A Buddhist View of Globalization
The above reflections on dana and merit-making bring us to the larger issue of a Buddhist perspective on the economic globalization. We have already noticed that traditional Buddhist teachings do not include a developed social theory but do have many important social implications. Those implications can be developed to analyze and understand the new world order.
The first thing to be noticed is also perhaps the most important: as the parable of the unwise king shows, Buddhism does not separate economic issues from ethical or spiritual ones. The notion that economics is a “social science” discovering and applying impersonal economic laws obscures two important truths. First, who gets what, and who does not, always has moral dimensions, so production and distribution of economic goods and services should not be left only to the supposedly objective rules of the marketplace. If some people have much more than they need, and others have much less, some sort of redistribution is necessary. Dana is the traditional Buddhist way of redistributing.
The second important truth is that no economic system is value-free; every system of production and consumption encourages the development of certain values and discourages others. As Phra Payutto, Thailand’s most distinguished scholar-monk, puts it:
It may be asked how it is possible for economics to be free of values when, in fact, it is rooted in the human mind. The economic process begins with want, continues with choice, and ends with satisfaction, all of which are functions of the mind. Abstract values are thus the beginning, the middle and the end of economics, and so it is impossible for economics to be value-free. Yet as it stands, many economists avoid any consideration of values, ethics, or mental qualities, despite the fact that these will always have a bearing on economic concerns.6
This clarifies the basic Buddhist approach. When we evaluate an economic system, we should consider not only how efficiently it produces and distributes goods, but also its effects on human values, and through them its larger social effects. The collective values that it encourages should be consistent with the individual Buddhist values that reduce our dukkha. The crucial issue is whether our economic system is conducive to the ethical and spiritual development of its members, because individual and social values cannot be delinked.
Much of the philosophical reflection on economics has focused on questions about human nature. Those who defend market capitalism argue that its emphasis on competition and personal gain is grounded in the fact that humans are fundamentally self-centered and self-interested. Critics of capitalism argue that our basic nature is more cooperative and generous that is, we are naturally more selfless.
Buddhism avoids that debate by taking a different approach. The Buddha emphasized that we all have both unwholesome and unwholesome traits (kusala/akusalamula). The important issue is the practical matter of how to reduce our unwholesome characteristics and develop the more wholesome ones. This process is symbolized by the lotus flower. Although rooted in the mud and muck at the bottom of a pond, the lotus grows upwards to bloom on the surface, thus representing our potential to purify ourselves.