- Buddhist Economics
- A Middle Way for the market place
- Ven. P. A. Payutto
Buddhist Perspectives on
The 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
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
In 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 be happy.
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?
The 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
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 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 well-being?
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.
At 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 economic activity.
Buddhist monks and nuns traditionally reflect on moderation before
each meal by reciting this reflection:
"Wisely 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
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.
Lacking 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 needs.
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.
Today's 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.
While 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 of life.
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]
Buddhist 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
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 satisfaction.
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
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 chanda.)
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 movies herself.
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 she hasn't.
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.
The 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
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 a comedian.
Modern 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
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 by tanha.
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.
"Whether 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 wisely.
I 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 societies.
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
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
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 moment.
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 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
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.
1. From "Economics '73-'74,"
Various Contributors, 1973, The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., Guildford, Connecticut. [Back to text]
2. From "Economics '73-'74,"
Various Contributors, 1973, The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., Guildford, Connecticut. [Back to text]
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