Middle Way for the Market Place
P. A. Payutto...
Perspectives on Economic Concepts
basic model of economic activity is often represented in economic
textbooks thus: unlimited wants are controlled by scarcity;
scarcity requires choice; choice involves an opportunity cost
(i.e., choosing one means foregoing the other); and the final
goal is maximum satisfaction. The fundamental
concepts occurring in this model -- want, choice, consumption
and satisfaction -- describe the basic activities of our lives
from an economic perspective. These concepts are based on certain
assumptions about human nature. Unfortunately, the assumptions
modern economists make about human nature are somewhat confused.
Buddhism, on the other hand, offers a clear and consistent picture
of human nature: a view which encompasses the role of ethics
and the twofold nature of human desire. Let us now take a look
at some economic concepts in the light of Buddhist thinking.
the previous chapter, we discussed the two kinds of desire,
chanda and tanha. Given that there are two
kinds of desire, it follows that there are two kinds of value,
which we might term true value and artificial value. True value
is created by chanda. In other words, a commodity's true value
is determined by its ability to meet the need for well-being.
Conversely, artificial value is created by tanha -- it is a
commodity's capacity to satisfy the desire for pleasure.
To assess an object's value, we must ask ourselves which kind
of desire -- tanha or chanda -- defines it. Fashionable clothes,
jewelry, luxury cars and other status-symbols contain a high
degree of artificial value because they cater to people's vanity
and desire for pleasure. A luxury car may serve the same function
as a cheaper car, but it commands a higher price largely because
of its artificial value. Many of the pleasures taken for granted
in today's consumer society -- the games, media thrills and
untold forms of junk foods available -- are created solely for
the purpose of satisfying tanha, have no practical purpose at
all and are often downright detrimental to well-being. For the
most part, advertising promotes this artificial value. Advertisers
stimulate desires by projecting pleasurable images onto the
products they sell. They induce us to believe, for example,
that whoever can afford a luxury car will stand out from the
crowd and be a member of high society, or that by drinking a
certain brand of soft drink we will have lots of friends and
The true value of an object is typically overshadowed by its
artificial value. Craving and conceit, and the desire for the
fashionable and sensually appealing, cloud any reckoning of
the true value of things. How many people, for instance, reflect
on the true value or reasons for eating food or wearing clothes?
question of consumption is similar to that of value. We must
distinguish which kind of desire our consumption is intended
to satisfy: is it to answer the need for things of true value,
or to indulge in the pleasures afforded by artificial value?
Consumption is said to be one of the goals of economic activity.
However, economic theory and Buddhism define consumption differently.
Consumption is the alleviation or satisfaction of desire, that
much is agreed. Modern economics defines consumption as simply
the use of goods and services to satisfy demand. Buddhism, however,
distinguishes between two kinds of consumption, which might
be termed "right" consumption and "wrong"
consumption. Right consumption is the use of goods and services
to satisfy the desire for true well-being. It is consumption
with a goal and a purpose. Wrong consumption arises from tanha;
it is the use of goods and services to satisfy the desire for
pleasing sensations or ego-gratification.
While the Buddhist perspective is based on a wide view of the
stream of causes and effects, the specialized thinking of economics
identifies only part of the stream: demand leads to consumption
which leads to satisfaction. For most economists that's the
end of it, there's no need to know what happens afterwards.
In this view, consumption can be of anything whatsoever, so
long as it results in satisfaction. There is little consideration
of whether or not well-being is adversely affected by that consumption.
Consumption may satisfy sensual desires, but its true purpose
is to provide well-being. For example, our body depends on food
for nourishment. Consumption of food is thus a requirement for
well-being. For most people, however, eating food is also a
means to experience pleasure. If in consuming food one receives
the experience of a delicious flavor, one is said to have satisfied
one's desires. Economists tend to think in this way, holding
that the experience of satisfaction is the end result of consumption.
