Buddhism and economics

A person of wisdom is not one who practices Buddhism apart from worldly affairs but, rather, one who thoroughly understands the principles by which the world is governed. – ‘The Kalpa of Decrease’, Writings of Nichiren Daishonin 1, p. 1121.


  • The spirit of Nichiren Daishonin was to firmly refute erroneous religion and philosophy – bad religion – within the Buddhism of his era.
  • Studying Nichiren’s teachings helps us to understand clearly what is good religion and what is bad religion.
  • Broadly speaking, bad religion ignores the dignity and value of life, and is abused by power-seekers.
  • There are a number of ways in which economics has come to resemble a bad religion, not least because it very often ignores the dignity and value of life and is used in the service of corrupt power.
  • The misuse of economics threatens the very future of life on Earth.
  • Whether as practitioners of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, as human beings, or as global citizens, we should speak up against misleading and abusive ideas in economics – indeed, within any secular philosophy as much as within faith traditions.

Nichiren Daishonin refuted destructive and misguided philosophies

During Nichiren Daishonin’s lifetime, he spent an enormous amount of effort not just into guiding his followers, but also in refuting erroneous philosophies. Of course, in that era, most of those philosophies claimed to be Buddhist philosophies.

Nichiren Daishonin refuted the various mediaeval Japanese Buddhist sects that claimed to be honest reflections of the Buddha’s teachings. He showed that they all too often distorted the Buddha’s teachings, propagated destructive notions about the nature of life, indulged in impressive but meaningless ritual, or served simply as vehicles for priestly power and influence.

Nichiren Daishonin also taught very clearly, in writings such as ‘On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land’, that chaos and suffering in society and the environment is a function of the misleading teachings or philosophies that dominate the human realm.

Since the courage to refute erroneous philosophies was such an important part of Nichiren Daishonin’s mission, it is essential for 21st century practitioners of Buddhism to ask ourselves what that spirit means for us, especially since our world now faces unprecedented social and environmental chaos and threats to humanity (such as climate change, general environmental degradation, and nuclear weapons). The very existence of these problems clearly indicates that destructive and negative ideas and philosophies abound in modern society.

In our era, evil philosophies are not primarily religious

There are key differences between the milieu in which Nichiren Daishonin lived and our time.

Firstly, in most countries, religion is no longer a dominant source of power and influence.

Secondly, and happily, the values that Nichiren Daishonin sought to establish have in many respects become part of secular values in our era, in the form of movements for humanism, tolerance and human rights, and respect for the environment (very often thanks to the noblest practitioners of other religions, such as Christian anti-slavery campaigners).

Equally, philosophies (both formal and informal) that threaten and destroy life are no longer the preserve of religion alone.

Fighting evil in our time means standing up for human rights and justice

So how, in this very different era, should we interpret the fighting spirit of Nichiren Daishonin? President Ikeda offers us some very clear guidance on the subject.

In his 2012 Peace Proposal, he discusses the Gosho ‘On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land’, and observes that in a modern context, two of the implications of Nichiren’s teachings are that:

  • The ‘highest priority of the state must be the well-being and security of ordinary people’.
  • We should have a worldview ‘rooted in a vital sense of our interconnectedness’.

This strongly suggests that we should speak up against philosophies that ignore human wellbeing and our relationship with the environment.

President Ikeda also calls on us repeatedly to stand strongly up for human rights, based on a clear understanding of humanistic philosophy:

‘To study human rights, we must study philosophy. We must study Buddhism. And just as important as studying philosphy is the willingness to stand up for our beliefs and to take action. Human rights will never be won unless we speak out, unless we fight to secure them.’ (Faith into Action, p. 277)

He also urges us to stand up for justice:

‘With impassioned words, we need to resolutely attack abuses of power that cause people suffering. This is fighting for justice. It is wrong to remain silent when confronted with injustice. Doing so is tantamount to supporting and condoning evil.’ (Faith into Action, p. 226)

In understanding this spirit, we should also remember how often President Ikeda has encouraged us to follow in the footsteps of great heroes of human rights, such as Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These are not leaders who ever shrank from confronting brutality and injustice.

How is economics like a religion?

To understand this, we first of all need to broaden our view of what religion is.

The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his dialogues with President Ikeda, identified the great ‘religions’ of the 20th century as being not Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, but as nationalism, communism and the belief in technology-driven progress. (Choose Life, Oxford University Press 1976, p. 315)

In other words, a religion can be seen as a world view which ordinary people use to explain and frame their understanding of many worldly phenomena, in which they place their hopes for salvation or happiness – and which, all too often, the powerful use as a vehicle for maintaining their power.

