Buddhism and the Path to Good Economics

Venerable San Pisith undertakes his PhD degree at TalTech-Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia. Photo provided

PhD student explores governance issues

Venerable San Pisith was born in Battambang province. He has spent half of his life in Buddhist temples in Cambodia and abroad. Currently, he is undertaking his PhD degree at TalTech-Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia. Cambodianess reporter Sao Phal Niseiy interviews Venerable San Pisith on his Buddhism studies and his research on Buddhist economics and governance.

Sao Phal Niseiy: You have been undertaking a PhD at TalTech in Estonia, and your thesis is on Buddhist Economics and Governance: Theravada Perspectives on Commons-Based Peer Production, Policy without Indicators, and Happiness and Public Purpose. Tell us more about your thesis? And what has prompted you to be interested Buddhist economics and governance?

San Pisith: When I was doing my master’s degree at the International Buddhist College in Thailand, I was asked to write an essay reporting my experience after presenting a paper at an international conference in Malaysia at the end of 2017, which was then published on the school’s website. I remember receiving a message in 2018 from a professor in Europe named Wolfgang Drechsler, who I later learned is a renowned scholar in the field of public administration, telling me that he had read my essay and he really liked it. As a result, we kept in touch and occasionally he traveled to Thailand and Cambodia, we had meetings and exchanged views on engaged Buddhism, the role of the dhammarājā, governance, and economics. In 2019, TalTech received a research grant from the European Research Council for a project called Cosmolocalism, led by Prof. Vasilis Kostakis, to conduct research on how to create a sustainable economy through the commons. The project is open for a PhD position on a topic, “Commons-Based Peer Production as Buddhist Economics and Governance,” which brings together the research fields of commons-based peer production, non-Western public administration, and Buddhism. He encouraged me to apply for the position, and in late 2019, I finally received a fellowship to conduct research on Buddhist economics and governance at TalTech.

Sao Phal Niseiy: How do Buddhist economics and governance differ from conventional Western economics and models of governance?

San Pisith: This is a big question. I am not sure that my answer would be sufficient to fully answer the core of the question. When we talk about economics and governance, we are dealing with the two giant fields of organizing and developing the private and public sectors based on a particular model or philosophy that we believe can lead our society to prosperity. In today's world, the majority of countries consider the Western liberal principle as their model for shaping and organizing society. Most of them are democratic and market-oriented. However, no matter which model we follow, the main goal is to create happiness in our society. But how can we measure human happiness? Conventionally, it is believed that increasing gross domestic product (GDP) or having economic growth is synonymous with increasing societal happiness. That goal can be achieved by creating more wealth and consuming more products so that is the only way to keep the indicator of GDP growing up. That gives us a clear view to say that liberal market-based economics regards the material world as permanent and the source of all happiness which contradicts how Buddhism views the material world as impermanent and should be compassionately treated. If we only think of getting more materialistic things to satisfy our insatiable desire, we might end up ruining Mother Earth. It is because our desire is unlimited, but the natural sources on our planet are limited. The Buddha once said: "even a shower of gold cannot quench the passions.” So basically, Buddhist economics approaches the critical consumption of liberal market economics. Buddhist Economics is not entirely against increasing material wealth, nor is it in favor of remaining in poverty, but Buddhist economics teaches us that material wealth is not the only thing that matters to us, but that there are many other things that are important, such as nature, society, and people. Increasing people's gross domestic product by harming nature and society is not an ideal way to increase people's happiness, and it is not something Buddhist economics would agree with. The goal of Buddhist Economics is to find a middle way that provides a good balance between nature, society, and people. Based on Buddhism, the middle way is the path leading to the cessation of suffering. It begins with the right understanding of the true nature of our existence, and continues with the principle of the right livelihood to moderate our work ethic, wealth acquisition, and material consumption.

Sao Phal Niseiy: As a Buddhist monk, do you think how important Buddhism studies are?

San Pisith: Seeking the truth in life is a primary objective of being a Buddhist monk. The truth is always being blocked by our ignorance and ignorance can only be removed by learning. However, in Buddhism, learning is only the first stage of looking for the truth and this stage doesn’t guarantee us the complete truth. To fully realize the truth in Buddhism, we need thoroughly follow the threefold training, i.e., a) learning (pariyatti), b) practicing (paṭipatti), and c) realizing (paṭivedha). The threefold training is an application task that each individual member of the sangha needs to undertake from the first day of being a monk. Learning can be compared to a theoretical guiding map and practicing can be referred to as an experimental method that we can use to test what we’ve learned and reach our setting goal – realizing the truth. Basically, ignorance is an obstacle blocking mankind from seeing the truth. In Buddhism, ignorance isn’t defined by the level of education or degree that we received from a college and university because sometimes even some of us have a well-educated background, and yet are unable to fully realize the truth. Based on Buddhism, ignorance is an inability to realize the truth of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. In short, ignorance is a non-knowledge of the true nature of self as non-self and impermanence. To eradicate the darkness of ignorance and misperception and to shed a light on the reality of life, learning is necessarily needed. 

