Interestingly, Buddhism has a great deal to say about economics at least in the sense that the ideas, impulses, urges, and values that drive the current economy—greed, self-interest, acquisitiveness, competition (which inevitably leads to violence), longing for material pleasures, mutual exploitation, indulgence, power, and endless longing/craving have predictable outcomes (though not the rosy outcomes predicted and promised by capitalism).
Basically, Buddhism teaches that all human suffering (dukkha)— dissatisfaction, anxiety, stress, restlessness, despair and depression, alienation, emptiness, etc.— comes from unchecked desire or thirst (trishna) and the ignorance that feeds this thirst. But it is not a craving that can be satisfied; this is the nature of thirst, because it is not brought on by real need, but rather imagined need, i.e. greed and misunderstanding. Nor can it be satisfied by externals, because it is irrational. Thus, the notion of “scarcity” that drives most of our acquisitive society, is really a canard, a myth, as we have been living in a post-scarcity world for decades. Scarcity exists only in the distribution of goods, not in production; yet, we keep on frantically producing and acquiring as if we never had enough. The greater the thirst, the greater the suffering. These concepts represent the first two of the Four Noble Truths.
This analysis is not unique to the Buddhist philosophy. I think you will find it, in one form or another, throughout the East and South Asian traditions. Namely, that the ideas and impulses of greed and longing that lie at the heart of the market economy also lie at the heart of all human suffering; and that no matter how feverishly we try to pursue and fulfill them, they can never solve our problems, only exacerbate them. In the Lotus Sutra, this is called “trying to use suffering to end suffering.” In other words, trying to find peace, fulfillment, contentment through competition, craving, and indulgence is like attempting to put out fire with gasoline. And paradoxically, attempting to fill the hollowness that comes from immersing ourselves in “things,” only creates a deeper hollowness.
Time does not allow me to go into all of the scriptural bases for this across the eastern religious landscape, but they are there. For example, to quote a few:
Lao-tzu says that if you wish to benefit and rule or lead the people,“ Give them selflessness and fewness of desires.” Again, he advises, “If the people never see such things as excite desire, their hearts will remain placid and undisturbed,” and, “if we cease to set store by products hard to get, there will be no more thieves.” This is not exactly the Madison Av- enue mantra!
Or, if we look at the classic, Tao Te Ching, we find:
To be content with what one has is to be rich... He who accumulates the most suffers the heaviest loss; be content with what you have and no one can despoil you; ... No lure is greater than to possess what others want, [and we might add, to want what others possess], no disaster greater than not to be content with what one has, no presage of evil greater than that men should be wanting to get more... Truly, he who has once known the contentment that comes simply through being content, will never again be otherwise than contented... But to fill life to the brim invites disaster.
The Bhagavad Gita is full of exhortations to “entirely abandon desires aroused by willful intent...in order to obtain tranquillity, joy, and spiritual harmony.” It holds out a promise far different from the capitalist in suggesting that “one finds absolute joy beyond the senses when freed from craving objects of desire.”
The highly considered Buddhist Mahayana text, the Avatamsaka Sutra, puts it plainly: “with fewness of desires, one knows contentment.” And from the Zen tradition comes this verse:
Living beings everywhere,
cover over the wonderful;
Let go, release your hold,
The wonderful revealed.
So, we can look at these teachings or propositions as a model, where given certain conditions, one is likely to see certain outcomes and results. In this model, Buddhism makes the opposite prediction of capitalism. Market economy as an ideology actually enshrines, deifies the very same impulses and urges that Buddhism places at the root cause of all suffering. It is important to point out that capitalism does not simply tolerate human greed, or suggest that by curbing and limiting avarice and selfishness, we can obtain a good end. Rather, it says that by giving free rein to these questionable urges, letting them rule unfettered, we thereby reach the best of all possible worlds. So, if the Buddhist model is right, then we should be able to see some of the predicted outcomes resulting from giving unim peded play to desires.
To be continued