But here the crucial question is: What is the true purpose of
consuming food: satisfaction of desires or the attainment of
In the Buddhist view, when consumption enhances true well-being,
it is said to be successful. On the other hand, if consumption
results merely in feelings of satisfaction, then it fails. At
its worst, consumption through tanha destroys its true objective,
which is to enhance well-being. Heedlessly indulging in desires
with no regard to the repercussions often leads to harmful effects
and a loss of true well-being. Moreover, the compulsive consumption
rampant in consumer societies breeds inherent dissatisfaction.
It is a strange thing that economics, the science of human well-being
and satisfaction, accepts, and indeed lauds, the kind of consumption
that in effect frustrates the realization of its own objectives.
By contrast, right consumption always contributes to well-being
and forms a basis for the further development of human potentialities.
This is an important point often overlooked by economists. Consumption
guided by chanda does much more than just satisfy one's desire;
it contributes to well-being and spiritual development. This
is also true on a global scale. If all economic activities were
guided by chanda, the result would be much more than just a
healthy economy and material progress -- such activities would
contribute to the whole of human development and enable humanity
to lead a nobler life and enjoy a more mature kind of happiness.
the very heart of Buddhism is the wisdom of moderation. When
the goal of economic activity is seen to be satisfaction of
desires, economic activity is open-ended and without clear definition
-- desires are endless. According to the Buddhist approach,
economic activity must be controlled by the qualification that
it is directed to the attainment of well-being rather than the
"maximum satisfaction" sought after by traditional
economic thinking. Well-being as an objective acts as a control
on economic activity. No longer are we struggling against each
other to satisfy endless desires. Instead, our activities are
directed toward the attainment of well-being. If economic activity
is directed in this way, its objectives are clear and its activities
are controlled. A balance or equilibrium is achieved. There
is no excess, no overconsumption or overproduction. 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
Buddhist monks and nuns traditionally reflect on moderation
before each meal by reciting this reflection:
reflecting, we take alms food, not for the purpose of fun,
not for indulgence or the fascination of taste, but simply
for the maintenance of the body, for the continuance of existence,
for the cessation of painful feeling, for living the higher
life. Through this eating, we subdue old painful feelings
of hunger and prevent new painful feelings (of overeating)
from arising. Thus do we live unhindered, blameless, and in
comfort." [M.I.10; Nd. 496]
The goal of moderation is not restricted to monastics: whenever
we use things, be it food, clothing, or even paper and electricity,
we can take the time to reflect on their true purpose, rather
than using them heedlessly. By reflecting in this way we can
avoid heedless consumption and so understand "the right
amount," the "middle way."
We also come to see consumption as a means to an end, which
is the development of human potential. With human development
as our goal, we eat food not simply for the pleasure it affords,
but to obtain the physical and mental energy necessary for intellectual
and spiritual growth toward a nobler life.
a spiritual dimension, modern economic thinking encourages maximum
consumption. It praises those who eat the most -- three, four
or more times a day. If someone were to eat ten times a day,
so much the better. By contrast, a Buddhist economics understands
that non-consumption can contribute to well-being. Though monks
eat only one meal a day, they strive for a kind of well-being
that is dependent on little.
On Observance days, some Buddhist laypeople also refrain from
eating after midday and, in so doing, contribute to their own
well-being. Renunciation of the evening meal allows them to
spend time in meditation and reflection on the Buddha's teachings.
The body is light and the mind easily calmed when the stomach
is not full. Thus Buddhism recognizes that certain demands can
be satisfied through non-consumption, a position which traditional
economic thinking would find hard to appreciate. Refraining
from eating can play a role in satisfying our nonmaterial, spiritual
It's not that getting down to eating one meal a day is the goal,
of course. Like consumption, non-consumption is only a means
to an end, not an end in itself. If abstinence did not lead
to well-being, it would be pointless, just a way of mistreating
ourselves. The question is not whether to consume or not to
consume, but whether or not our choices lead to self-development.
society encourages overconsumption. In their endless struggle
to find satisfaction through consuming, a great many people
damage their own health and harm others. Drinking alcohol, for
instance, satisfies a desire, but is a cause of ill-health,
unhappy families and fatal accidents. People who eat for taste
often overeat and make themselves ill. Others give no thought
at all to food values and waste money on junk foods. Some people
even become deficient in certain vitamins and minerals despite
eating large meals every day. (Incredibly, cases of malnutrition
have been reported.) Apart from doing themselves no good, their
overeating deprives others of food.
