Going Beyond Capitalism: A Buddhist Perspective
International retreat talk 25.05.2014
100 years ago if you were walking along the lanes around what is now Adhisthana, it’s
possible that you would have come across Sir Edward Elgar, the British classical music
composer, riding a bicycle. This is Elgar country.
And this is a British £20 note [holds up a British £20 note]. On the front of the £20 note is a
picture of the queen.
Until four years ago if you looked at the back of a British £20 note you would have found a
picture of Sir Edward Elgar looking across at Worcester cathedral.
But in 2010, in keeping with the spirit of economic austerity, Elgar was replaced with a
picture of a man looking across at some sort of factory with a few words written below.
The man is the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith who in 1776 produced “The Wealth of
Nations”, a book that lays the foundations of modern economics and of modern capitalism.
In the picture Adam Smith is looking across at a pin factory. And the caption below the image
of the pin factory reads:
’The division of labour in pin manufacturing and the great increase in the quantity of work
In the first chapter of his book ’The Wealth of Nations’ Smith points out that the best way to
increase productivity and boost economic growth is to take complex work tasks and divide
them into small segments.
Adam Smith described how the manufacture of a single pin can be broken down into eighteen
separate tasks. If one worker does the whole process by himself then it would take him the
best part of a day to make at most twenty pins. If, however, ten workers are formed into a
production line and each worker specialises in one or two of the separate tasks, then together
they can make 48,000 pins a day.
Instead of twenty pins per day, each worker is now effectively making 4,800 pins a day.
That was in 1776. Subsequent studies have shown that by 1832 factories were producing
about 8,000 pins per worker per day. And by 1980, pin factories were producing a staggering
800,000 pins per worker per day.
Since Adam Smith’s time the principle of the division of labour, helped by developments such
as scientific management, the assembly line, mass production, and increasing mechanisation,
has dramatically increased productive efficiency across all sectors of the economy around
the world. And since the eighteenth century, this increase in productive efficiency has been
accompanied by significant increases in the standard of living, longer lives, better healthcare,
and better education.
But these massive increases in productivity come at a cost. What is being celebrated on the
£20 note is the beginning of the grim monotony of working methods that have condemned
many people to mindlessly repeating the same small tasks, deadening their creativity and
emotions, deadening their minds.
The impact of the division of labour illustrates how capitalism has divergent effects. On the
one hand it reduces suffering and on the other it increases suffering.
Some may argue that the suffering inflicted by capitalism is a necessary price for the progress
made under capitalism over the last three hundred years.
It’s true, I think, that because of the progress made under capitalism there is now a realistic
possibility of providing every human being with decent shelter and enough food to provide
for a fulfilling life.
But the modern world is in thrall to a particular brand of capitalist economics known as
neoliberal capitalism or free market economics that has gained a position of dominance over
the last thirty years, ever since the rise to political power of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald
Reagan in the early 1980s.
The consequence is that the neoliberal capitalist system is locking us into a world of
increasing inequality of wealth and power, chronically high levels of unemployment
especially for young people, and the destruction of the environment, threatening the lives of
many species including our own.
As Buddhists, concerned to end suffering in the world, and to help create the conditions
for people to make the most of their human potential, I believe we need to do some serious
thinking about our economic system and our attitude towards it. We need to understand
what is happening in the world of economics.
Must we tolerate the suffering associated with our modern capitalism as a necessary price for
Is there something in the nature of neoliberal capitalism that prevents progress towards
an economic system that reduces suffering and allows each individual person to fulfil their
human potential, whilst preserving and protecting the environment?
Can Buddhism help us to conceive of something better than our current economic system?
I have been pondering questions like these for the last year and a half, ever since I heard a
comment made about Buddhism by Slavoj Zizek.
If you’ve not heard of Slavoj Zizak, he’s a controversial Slovenian philosopher and cultural
critic who’s becoming increasingly well-known in the West, even writing the occasional
column for the Guardian newspaper in England.
