As author of a book on peace, democracy, and righteousness (Santi Pracha Dhamma) and governor of the Bank of Thailand, the memory of Dr. Puey Ungphakorn challenges us to ask how Buddhist principles connect with the major globalizing force of today, economics.
Buddhists have held a variety of views of economics. Buddhist monastics and hermits make vows to avoid money, but Buddhist monasteries and temples have sometimes accumulated great wealth and used it for the conspicuous display of devotion by building glistening Buddha images and towering Buddha halls (quite different from the economic ethic of “small is beautiful” advocated by Schumacher) In other contexts, Buddhist families are advised to balance spending, saving, and donating and several successful businesses leaders have developed worldwide businesses using principles that were inspired by their Buddhist practice. Sometimes money is used directly as a tool for relieving suffering when Buddhist groups like the Taiwan-based Tzu?chi Compassion Association solicit money for social and medical services to relieve physical suffering in the world. Yet another model is given by the Greystone Foundation started by Zen Master Bernie Glassman that uses the practice of making money in a baking business as a method for social and spiritual development.
Whereas previous Buddhist economic views have usually worked within an established social system, Acharn Sulak Sivaraksa has organized several groups on development to challenge economic injustice and build visions of a more equitable society.Today economics is not just an individual or national matter, but also a matter of corporate and international law. With the increased dominance of transnational corporations (TNCs), the media, and the World Trade Organization in determining the quality of life globally, individual Buddhists need to address this larger economic level and not be restricted just to personal and national economic policies.
No one should doubt the increasing dominance of TNCs, but as a new economic life form we may be taken by surprise at how powerful they have become. In order to ensure that we take them seriously, please indulge me when I list some of their recent activity. In 1970 the total number ofTNCs was about 7,000, but grew by 1998 to at least 53,607 TNCs who were contracted with at least 448,917 foreign subsidiaries.7 The six largest corporations in the world (Exxon, General Motors, Ford, Mitsui, Daimler-Chrysler, and Mitsubishi) had combined revenues larger than the combined budgets of 64 nations that include 58 percent of the world’s population (including India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russian, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Mexico). Only seven nations have budgets larger than Ford, Exxon, or General Motors: namely, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, China, Japan, Germany, and the United States.
The size of individual corporations in comparison to nations is impressive. However, their growing influence based on their growing number make them even more powerful. In listing the 200 largest financial budgets in the world, Charles Gray found that only 39 were nations, whereas 161 were corporations. The Fortune 500 companies in 1999 consisted of companies that have budgets over US $9 billion, but only 57 national governments have budgets as large as these 500 corporations. As corporations increasingly “rule the world,” and as Buddhist institutions function as corporations, it is important to discuss what guidelines religious organizations should practice and advocate for others.
Since nations still have important power to regulate TNCs, Carol Johnston in her book The Wealth or Health of Nations 10 rethinks national economic goals in terms of health, persons?in-community, and ecosystems rather than the production and overproduction of more goods Johnston makes many positive proposals to improve our situation. Her main concern is to rethink the goals of economics in terms of health, rather than the production and overproduction of mon goods. Although the modem media may go to the extreme of glorifying health in a way that car denigrate the weak, poor, and sick, there are various ways to view health that do not restrict it te the young and beautiful. For example, a Buddhist-Christian colleague of mine in Hawaii, Mitsue Aoki, is leader of a Foundation on Holistic Healing. He spends much of his time working with th( dying to make their deaths an act of creativity and a blessing. Even being weak and dying ha: dimensions for holistic healing.
Economics on a Biological Model
Johnston challenges Western economic models based on Newtonian physics and mathematics, and proposes instead living natural systems as economic models instead. Her proposal is strongly supported by Michael Rothschild, Bionomics: Economy as Ecosystem who makes analogies between biological models and economic behavior. The function of biological cells and business groups is the same: namely, to “use tools and knowledge to turn energy and materials into products. Whatever the product happens to be, the flow of production mimics the protein-building process of organic cells: prepare the incoming materials, rearrange their components into new configurations, and package them into deliverable products.” Each living organism equips each cell with the vital blueprint of the whole organism in its DNA, which also differentiates the function and relationships of each cell:
The entire global economy is comprised of work cells and organizations engaged in the interdependent production and exchange of products. Regardless of size or level of technological sophistication … all organizations cope with essentially the same tasks that face a single living cell. Encoded information is developed and preserved in DNA or blueprints. Copies are shipped to ribosomes or assembly sites. After raw materials are prepared, components are reassembled in new configurations. In a series of finishing steps, these objects are packaged into deliverable products. From protein to microprocessor, the essentials of organic and economic production are the same.