So we cannot say that a thing has value simply because it provides
pleasure and satisfaction. If satisfaction is sought in things
that do not enrich the quality of life, the result often becomes
the destruction of true welfare, leading to delusion and intoxication,
loss of health and well-being.
A classic economic principle states that the essential value
of goods lies in their ability to bring satisfaction to the
consumer. Here we may point to the examples given above where
heavy consumption and strong satisfaction have both positive
and negative results. The Buddhist perspective is that the benefit
of goods and services lies in their ability to provide the consumer
with a sense of satisfaction at having enhanced the quality
of his or her life. This extra clause is essential. All definitions,
whether of goods, services, or personal and social wealth, must
be modified in this way.
not technically an economic concern, I would like to add a few
comments on the subject of contentment. Contentment is a virtue
that has often been misunderstood and, as it relates to consumption
and satisfaction, it seems to merit some discussion.
The tacit objective of economics is a dynamic economy where
every demand and desire is supplied and constantly renewed in
a never-ending and ever-growing cycle. The entire mechanism
is fueled by tanha. From the Buddhist perspective, this tireless
search to satisfy desires is itself a kind of suffering. Buddhism
proposes the cessation of this kind of desire, or contentment,
as a more skillful objective.
Traditional economists would probably counter that without desire,
the whole economy would grind to a halt. However, this is based
on a misunderstanding of the nature of contentment. People misunderstand
contentment because they fail to distinguish between the two
different kinds of desire, tanha and chanda. We lump them together,
and in proposing contentment, dismiss them both. A contented
person comes to be seen as one who wants nothing at all. Here
lies our mistake.
Obviously, people who are content will have fewer wants than
those who are discontent. However, a correct definition of contentment
must be qualified by the stipulation that it implies only the
absence of artificial want, that is tanha; chanda, the desire
for true well-being, remains. In other words, the path to true
contentment involves reducing the artificial desire for sense-pleasure,
while actively encouraging and supporting the desire for quality
These two processes -- reducing tanha and encouraging chanda
-- are mutually supportive. When we are easily satisfied in
material things, we save time and energy that might otherwise
be wasted on seeking objects of tanha. The time and energy we
save can, in turn, be applied to the development of well-being,
which is the objective of chanda. When it comes to developing
skillful conditions, however, contentment is not a beneficial
quality. Skillful conditions must be realized through effort.
Too much contentment with regards to chanda easily turns into
complacency and apathy. In this connection, the Buddha pointed
out that his own attainment of enlightenment was largely a result
of two qualities: unremitting effort, and lack of contentment
with skillful conditions. [D.III.214; A.I.50; Dhs. 8, 234]
and conventional economics also have different understandings
of the role of work. Modern Western economic theory is based
on the view that work is something that we are compelled to
do in order to obtain money for consumption. It is during the
time when we are not working, or "leisure time," that
we may experience happiness and satisfaction. Work and satisfaction
are considered to be separate and generally opposing principles.
Buddhism, however, recognizes that work can either be satisfying
or not satisfying, depending on which of the two kinds of desire
is motivating it. When work stems from the desire for true well-being,
there is satisfaction in the direct and immediate results of
the work itself. By contrast, when work is done out of desire
for pleasure-objects, then the direct results of the work itself
are not so important. With this attitude, work is simply an
unavoidable necessity to obtain the desired object. The difference
between these two attitudes determines whether or not work will
directly contribute to well-being. In the first case, work is
a potentially satisfying activity, and in the second, it is
a necessary chore.