According to Zizek, what he calls ‘Western Buddhism’ is the “perfect ideological supplement”
Zizek’s argument is that when faced with the injustice, pain and suffering in the world today,
the western Buddhist takes cover in their meditation practice to avoid the full impact of
this reality of injustice, pain and suffering.
When I heard Zizek’s statement I must admit personally to a strong emotional reaction
For the first twenty five years of my adult life, I worked as hard as I could in politics and trade
unionism. I wanted to build a better world and to rid us of the suffering caused by capitalism.
I was an idealist. I’m still an idealist.
Although there were, and are, many good people involved as political activists and trade
unionists, after twenty five years I became disillusioned.
Disillusioned, not with the ideal of a better world, but disillusioned by the hatred I sometimes
experienced around me, by the power games, and by the increasing ineffectiveness of the
methods used to try and bring about change.
Twenty years ago, in the midst of that disillusionment, and stressed out by overwork, I was
lucky to come across a Triratna meditation class in Sheffield. Within a matter of a few weeks
I knew that I had found a path that fitted with my idealism, and that offered a different way
to transform self and world together. I was particularly excited by Sangharakshita’s talk of
a ‘new society’.
So, after giving the last twenty years of my life to Triratna and to Buddhism, here was this
guy, Slavoj Zizek, telling me that I was propping up capitalism and doing little to reduce
After an instinctive emotional reaction against Zizek’s statement, I realised that I needed
to go back and to take a closer look at the basic values underlying modern economics and
capitalism and compare them with the values of Buddhism, to see how different they are.
So let’s take a look at the basic values of capitalism and then compare them with the values of
To begin to understand the basic values of modern economics and capitalism we need to go
back again to Adam Smith and his book “The Wealth of Nations”. In particular we need to
take a close look at what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand”.
As I said, over the last thirty years one form of economics, known as ‘neoliberal’ economics,
or ‘free market’ economics, has increasingly dominated the teaching of economics and the
running of capitalism around the globe.
For the advocates of neoliberal economics, the idea of the ‘invisible hand’ is at the core of
So what is this invisible hand?
Adam Smith wrote:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect
our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their
humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their
And he goes on:
“Every individual … necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great
as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows
how much he is promoting it … He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in
many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part
of his intention. Nor is it always worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing
his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he
really intends to promote it”.
In other words, Smith is arguing that what motivates the butcher or the brewer or the baker –
what drives them – is their own self interest, their own greed and profit. And this, he says, is
a good thing.
Because, as long as every individual in our society pursues their own gain or profit, chases
after their own self interest, then everyone in society benefits.
All of this comes about through the operation of the ‘invisible hand’.
Where did Adam Smith get the idea for the invisible hand from? It’s thought that most likely
he took the idea from a religious metaphor that was in use in his time.
In other words, the working of the economy and the benefits of the pursuit of self interest and
profit are god given. This is how god made the world.
Later the invisible hand also came to be associated with the more secular idea of the survival
of the fittest from Darwinian theories of evolution. It was thought, and is still thought, that
just as self interest drives evolution, then self interest drives economic success.
But whatever force is believed to lie behind the invisible hand, whether it’s a god given force
or an evolutionary force, the implication is the same. The ruthless pursuit of self interest
and of profit promotes the well being of the whole of society. Survival of the fittest works to
promote the well-being of all.
This is the mantra that has become the core ethic of modern neoliberal economics and
capitalism. It is the ethic that supersedes other ethical considerations.
As Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has said:
“To the morally uninspired, it’s an appealing idea: selfishness as the ultimate form of
If you are a businessman or a banker, it doesn’t matter how selfish or even how unethical
your behaviour is, you can always justify your actions because you can say that at the end of
the day you are selflessly giving of yourself to promote the interests of all. Selfishness is the
ultimate form of selflessness.
Moreover, from the quote I read earlier, you may have noticed that there is an additional
aspect to Adam Smith’s argument.
In the Wealth of Nations Smith argues that if the owner of a business consciously sets out to
promote the interests of society as a whole, rather than promoting their own self interest, this
would not be effective in promoting the well-being of society as a whole.
