A Buddhist Perspective on a Troubled Economy

Charles Day*

Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths can help us understand and possibly relieve the suffering associated with our troubling economy.

Buddha’s first noble truth is that life is inherently problematic, filled with various degrees of suffering and discontent. Not only is there the obvious suffering associated with birth, sickness, aging, and dying, but we suffer when we are separated from what we like or want and when we are associated from what we dislike or can’t avoid.

In these troubling economic times, there is much suffering related to the loss of jobs, homes, and retirement and investment savings. Even if we are fortunate in not yet being effected, perhaps family members or friends have lost their jobs. Or taken cuts in pay, perks, or hours so that everyone can keep their job. Or we are expected to work even more hours without additional pay to do the work that laid-off employees were doing. And we all live under the economic threat that continues into an unpredictable future.

Suffering is caused by attachment to likes and dislikes

Buddha’s Second Noble Truth is about the causes of suffering. Suffering is caused by our attachments. We cling to wants and desires and try to push away and resist aversions and what we don’t want. And we have difficulty letting go of these attachments when it’s appropriate and beneficial to do so.

In these troubling economic times, it might be helpful to ask ourselves, how attached are we to our possessions, to our money, our home, our job, our style of living. And to our social and economic status and reputation as these are viewed by ourselves and our family, friends, colleagues, and community. Can we let go of our attachments to material possessions and the psychological images we have of ourselves? Ask yourself, “How much does my self respect, my self esteem, my self worth depend upon my net worth?”

Our difficulty in letting go of attachments prevents us from acknowledging without judgment and simply accepting the way things are. Instead we deny what Buddha called the three primary characteristics of reality: suffering, impermanence, and the interdependent unity of everybody and everything. We’ve already talked about suffering.

Everything is impermanent and interdependent

Denial of impermanence was evident in our expectation that the value of our homes and our investments could only grow, and in the failure of the so-called experts to predict what was coming. And In our longing to maintain the illusion of what seemed to be a permanently rising market, most of us probably continue to ride the market up and down, despite its continuing to be part of a dramatically unpredictable and impermanent environment.

Buddha’s third characteristic of reality that we tend to deny is our interdependency. This refers to the fact that everybody and everything in existence is interconnected and interdependent, and that nothing, no thing, no person, no self exists as a completely separate, independent, or autonomous entity.

In these troubling economic times, it might be helpful to remember that no one individual or group of individuals, no one industry, no one political party, and no one nation, is responsible for the problems we now face. Nor can we solve them as individuals or as one nation alone. We are all parts of an interconnected web of reality that functions as a unified interdependent whole. There is no better demonstration of this than the wide-ranging impact of the economy on housing, banking, investments, and employment, and on local, national, and global levels. We are all in this together. We always were, and we will always be.

Let’s cooperate, not compete, as a unified whole

Acknowledging the reality of our interdependence can aid us in understanding and compassionately cooperating with each other, rather than selfishly competing for what we fear are limited resources. We are not and never have been separate, and we need not feel isolated, alone, and afraid.

It should be emphasized that accepting that what is is does not mean approving of the way things are. Nor does it mean being passive, indifferent, or insensitive to any suffering experienced by ourselves or others, or to the reality of the need for action or change. It simply means accepting the way it is and letting go of negative reactions so that one’s energy is not wasted in emotional reactivity to what can’t be changed, since it’s already happened, or worrying about a future that has not yet arrived.

Let us realistically acknowledge and accept the problems associated with these troubling economic times and devote our energy to optimistically cooperating with others to find mutually acceptable solutions to our economic problems. And let us accept the real possibility that such solutions may not be forthcoming anytime soon, that what we and our leaders try may fail and even backfire, and that we may have to continue to come up with new cooperative strategies.

Accepting the way it is in order to deal more effectively and compassionately with problems is exquisitely reflected in the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Suffering is overcome by accepting the way it is

Buddha’s Third Noble Truth tells us that suffering can be overcome, even when troubling circumstances remain the same. Calm and equanimity can be attained by letting go of our attachments to selfish desires and to our negative judgments and reactions to what we don’t like. We need to accept the reality of the ever-changing impermanent nature of all physical and mental phenomena, in this case, of the economy and the way of life we’ve grown accustomed to. We need to experience our interconnectedness and trust in the unpredictable flow of a continuously changing and interdependent universe.

In short, suffering is overcome when we experientially and intuitively realize and accept that life is inherently problematic, impermanent, and interdependent, when we simply say “yes” to life, to whatever it confronts us with, and accept that what is is. Doing this, counterintuitive as it may seem, prepares us to more effectively and compassionately deal with problems that arise.

The Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truth explains how to do this. Suffering, he said, can be overcome by practicing eight simple but profound steps on what is called the Eightfold Path. They are called Right Steps, not in the sense of being righteous, but because they are wise, skillful, and beneficial. The steps are Right Wisdom, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. I want to briefly elaborate on one of these Steps, Right Mindfulness, because it bears directly on what an individual can do to alleviate stress related to these troubling economic times.