As an example of these two different attitudes, let us imagine
two research workers. They are both investigating natural means
of pest control for agricultural use. The first researcher,
Mr. Smith, desires the direct fruits of his research -- knowledge
and its practical application -- and takes pride in his work.
The discoveries and advances he makes afford him a sense of
The second, Mr. Jones, only works for money and promotions.
Knowledge and its application, the direct results of his work,
are not really what he desires; they are merely the means through
which he can ultimately obtain money and position. Mr. Jones
doesn't enjoy his work, he does it because he feels he has to.
Work performed in order to meet the desire for well-being can
provide inherent satisfaction, because it is appreciated for
its own sake. Achievement and progress in the work lead to a
growing sense of satisfaction at every stage of the work's development.
In Buddhist terminology, this is called working with chanda.
Conversely, working out of desire for pleasure is called working
with tanha. Those working with tanha are motivated by the desire
to consume. But since it is impossible to consume and work at
the same time, the work itself affords little enjoyment or satisfaction.
It should also be pointed out that work in this case postpones
the attainment of satisfaction, and as such will be seen as
an impediment to it. When work is seen as an impediment to consumption
it can become intolerable. In developing countries this is readily
seen in the extent of hire-purchase debt and corruption, where
consumers cannot tolerate the delay between working and consuming
the objects of their desires.
In modern industrial economies, many jobs preclude satisfaction,
or make it very difficult, by their very nature. Factory jobs
can be dull, undemanding, pointless, even dangerous to health.
They breed boredom, frustration, and depression, all of which
have negative effects on productivity. However, even in menial
or insignificant tasks, there is a difference between working
with tanha and working with chanda. Even in the most monotonous
of tasks, where one may have difficulty generating a sense of
pride in the object of one's labors, a desire to perform the
task well, or a sense of pride in one's own endeavors, may help
to alleviate the monotony, and even contribute something of
a sense of achievement to the work: even though the work may
be monotonous, one feels that at least one is developing good
qualities like endurance and is able to derive a certain enthusiasm
for the work.
As we have seen, the fulfillment of tanha lies with seeking
and obtaining objects which provide pleasant feelings. While
this seeking may involve action, the objective of tanha is not
directly related in a causal way to the action undertaken. Let's
look at two different tasks and examine the cause and effect
relationships involved: (1) Mr. Smith sweeps the street, and
is paid $500 a month; (2) If Little Suzie finishes the book
she is reading, Daddy will take her to the movies.
It may seem at first glance that sweeping the street is the
cause for Mr. Smith receiving his wage; that is, sweeping the
street is the cause, and money is the result. But in fact, this
is a mistaken conclusion. Correctly speaking, one would say:
the action of sweeping the street is the cause for the street
being cleaned; the cleanness of the street is a stipulation
for Mr. Smith receiving his wage, based on an agreement between
employer and employee.
All actions have results that arise as a natural consequence.
The natural result of sweeping the street is a clean street.
In the contract between employer and employee, a stipulation
is added to this natural result, so that sweeping the street
also brings about a payment of money. This is a man-made, or
artificial, law. However, money is not the natural result of
sweeping the street: some people may sweep a street and get
no money for it, while many other people receive wages without
having to sweep streets. Money is a socially contrived or artificial
condition. Many contemporary social problems result from confusion
between the natural results of actions and the human stipulations
added to them. People begin to think that a payment of money
really is the natural result of sweeping a street, or, to use
another example, that a good wage, rather than medical knowledge,
is the natural result of studying medicine.
As for Little Suzie, it may seem that completing the book is
the cause, and going to the movies with Dad is the result. But
in fact finishing the book is simply a stipulation on which
going to the movies is based. The true result of reading the
book is obtaining knowledge.