“I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It
is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need to be
employed in dissuading them from it.”
With these words, Adam Smith is saying that business people who are concerned to trade
from altruistic motives – from an unselfish concern for the welfare of others – in practice will
not do much to increase public welfare. And certainly they would not do as much to increase
public welfare compared to those acting from purely selfish motives.
Adam Smith’s theories on self interest and altruism are very alive on in our modern economic
world. I will illustrate this by looking at a man who has strongly influenced the economic
policies of two recent Democratic presidents of the United States.
The man is Lawrence Summers.
Lawrence Summers is an economist, who was Secretary of the Treasury under United
States President Bill Clinton (rather like the British Chancellor of the Exchequer), and later
an economic advisor to President Barack Obama. He has also been President of Harvard
It was at Harvard University that Lawrence Summers spoke on ‘what economics can
contribute to thinking about moral questions’. This is what he said:
“One of the things that bothers many people of faith about market mechanisms is the idea
that there is something wrong with a system where we are able to buy bread only because of
the greed or profit motive of the people who make the bread. Here I would be very cautious.”
And he went on:
“We all only have so much altruism in us. Economists like me think of altruism
as a valuable and rare good that needs conserving. Far better to conserve it
by designing a system in which people’s wants will be satisfied by individuals
being selfish, and saving that altruism for our families, our friends, and the
many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve.”
Summers believes himself to be preserving virtues like altruism for use where he believes
they are really needed.
But Summers still fundamentally believes that when it comes to the economic marketplace,
what matters is the motive force of selfishness, greed, and the profit motive.
And besides, isn’t his way of thinking about altruism very odd? Is altruism, is concern for the
welfare of others, really like a commodity or resource that has limited supply, rather like a
fossil fuel that is diminished with every use?
Another American, Michael Sandel, a critic of the ethics of modern economics, responds to
this bizarre argument in a manner that we, as Buddhists, can wholeheartedly agree. In his
excellent book “What Money Can’t Buy” Michael Sandel writes:
“Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted
with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One
of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our
public life we need to exercise them more strenuously.”
Why do we practice the metta bhavana? Because we believe that with practice and exercise
we can strengthen our kindness and concern for others in all walks of life.
So, let’s briefly recap.
According to neoliberal economics;
selfishness, greed and the profit motive drive what Adam Smith called the invisible hand;
this invisible hand is either god given or is a given evolutionary inheritance;
through the workings of the invisible hand the economy grows in such a way that everybody
benefits from selfishness and greed;
moreover, altruism and concern for others may have a role to play outside the sphere of
the economic market place, but within the economic market place selfishness, greed and
the profit motive should be allowed to rule and flourish. Altruism must be kept in its place
amongst our friends and family and in areas of social concern.
These are the beliefs and basic values of the neoliberal brand of economics that for the last
thirty years has dominated the teaching of economics and the running of global capitalism.
But let’s turn now to the Buddha, and what we can learn from the Buddha’s teachings. Let’s
see if we can compare the basic values of Buddhism with the values of capitalism.
Of course the Buddha lived 2,500 years ago, far removed from modern capitalism.
But he was an astute observer of the emerging economy of the Ganges plains, being very
familiar with the activities of farmers, merchants, traders and crafts people. He gave advice to
rulers on their social and economic policies.
And he had unrivalled insight into human nature, and the causes of suffering.
I’m going to focus in particular on the Agganna Sutta from the Digha Nikaya, the Long
Discourses of the Buddha.
In the Agganna Sutta the Buddha tells a mythological story of the beginnings of our world
and of its socio-economic structure.
Because it’s a myth created by the Buddha we don’t have to literally believe the story.
Some believe that the story is a parody by the Buddha of Brahmin creation texts. Nevertheless
I think the story contains important truths about human beings and the development of
In the story the Buddha identifies “tanha”, thirst or craving, as an important part of the
In the story, once tanha has arisen, it causes humans to crave and exhaust one foodstuff after
After exhausting various foodstuffs, the crux of the story comes when humans are dependent
on rice for food.
To begin with the rice grows wild and replenishes itself overnight.
