Using Buddhist critical thinking skills to determine our financial situation: Economic justice

The easiest Buddhist critical-thinking skill-set to recollect is found in the Visuddhimagga, a fifth-century treatise which borrows from the Abhidhamma. This expresses a coherent framework and structurally examines sila (moral regulations), samadhi (calming meditation) and panna (wisdom), through a fourfold-scheme to determine the characteristics, function, manifestation and proximate cause of the threefold-training.

Pertaining to economics, as examined through these Theravada and general Buddhist analytical skills, anyone in society should be able to understand, comprehend, justify/interpret and demonstrate any criteria being put up for examination. For instance, examine your own financial condition. This is a particularly important at the moment as Thai household debt to GDP is over 70 percent, with the average value of per capita debt being about 150,000 baht and non-performing loans being about 2.94%. If one is unable to manage one’s financial circumstances, how can critical thinking criteria be explained, taught, described, established, disclosed, analyzed or elucidated in practice?

According to classic, well-respected Buddhist teaching principles, to better understand one’s own financial situation, more effort would need to go into learning economic principles for oneself, teach better lessons on economic principles, be able to repeat the content, recite it from memory, be able to ponder or elaborate from those principles, and learn more from skilled seniors. With that in place, then the criteria are probably well learned, grasped, attended to, reflected upon, penetrated, well represented, and explained.

Ideally, an instructor would reveal the consequences of economic problems as terms, including their origins, philology, and other extended knowledge of the idea being scrutinized. The idea would be investigated, assessed for criteria of body, speech and mind, and then evaluated. Does the principle bring suffering, from where does that suffering originate, can that suffering end, and what is the pathway away from such suffering and from being subjected to oppression? Are any criteria unprofitable, blameworthy, censured by intelligent people, and conducive to loss and sorrow?

These basic analytical tools can ensure that Buddhist teachings, investigations, construings, footings, characteristics, grammatical-arrays, conversions, analyses, reversals, synonyms, descriptions, ways of entry, clarifications, terms of expressions, requisites and coordination for all the criteria are well-founded and properly articulated for the academic endeavor at hand.

These Buddhist critical thinking skills are a necessary part of Buddhist economics and should be employed by every employer, service-provider, or government agency, benefitting every citizen or employed worker in society. These Buddhist critical thinking skills are somewhat greater than the meagre observations, formulation of theory, testing and results of the scientific method. Certainly there is residual need for this basic Western device, but Buddhism should be about considering its own greater individual and societal advancements.

Here we can consider a case study. The dual-income household within a Theravada Buddhist nation suggests certain family roles and responsibilities, as well as the basic condition that we expect justice in order to have peace. A Buddhist discourse used in P. A. Payutto's tome on Buddhist Economics, 'A Constitution for Living', suggests we are taught that half of the salary goes to bills and responsibilities, a quarter of the salary should be saved in the bank, and the remaining quarter is to be reinvested into one’s business. According to sila, entrepreneurial Buddhists should provide salaries dictated from the Buddha’s perspective: if employers are not paying employees enough, then the pressure falls on the employer to ensure there is enough for the employee.  The presence of poverty should reflect upon the employer.

Instead, there is no possibility of completely following the UNDP's Sustainable Development Goal 8, which aims to expand the middle-class via decent work but in fact widens social inequality in Thailand under the guise of job promotion and illusory rights at work, social protection, and social dialogue. In fact, workers submit themselves to the dictates of capitalists or the dictates of the supportive bureaucracy, both disinterested in mass society or social dialogue. In actuality, in Thailand, the boss should not induce suffering upon the worker. This stance is not Marxism; this is principled ethics and basic Buddhism.