Mindfulness and meditation can help us let go of stress

Right Mindfulness means giving full, undivided attention to present moment sensations, feelings, perceptions, and our endless stream of thoughts, without habitually, unconsciously, and immediately reacting to them with judgments, comparisons, commentary, and unnecessary concerns about the past and future. We need to train our minds to recognize and let go of unproductive feelings and thoughts related to greed, anger, and separateness in order to be more mindful and proactive, rather than so scattered and reactive.

Sitting meditation is perhaps the single, most powerful method of training the mind to be mindful and to let go of negativity. It instructs one to attend to the changing physical sensations of the breath, to notice when the attention has strayed to thoughts, feelings, sounds, or other body sensations, and to let go of these distractions and return the attention to the breath. In short it trains the mind to focus and to let go of distractions.

This practice of focusing and refocusing on the breath can be done anytime, for one or several minutes while sitting in formal meditation, while waiting for an appointment, standing in line, or when walking from place to place. And it can be specifically practiced whenever the mind becomes agitated by negative thoughts and feelings in order to let go of them. Over 50 years of scientific research has consistently shown that the practice of meditation – and it does need to be systematically practiced - helps us become more relaxed, think more clearly, and experience more compassion and lovingkindness in our life, in spite of its ups and downs.

Buddhist Master Sogyal Rinpoche, author of “The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying,” says this about dealing with thoughts and feeling:

“Whatever thoughts and emotions arise in meditation (and, I would add, at any other time when your want to rid yourself of them) allow them to rise and settle, like the waves in the ocean. Whatever you find yourself thinking, let that thought rise and settle, without any constraint. Don’t grasp at it, feed it, or indulge it; don’t cling to it, and don’t try to solidify it. Neither follow thoughts nor invite them in. Be like the ocean looking at its own waves, or the sky gazing down on the clouds that pass across it. You will soon find that thoughts are like the wind; they come and go. The secret is not to ‘think’ about the thoughts but to allow them to flow through your mind, while keeping your mind free of afterthoughts.”

I’d like now to share a couple of my favorite Buddhist stories, one reflecting the suffering created by negative thoughts and feelings and the other highlighting the value of generosity and letting go.

Heaven or Hell: It’s Your Choice

A big, burly Japanese samurai comes to a Zen master and says, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.”

The Zen master looks him in the face and says, “Why should I talk to a scruffy, disgusting, miserable slob like you? A worm like you, do you think you can understand anything?”

Consumed by rage, the samurai draws his sword and raises it to cut off the master’s head. The Zen master says, “That’s hell.”

Instantly, the samurai understands that he has created his own hell - black and hot, filled with hatred, self-protection, anger, and resentment. He sees that he was so deep in hell that he was ready to kill someone. Tears fill his eyes as he puts his palms together to bow in gratitude for this insight.

The Zen master says, “That’s heaven.” ( From Pema Chodron’s “Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings,” Shambhala Publications, 2002.)

This story reminds us that hell can consist of experiencing negative emotions and thoughts. And Heaven is the equanimity that results when one gains insight into their ego-driven, selfless, and impermanent nature, and is able to accept and let go of them, without judging, indulging, resisting, or otherwise reacting to them, to just let them rise and pass away. And remember, the kind of acceptance I’m talking about actually inspires appropriate and compassionate action when circumstances call for it.

A Buddhist Fable On Generosity

A Buddhist monk was walking barefoot on a dusty road when he stepped on something sharp. It stuck in his heel, so after a few steps he stopped to pull it out. Low and behold, it was a very beautifully carved and very valuable gemstone. The monk rinsed it off at a well he was passing and tossed it in his satchel, along with the partial loaf of bread that was to be his one meal of the day.

A little further down the road, the monk happened upon a beggar. The beggar spied the partial loaf, leapt in front of the monk, bowed three times and said, "O Venerable Sir! I am but a poor starving beggar. Might I have a taste of your bread?" Whereupon the monk pulled the loaf from his satchel, and before handing it to the beggar, pulled the gem from the crust where it had become imbedded. He then handed the entire loaf to the beggar.

The beggar saw the gemstone and pleaded, "O, Most Worthy One! I have taken your only meal of the day, and this is not right. I see you have a gemstone, which would relieve me greatly of my situation. May I give you back your bread in exchange for the gem?" At this, the monk promptly gave the gemstone to the beggar, telling him also to keep the bread. The beggar was ecstatic and galloped off down the road.

The monk, noticing it was time for meditation, sat down under a nearby tree. A few minutes later he became aware of the presence of someone and opening his eyes, he saw the beggar, who thrust out his hand with the gem, saying, "O Venerable One, may I please return the gem to you? I don't want it!"

The monk asked, “What sir, do you want?" And the beggar replied, "I want what you have that allowed you to give away everything."

*Click here to download and print this essay. A briefer version of this essay was presented in March 2009 to an interfaith gathering that focused on how the teachings of different religions might help deal with current economic challenges.