But because the rice has to be collected every day, eventually some become tired with this,
and begin to hoard and accumulate increasing amounts of rice, so that they don’t have to go
out and collect it every day.
As the rice is hoarded, problems arise with its supply.
People then start to divide up the land and establish boundaries and grow their own supply of
rice. We have the emergence of private property.
Then, some begin to steal each other’s crops of rice.
Violence and the threat of violence appear.
Eventually the problem becomes so severe that people decide to appoint one of their number
to oversee the division of the land and crops, and to administer punishments to those who
steal. In return they give a share of their rice to the appointed ruler. Government and taxation
And later in time people divide themselves further into Brahmins, traders, ascetics, and
servants. ‘Servants’, the largest group, work for the other classes. The Buddha comments
that ‘servants’ experience mean and cruel lives. We have the appearance of the caste system.
What can we learn from this myth?
First of all, I think the Buddha is telling us that the socio-economic order of society is made
by human beings, it’s not god given.
Secondly, the Buddha is telling us that the restless search to quench tanha, to satisfy thirst
and craving, sits at the heart of the human condition and is a key driver of our individual and
Now, does this mean that the Buddha is agreeing here with those who argue that selfishness
and greed are a fixed characteristic of human nature, a part of our evolutionary inheritance
that cannot be changed?
No. Of course not. In the Agganna Sutta the Buddha is showing us how suffering and the
causes of suffering arise in dependence upon tanha.
But in other teachings he shows us how to overcome suffering.
I think we can sum up the Buddha’s overall message like this.
We are born with tanha, the restless search for the satisfaction of our desire.
We seek the satisfaction of our desire in clinging to things that are impermanent and subject
to change, and when they change, we experience dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness.
Things that are impermanent and change in dependence upon conditions are incapable of
giving us lasting fulfillment. Because of our ignorance we do not see this.
The Buddha uses this fundamental insight into the nature of the human condition, and
combines it with what he could no doubt observe happening 2,500 years ago in the emerging
socio-economic structure of the Ganges plains, to create the myth of the Agganna Sutta.
What the Buddha is describing in the Agganna Sutta is the “ignoble” search, the
“anariyapariyesena”, the restless and fruitless search to satisfy desire with conditioned and
It was the realization that seeking satisfaction and fulfilment in conditioned and
impermanent things was bound to fail, that led to the Buddha leaving home and starting out
on the “ariyapariyesena” – the “noble” search.
The Buddha channeled his tanha into a desire to find a deeper and lasting source of
fulfilment, and to end suffering.
When he gained enlightenment, the Buddha succeeded in this noble search. He overcame
craving and found a lasting source of peace and fulfilment.
The Buddha teaches us that the way to end suffering is through generosity and loving
kindness and the practice of ethics, through meditation, and through reflection and the
gaining of wisdom.
If he were alive today I believe the Buddha would say that we are living in a society
dominated by the kind of tanha that manifests in the restless, ignoble search, characterised
by greed, hatred and delusion.
Two present–day commentators, critical of aspects of our economic system, catch the flavour
of the Buddha’s insights very well.
I should add that neither of them are revolutionaries.
One of them, Charles Handy, is regarded as one of the most influential business gurus of the
second half of the twentieth century, and the other, Tim Jackson, is a professor at Surrey
University, and the author of an important book “Prosperity Without Economic Growth”.
Charles Handy wrote:
“Economic growth depends, ultimately, on more and more people, wanting more and more,
of more and more things.”
The treadmill of economic growth depends upon an ever-growing number of consumers who
must desire more and more, of more and more consumer goods.
And Tim Jackson said:
“It’s a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we
don’t need, to create impressions that don’t last, on people that we don’t care about”.
We are bombarded with advertising that pushes us into spending beyond our present means,
on things we didn’t even know we needed, to keep up appearances with the spending patterns
of people with whom we have very little meaningful connection.