Sao Phal Niseiy: In your recent opinion piece on Cambodian Buddhism in dealing with social media, you warned that rise of Buddhist monks becoming social media content creators may risk endangering the future of Khmer Buddhism “by slipping into secularism and eventually falling to the path of worldly attachment.” How do you see the Khmer Buddhism nowadays? Do you think secularism in Cambodia is on the rise? 

San Pisith: Please correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that secularism is on the rise almost everywhere, not just in Cambodia. The term “secularism” is basically used to separate, minimize or even remove the role of religion from our daily lives and public affairs to achieve what we commonly call “modernization”. Secularism has thus overtaken spiritualism simply because society is seeking modernization and religion is unable to meet the needs of the public in today's world. In the case of Cambodia, however, Buddhism still coexists alongside the role of the state like a pair of oxcart wheels. For the smooth journey of the oxcart, we need a good balance between the wheel of temporal power (āṇācakra) and the wheel of spiritual power (buddhacakra). But do we now have a good balance between āṇācakra and buddhacakra? In this case, I assume that I am not the only one who believes that the wheel of the āṇācakra is rolling faster than the buddhacakra. Therefore, the buddhacakra does everything it can to catch up with the āṇācakra, and sometimes it leans toward secularism or even accidentally slips onto the path of worldly attachment.

Sao Phal Niseiy: You also provide solutions, which range from improving digital leadership capacity among heads of Sangha Council and Abbots to creating a code of conduct and provision of training. Are you optimistic that these can be taken into consideration?

San Pisith: That’s a tricky question for me to answer though. To be honest, I am not perfectly sure that my opinion piece would have reached out to someone who has the potential to seriously take the idea into consideration or they would be convinced to look for a positive change, but I am optimistic that at least someone might have read it. That’s a good sign for the initiating idea of seeing the symptom of social illness which I believe has been happening in our community so far. As a Buddhist monk and as someone with an interest in social science, it’s a social responsibility for me or for anyone else who has the same interest as me, to see the problem, try to find out the cause of the problem, and do their best to provide any possible solution.  As members of society, when we see anything that we believe could be social damage, we try to fix it. However, we have to accept the fact that trying to fix it, doesn’t guarantee us any success, but not trying is a sign of achieving nothing. 

Sao Phal Niseiy: Social media may pose a significant threat to Khmer Buddhism if challenges have not been addressed properly. Do you agree that in general, it is a hindrance to Buddhism practice?

San Pisith: To be fair, I’m not trying to rule out any possibility of social media’s positive contribution to our daily social interaction; however, when it comes to practicing Buddhism, it requires a strong determination to achieve our setting goal – the cessation of suffering. The goal demands a great effort to fulfil and most of us have failed so far due to the distraction that we all have experienced in our everyday life. The distraction keeps us away from mindfulness and makes us unable to stay focused on our setting goal-nirvana. Nirvana is the ultimate goal of practicing Buddhism, and basically, it is not easy to achieve. The Buddha once compared the journey of attaining nirvana to a big log that is being carried along by the current of the river inclining toward the ocean. The Buddha said that the log will not reach the ocean 1) if it is caught on the near bank, 2) if it is caught on the far bank, 3) if it is submerged under the water, 4) if it lands on a small island in the middle of the river, 5) if it is taken away by a human being, 6) if it is taken away by non-human being, 7) if it sinks into a whirlpool, and 8) if it becomes rotten inside. The parable of the log can be a key example that could be useful for us to reflect on the hindrance, attachment, and distraction that we all have been facing in the age of social media recently. And that would lead to a serious question about the impact on the mental health of young Khmer Sangha, if the symptom has not been identified in a proper way. 

Sao Phal Niseiy: What are your pieces of advice for Cambodian people and youth as Cambodian society has so far been influenced, if not shaped, by a materialistic way of life?

San Pisith: Be mindful and be careful. Frankly speaking, it makes me seem a little critical or pessimistic about the modern world. But the modern world we live in now presents itself in such a way that we do not fully understand it, which makes us feel a little vulnerable or influenced by something that could jeopardize our future goals. What we experience in the digital world, especially on social media platforms, has a moral impact on our everyday lives and will determine who we are in the future. When our youth and teenager spend more time on social media than in school, or trust social media influencers more than teachers, it shows us that social media platforms are not as simple as we think they are. Before it's too late, it's better for us to be more conscious or skeptical about social media because there's an old saying that goes, "Prevention is better than cure."

Sao Phal Nisey: What are your plans in the future upon your graduation?

San Pisith: Since we were born, we owe a lot of debt to our family, our ancestors, our teachers, our religion, and our society as a whole. These people have done everything they could to make sure we have enough to eat, a safe place to stay, a good school to study, a good principle to follow, and a promised society where we can have a better life. We owe them a lot of gratitude. Although it is impossible to repay all the debts we owe them, I hope that society would be kind enough to allow me to return my small contribution by servicing the service that our society necessarily needs. So, being a good service to society is my future plan after I graduate.

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