Rothschild argues that the discovery of the microchip in 1971 by Intel now makes it possible for the first time for every person in each work cell to have available information about the whole business organization, and also to give each work cell specific information about its distinctive role and relationships. “In effect, a worker/tool combination acts like an organelle inside an economic cell. But unlike organic organelles, human workers can pick up different tools, learn new skills, quit their cells, join others, and change their roles in the life of the economy. The flexibility, along with the rapid pace of technical evolution, endows the economy with capacity for lightning-fast restructuring.”
Western economics relies too heavily on mathematical models, and both Carol Johnston and Michael Rothschild argue that economics needs more inductive and historical-critical research to adjust economics to new situations. Most economic models are not based on, nor tested by, empirical observations. For example, Rothschild refers to Wassily Leontief, winner of the 1973 Nobel’Prize in Economics who in 1982 surveyed articles over the previous four years in The American Economic Review, America’s most prestigious economics journal. He made the startling discovery that “more than half the articles were mathematical models without any data whatsoever, and nearly one-fourth drew inferences from statistics gathered for some other purpose.” Only one article was empirically based.
The most successful living organisms are not based on a nervous system in which the central brain makes all the decisions-the old command-and-control model of business-but the most successful empowers each work cell with DNA information so that they can more quickly and effectively respond to local needs and create novel responses in harmony with the larger organism. This management philosophy that empowers small, relatively independent teams to work together for the common good based on horizontal rather than vertical relationships has recently come into vogue, such as in the Saturn automobile section of GM.
The various lessons about social organization and management that Rothschild proposes based on biology have attracted the management of several companies. Some, such as Bank of America in 1998, have attempted to revamp their business methods along more biological models as suggested by Rothschild. Buddhist organizations have sometimes been hierarchical, sometimes horizontal, but as we increasingly create our own environments, Buddhists need to discuss which model is best suited to their guiding principles.
Related to the biological analogy for economics is the criterion of the survival of the fittest. In a recent book by James Collins and Jerry Porras called Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies the role of goals and values expressed clearly in mission statements was emphasized. Mission statements, organizational models, and standard operating procedures for each corporation are created by humans and can be influenced not only by management, but also by consumers, by the media, and by government. While government over-regulation has been a theme in recent years, the development of GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) administered by the WTO (World Trade Organization) has proven more powerful than even the US government to check by legislation. As a result, citizen action committees and street protests in the past two years were needed to stop tools of plunder such as the MAl (Multilateral Agreement on Investment). The wealth or health of corporations and WTO is everyone’s business since it is our survival as individuals, communities, and as a global ecosystem that is at stake, not just the survival of corporations.
More promising approaches are new academic programs such as the School of Social Ecology at the University of California-Irvine that attempt to test the impact of various planned communities and economic arrangements on the quality of life and human development. In the past Buddhists have lived in established cultures so that this new opportunity and responsibility to plan communities and guide development has not been adequately investigated.
The notion that “small is beautiful” is a valuable reminder for a Buddhist method of action, but needs to be balanced by a wider horizon of responsibility based on the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. Detailing the nature and number of beings has been the achievement of science and requires our close attention. A crucial role that Buddhists and Christians can and must play is to use their networks to monitor and report on the health of local communities where their membership is employed.
Being mindful of the England of Charles Dickens or the plight of modern Bangkok, we know that hell is not restricted to an afterlife, but includes workers in newly industrializing countries. Religious people are in the field. We need to do our own studies by constantly monitoring local conditions, and then connect them to the board rooms of corporations to share information and concerns to improve the health of everyone. But religious organizations need to increase their networks of information sharing by including in their mission boards a vehicle for being a global conscience.