We are deluded into wanting more and more in the belief that will bring us happiness. The
Buddha is telling us we have a choice. We can go down the path of greed that will lead to
suffering, or we can follow the path of generosity and kindness to liberation and the ending of
The Role of Government and of the Sangha
I want to turn now to a second sutta. It’s called “The Lion’s Roar on the Wheel-Turning
Monarch” (The Cakkavati Sihanada Sutta), also from the long discourses of the Buddha. The
Once again, it’s a story or a myth, so we don’t have to believe that the events literally
happened. But again, the story told by the Buddha contains truths that we can learn from.
This teaching offers us important insights into the Buddha’s view of the role of government,
and, I think, it also gives us an insight into what might be the role of the Buddhist Sangha or
community at a time of socio-economic crisis.
A wheel-turning monarch is so-called because, according to myth, a radiant ‘wheel-gem’
appears as a symbol of just rule.
If the symbol disappears then it indicates something is wrong with the method of rule.
The wheel-gem cannot be passed down as an inheritance from one ruler to another, but must
be earned by the just governance of each new king.
In the sutta the Buddha tells the story of a wheel-turning monarch and of his successors.
Concerned about the future of his kingdom, a monarch sought advice and was told that
everything would be fine so long as;
he sought the counsel of wise people of high integrity;
he himself followed the teachings of the Buddha on morality and wisdom;
protected all of his people;
and gave property to the needy.
In this way his rule would be just and the symbol of the wheel-gem would remain visible.
The king followed this advice, and for seven generations his descendants followed his
example, each of them, by their own policies and actions, renewing the symbol of the wheel-
Eventually, however, one of his descendants followed most of the advice but did not give
property to the needy.
As a consequence of this neglect, poverty became increasingly widespread.
As poverty spread, the poor had no means of making a living, so some of them began to steal
from those who had what they needed.
In order to forestall the increase in theft, the king introduced capital punishment for theft.
Thieves then began to arm themselves to protect themselves. This led to a general increase in
weapons among the population, as people with property took up arms to protect themselves
against the thieves. As more and more people took up weapons, murder increased among the
population. As crime increased, law enforcement became tougher and indiscriminate.
And there then followed a descent into chaos and desperate suffering.
But then the Buddha continues the story and tells how the situation was eventually reversed.
A few people grew tired of chaos. They simply decided to live differently. They went away to a
relatively secluded place and began to live in harmony together.
Essentially they lived according to the Buddha’s ethical guidelines. They practised generosity,
loving kindness, contentment, truthful speech, and mindfulness.
Eventually, other people saw that those who lived together in harmony in accordance with
ethical guidelines were much happier and more prosperous than those who fought with one
another. The group and its influence expanded.
And so gradually all the conditions were reversed, with the result that finally a government
was established that met the requirements of a wheel turning monarch. And the symbol of
the radiant wheel-gem reappeared.
I think we can learn three very important things from the Lion’s Roar on the Wheel-Turning
First of all, I think that the story tells us that it’s a vital part of the role of government to look
after the needy and the poor.
It’s legitimate and necessary for government to redistribute income and wealth to the less
Secondly, I think we can conclude from the story that not paying proper attention to the
needs of the poor, and allowing inequality of wealth and income to grow, leads to negative
social and economic consequences within a society.
A recent book confirms this conclusion (though in not so dramatic a fashion as in the
In 2009 Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published their book “The Spirit
Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better”.
Taking data from the United Nations the book focuses on the income differentials in rich,
developed market democracies.
Wilkinson and Pickett measure how much richer the top 20 percent are than the bottom 20
percent within each country.
In Scandinavian countries like Finland, Norway and Sweden the top 20 percent are about
three and a half to four times richer than the bottom 20 per cent. But in countries like the UK
and the USA the top 20 percent are between seven and ten times richer than the bottom 20
Then within each country the professors compare the extent of inequality in incomes with
key social indicators such as life expectancy, children’s maths and literacy scores, infant
mortality rates, homicide rates, proportion of the population in prison, teenage birth rates,
levels of trust, obesity, mental illness and social mobility; all calculated using internationally
The clear result? The countries with greater differences in incomes between the top and
bottom 20 percent, are doing worse on all the social indicators. In the more unequal
countries there is less trust, higher rates of mental illness, more homicides, more people in
prison, less social mobility etc., etc.
