UC Berkeley economist Clair Brown acknowledges that “Buddhist economics” may seem like an oxymoron.
Nevertheless, she’s teaching a sophomore seminar on the topic this semester — the campus’s second such offering over the past year.
Brown said she created the one-unit Buddhist Economics course after students in her Introductory Economics (Econ 1) class expressed frustration with the relentless Madison Avenue message that more is better, economic growth paves the path to a better life and “retail therapy” is a quick trip to nirvana.
Nicholas Austin, an economics major from Laguna Beach, Calif., and a student this spring in Brown’s Buddhist Economics class, said he was hungry for some fresh ideas about economics after seeing so many students in the field pursue finance careers and “moving money rather than creating a product that will help the world.”
What would Buddha do?
Brown said she mulled over her students’ unease in light of her experiences as an economics professor for more than 30 years and her research on poverty, the U.S. standard of living over time and today’s high-tech workers. Also taking into consideration her experience as a practicing Buddhist for the past six years, she asked herself, “How would Buddha teach Econ 1?”
The idea of Buddhist economics appears nowhere in standard economic textbooks, and Brown could find no such course offering in other top economics departments in the United States.
So she relied on recent innovative and broader approaches in economics, including models based on human development and freedom and the exploration of the psychological underpinnings of economic choices. She also looked at ecological models based on sustainability to develop her new course, which is being offered separately from Econ 1.
Brown also looked to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, a leader in sustainable development programs headed by economics professor Jeffrey Sachs. In a recent talk at Yale University — titled “Economics and happiness: Can the two reconnect?” — Sachs promoted a process for measuring economic success according to broad-based happiness, rather than the Gross Domestic Product.
‘Economics as if people mattered’
With that in mind, Brown assembled a more holistic undergraduate economics seminar that compares the basic neoclassical economics model to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s view of an ideal economy as one that promotes individual freedoms and capabilities.
The term Buddhist economics first appeared in E.F. Schumacher’s 1966 essay, “Buddhist Economics,” which is required reading in Brown’s class and is a chapter in Schumacher’s 1973 book "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered." His writings are required reading in other UC Berkeley courses dealing with technology and poverty, and political economy.
The British economist said that applying Buddhist principles to the way an economy operates would produce an economy designed primarily to meet the needs of people. In accord with the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood,” Schumacher called for jobs that are valued for their psychological and spiritual values, as well as for what they produce. He wrote that Buddhist economics also would bring sustainability into economics, while helping the neediest and encouraging citizens to be happy with enough, instead of more.
Don’t spend, be happy
“In the traditional economic model, it makes sense to go shopping if you are feeling pain, because buying things makes you feel better,” Brown wrote in her class syllabus. “Yet, we know from experience that consuming more does not relieve pain. What if we lived in a society that did not put consumption at its center? What if we follow instead the Buddhist mandate to minimize suffering, and are driven by compassion rather than desire?”
Her students are also learning about the Bhutan Gross National Happiness index that measures human wellbeing, and the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which was influenced by Sen. And they’re being introduced to ecological economics by UC Berkeley agricultural economics professor – and Buddhist – Richard Norgaard.
Brown’s students spend a few minutes in each class session meditating. For several students, meditation is nothing new. Economics major Somin Park, who grew up in England in a Buddhist family, said the only difference from her other meditations has been the classroom setting. Classmate Nicholas Austin said he has practiced meditation since taking karate lessons as a child.
As part of the course, students have been engaged in conversation with Tibetan Buddhist priest Anam Thubten Rinpoche, who explained Buddhism’s “Eightfold Path” that is based on right livelihood — or a way of making a living that does no harm to others, interdependence and connectedness, and inner contentment. True Buddhist economics, he told the students, recognizes everyone’s interconnectedness.
Rinpoche stressed living a life based on inner values and inner wealth and taking care of those who are suffering or in need. “Wealth is not only your material acquisition,” said Rinpoche, suggesting rejection of modern society’s “grand delusion” in favor of a middle path based on faith, generosity, integrity, wisdom, conscience and contemplation.
Brown assured her students that Buddhist economics wouldn’t require a vow of poverty. “Buddha tried to live in poverty for seven years,” but “it didn’t work,” she said.