The Economics of Buddhism
The Economics of Buddhism
- Elizabeth Williams-OerbergElizabeth Williams-OerbergDepartment of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen
The economics of Buddhism brings to the fore a conundrum with which Buddhists have had to contend since the time of the Buddha: how should Buddhists engage in economic activity in order to provide for their individual lifestyles and the Buddhist monasteries that support Buddhism? The widespread image of a monk or nun sitting deep in meditation in a cave may exemplify a religion that values nonattachment to materiality and disengagement with economic action. However, when looking more closely at how Buddhist monastics maintain these austere lifestyles, one sees a complex Buddhist economic engagement throughout the history of Buddhism. The economics of Buddhism examines how Buddhists must necessarily engage in economic relations not only to support their lifestyles, but also to establish and expand Buddhist institutions across the world.
A large part of Buddhist economic engagement involves an economy of merit. Buddhists have been dependent on dāna, a system of donation and sponsorship, that has aided the building and expansion of Buddhism since the time of the Buddha. This merit-based economy involves a system of exchange in which virtuous actions such as generosity are rewarded with an accumulation of merit (puñña), leading to beneficial circumstances in this life or the next life to come. Based on this system of exchange, monks and nuns receive remuneration from the lay community for their services. It is due to this merit economy that monks and nuns have been able to pursue a monastic lifestyle and monasteries have been built, some of which have become economic epicenters for the surrounding community. Historically, large monasteries across Asia have acquired large plots of land, accumulated large storehouses of grains and goods, and engaged in various other economic endeavors, such as lending money, running businesses, hiring laborers, and so forth. In order to maintain these at times very large Buddhist institutions that have supported monks and nuns, and in essence the survival of Buddhism, this system of exchange—money for merit—has been a crucial aspect of Buddhism.
Since the time of the Buddha, the spread and survival of Buddhism has been reliant on economic exchanges and the economic environment of the time. This is very much the case in the early 21st century, with the spread of global capitalism affecting how Buddhist images, goods, and services have been adopted and altered in new environments. For example, with changing economic conditions and the rise of the consumer society, Buddhist monasteries have found new sources of income, such as through tourism. Global sentiments regarding Buddhism as primarily positive, furthermore, have led to the proliferation of Buddhist-inspired objects for sale in the mass consumer society. Instead of seeing Buddhist economic engagement as a paradox, or hypocrisy even, when looking closely at how Buddhism and economic relations are necessarily entwined, one sees a complex relationship that provides the basis for the survival and spread of Buddhism worldwide.
- Global Perspectives on Religion