Greater inequality leads to greater suffering, lower inequality leads to less suffering.
In a more recent update, Wilkinson and Pickett express things more poetically when they say
that “inequality hollows out the soul”.
That’s the second thing I think we can learn from the Lion’s Roar on the Wheel Turning
Monarch. Increasing inequality leads to greater suffering.
The third thing we can learn concerns the path to recovery.
If you remember, the Buddha describes how a small group of people grew tired of the chaos,
broke away and started to live in harmony in accordance with the Buddha’s ethical principles.
Over time more and more people were attracted to the group and their way of living and this
led to the eventual restoration of the Wheel Gem, to good governance and stability in society.
Those first people who grew tired of incessant fighting are described as living
lives remarkably like a sangha. They lived as a community bound together
by the practice of ethics, exemplifying by their behaviour what a new society
could look like.
This reminded me of the impact upon Sangharakshita of his contact with Dr. Ambedkar and
the Dalits in India, and of his subsequent elucidation of the idea of the ‘new society’.
I remembered and looked up his Sangharakshita’s advice to his followers on what they could
“If you were sufficiently alert, active, inspired, and dedicated, and if there were a number
of you working together, perhaps you could exert a substantial influence on whole societies
in different parts of the world – especially where those societies were in a state of flux and
looking for some kind of general stability, and some kind of vision or blueprint for the
This is what lay behind the emphasis on community living, team-based right livelihood
businesses and working together to create and run Buddhist centres on the basis of dana or
generosity. This is what lay behind the vision of new societies in microcosm form that could
be a model for the future of society as a whole.
And also I remembered and looked up Sangharakshita’s warning:
“We cannot ignore the social dimension – this is one of the things I have emphasised from
the very beginning of the FWBO [Triratna]. Inasmuch as the world acts upon you, it is in
your interest that it does so in a helpful rather than in a harmful way. That means you have
an interest in the particular way in which ‘worldly’ affairs are organised or run. If you are
living in an ‘unideal’ community or state, it is going to have an unfortunate effect on you. You
therefore have an interest in the creation of an ideal state or community.”
This is the other side of the coin. Sanghrakshita is telling us that we must also not neglect to
look outwards. We need to actively engage with the economic and social world around us, if
we are to avoid being swamped by the prevailing norms of society.
And right now we are living in an economic system, dominated by neoliberal values, that
is locking us into a world of increasing inequality of wealth and power and of chronic high
unemployment, and that is destroying the environment and threatening the lives of many
species including our own. A system that glorifies greed and individualism.
To get out of this predicament the economic system under which we live and work needs to
evolve beyond the selfish limited values of neoliberal capitalism to something based on the
liberating values of generosity and kindness of Buddhism.
When we look back at Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species”, which expounds his
theory of evolution, it’s interesting to note that Darwin did not use the term ‘survival of the
fittest’ until the book’s fifth edition.
Before that he used the term ‘natural selection’. Darwin borrowed the phrase ‘survival of
the fittest’ from Herbert Spencer who had enthusiastically embraced Darwin’s theory as a
justification for his own economic theories.
Something was lost when Darwin changed the terminology. In particular another aspect
of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was lost that was largely ignored by biologists and
evolutionary theorists until recently.
Darwin did not exclusively argue for natural selection at the level of the individual. He also
argued for natural selection at the level of groups.
Whilst he argued that self interest is a key factor in evolution at the level of the individual, at
the level of group selection other moral qualities come to prominence like altruism.
In his book “The Descent of Man” Darwin argued that the human species had succeeded
because of characteristics like sharing and compassion.
“Those communities,” he wrote, “which included the greatest number of the most
sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
In other words, humanity’s progression depended upon transcending the individual values of
selfishness and greed and replacing them with the values of sharing and compassion.
This is a very different side to the theory of evolution.
I would argue that just as the human species has been so successful because of characteristics
like sharing and compassion, then it is time for our economic system to evolve, to reduce the
role played by selfishness and greed, and to allow altruistic qualities to flourish.