Everyone must calculate for themselves, for the sake of their family, the cost of their rent, electricity, water, internet, phone, school payments for the children, car payments, and any other bills required in our modern society. Look at the data of an average Bangkok-based academic family, using real, averaged numbers. Once a month, the lecturer is paid 40,000 THB, and half is given to paying rent, water, electricity, internet, telephone, car, shop tax, trash tax, school fees, and other hidden expenditures. With about 19,400 THB remaining from the monthly salary and raising two children, the remaining money must be allocated in some way. A single visit to TOPS grocery-store for purchasing hygiene products and food results in an expenditure of 5,000 THB: healthy cooking oils, some frozen meats, flour, cheese, vegetables, nuts, and other basic items - nothing outrageous has been purchased.

Perhaps the family went to see a movie, as family entertainment, or went for a family dinner at a restaurant?  A movie with popcorn and a drink, and later a dinner, can be almost 4,000 THB. Food is eaten quickly in a house of four people, and after the first day of the month, usually there is only about 10,000 THB remaining, yet there are still four weeks of living, and the amount of money available is already reduced to 330 THB per day for the four people. By the end of the second week of the month, there is no money left from the lecturer’s salary.  The researcher has to tell his sons to never academically study Buddhism, since there is no money in the field.  The boys ponder: why would the father study and work in a field that cannot provide for the family?  Buddhism can seem as a waste of time.

Now, forget about retirement, for the suffering lecturer cannot afford to even leave the house, and he dwells without dignity. The wife’s income supplements the domestic daily consumption of food and taxi fares for the children commuting to school, as well as her need to replenish the stock of chemicals that she uses daily on salon customers while working as a beautician in a society which praises beauty above intelligence: shampoos, conditioners, dyes, eyebrow tattoos, make-up, etc. Dual-income households are the mandate of society now, where everyone is economically enslaved. The wife, not appreciating academic work, condemns the lecturer, in frustration proclaiming she should have married a business man.

While samadhi may produce calm and insights, people engaged in society may suggest finding another job. Indeed, many older lecturers teach at several universities, but some young lecturers are barred from teaching in this manner by their own university; the foreign lecturer works at one location. We only really just survive under sufficiency economics, because there is no excess to save, not even for retirement.

Ultimately, we should be guided by wisdom. The government-policy seems to be: give the minimum wage amount to not induce mass-suffering, offering only enough to ensure the economic wage-slave class, where citizens are trapped in an economic hell. We are conditionally happy, government statistics proclaim, because at least we are not suicidal. Nevertheless, we have seen recently that suicide is an increasing option for the economically disenfranchised.

Without wars to reduce populations of working-aged men, employment opportunities decline for those not escaping into monasticism. Buddhism reduces itself to social control and an overemphasis on harmony, not as something intellectually effective to ensure social growth and liberation in the manner proposed by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Obtaining liberation denotes removing oneself from samsaric society. Thailand’s many governments since 2004 have advocated sufficiency economics, but why not just get the basics of Buddhist Economics right away?

Instead, at present, temples can have a million gold statues around a chedi, but lecturers cannot afford to offer rice to monks going on repeated-alms rounds, twice every morning.  Can society be restructured to help indebted government teachers and others live with justice, since without social justice there is no peace?

Without economic justice or the possibility of social dialogue in the quest for a right to decent work, there is social strife, and this will lead to future anti-government protests. Instead of protesting, foreign university lecturers will move abroad as part of the brain-drain phenomena, due to socio-economic reasons: maybe divorce the wife, and hope to earn enough money to send back to the children she must now raise alone – all because being a lecturer, whether of Buddhist Studies or any academic subject, cannot provide a safe and secure income.

The only consolation is that the author knows that making merit is not limited to almsgiving. Writing academic articles on Buddhism or giving these gifts of Dhamma is gratefully considered the greatest Buddhist offering: the Buddha considers education to be a great miracle.


About the author: Dr. Dion Peoples was formerly a lecturer at the International Buddhist Studies College at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, and for a decade, managed the International Association of Buddhist Universities; he has an education background in Buddhist Studies, Thai Studies, and political and social economics.