(1) Middle-way economics: realization of true well-being

1 May 2535

(1) Middle-way economics: realization of true well-being

An important characteristic of Buddhist economics is that it is a ‘middle-way’. It might be called a middle-way economics. The Buddhist way of life is referred to as a path and each of the eight factors of the path is called sammā, which means right or correct, e.g. sammā ājīva: Right Livelihood. Each factor is sammā because it gives rise to the optimum benefit in its respective sphere. The path is a middle-way between too much and too little. It is just right. So the middle-way means ‘just the right amount’.

Schumacher says that the presence of Right Livelihood in the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism necessitates a Buddhist economics. What may be added to that statement is the fact that it also makes inevitable the presence of Wrong Livelihood. Similarly, right economic activity implies wrong economic activity. Here, a correct or ‘right’ economy is a middle-way economy. Buddhism is full of teachings referring to the middle way, the right amount, knowing moderation and all these terms may be considered as synonyms for the idea of balance or equilibrium. But what exactly do all these terms refer to? We may define ‘the right amount’ as the point at which human satisfaction and true well-being coincide, i.e. when we experience satisfaction through answering the desire for quality of life. This point leads back to the subject of consumption which was stated above to be the consummation of economics. Here we may go through the meanings of consumption once more. According to conventional economics, the term consumption refers to the use of goods and services to answer want and needs, so as to provide the highest satisfaction. However in the Buddhist system, consumption refers to the use of goods and services to answer wants and needs in ways that engender satisfaction at having increased the quality of life. In the Buddhist view, when enhancement of true well-being is experienced through consumption, then that consumption is said to be successful. If consumption issues merely in feelings of satisfaction, and those feelings are indulged without any understanding of the nature of that consumption or its repurcussions, then according to Buddhist economics, it is incorrect. Satisfaction of desires may have harmful effects and may cause a⁠ decline in the quality of life.

Consumption can increase the quality of life and so form a basis for further developments of human potentialities which in turn ennoble life. Thus economics is related to the whole of human existence. That being so, if it is to have any authenticity, economics must play a part in the development of human potentialities and help mankind to be able to lead a noble life, to enjoy an increasingly mature kind of happiness. If it does not do so, then of what use is it to us?

That the consummation of economics lies in consumption is brought out in Buddhist economics by the principle of bhojane mattaññutā. This is a teaching which appears throughout the Buddhist scriptures, even in the Ovāda Pāimokkha, the verses held to contain the heart of Buddhism where it is expressed as mattaññutā ca bhattasmi, ‘knowing moderation in consumption’. Knowing moderation means knowing the optimum amount, how much is ‘just right’. The principle of mattaññutā, of knowing the right amount, is an important one in Buddhism. It occurs in a wide range of contexts, for example as one of the seven virtues of the Good Man (or Woman) and is invariably present in any reference to consumption.

Mattaññutā is the defining characteristic of Buddhist economics. Knowing the right amount in consumption refers to an awareness of that optimum point where the enhancement of true well-being coincides with the experience of satisfaction. In the teachings that lay down the way in which monks and nuns should make use of the requisites offered to them, it is stressed that they should consider the reason and purpose of their consumption, as in the traditional formula: Paṭisaṅkhā yoniso piṇapātaṁ ; wisely reflecting, I take alms­food.” Whatever is consumed must firstly be reflected upon wisely. This principle is not restricted to monastics; it applies to all Buddhists. We should reflect intelligently on food⎯that the true purpose of eating is not for fun, for indulgence or the fascination of taste. We reflect that it is inappropriate to eat things just because they are expensive and fashionable. We shouldn’t eat extravagantly and wastefully. We should eat so as to sustain our lives, for the health of the body, in order to eradicate painful feelings of hunger that have arisen and to prevent new ones (from overeating) arising. We eat so as to be able to carry on our lives in ease. We eat so that the energy we derive from the food can support a noble and happy life. Whenever we consume anything we should understand the meaning of what we are doing in this sort of way, and consume in such a way as to experience results that conform to that purpose. ‘Just the right amount’ or the ‘middle way’ lies right here.

When a person reflects on consumption and understands that its purpose is to maintain health and support a good and happy life, then true well-being or quality of life will be what he or she desires from it. On consumption of a particular product or service, then that person will feel satisfied at having enriched the quality of their life. This is the meaning of mattaññutā or the ‘right amount’ that constitutes the middle way.

It follows from the above that economic activity is a means and not an end in itself. The economic results that are desired are not the real goal but a way to it, i.e. they are a supporting base for the process of human development that leads to a better life. In the case of food it means not just eating in order to enjoy the taste and get full, but eating one’s fill so as to have the physical and mental energy to be able to give attention to and reflect on those matters that will increase one’s wisdom. In the story related earlier, the Buddha had food given to the poor peasant, not just in order to allay his hunger, but so that he could listen to a Dhamma discourse afterwards. Consumption is a⁠ means to an end.

Given these principles, certain subsidiary practices are implied. For instance, people who have enough food for their needs, are not encouraged to eat as much as they like, or just to follow their desires. What’s more, praise is sometimes given to monks who only eat once a⁠ day. Economics, on the other hand, would praise those who eat the most; those who eat three or four times a day. If someone were to eat ten times a day, so much the better. But in Buddhism, given that eating once a day is enough to meet the need for true well-being, then those monks who do so are praised. It’s not that getting down to eating one meal a day is the goal of course. If one didn’t do anything afterwards to make use of that frugality then it would be pointless, just a way of mistreating oneself. Thus one must consider consumption as a⁠ condition for self-development.

Eating one meal a day is not a practice restricted to monks. On Observance days, Buddhist laypeople may take Eight Precepts for a day and a night, one of which is to refrain from eating after mid-day. Renunciation of the evening meal becomes an economic activity which is of benefit in the development of the quality of life. Consumption is then an economic activity leading to the development of the quality of life that can be either positive or negative in nature; it may mean to eat or not to eat. In other words, not eating can also be an economic activity increasing the quality of life, and in doing so provide satisfaction.

Ordinarily our satisfaction arises from consumption, but there are also many cases in which we can experience a sense of satisfaction at non-consumption. However the satisfaction at non-consumption might arise from some mental impurity, e.g. one could eat only once a⁠ day out of conceit, to show how tough or ascetic one is, and then feel pleasure and satisfaction in the pride one feels in one’s accomplishment. Satisfaction arising from conceit is a mere step away from that arising from the gratification of craving. The correct form of satisfaction in this case would be to eat little or to abstain from food as a way of training oneself, in order to go against the grain of desire, and then to feel pleased and satisfied at the resultant increase in one’s true well-being. A great many people, in their efforts to find satisfaction through consumption, damage their health and do harm to themselves and others. Drinking alcohol for instance, satisfies a desire, but is a cause of ill-health, quarrels and accidents. People who eat for taste often over-eat and make themselves unhealthy. Others give no thought at all to food values and waste a lot of money on junk foods, so that some people even become deficient in certain vitamins and minerals despite eating large meals every day. Incredibly, cases of malnutrition have even been reported. Apart from doing themselves no good, their over-eating deprives others of food. So pleasure and satisfaction are not a measure of value. If our satisfaction lies in things that do not enrich the quality of life, then it can sometimes destroy our true welfare, We may become deluded and intoxicated; we may lose our health, lose the quality of life.

There is a classic economic principle 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. There has to be that extra clause. All definitions, whether of goods, services, wealth or whatever, must be modified in this way.

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