Unless the values at the heart of our economic system change, then, I think, any changes of
economic policy are destined to have a merely superficial effect.
This is the challenge facing us.
Economics is not a science. Behind every economic theory and policy lies a set of values.
The discipline of economics, however it is dressed up in mathematical models, is based upon
political and moral choices.
We, as Buddhists, are well placed to bring out the ethical and moral choices, and to argue for
the values of generosity, kindness and compassion, and against the values of selfishness and
How might we do this?
Here are some suggestions on what we might do, four things as individuals and four things as
First, and this may be obvious but I think it does need to be emphasised, we must work to
transform ourselves. Our daily practice of the path of ethics, meditation and wisdom is the
Emphasis on transforming the collective is empty unless it is based on transformation of the
Second, we need to educate ourselves in economics. If we wish to reduce suffering in the
world, as aspiring Bodhisattvas we can’t ignore the debate about our economic system and its
effects. The future of the world depends on the outcome of this debate.
Last November, when Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, declared that inequality is
essential to fostering the spirit of envy, and called upon the Gordon Gekkos of London to
display their greed to promote economic growth, this wasn’t just the bluster of a populist
politician. Boris Johnson was articulating, in a rather crude way, a set of beliefs and values
that are deeply held by those who advocate the neoliberal capitalist path, and who control our
We talk about accountability, of holding politicians or business leaders to account.
There was a time when accounting was seen as revolutionary, in that it enabled ordinary
people to see for the first time how their rulers acquired and spent their money.
The English word “accountability” came from accounting. It first came into use in English
when the French revolutionary constitution of 1793 was translated into English.
There’s a clear and close relationship between democracy and accounting.
At the moment we have lost sight of the importance of accounting, especially as it is
reflected in the economic behaviour of governments and businesses. We need to reclaim that
knowledge, to become literate in economics.
If you want to make a start on this, there are many good books on economics written for a lay
reader, but to begin I would recommend four books.
The first is E.F. Schumacher’s book “Small is Beautiful”. First published in 1973 it’s still an
inspiring alternative to mainstream economics. It even has a chapter entitled “Buddhist
The second and third books are by Dr. Ha-Joon Chang, an economist at Cambridge
University. Some of you may remember Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’. Well, here is Ha-
Joon Chang’s ‘Little Blue Book’:
“Five things they don’t tell you about economics.
1. 95% of economics is common sense.
2. Economics is not a science.
3. Economics is politics.
4. Never trust an economist.
5. Economics is too important to be left to the experts.”
His two books are “23 Things They Don’t tell you About Capitalism” and, just published,
“Economics: The User’s Guide”.
The fourth book is by Michael Sandel and is called “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits
of Markets”. This is a book about the clash of values caused by the encroachment of the
market economy into more and more areas of social life.
Third, perhaps we can overcome our reluctance to get involved, as individuals, in
campaigning on issues related to the economy, whether it be around the closure of a local
hospital, or the environment, or the Occupy Movement, or whatever strikes you as being
Unless we are engaged in issues that people care about, and unless we are in dialogue with
concerned activists, we are going to be limited in our ability to communicate the Buddhist
values that are necessary for a fundamental transformation of the way the world works.
And, unless we have our ear to the ground we are going to lose touch with progressive ideas
Fourth, and again this may be stating the obvious, but we need to consider whether in our
individual behaviour we always exemplify the values we propound. This is not as easy as
it sounds, in fact it can be challenging, as I know, and I’m sure you know, from personal
For example, if I believe that the working methods employed in the mass production
computer factories of China are inhumane and must be changed, and as a Buddhist I make a
public argument to that effect, then how can I reconcile that with my desire to keep up with
the latest computer models that my Buddhist friends are proudly showing off? Unlike coffee
or tea, as far as I am aware, there are no “fair trade” computers. What can we do to help
change the situation?
I’m sure you can think of your own examples, and maybe sometimes there are no easy
answers. But the least we can do is to make these issues conscious.