Forty years after the Toynbee-Ikeda dialogue, it seems clear that another great secular religion has emerged. This could be described as free-market fundamentalism, or the belief that human wellbeing is best secured by a constantly growing, de-regulated free-market economy, in which the primary role of ordinary people is as consumers, and inequality and damage to the environment are of very minor concern.

Not all economists endorse this worldview. But all too often, economics is invoked in defense of this worldview. As leading economist Joseph Stiglitz has said, over the past 30 years, economics ‘moved from being a scientific discipline into becoming free market capitalism’s biggest cheerleader.’

What makes religion bad?

Economics, when abused, has in many instances come to resemble a bad religion or philosophy. Of course, not all economists fall prey to these abuses. Indeed, a great many of the criticisms I offer below come from economists themselves. Unfortunately, independent, scientific and ethical economists remain very much a minority. The voices of environmental and labour economists are not echoed nearly so much as are those of corporate economists, whose views are quoted in the media as if they are objective rather than representing, as they usually do, special interests.

So what is bad religion? (Again, by bad religion, I do not refer to individual faith traditions – such as Christianity, taken as a whole – but to the way those traditions are sometimes abused.)

Following the values of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, I would argue that bad religion:

  • tramples on human rights and dignity,
  • is intolerant of diversity,
  • ignores or allows damage to the environment,
  • ignores or denies the value and interdependence of all living beings,
  • condones war and violence,
  • promotes belief in illusory future paradises,
  • creates priestly classes and inner elites,
  • serves as a cloak for the abuse of power by elites,
  • disregards fundamental human equality,
  • financially exploits believers,
  • sacrifices individual happiness to greater powers,
  • engages in arcane and meaningless rituals, and
  • promotes a belief in magic.

In what ways, then, does economics fall into these traps and resemble a bad religion?

How abusive economics is like bad religion

Economics, both as a philosophy and in practice, in many ways shares the characteristics of bad religion that I have outlined above. Here are some of these shared characteristics.

  • Sacrificing individual believers Many economists are cheerleaders for capitalism. Yet capitalism, unchecked, can be extremely destructive. President Ikeda has not hesitated to critique capitalism. In Choose Life, his dialogue with Toynbee, he says (p. 106), ‘Both capitalism and socialism have serious flaws. Capitalism has sacrificed the happiness and welfare of individual human beings to pursuit of profit.’
  • Magical thinking Forms of magical thinking in economics include the refusal to acknowledge that there are limits to certain resources, or to how much damage we can do to the environment without destroying ourselves.

In respect of damage to the environment, most economists simply ignore environmental damage when making economic assessments. Because of this, the costs to the environment and to human beings, such as those resulting from climate change and air pollution, do not enter the accounts of corporations or nations, leading to a terribly distorted view of economic success that ignores environmental damage.

As for resource limits, ‘We don’t believe there is an absolute [oil] resource constraint,’ said a leading oil company economist a couple of years ago, being but one of many economists who defy science and ignore the fact that we live on a finite planet with finite amounts of oil, and that the economically extractable remainder of those reserves is rapidly being depleted.

  • Magical thinking and illusory future paradises Similarly, economists frequently promote the idea that the only healthy economy is a growing economy. Again, since we live on a finite planet with finite resources, this is pure magical thinking. ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist,’ pointed out the Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding.

The idea thrust upon us, again and again, is that if we can just grow the economy enough, all our problems will be solved. Unfortunately, the nature of heedless economic growth is that it multiplies problems as fast or faster than it solves them.

  • Condoning violence Economists mostly do not speak out against warfare, and economics mostly condones violence against nature. ‘As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men,’ wrote EF Schumacher in his essay, ‘Buddhist Economics’.
  • Ignoring inequality Economists, all too often, are unconcerned by inequality. A notable exception is Stiglitz, who condemns such callousness: ‘Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century—inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today. The justification they came up with was called “marginal-productivity theory.” In a nutshell, this theory associated higher incomes with higher productivity and a greater contribution to society. It is a theory that has always been cherished by the rich. Evidence for its validity, however, remains thin.’
  • Serving elites Economists all too often place themselves in the service of the powerful. Many of the economists who are often quoted in the news in South Africa and in other countries work for big corporations. It is rare for environmental economists or labour economists to be quoted in the same way.

As the South African economic historian Sampie Terreblanche has observed, ‘It is inconceivable, vulgar, that people can live in such wealth and luxury as in Cape Town’s wealthy suburbs while 10 km away people are in living in utter destitution… The corporate sector is not concerned about high rates of unemployment and poverty.’

