328th Meeting – Tuesday, November 23rd 2010


Buddhist Economics and Thailand's Sufficiency Economy
A talk and PowerPoint presentation by Don Swearer


Present: Elaine Fraser, Fran Collins, Nancy Swearer, David James, Mangkhoot Nilibol, Meg Savige, Pat Marini, Juergen Polte, Carl Samuels, Betty Nguyen, Steve Epstein, Bimal Dahal, Erkinbue Kamath, Wattana Wattanapun, Daniel Bellamy, Martha Butt, Victoria Mercer, Mairéad O’Grady, John Butt, Willem van Gogh, John Wickenden, Bob Vryheid, Ole Johansen, Mark and Diane Barber-Riley, Adrian Pieper, Hans Bänziger, Richard Nelson-Jones, Ivan Hall. An audience of 29.  

A summary of his talk prepared by Don:

 Buddhist Economics and Thailand's Sufficiency Economy

Donald K. Swearer

Constructing a Buddhist Economic Ethic

There is a substantial literature on Buddhist economics and subjects related to it written by Buddhists, and a considerable body of scholarly work about the subject by both Buddhologists and economists. The most notable of the latter is the British economist, E.F. Schumacher whose 1973 book,  Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, has been and continues to be one of the most influential books in the field. In addition to Schmacher, I am especially indebted to Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu and P.A. Payutto, two Thai monastic scholars I have had the privilege of knowing personally and whose writings have influenced my understanding of Buddhism and economic matters, and to Sulak Sivaraksa, the noted socially engaged Buddhist activist and co-founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.

My remarks regarding a Buddhist economic ethic are organized around three broad topics addressed in this literature:

            (1) The Middle Way and the Value of Moderation;

            (2) Consumerism, Wealth, and the Value of Generous Giving;

            (3) Right-livelihood and Well-Being.


The Middle Way and the Value of Moderation

The theme of moderation, an economic ethic of non-excess, reflects Buddhism's self-identification as a Majjhima Pa†ipadå or Middle way. The Buddhist Middle Way has two primary dimensions: philosophical and practical. The first dimension charts a modal, dynamic, causally interdependent worldview that rejects metaphysical absolutes, on the one hand, and nihilism, on the other.

The practical interpretation of Majjhima Pa†ipadå designs a moderate monastic lifestyle between the conventional life of the householder and the ascetical practices of renunciant movements contemporary to the time of the Buddha.  Although Middle Way in this sense is identified, in particular, with the Buddha's life story and the rules of the monastic order or Sangha, it is also applicable to the ethical code and moral values (s¥la) of Buddhist laity, as well.  For example, P.A. Payutto refers to the principle of moderation as the "heart of Buddhism" that directs human interest toward the attainment of well-being rather than maximum satisfaction. (P.A. Payutto, Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place, 2d ed. trans. Dhammavijaya and Bruce G. Evans (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), 42.)

Another value associated with moderation or non-excess is non-greed. In Buddhist ethics greed (lobha) results from obsessive desires (taˆhå) and blind attachment. In the Påli Aggañña Sutta (The Sutta on Origins), obsessive desire is depicted as the instrumental cause of the decline of the natural, harmonious order of things.  Numerous teachings in the Påli texts describe the unlimited nature of obsessive desire. One such tale is the Mandhåtu Jåtaka, the story of King Mandhåtu who gets karmic comeuppance for excessive greed. (The Jåtaka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, E. B. Cowell, vol. 1, no. 216-226 (New Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1997 reprint edition).

In a contemporary idiom, Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu, proposes that Buddhism's middle way of non-excess reflects the natural order of things (Påli, pakati=Thai,thammachat), one of balanced distribution and sustainability:

Nature would have each of us use no more than we actually need. For years people have failed to heed the way of nature, competing with one another to take as much as they can, causing the problems that we live with to this day. If we were to take only what is enough, none of these problems would exist. The             question is, then, how much is enough? These days it seems that nothing is ever enough. There is a Buddhist saying, 'Even two entire mountains of gold are not enough to satisfy the desires of a single person.'  What is needed is an approach that emphasizes not taking more than is needed and that at the same time accords with the laws of nature for then people would share their excess out of loving kindness and compassion (Påli, mettåkaruˆå)….The highest law of nature is to take for ourselves only what is needed, and to accumulate or produce beyond that for the benefit of society.  This is not an artificial, human-made socialism, but the socialism of nature. (Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu, Me and Mine:             Selected Essays of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, ed. Donald K. Swearer (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989), 174)