Reporting on global conditions will require the development of some uniform standards and a quick means of reporting. The present United Nations reports on Human Development statistics from various nations are woefully inadequate (although they do document the lie that the World Bank is reducing poverty). Instead, to measure the real cost of business to the environment and to social wellbeing need new measurements, such as the PQLI (Physical Quality of Life Index) by David Morris, and the ISEW (Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare) of Herman Daly and John Cobb.
Participation by CSOs
Besides monitoring and reporting, religious communities can also be active workers. Since the World Trade Organization defines IBM, Microsoft, GM, and other TNCs as non?governmental organizations (NGOs), Hazel Henderson recommends naming voluntary, nongovernmental organizations as Civil Society Organizations (CSOS).The largest CSO in Taiwan is the Buddhist Tzu-chi Compassion Association that collects donations of money and services in order to relieve physical and social suffering. In a similar fashion, the Sarvodaya movement is the largest CSO in Sri Lanka and dedicates its resources to village reconstruction on Buddhist principles. Both organizations understand that their work is not a form of charity, but of spiritual transformation for the donors who are learning how to change their sense of self and their connections to others through the relief of physical and social suffering. Although inspired by Buddhist teachings of personal practice, the Sarvodaya movement also uses modern human developmentroethods pioneered by Gandhi and Christian missions. Similarly, the Tzu-chi uses the latest Western medical kI}owledge in its bone marrow banks, hospitals, and medical schools.
Since religions are neither government nor business, as CS Os they can serve as networks for community improvement globally. In this regard, I would mention the model ofUMCOR?United Methodist Committee on Relief-which works as a coordinator of grants from USAID and their use by local groups in local cultures. (United Methodist Committee on Relief, UMCOR, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, N.Y. 10115.) It seems to me that new insights might be emerging among workers for these religious CSOs in trying to assist traditional cultures develop in terms of their own values. Also, members of these religious service organizations need to be consulted more frequently as a resource for checking on the health of nations.
One of the basic lessons from ecology is the inefficiency of the “command-and-control” model of management. The collapse of the centralized communist economies provides one illustration, and the loan practices of the World Bank provide another. Feedback loops are important for learning, and the organizing principles of evolutionary biology are based on constant feedback. Our modem economy also requires constant individual and organizational learning, and puts a premium on knowledge and communication systems. But feedback loops are nonlinear and do not work on a command-and-control model. Since the government elites and the World Bank managers do not individually and directly bear the cost of their bad judgments, physical and cultural resources continue to be plundered. Networks of religious communities can provide an alternative nervous system to give feedback from the people affected by World Bank projects to those who are managing them. Rather than simply calling for the redistribution of wealth, religious communication networks could assist in creatively constructing new working arrangements for the benefit of all.
Recentl y the World Bank has recognized the importance of developing social institutions in poor countries as the foundation for national growth. As important voices in civil society, religious groups need to emphasize to the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and WTO the importance of social capital to enable any economy to function. Social capital requires human development, which requires education and cultural nourishment. Accordingly, I would hope that religious groups would urge the World Bank to require an educational component for the workers involved with any loan to move workers toward literacy as a means of future livelihood once the work project was done. This educational requirement would also help to ease the burden on child labor who may be needed by their families for survival, but whose future is being stolen unless an educational component is part of each project funded by the World Bank.
Conflict between communism and capitalism is now past, and almost all G7 governments now function with an integration of various socialistic and capitalistic agendas. However, G7 economies live off the sweat of many other countries in a global network and often impose negative policies on them. If inclusiveness and representation are Buddhist values, then Buddhists should lobby to expand the G7 to at least include major democratic countries such as India, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Chile, Indonesia, Thailand, and Costa Rica. Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Harvard Institute for International Development, has proposed forming a G16, for example.