The great human rights activist and scholar Noam Chomsky describes ‘free market’ ideology as a ‘weapon [used] against the general population’. He describes how economics as a philosophy was in fact created to justify the destruction of the rights of ordinary people in England, as the Industrial Revolution took hold:

[The English ‘Poor Laws’ that gave ordinary people rights to land and food] were considered among the main impediments to the new rising British industrial class – so therefore they just had to go. Well, these people needed an ideology to support their effort to knock out of people’s heads the idea that they had this basic right to live, and that’s what classical economics was about – classical economics said: no one has any right to live, you only have a right to what you can earn on the labour market. – Chomsky, Understanding Power, p. 252

  • Creating elites The status of economists in Western society is such that they are frequently, literally referred to as ‘high priests’, as a Google search will quickly reveal. This is meant ironically, but it does indicate the status of economists within society and ideology. Economists are treated as oracles, asked to explain the meaning of contemporary events and to predict future events.
  • The role of faith Market economies are generally acknowledged to depend on faith to function well. This is referred to as ‘confidence’. This is in itself neither good nor bad, but is yet another indicator of the similarity between economics and religion.
  • Trampling on human dignity – Economics has no strong ethical dimension. Economists do not generally critique the abuse of workers or the excesses of elites.

By reducing the role of human beings to being ‘consumers’, as dispensable cogs in the indispensable machine of the economy, economics simply disregards the full dignity and potential of human beings.

  • Human sacrifice, magical thinking, future paradises – Economics frequently sacrifices the wellbeing of individual people to the abstract higher power of economic growth, or growing Gross Domestic/National Product (GDP/GNP).

Robert Kennedy made the following observation in the 1960s: ‘Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.’

President Ikeda has also criticised the concept of GNP: ‘The GNP is probably a valid indication of the economic power of a state, but I think it is time to give precedence to what I call GNW, gross national welfare. Instead of knowing how much a country produces in a year, it is far more important to know how well that product serves the needs of the citizens. In the GNW, of course, primary consideration ought to be given to cultural and spiritual welfare.’ (Choose Life, p. 113)

  • Magical thinking leads to failed prophesies – Most of the economists that endorse the conventional, growth-driven model of economics failed to predict the 2008 financial crisis. On the other, quite a number of less conventional but more rational economists successfully predicted that crisis.
  • Growth-based economics as a suicide cult – Buddhism tells us that all living systems go through cycles of birth, stability, decline and death. There is no exception for economies. But most conventional economists propagate the fantasy that growth can continue forever, and ignore the fact that as damage to the environment grows, growth in fact becomes increasingly uneconomic. This dynamic has been described in depth by the economist Herman Daly. Unfortunately, the faster systems grow, the sharper and more traumatic their collapse is likely to be.

We can understand this by imagining that we and our economy are a ship. As long as we are living within our environmental means, using only the resources available to us, everything should be fine on our ship. But many modern economies resemble ships that refuse to slow down, even when running out of wind or fuel, instead tearing up the decks and the furniture to toss into the furnaces, with the crew and passengers fooling themselves that as long as they keep moving forwards, everything is fine.

Global human society passed the threshold of living within our means – never using resources more quickly than nature could renew them – in the mid-1980s (according to estimates by the Global Footprint Network). Since then, our ecological footprint has exceeded the biocapacity of the planet. Instead of running our ‘ship’ only on what nature can constantly renew, we are instead ‘burning the decks’ to keep it moving.

This abuse of economics, particularly where the endless quest for economic growth is concerned, is fueling climate change, the greatest challenge and threat of our time. As President Ikeda warns us, writing in his 2009 Peace Proposal: ‘Climate change is both an ongoing multidimensional crisis and a threat to the future of humankind, in that it burdens future generations with immense challenges of dire consequence.’

Some economists agree and are also warning of this great danger. But all too many others continue to sound the trumpet of continuing growth. In this respect, economics actually resembles a suicide cult.

As a graffiti artist has observed, ‘Explain to future generations that it was good for the economy – when they can’t farm the land, breathe the air or drink the water.’

Our mission to challenge misguided philosophies in any form

Buddhism teaches that we are born with a purpose, to help other human beings attain enlightenment. We are living at a unique moment in the history of the planet, the first time any species has exceeded not just the limits of its own eco-system – but of the planet itself. What’s more, we have done so knowingly. In the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence, there has never been a moment more crucial for life than the time we are living in right now. To ignore this is to invite great peril.

In this era, if we are to speak out clearly for the sake of life itself and for justice, we have to recognise the great dangers we face. We must throw a clear light on the many unquestioned and damaging orthodoxies of crude economics that circulate in different forms through society, doing enormous damage to people and planet. We should challenge the illusions propagated by so many economists who are corrupted by serving powerful interests, or who remain ignorant of the real value of life.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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