Expanding on these examples, if Mr. Smith's work is directed
solely by tanha, all he wants is his $500, not the cleanness
of the street. In fact, he doesn't want to sweep the street
at all, but, since it is a condition for receiving his wage,
he must. As for Little Suzie, if her true desire is to go to
the movies (not to read the book), then reading will afford
no satisfaction in itself; she only reads because it is a condition
for going to the movies.
When people work solely out of tanha, their true desire is for
consumption, not action. Their actions -- in this case, sweeping
and reading -- are seen as means of obtaining the objects of
desire -- the salary and a trip to the movies. When they work
with chanda, on the other hand, Mr. Smith takes pride in (i.e.,
desires) the cleanness of the street and little Suzie wants
the knowledge contained in the book. With chanda, their desire
is for action and the true results of that action. Cleanness
is the natural result of sweeping the street and knowledge is
the natural result of reading the book. When the action is completed,
the result naturally and simultaneously arises. When Mr. Smith
sweeps the street, a clean street ensues, and it ensues whenever
he sweeps. When Little Suzie reads a book, knowledge arises,
and it arises whenever she reads the book. With chanda, work
is intrinsically satisfying because it is itself the achievement
of the desired result.
Thus, the objective of chanda is action and the good result
which arises from it. When their actions are motivated by chanda,
Mr. Smith applies himself to sweeping the street irrespective
of his monthly wage, and little Suzie will read her book even
without Daddy having to promise to take her to the movies. (In
reality, of course, most people do work for the wages, which
are a necessity, but we also have the choice to take pride in
our work and strive to do it well, which is chanda, or to do
it perfunctorily simply for the wage. Thus, in real life situations,
most people are motivated by varying degrees of both tanha and
As we have seen, actions motivated by chanda and actions motivated
by tanha give rise to very different results, both objectively
and ethically. When we are motivated by tanha and are working
simply to attain an unrelated object or means of consumption,
we may be tempted to attain the object of desire through other
means which involve less effort. If we can obtain the objective
without having to do any work at all, even better. If it is
absolutely necessary to work for the objective, however, we
will only do so reluctantly and perfunctorily.
The extreme result of this is criminal activity. If Mr. Smith
wants money but has no desire (chanda) to work, he may find
working for the money intolerable and so resort to theft. If
Little Suzie wants to go the movies, but can't stand reading
the book, she may steal money from her mother and go to the
With only tanha 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. Mr. Smith simply goes through the motions
of sweeping the street day by day until pay day arrives, and
Little Suzie reads the book simply to let Daddy see that she
has finished it, but doesn't take in anything she has read,
or she may cheat, saying she has read the book when in fact
When sloppiness and dishonesty of this type arise within the
work place, secondary checks must be established to monitor
the work. These measures address the symptoms but not the cause,
and only add to the complexity of the situation. For example,
it may be necessary to install a supervisor to inspect Mr. Smith's
work and check his hours; or Little Suzie's brother may have
to look in and check that she really is reading the book. This
applies to employers as well as employees: workers' tribunals
must be established to prevent greedy or irresponsible employers
from exploiting their workers and making them work in inhumane
conditions or for unfair wages. When tanha is the motivating
force, workers and employers are trapped in a game of one-upmanship,
with each side trying to get as much for themselves as they
can for the least possible expense.
Tanha is escalated to a considerable extent by social influences.
For instance, when the owners of the means of production are
blindly motivated by a desire to get rich for as little outlay
as possible, it is very unlikely that the workers will have
much chanda. They will be more likely to follow the example
of their employers, trying to get as much as they can for as
little effort as possible. This tendency can be seen in the
modern work place. It seems, moreover, that the more affluent
a society becomes, the more this tendency is produced -- the
more we have, the more we want. This is a result of the unchecked
growth of tanha and the lack of any viable alternative. Meanwhile,
the values of inner contentment and peace of mind seem to have
been all but lost in modern society.
