should object to economic behavior that is not in harmony with the Dharma (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:112).

(15) For example: “In opposition to contemporary urban values, Buddhism does not measure a person’s or a nation’s worth by material wealth. Nor does it go to the opposite extreme, as do Marxist thinkers, and condemn the accumulation of wealth as an evil in and of itself. Instead, Buddhism judges the ethical value of wealth by the ways in which it is obtained, and the uses to which it is put” (Payutto 1998, 64).

(16) For example, he writes in “A Brief Description of Buddhist Economics” that: “We must see that behavior is a very important subject in the study of [Buddhist] economics. The reason is that between wealth and human value (Tib. mi’i rin thang) we must always hold human value as the most important. We should never believe it is lower. If we do, humans become a slave to wealth and thus lose their freedom, lose their happiness, lose their joy, and stop thinking about the benefit of others (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:21).

(17) Elsewhere, while once again defending his claim that there is a distinct field of knowledge on economy in Buddhism, Shérab Tendar makes the distinction between normative economics and Buddhist Economics quite clear: “‘Economics’ is the name for the investigation of topics such as research into the individual causes [of economic development] (Tib. dngos pa’i rgyu char zhib ‘jug), participation in production in relation to economy (Tib. thon skyed kyi khrod du dpal ‘byor gyi ‘brel ba), the way to accomplish [wealth] (Tib. sgrub stangs), making use of profit (Tib. bed spyad), and so forth … [Buddhist Economics describes] the way to accomplish wealth (Tib. dpal ‘byor sgrub stangs), the way to employ wealth (Tib. dpal ‘byor spyod stangs), and the relationship between humans and wealth (Tib. dpal ‘byor dang mi’i bar gyi ‘bral ba) (Shes rab bstan dar 2012, 1:36).