Now I want to turn to what we can do as a Sangha.
Actually I think that we already do a great deal as a Sangha to promote Buddhist economic
and ethical values. It’s important that we remind ourselves of just how radical we can be, and
take care to preserve and extend this radicalism.
I want to point to four areas in particular that encapsulate our radicalism.
First of all, dana, generosity, and the dana economy.
The practice of generosity challenges selfishness and is the basic ethos at the heart of our
community. It encourages a culture of sharing.
The basic principle of the dana economy is ; “give what you can, take what you need”.
Those who come to our urban centres and to our retreat centres are encouraged to give what
they can afford, to help enable the spread of the Dharma.
This allows us to be open to anyone regardless of individual financial circumstances, by
allowing people to pay what they can afford.
The same principle of ‘give what you can, take what you need’ applies when it comes to levels
of financial support given to those who work full-time at our centres or at our right-livelihood
The chairperson of a retreat centre or the managing director of one of our businesses is
treated the same as anyone else. They are financially supported according to what they need.
Compare that with the UK where chief executive officers of major companies earn 120 times
more than the average pay of their staff, and the USA where they earn 354 times more.
The dana economy is one important way in which we offer a radical alternative to modern
The second way in which we are radical is in our emphasis in Triratna on being vegetarian.
Some of our community take this further and practice being vegan.
Every time we don’t eat meat, every time we don’t eat or drink dairy products, we act out of
empathy for other living beings. We increase our compassion footprint.
At the same time as increasing our compassion footprint we reduce our carbon footprint, and
encourage others to do the same.
According to a research report from Lancaster University, if everyone in the United Kingdom
were to swap their current eating habits for a vegetarian or vegan diet, the greenhouse gas
emissions savings would be equivalent to a 50 percent reduction in exhaust pipe emissions
from the entire UK passenger car fleet.
The third way in which we offer a radical alternative is in our communities.
Recent trends in the UK, USA, Scandinavia, and Japan show that more and more people are
now living on their own. In the UK, 34% of households have one person living in them and in
the USA it's 27%.
Why might this be a problem?
Because, according to a recent study, single person households consume 38% more produce,
42% more packaging, and 55% more electricity per person than four-person households,
(according to a recent study by Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University).
Living in a community goes against the trend towards individualism in our society, reduces
pressure on economic and natural resources, and encourages sharing.
And the fourth way in which we offer a radical alternative is team-based right livelihood.
We can offer an alternative approach to work, where work is not just a means to an end, but
instead offers people a chance to improve themselves by working together with others, to
exercise their creativity, and to contribute to the spreading of the Dharma.
These four examples of radical alternatives in Triratna arose from Sangharakshita’s original
vision of the ’new society’. We need to treasure our radicalism and to experiment, to find new
ways to revitalise and extend it.
Twenty years ago I was spending a lot of time driving from Sheffield along the motorways
of England, to get to fire stations where I would interview fire fighters as part of a research
project for the Fire Brigades Union.
Often, when I arrived at my destination, I would sit in the car park reluctant to get out of the
car. Why? Not because of the research, I enjoyed doing the research.
But because I was listening in the car to Dharmachakra cassette tapes of Sangharakshita’s
talks on the new society and on evolution.
Bhante’s insights on the new society and on evolution are even more relevant today.
The current system of free market economics or neoliberal capitalism is now outdated and
needs to be transcended, if we are to survive and thrive.
The basic instincts for individual survival, greed and hatred, once served us well in a
primitive, competitive world. But now, in our interdependent world, where our actions
threaten our very survival, the progressive evolutionary impulses of giving, caring and
compassion must be allowed to flourish.
The Buddha showed us where evolution can lead. Don’t let the proponents of free market
economics and neoliberal capitalism suffocate the process of evolution.
Economics books recommendations:
Michael Sandel „What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets“
E.F. Schumacher „ Small is Beautiful“
Dr. Ha-Joon Chang „ 23 Things They Don’t tell You About Capitalism“, and „Economics: The
Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett „The Spirit Level“
Professor Tim Jackson „Prosperity Without Growth“