Superphysics Superphysics
Part 1

The Buddhist Concept of Work

by EF Schumacher Icon
8 minutes  • 1686 words
Table of contents

Superphysics note: This is a simplified version of Buddhist Economics

Modern Economics Buddhist Economics
Motive Maximize Consumption in order to maximize Production Minimuze Consumption in order to make Production sustainable
Priority Material Development Human Development
Employment Maximization of Employment for Maximized Production Full Employment (Mothers can leave work to care for their children)
Energy Use High Low
Environmental Policy Exploit Natural Resources Conserve Natural Resources
Spirituality None High

Buddhist statue meditating

“Right Livelihood” is one of the requirements of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. This means that there must be such a thing as Buddhist economics.

Buddhist countries have often stated that they wish to remain faithful to their heritage.

Burma says that:

the New Burma sees no conflict between religious values and economic progress. Spiritual health and material well-being are not enemies: they are natural allies.

We can blend successfully the religious and spiritual values of our heritage with the benefits of modern technology.

We Burmans have a sacred duty to conform both our dreams and our acts to our faith. This we shall ever do.”

Such countries assume that they can model their economic development plans in accordance with modern economics.

They call on modern economists from ‘advanced countries’ to:

  • advise them,
  • formulate the policies to be pursued, and
  • construct the grand design for development such as the Five-Year Plan

No one seems to think that a Buddhist way of life would call for Buddhist economics, just as the modern materialist way of life has brought forth modern economics.

Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness.

  • They assume that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions.
  • Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from “metaphysics” or “values” as the law of gravitation.

We should not get involved in arguments of methodology. Instead, let us take some fundamentals and see how they look like to:

  • a modern economist
  • a Buddhist economist

It is universally agreed that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour.

The modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil.

From an employer’s point of view, it is simply an item of cost. It is to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation.

From the worker’s point of view, it is a “disutility”

  • To work is to sacrifice one’s leisure and comfort.
  • Wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.

Hence the ideal from the employer’s point of view is to have output without employees. The ideal from the employee’s point of view is to have income without employment.

These attitudes both in theory and in practice have extremely far-reaching consequences.

If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the workload” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labour”.

The classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. He says that the division of labor is not just ordinary specialization. In this way, the final product can be produced more quickly.

Buddhist economics views work having at least three functions:

  1. To give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties.
  2. To enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task.
  3. To bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless.

It would be almost criminal to organise work so that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker.

  • It would indicate a greater concern for goods than for people.
  • It is an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.

One of the basic truths of human existence is that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure. To strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be a complete misunderstanding of this basic truth.

From the Buddhist point of view, two types of mechanisation must be clearly distinguished:

  • One that enhances a man’s skill and power
  • One that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave.

How to tell the one from the other?

Ananda Coomaraswamy
The craftsman can always draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers. But the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.

Buddhist Economics vs Modern Economics

Therefore, Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.

Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. Work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.

J. C. Kumarappa

If the nature of the work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best he is capable of.

It directs his free will along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality.

If a man has no chance of obtaining work he is in a desperate position, not simply because he lacks an income but because he lacks this nourishing and enlivening factor of disciplined work which nothing can replace.

A modern economist may engage in highly sophisticated calculations on whether full employment “pays” or whether it might be more “economic” to run an economy at less than full employment so as to insure a greater mobility of labour, a better stability of wages, and so forth.

His fundamental criterion of success is simply the total quantity of goods produced during a given period of time.

If the marginal urgency of goods is low then so is the urgency of employing the last man or the last million men in the labour force.

If … we can afford some unemployment in the interest of stability—a proposition, incidentally, of impeccably conservative antecedents—then we can afford to give those who are unemployed the goods that enable them to sustain their accustomed standard of living.

The Affluent Society

From a Buddhist point of view, this is standing the truth on its head by considering goods as more important than people and consumption as more important than creative activity.

It means shifting the emphasis from the worker to the product of work, that is, from the human to the subhuman. It is a surrender to the forces of evil.

The very start of Buddhist economic planning would be a planning for full employment.

  • The primary purpose of this would in fact be employment for everyone who needs an “outside” job.
  • The primary purpose would not be the maximisation of employment nor the maximisation of production. Women, on the whole, do not need an “outside” job.
  • The large-scale employment of women in offices or factories would be considered a sign of serious economic failure.

In particular, letting mothers of young children work in factories while the children run wild would be as uneconomic in the eyes of a Buddhist economist just as the employment of a skilled worker as a soldier in the eyes of a modern economist.

While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation.

But Buddhism is “The Middle Way”. Therefore, it is not antagonistic to physical well-being.

The attachment to wealth stands in the way of liberation, not the wealth itself.

  • It is not the enjoyment of pleasurable things, but the craving for them.
  • The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence.

From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern —- the amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results.

  • For the modern economist this is very difficult to understand.
  • He is used to measuring the “standard of living” by the amount of annual consumption.
  • He assumes all the time that a man who consumes more is “better off” than a man who consumes less.

A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational.

  • Since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.
  • Thus, if the purpose of clothing is to achieve a temperature comfort and an attractive appearance, then it should be attained with the smallest possible effort. It should destroy the least cloth annually, with the help of designs that involve the smallest input of toil.
  • The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity.

For example, it would be highly uneconomic to go in for complicated tailoring, like the modern West, when a much more beautiful effect can be achieved by the skillful draping of uncut material.

  • It would be foolish to make material that would wear out quickly.
  • It would be barbaric to make anything ugly, shabby, or mean.

This applies equally to all other human requirements.

  • The ownership and the consumption of goods is a means to an end.
  • Buddhist economics is the systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means.

Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity.

  • It takes the factors of production, labour, and capital as the means.

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