In practical terms, A.T. Ariyaratna, founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka, employs the principles of middle-way and non-excess to the over 11,000 village development projects Sarvodaya has promoted on the island.  The Buddhist Middle Way translates into what Ariyaratna terms a 'no-poverty society.'  Sarvodaya rejects the goal of affluence for everyone on practical grounds.  It should be obvious to any rational, reflective person that affluence cannot be achieved by all. The world simply does not have sufficient resources. The social, environmental, moral, and cultural costs of trying to build an affluent society are too great, and would result in increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.

In the case of Sarvodaya's village development projects, a no-poverty society is defined in terms of meeting ten basic needs: a clean and attractive physical and psychological environment; a clean and adequate supply of water; balanced food requirements; adequate clothing requirements; simple but adequate housing; basic health care; basic communication facilities; minimum energy requirements; comprehensive education; and meeting cultural and spiritual needs.[i] Income and employment are only part of a no-poverty economy.  The aim of production in a village economy is not to accumulate profit but to satisfy the needs of a community, and in doing so to engage all members of the community in that process—opportunities for work, cooperation for the common benefit, education and learning skills, meeting common challenges, and solving common problems together. (A. T. Ariyaratna, Buddhist Economics in Practice: In the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka. Salsbury, U.K.: Sarvodaya Support Group, 1999), 36-38)

Consumerism, Wealth, and the Value of Generous Giving

A contemporary Buddhist economic ethic critiques consumerism as the commodification of cultural and religious values.  Sulak Sivaraksa characterizes consumerism as the new demonic religion; Pracha Hutanuwatra, Sulak's colleague and director of the Wongsanit Ashram on the outskirts of Bangkok, contends that even many monks are "obsessed with raising money from their newly rich parishioners to build ever-bigger Buddha statues and superfluous religious halls.;" and Phra Phaisan Visalo, the prominent abbot of Wat Pa Sukhato in Chaiyaphum laments:

The distinction between religious faith and consumerism is becoming increasingly vague these days … Nowadays, religious faith has been altered to the degree that it means purchasing auspicious objects to worship. One's faith (saddha) is no longer measured by how one applies it, how one lives [one's] life, but by how many holy or sacred articles one possesses. (Phra Phaisan Visalo, "Spiritual Materialism and the Sacraments of Consumerism: A View from        Thailand." http://bpf /phaisan1.htm1.org/tsangha)

Although contemporary socially engaged Buddhists attack consumerism as the new global religion, Buddhism's middle way ethic does not reject the accumulation of wealth. It does, however, establish guidelines for its acquisition and use. Wealth honestly gained is praiseworthy but attachment to wealth, even when honestly and lawfully gained, is blameworthy, as is stinginess--not to share one's resources for the benefit and well-being of oneself, one's dependents, and others.  Acquiring wealth is acceptable then, if at the same time, it promotes the well being of a community or society. (Phra Rajavaramuni (aka P.A. Payutto), "Foundations of Buddhist Social Ethics," in Ethics, Wealth, and Salvation: A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics, ed. Russell F. Sizemore & Donald K. Swearer (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press), 42.

One of the most praiseworthy moral values is the act of generous giving (dåna) incumbent particularly on people of means. In the Theravåda tradition of Southeast Asia the prominence of the moral perfection of generosity is celebrated by the story of the noble prince, Vessantara. Its importance is signaled by its inclusion as the penultimate tale in the collection of Jåtakas recounting the many lives of the Buddha.

Although Buddhists in Southeast Asia celebrate Vessantara as the epitome of generous giving, the story contains several moral ambiguities not the least of which is the apparent dismissive treatment of his wife and children as chattel. Gender issues aside, however, at the story's conclusion, Vessantara is rewarded for his generous nature and charitable gifts.  What he freely gives is returned and even multiplied; furthermore, readers of the Jåtaka tale know that in his next life Vessantara will achieve Buddhahood as Siddhartha Gotama.