In rare cases, however, we hear of employers and employees who
do work together with chanda. This happens when the employer
is responsible, capable and considerate, thus commanding the
confidence and affection of employees, who in return are harmonious,
diligent, and committed to their work. There have even been
cases of employers who were so caring with their employees that
when their businesses failed and came close to bankruptcy, the
employees sympathetically made sacrifices and worked as hard
as possible to make the company profitable again. Rather than
making demands for compensation, they were willing to take a
cut in wages.
word "production" is misleading. We tend to think
that through production new things are created, when in fact
it is merely changes of state which are effected. One substance
or form of energy is converted into another. These conversions
entail the creation of a new state by the destruction of an
old one. Thus production is always accompanied by destruction.
In some cases the destruction is acceptable, in others it is
not. Production is only truly justified when the value of the
thing produced outweighs the value of that which is destroyed.
In some cases it may be better to refrain from production. This
is invariably true for those industries whose products are for
the purpose of destruction. In weapons factories, for example,
non-production is always the better choice. In industries where
production entails the destruction of natural resources and
environmental degradation, non-production is sometimes the better
choice. To choose, we must distinguish between production with
positive results and production with negative results; production
that enhances well-being and that which destroys it.
In this light, non-production can be a useful economic activity.
A person who produces very little in materialistic terms may,
at the same time, consume much less of the world's resources
and lead a life that is beneficial to the world around him.
Such a person is of more value than one who diligently consumes
large amounts of the world's resources while manufacturing goods
that are harmful to society. But modern economics could never
make such a distinction; it would praise a person who produces
and consumes (that is, destroys) vast amounts more than one
who produces and consumes (destroys) little.
In the economics of the industrial era the term production has
been given a very narrow meaning. It is taken to relate only
to those things that can be bought and sold -- a bull fight,
where people pay money to see bulls killed, is seen as contributing
to the economy, while a child helping an elderly person across
the street is not; a professional comedian telling jokes on
stage, relaxing his audience and giving them a good time, is
taken to be economically productive because money changes hands,
while an office worker with a very cheerful disposition is not
considered to have produced anything by his cheerfulness toward
those around him. Nor is there any accounting of the economic
costs of aggressive action and speech that continually create
tension in the work place, so that those affected have to find
some way to alleviate it with amusements, such as going to see
economics is based on the assumption that it is human nature
to compete. Buddhism, on the other hand, recognizes that human
beings are capable of both competition and cooperation.
Competition is natural: when they are striving to satisfy the
desire for pleasure -- when they are motivated by tanha -- people
will compete fiercely. At such times they want to get as much
as possible for themselves and feel no sense of sufficiency
or satisfaction. If they can obtain the desired object without
having to share it with anyone else, so much the better. Inevitably,
competition is intense; this is natural for the mind driven
This competitive instinct can be redirected to induce cooperation.
One might unite the members of a particular group by inciting
them to compete with another group. For example, corporate managers
sometimes rally their employees to work together to beat their
competitors. But this cooperation is based entirely on competition.
Buddhism would call this "artificial cooperation."
True cooperation arises with the desire for well-being -- with
chanda. Human development demands that we understand how tanha
and chanda motivate us and that we shift our energies from competition
towards cooperative efforts to solve the problems facing the
world and to realize a nobler goal.
a given want is a true need, a fanciful desire, or a bizarre
craving is of no matter to economics. Nor is it the business
of economics to judge whether such wants should be satisfied,"
say the economics texts, but from a Buddhist perspective the
choices we make are of utmost importance, and these choices
require some qualitative appreciation of the options available.
Choice is a function of intention, which is the heart of kamma,
one of Buddhism's central teachings. The influence of kamma
affects not only economics but all areas of our lives and our
social and natural environment. Economic decisions, or choices,
which lack ethical reflection are bad kamma -- they are bound
to bring undesirable results. Good economic decisions are those
based on an awareness of the costs on the individual, social
and environmental levels, not just in terms of production and
consumption. These economic decisions are kamma. Every time
an economic decision is made, kamma is made, and the process
of fruition is immediately set in motion, for better or for
worse, for the individual, for society and the environment.
