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The incomparable loftiness of the monk figure—placid and disinterested, having renounced desire—leads many to think of Buddhism as a religion detached from all worldly concerns, especially those of economy. But Buddhism has always addressed a continuum of human flourishing and good, creating what has been referred to as an “economy of salvation.” Metaphors of economy—even of debt—abound in Buddhist texts and, in many ways, Buddhism came to be fundamentally shaped by economic conditions and considerations of the era in which it originated.
Depending on material support from moneylenders, the Buddhist establishment from its outset did not seek to hamper the business that made it possible. Devout merchants (setthi) and householders (gahapatis)—controllers of property, moneylenders, often even usurers—were the primary supporters of the early monastic community. Giving material support (amisa-dana) to the monkhood thus ranks in Buddhist doctrine as the most effective way for laypeople to generate positive karma, even above following the five moral precepts that define the Buddhist way of life. Out of a concern for its own survival, Buddhism could not condemn the acquisition of wealth, but it could provide principles for its dispensation—namely, giving and generosity (dana). To these ends, the Buddha celebrated wealth creation alongside a call for its redistribution.
The New Market Economy
In order to understand the subtleties of Buddhism’s approach to wealth accumulation, poverty, and debt, we must first have some understanding of the market economy from which it arose. The introduction of the widespread use of coinage to India just a few decades prior to the Buddha’s birth around 500 BCE disrupted existing social orders and also inspired a philosophical renaissance driven by spiritual dropouts like the Buddha, who sought to respond to the new economy.
One of the Buddha’s most poignant accounts of worldly life speaks to the social alienation inherent to economic competition and the accumulation of private property. It remains pertinent to this day:
Seeing people floundering
Like fish in small puddles,
Competing with one another—
as I saw this,
fear came into me.
The world was entirely
All the directions
were knocked out of line.
Wanting a haven for myself,
I saw nothing that wasn’t laid claim to.
Seeing nothing in the end
I felt discontent.
Widespread use of currency led to a flattening of reality that rendered all goods and services commensurable, nourishing a tendency toward abstraction for which we owe much of our philosophical inheritance today—from Pythagoras in Greece, to Confucius in China, to the Buddha in India. The reformulation of economic relations brought about by monetization triggered previously unheard of levels of social mobility, and mobility’s attendant individualism.
The Buddha skillfully encouraged some of the new social values that emerged from these economic changes. For example, he encouraged the individualism that subverted family structures (monks were “home-leavers”). But he also sought to undermine other emerging values associated with psychological states that fuel the acquisition of capital: desire and greed. The Buddha condemned acquisitiveness at the same time as he supported capital accumulation, specifically for its potential to create and multiply merit through generosity. In this way, Buddhism advocated a “Middle Way,” the simultaneous negation of the extremes of asceticism and indulgence. Spiritual health and material well-being were, in the words of economist E. F. Schumacher, natural allies.
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