Although the story celebrates dåna, on another level—and one relevant to an economic ethic--it depicts a conflict between unstinting adherence to an absolute moral principle—in this case the principle of generosity—and the duties attendant to one's station in life. Vessantara's commitment to dåna conflicts with the duty to fulfill his responsibilities as a head of a state, as a husband, and a father.  This reading of the story suggests that in terms of an economic ethic, while one is expected to share generously, it should not come at the expense of the well-being of self and others—both those near and dear as well as the stranger.

Within the customary ritual practices of Theravada Buddhism, dåna, is most germane to puñña, or merit-making.  Through giving, especially giving to the Sangha or holy order of monks, the non-attachment of the giver is expressed and cultivated, and the merit of the giver is increased so that he or she may enjoy even greater rewards in the future.   In an essay critical of conventional Thai attitudes toward giving to the order of holy monks that aims at self-aggrandizement, be it spiritual or material, Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu advocates for what he terms "the gift of emptiness":

Thais usually interpret the benefit of giving to the Sangha as a future reward, a better life in the future or rebirth in heaven. Such a belief is childish. One still remains stuck in the cycle of rebirth… The best dåna is the gift of emptiness. This means to give away oneself or to give up all one's selfish interests.  Indeed, if we really give this kind of dåna there is no self which gives it.  If you ask what is given the answer is—the self (Thai, tua ku). What is given up is attachment to the notion of a self.  What is left is freedom, consciousness constituted by awareness, wisdom, and purity (Buddhadåsa Bhikkhu, "True Giving" [Hai Dana Thi Mai Sia Ngen]).          

Right Livelihood and Well-Being

Right livelihood denotes the Buddhist understanding of work or labor.  E.F. Schumacher delineates the Buddhist view of work into three aspects: an opportunity to develop human faculties; to overcome ego-centeredness by joining with others in a common task; and to bring forth goods and services needed for a satisfying life. For purposes of argument, Schumacher draws a sharp contrast with modern Western economists who, he contends, look at work as a kind of necessary evil.  For employers, labor is an item of cost to be reduced to a minimum; for workers labor is a seen as a sacrifice of one's leisure and wages as compensation for the sacrifice. (E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered  (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1953, 51).

Modern economics, Schumacher argues, considers consumption to be the purpose of economic activity, and ties the maximization of human satisfactions to an optimal pattern of consumption by the optimal pattern of productive effort. From the standpoint of Buddhist economics, this approach is does not lead to happiness and certainly is not conducive to virtue. . In contrast to the modern Western economist who measures wealth by GNP and standard of living by the amount of annual consumption, for Buddhist economics consumption should be viewed as a means to human well-being. The aim should be to gain the maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption.

From Schumacher's perspective, Buddhist economics postulates that the essence of human flourishing is not in the multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.  It is, if you will, a view of economics from the perspective of the maximization of human flourishing rather than consumption.  Above all, work should promote human dignity and freedom. To organize work primarily for efficiency and profit so that it becomes meaningless, stultifying, or nerve-racking is a calculus that assigns greater value to goods than people.  Hence, the sub-title of Schumacher's book, "economics as if people mattered."

The Buddhist Middle Way should not be seen as antagonistic to physical well-being. It is not wealth that stands in the way of human flourishing but attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, values simplicity rather than the multiplication of wants.  As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are less likely to be at each others' throats than people depending on a high rate of consumption.  Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.  From the point of view of Buddhist economics, therefore, production of local resources for local needs is the most rational way of life.

For P.A. Payutto, the separation of work and leisure has two detrimental consequences: work becomes something we're compelled to do in order to obtain money for consumption; and it associates happiness and satisfaction with leisure time so that work and satisfaction are opposed.  Buddhism, Payutto contends, holds the view that when work stems from the desire for true well-being then there is satisfaction in the direct and immediate results of the work itself.

For both Schumacher and Payutto, economics as a field has been overly narrow and fragmentary. Schumacher suggests that it should be complimented by "metaeconomics." Metaeconmics derives its objects from the study of what it means to be human and the natural and social environments in which human beings are situated.  Payutto contends that "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." Buddhist economics, by contrast, offers a different approach not as a self-contained science or discipline but "one of a number of interdependent disciplines working in concert toward the common goal of social, individual, and environmental well being."            