Thus it is important to recognize the qualitative difference
between different courses of action and to make our choices
would now like to take a step back and look at economics from
a somewhat wider perspective. We have discussed the various
economic activities. We may now ask: what is the purpose of
these activities? What are we striving for in all this buying
and selling, producing and consuming? Or we may ask an even
grander question: What indeed is the purpose of life?
Everybody holds views on these matters, although most of us
are unconscious of them. Buddhist teachings stress that these
views exert a tremendous influence on our lives. The Pali word
for view is ditthi. This term covers all kinds of views
on many different levels -- our personal opinions and beliefs;
the ideologies, religious and political views espoused by groups;
and the attitudes and world-views held by whole cultures and
Views lead to ramifications far beyond the realm of mental states
and intellectual discourse. Like ethics, views are linked to
the stream of causes and conditions. They are "subjective"
mental formations that inevitably condition events in "objective"
reality. On a personal level, one's world-view affects the events
of life. On a national level, political views and social mores
condition society and the quality of day-to-day life.
The Buddha warned that views are potentially the most dangerous
of all mental conditions. Unskillful views can wreak unimaginable
damage. The violence of the Crusades, Nazism and Communism,
to name just three disastrous fanatical movements, were fueled
by extremely unskillful views. Skillful views, on the other
hand, are the most beneficial of mental conditions. As the Buddha
said: "Monks, I see no other condition which is so much
a cause for the arising of as yet unarisen unskillful conditions,
and for the development and fruition of unskillful conditions
already arisen, as wrong view ..." [A.I.30]
This begs the question: what view of life is behind modern economics?
Is it a skillful or an unskillful one? At the risk of oversimplifying,
let us say that the goal of modern life is to find happiness.
This view is so pervasive in modern societies that it is rarely
even recognized, let alone examined or questioned. The very
concept of "progress" -- social, economic, scientific
and political -- assumes that society's highest goal is to reach
a state where everyone will be happy. The United States Declaration
of Independence poetically embodies this ideal by asserting
mankind's right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
While certainly a good-hearted aspiration, the view that happiness
is the goal of life betrays a fundamental confusion about the
truth of life. "Happiness" is never more than an ill-defined,
elusive quality. Many people equate happiness with sense pleasure
and the satisfaction of their desires. For these people, happiness
remains a remote condition, something outside themselves, a
future prize that must be pursued and captured. But happiness
cannot be obtained through seeking, only through bringing about
the causes and conditions which lead to it, and these are personal
and mental development.
From the Buddhist point of view, people often confuse tanha
-- their restless craving for satisfaction and pleasure -- with
the pursuit of happiness. This is indeed an unskillful view,
because the craving of tanha can never be satisfied. If the
pursuit of happiness equals the pursuit of the objects of tanha,
then life itself becomes a misery. To see the consequences of
this unfortunate view, one need only witness the depression
and angst of the citizens in so many modern cities filled with
limitless distractions and pleasure centers. Rather than leading
to contentment and well-being, the pursuit of happiness so often
leads to restlessness and exhaustion in the individual, strife
in society and unsustainable consumption of the environment.
By contrast, the Buddhist view of life is much less idealistic
but much more practical. The Buddha said simply, "There
is suffering." [Vin.I.9; S.V.421; Vbh.99] This was the
first of his Four Noble Truths, the central tenets of Buddhism.
He went on to describe what suffering is: "Birth is suffering;
old age is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering;
sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering;
separation from the loved is suffering; getting what you don't
want is suffering; not getting what you want is suffering ..."
There is little question that these things exist in life and
they are all unpleasant, but the tendency of our society is
to deny them. Death, in particular, is rarely thought or spoken
about as a personal inevitability. Denying these things, however,
does not make them go away. This is why the Buddha said that
suffering is something that should be recognized. The first
Noble Truth is the recognition that all things must pass and
that ultimately there is no security to be had within the material
world. This is the kind of truth the Buddha urged people to
face -- the painfully obvious and fundamental facts of life.
