Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Why Buddhism?

There's a charming piece up at Religion Dispatches, Buddha Mind, American Style where Louis Ruprecht, Jr. looks at the wisdom of American's oldest living man through the lens of Buddhism. I presume that America's oldest man, Walter Breuning is at least nominally a Christian. Ruprecht from observing his other writing probably is too. So it's curious to me how Buddhism is used to make sense of Breuning's philosophy of life.

The picture is a screen capture from a video of a question and answer session in 1977 where E. F. Schumacher responds to the question:
Do you believe that Buddhist economics will work in the West?
Schumacher said that he might as well have called his book "Christian Economics" as "Buddhist Economics." I think he was being flip. His book "An economics of permanence/Buddhist economics" was published in 1975, and in 1974 his book "The age of plenty: A Christian view" was published. I haven't read either! I don't know what Schumacher's religious views were; he seems to me a humanist and ecologist. I think his attention to religious views was born out of his compassionate interest in people and his intention to fit economic decisions with religious ideas so that we might think with compassion (with passion) about economics.

It appears that Buddhism provided the easier fit for Schumacher as well as for Ruprecht than Christianity. Obviously trying to get into their heads as to why is a wildly speculative endeavor.

It doesn't seem so far fetched to imagine how to make story fit with Christianity. Perhaps Buddhism fits more easily because Buddhism doesn't require the transcendent mind and is compatible with immanent mind. There are various flavors of Creation Spirituality, and other attempts to create theologies compatible with immanent mind, but these notions often seem heretical to established religious order. Invoking Buddhism is a quick and dirty way of skirting around this theological problem.

E. F. Schumacher seems to have been a very kind-hearted man. It's something that he preferred to be interned in a British prison than to live under a Nazi regime at home. The notion within economics that labor is a commodity seems to have offended his sense of propriety. People are not the same and neither are their circumstances and an economics that doesn't take that into account seemed flawed. It's curious to me that his work in India would lead him to make this points about economics through Buddhism rather than though Hinduism, or even Marxist critique. Perhaps at least part of the reason to choose Buddhism was that the ideas were just familiar enough for recognition, but distant enough to avoid theological controversy.

Schumacher embraced an ecological view; a view that places change in focus. He was also a refugee from fascism, so knew firsthand that ideology necessarily has real world consequences. He knew that ideas matter. Schumacher embraced a scientific view which up-ended the traditional hierarchy with God at the top. There is a long history to Western science intertwined with the history of ideas.

I do not mean to suggest that E. F. Schumacher is the be all and end all of Buddhist economics. Certainly that isn't the case. Buddhist economic ideas are widespread, and not surprisingly many of the top scholars in this school of economics are Buddhists. Nevertheless Buddhist economics has an appeal to people outside Buddhism. Schumacher coined the term in 1955 and returned to and developed the idea in the years after. Casually searching I found a recent article in The Hindu Business Line, Give Buddhist economics a try. The essay that the author of that piece mentions collected in Schumacher's well-known book Small Is Beautiful can be found here.

Buddhism offers a way to critique modern materialism. That seems interesting and important, but it also seems a good idea to look in the Western traditions for critiques as well.

It's very commonly heard in the USA that our founding fathers intended this to be a Christian nation. When it's pointed out that many of the "founding fathers" were in fact deists, it seems mostly the point is glossed over as a distinction without a difference. In philosophy distinctions are quite important, which is one reason I have such a hard time getting a handle discovering broad outlines. Nevertheless, the Age of Enlightenment marks a boundary of great significance to the development of Western culture. From that Wikipedia article:
Historian Peter Gay asserts the Enlightenment broke through "the sacred circle,"[8] whose dogma had circumscribed thinking.
It seems that mentioning this break is something we're afraid to do. We appear to imagine that not mentioning religion is a sort of tolerance of religion.

Buddhists are among the contributers to Buddhist economics. Certainly it makes sense to approach Buddhist economics from that perspective. But it also makes sense to get to the essential ideas, especially if Buddhist economics is used to critique other schools of economic thought. For Buddhist economics to be important in the West, the history of Western thought provides necessary context. In broad outlines the history of how we in the West have changed our minds about God ought not to be missed.


steward said...

Well, here we go again -- people presuming to critique something they've not bothered to read, much less study carefully, or charitable. _Small Is Beautiful_ is one of those books millions refer to as if they know what it actually says/argues WITHOUT reading it -- "most quoted, least read...".

As a serious conservative Christian who tilts economically toward Open Markets (Wilhelm Roepke), I've actually read and studied EF Schumacher's book _Small is Beautiful_ which has a chapter titled 'Buddhist Economics". The chapter's a foil, tongue-in-cheek baiting you to read what's essentially a Christian view.

I do NOT agree with many of Schumacher's policy perscriptions, though some are good -- particularly those calling for localism and decentralization, as opposed to Corporatist Centralization.

But Schumacher's critique of Enlightenment Rationalism AND its children (Corporate-Fascism) is outstanding -- BETTER than most any other Christian critique I've ever read. Given the corporate fascism in today's Wall Street bailouts of many BIG corporations (with few strings, and no prosecutions) Schumacher's book is more timely than ever.

David Rockett

John Powers said...

Hello David, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

I'm not sure why you presume I critiquing E. F. Schumacher's book "Small Is Beautiful"? I generally have a positive opinion of E. F. Schumacher and his ideas. I did not quote from the book.

The question I'm exploring is why does Schumacher use Buddhism to illustrate some of his ideas? I presume there are good reasons for doing so.

Schumacher died in 1977. Surely there are many alive today who knew him and his work. I'm not one to do the research for an in-depth biography of Schumacher. Instead using the question "Why Buddhism" to explore a way of thinking about economics, and thinking about thinking.

You write: "But Schumacher's critique of Enlightenment Rationalism AND its children (Corporate-Fascism) is outstanding." That critique is very much along the lines I'm thinking of. Perhaps we share a common interest?

I would like to learn more. Perhaps you have something to share.

Nevertheless, your gratuitous insult directed at me suggests--"here we go again"--trollish behavior. Surely you can find other forums much more frequented to draw attention to yourself by insulting others. There's ugliness all around. If you continue to be ugly here, I'll delete your comments.