  The 2007 UN Thailand Development Report in Support of Thailand's  Sufficiency Economy

The currency of the term, Sufficiency Economy is attributed to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in particular, his birthday address to the nation on December 4, 1997: 

"Recently so many projects have been implemented, so many factories have been built, that it was thought Thailand would become a little tiger and then a big tiger.  People were crazy about becoming a tiger.  Being a tiger is not important. The important thing for us is to have a sufficient economy. A sufficiency economy means to have enough to support ourselves."

The 2007 UN Thailand Development Report pointed out that for forty years Thailand's economy had an average growth rate of 7.6% a year, one of the fastest in the world.  In the early 1990s a new Japanese factory opened in Thailand every three days and around a million people moved from agricultural to urban jobs every year. But that rapid growth has created significant socio-economic problems. Thailand's development was from the outside and from the top down. People were involved in production and pricing systems over which they had little control. Rural debt ballooned and with it material vulnerability and mental anxiety. Even before Thailand's 1997 financial crisis and the collapse of the baht, there was growing concern over the destructive, divisive, unsustainable, and disempowering by-products of growth. Constructive critics of unbridled growth looked for solutions to rebuilding a sense of community and self-reliance to withstand financial shocks; drawing on Buddhism with its stress on moderation and spiritual well-being as an antidote to the emphasis on maximizing growth and consumption; and building horizontal networks to pool local wisdom and share techniques.  These ideas led to the creation of new local initiatives—rice and cattle banks, micro-saving schemes, community forest projects, and self-reliant mixed farming.  Growing numbers of NGOs contributed to these developments. The philosophy of sufficiency economy grew out of these conditions. By the 1990s SE was integrated into national development plans and a Sufficiency Economy Unit of the National Economic and Social Development Board was created with a focus on the development of human resources through education, health care and social welfare, and more equitable sharing through regionalization and rehabilitation of the environment.

Time does not allow the opportunity to explore the practical development and application of these principles in Thailand.  The 2007 UN Thailand Human Development Report describes one of the agricultural development projects northeast Thailand at some length.  It is known as the Inpaeng Network of nearly 900 villages in four provinces with activities that include agriculture, community enterprises, health care, environmental conservation, and education. The network is based on three principles: "growing what we eat and eating what we grow, community enterprises, and networking locally and regionally."

In 1999-2000 a working group drew up a tripartite characterization of sufficiency economy. As reported in the UN document it included the following: (1) SE is an approach to life applicable at every level—individual, family, community, nation; (2) it promotes a middle path in an era of economic globalization; and (3) it requires sound judgment in planning and the implementation of economic development theory.  Later the philosophy of SE was expanded to include the following principles: moderation (pho phraman), reasonableness (mi het phon), self-immunity (phumikhumkan nai tua), wisdom and insight (khwam ru), and integrity (khunatham).  Each of the components of "sufficiency" (pho phieng)--enough in the sense of not too little and not too much; a middle way between want and extravagance—resonates with Buddhist teachings: pho phraman--Buddhism as a majjhima patipatta or middle way;  mi het phon--the natural law of idapaccayata, cause and effect, that structures everything; phumikhumkan nai tua—that in the face of dukkha or suffering each person has the potential to develop the mental ability to understand (quam ru) and overcome dukkha; and khunatham--that such knowledge entails the moral qualities of empathy, compassion, fairness, and generosity.  However, the philosophy of sufficiency economy is not based in Buddhism, nor should it be understood as an economic theory, much less an economic policy. The operative term is "sufficiency" (pho phieng) a guide to human flourishing that has as much or more to do with the development of character as with economic sustainability.

It is beyond the scope of this these remarks to explore in detail the critiques of Sufficiency Economy. They include debunking it as a political strategy the military junta and Democratic Party employed to discredit, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the TRT Party; as a class response to the economic crisis of the past decade; as a theory that misunderstands the nature of rural livelihood; and as to a disguised tool of economic neo-liberalism.

Although the principles and application of "Sufficiency Economy" emerged in Thailand, they share much in common with similar movements in Asia and beyond. One thinks of the economic philosophy of A.T. Ariyaratna and the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka I mentioned earlier; Gross National Happiness, the guiding philosophy of Bhutan's development process, first enunciated by the King of Bhutan soon after he ascended to the throne in 1972, a philosophy that emphasizes human and spiritual development over commercial and material values; the micro-credit philosophy of Muhammad Yunus's Grameen Bank and so on.