The second Noble Truth explains the cause of suffering. The
Buddha said that suffering is caused by craving based on ignorance
(that is, tanha). In other words, the cause of suffering is
an internal condition. We may ask, "Does craving cause
old age?": it is not craving that causes old age, but rather
craving for youth which makes old age a cause of suffering.
Old age is inevitable; craving is not. The Buddha said that
craving can be eliminated, which brings us to the third Noble
Truth, which concerns the cessation of suffering. With the complete
and utter abandonment of craving, suffering ceases. But how
to do that? In the fourth Noble Truth the Buddha tells how.
It is the Noble Eightfold Path for the cessation of suffering,
through training of body, speech and mind in accordance with
the Buddhist code of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech,
Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness
and Right Concentration.
It is fairly obvious from the Four Noble Truths that the Buddhist
view of life is very much at odds with the view common to modern
societies. Whereas Buddhism says "There is suffering,"
modern societies say, "There is happiness, and I want it
now!" The implications of this simple shift in perception
are enormous. A society that views the purpose of life as the
pursuit of happiness is one that is recklessly pursuing some
future dream. Happiness is seen as something that is inherently
lacking and must be found somewhere else. Along with this view
comes dissatisfaction, impatience, contention, an inability
to deal with suffering, and a lack of attention to the present
On the other hand, with a view of life that appreciates the
reality of suffering, we pay more attention to the present moment
so that we can recognize problems when they arise. We cooperate
with others to solve problems, rather than competing with them
to win happiness. Such a view also influences our economic choices.
Our production and consumption are geared less toward the pursuit
of sense gratification (tanha) and more toward relieving suffering
(chanda). If this Buddhist view were taken up on a national
or global scale, rather than seeking to satisfy every demand,
our economies would strive to create a state free of suffering,
or a state which is primed for the enjoyment of happiness (just
as a healthy body is one which is primed to enjoy happiness).
Only through understanding suffering can we realize the possibility
of happiness. Here Buddhism makes a distinction between two
kinds of happiness: dependent happiness and independent happiness.
Dependent happiness is happiness that requires an external object.
It includes any happiness contingent on the material world,
including wealth, family, honor and fame. Dependent happiness,
being dependent on things that can never be ours in an ultimate
sense, is fickle and uncertain.
Independent happiness, on the other hand, is the happiness that
arises from within a mind that has been trained and has attained
some degree of inner peace. Such a happiness is not dependent
on externals and is much more stable than dependent happiness.
Dependent happiness leads to competition and conflict in the
struggle to acquire material goods. Any happiness arising from
such activity is a contentious kind of happiness. There is,
however, a third kind of happiness which, while not as exalted
as the truly independent kind, is nevertheless more skillful
than the contentious kind. It is a happiness that is more altruistically
based, directed toward well-being and motivated by goodwill
and compassion. Through personal development, people can appreciate
this truer kind of happiness -- the desire to bring happiness
to others (which in Buddhism we call metta). With this
kind of happiness, we can experience gladness at the happiness
of others, just as parents feel glad at the happiness of their
children. This kind of happiness might be called "harmonious
happiness," as distinct from the contentious kind of happiness.
It is less dependent on the acquisition of material goods and
arises more from giving than receiving. Although such happiness
is not truly independent, it is much more skillful than the
happiness resulting from selfish acquisition.
The most assured level of happiness is the liberation resulting
from enlightenment, which is irreversible. But even to train
the mind, through study and meditation practice, to achieve
some inner contentment is a powerful antidote to the dissatisfaction
of the consumer society. And with the clarity of inner calm
comes an insight into one of life's profound ironies: striving
for happiness, we create suffering; understanding suffering,
we find peace.
From "Economics '73-'74," Various Contributors,
1973, The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., Guildford, Connecticut.
[Back to text]
From "Economics '73-'74," Various Contributors,
1973, The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., Guildford, Connecticut.
[Back to text]
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