Another way to introduce spiritual dimensions into economics is to elevate our awareness of the enormous capitalistic role of civil society organizations. Recently Yale University joined the Fair Labor Association (FLA) dedicated to buying clothing and materials only from companies that ensured that the people who made the products were working in safe conditions and receiving a fair wage. The FLA rejects forced labor, child labor, abuse and discrimination, and urges companies to allow collective bargaining for employees, overtime pay, and a reasonable workweek. The FLA began in 1996 and has been signed by at least 17 universities, including all the Ivy League schools in the United States. While such agreements do not save all beings, they lessen abuse and work toward improving conditions for others. Perhaps our religious groups should consider joining the FLA.
Another opportunity that relates to the modern economy is to use religious wealth to influence corporations. The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) was formed almost 30 years ago and today includes 275 Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish institutional investors worth an estimated US $90 billion, largely representing pension funds. As a result of the large size of its investments, ICCR representatives can attend meetings of stockholders and request that corporate policies become more socially responsible. For example, in 1998 ICCR representatives presented 209 social responsibility resolutions to 143 companies. Their list of resolutions is circulated as a model for other concerned citizens, and they conduct fact-finding reports on various industries. A few Buddhist efforts to influence corporations have begun, but ICCR is still waiting to have its first Buddhist member.
Buddhist Social Principles
Buddhists are increasingly blunt about affirming the primacy of this present world rather than being “world denying,” to use Albert Schweitzer’s old phrase. Among Chinese Buddhists, this idea is connected most commonly to the reformer Taixu (d. 1947) who expressed it as Buddhism for human life (jensheng fojiao). More recently it is linked to the most eminent living Buddhist teacher, MasterYinshun (b. 1906), who uses the phrase “Buddhism in the human realm” (jenjian fojiao) in contrast to emphasizing Buddhism in preparation for rebirth in the Pure Land after death. Fo Kuang Shan Buddhists frequently call themselves “humanistic Buddhists” to offer a similar emphasis. And the largest Buddhist groups in America, namely, SGI-USA and the Tzu-chi Compassion Relief Foundation, also give importance to life on earth as the primary locus of practice.
In addition to being committed to improving contemporary society, Buddhist institutions in many Asian countries are now recovering from oppressive government control, and for the first time have an opportunity to meet together to reflect on their institutional procedures and methods of using power. Major new nonmonastic Buddhist movements have emerged in Taiwan (the Tzu-chi Foundation), in Sri Lanka (the Sarvodaya movement), in Japan (Soka Gakkai and Rissho Koseikai), in India (the TBMSG movement), and elsewhere. Based on the Buddhist principle of consensus, it is necessary for representatives of these and similar Buddhist groups to come together for dialogue to reflect on their own social procedures now being practiced and to seek some consensus on the priorities and principles for the future.
A popular starting point is the account in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Digha-nikaya 16.1) where the Buddha used seven criteria to evaluate the social strength of the Vajjian society. Certain of these rules are to be expected-such as, support for the sangha, respect for elders, and respect for women in other families-but there is a remarkable insistence on maintaining traditions, both secular and religious, including non-Buddhist traditions. This principle reinforces the exceptional nonsectarian nature of early Buddhist teaching. In addition, there is the insistence on regular and frequent assemblies conducted in harmony and leading to harmonious settlements. A similar norm was applied to sangha meetings that used the rule of consensus for all decisions, making the sangha the epitome of democracy since everyone had a voice and everyone had to agree on all decisions.
Compassion is a gift of the human heart, but social processes are necessary for helping people evolve a sense of trust and universal responsibility. The Buddha recommended “regular and frequent meetings” that are convened, conducted, and concluded with consensus. The modern code words for these values are transparency, diversity and dialogue. The requirement of twice-monthly uposatha meetings of the sangha where decisions are to be made by consensus implies transforming dialogue. Only through careful and penetrating discussion, sharing of motivations and mutual adjustment of participants to the values and needs of each other, can consensus arise and harmony result for the benefit of the common good.
To help out social meetings to take time to be inclusive of everyone means that individuals must learn to take time to find balance. Fortunately, the world has a model for building a commitment to mindful ness, inclusion, transparency, and dialogue by following the example of Dr. Puey Ungphakorn.From Santi Pracha Dhamma Essays in honour of the late Puey Ungphakorn Page 279-287