Developing a society that alleviates suffering

One of the Buddha’s principal aims was to alleviate unnecessary suffering – that is, suffering caused by three factors: one, anger and ‘negative’ emotions; two, greed, craving and attachment; and, three, delusion – having a misguided view or understanding of how things are – the nature of reality. Needless to say, our social, political and economic structures are not conducive to the aim of alleviating suffering – indeed they seem to be based on the very factors that cause unnecessary suffering. So, what would a society look like that took the alleviation of unnecessary suffering as its underlying purpose or goal?

Back in 1973, Fritz Schumacher, wrote a book titled, Small is Beautiful. It became a best-seller. Its sub-title was, ‘A study of economics as if people mattered’ and it included a chapter on ‘Buddhist economics.’ If he were writing now, his sub-title might be: ‘a study of economics as if all beings mattered.’ If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to take a look at Schumacher’s book as there is much we can still learn from it. I would also recommend Sulak Sivaraksa’s book, Seeds of peace: a Buddhist vision for renewing society.’

In the meantime, here are a few of my thoughts on these matters.

If a society is to have ‘alleviation of unnecessary suffering’ as its guiding principle, all social, political and economic structures would need to foster three aims: one, to minimise anger and ‘negative emotions; two, to minimise greed, craving and attachment; and, three, to minimise delusion or misunderstanding about the nature of things.

To express this in more positive terms, our social, political and economic structures would need to encapsulate and encourage: one, non-violence, friendship and kinship; two, non-attachment and relief from craving; and, three, a clear understanding that impermanence, change, interdependence and causality are key features of the world in which we live and that we need to live in harmony with these features, if we are to live well. These three attributes may constitute ‘wise livelihood’ in the Eightfold Path suggested by the Buddha.

A society that took non-violence and friendship as one of its founding principles, would minimise its dependence on military forces, employing such forces only for defence and, perhaps, to contribute to an international peace-keeping force that could be used to prevent or resolve conflicts around the world. The production of arms would only be for these forces and there would be no arms trade as such, or so-called ‘defence industries,’ which only sell weaponry that fuels violence elsewhere. Money saved from military expenditure would be invested in an education, health and social-care system that was equally available to everyone.

Non-violence, anger-management and understanding of how to recognise and deal with ‘negative emotions’ would be an integral part of education at all levels from primary school to university and tertiary levels. Courtesy, respect for oneself and others, and tolerance, would also be important parts of any curriculum. Private schools would not have charitable status. Money saved through a more efficient and sustainable economy would be used to provide free education for everyone, regardless of status or wealth. Non-violence and mutual respect would be enshrined within the legal system and restitution, reconciliation and reformation would be the main purpose of justice – rather than vengeance and retribution. Conciliation, victim-support and transparency would be central to the legal system.

Democracy would be enhanced through a fairer system of proportional representation, with political power devolved, as far as possible, to local councils and citizens assemblies. A taxation system would be devised that ensured a fair and balanced distribution of income for everyone. Funds from taxation would be spent in ways that maximised the wellbeing of everyone in society.

A society predicated on non-attachment and freedom from craving would need to be radically different from our current consumerist culture and economy. Profit would no longer be the main purpose of commerce and industry – well-being, health, creative development and sustainability would become the driving impetus for the economy. The economy would be ecological in substance and operation. Care of people, other beings and the planet, would be of primary importance rather than profit and exploitation. Economic ‘growth’ would be replaced by ‘personal growth and social well-being’ as the measure of a successful economy. ‘Getting the most from the least’ would be a guiding motto for how resources are used. Things would be made to last, to be repairable and recyclable – reliability and make-do-and-mend would be virtues. Instead of advertising newness, changing fashion or unnecessary consumption, advertising would focus on quality of manufacture, dependability, sustainability and ingenuity in making the most of limited resources.

Work, trade and retailing would be governed by clear ethical guidelines based on sustainability, care of workers and customers. All commercial enterprises would be partnerships involving everyone who contributed to the company, all of whom shared in the commonwealth that accrued to the organisation. Equality of opportunity and reward for all, would be fundamental principles and any profit generated, over and above what was considered fair for the wellbeing of each partner, would be cycled back into the organisation, or into a wellbeing fund held by the society at large. Minimising consumption, sustainability and caring for all beings and for the planet, would be central to the education system – which would be a lifelong process aimed at developing the creative, spiritual and caring potential of every citizen. A person who consumes less would be considered more successful than a person who consumes more – unlike in our society where the opposite is usually the case. How to enable everyone to live well and enjoy a good life – making creative use of minimal resources – and caring for each other and for all beings, would be the guiding aspirations of all political, social, economic and cultural organisations. Parenthood would be a valued and rewarded occupation.

Learning about impermanence, interdependence and causality would be at the core of a comprehensive education system. Learning the importance of taking responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions – and of compassion, awareness and kindness – would be key elements in a curriculum that emphasised critical thinking as well as developing: creative imagination, awareness and respect for all cultures; learning from history; and learning how all beings are interconnected. All centres of education would aim to develop in their students a holistic awareness of the interrelationships that bind all beings and natural forces together, and a realisation that all actions have consequences that may cause or alleviate suffering.  Learning that the earth’s resources are finite and need to be conserved, and that biodiversity is essential to the health of us all, would be crucial – as would developing new ways of ensuring the well-being of all the peoples of the earth. Cultural diversity would be viewed as a sign of a flourishing planet. The natural world would be cared for as the home of all living beings – to be valued and cared for as we value and care for our own home.

These may be seen as pie-in-the-sky aspirations at present, but any action any of us can take, however small, which moves us in this direction, is a step towards a better future. Of course, clinging to notions of a future utopia may be one more attachment to be let go of – but, following an ethical path that might someday lead to a sustainable, fair and healthy society is surely something that each of us can do – it is a way of extending our meditation practice, and the understanding that comes from it, into our everyday lives. Making the world a better place depends on each of us, here and now, acting with imagination, kindness and compassionate clear-sighted awareness.

References & links

E. F. Schumacher. 1974. Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered. London: Abacus.

Sulak Sivaraksa. 1992. Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist vision for renewing society. Berekeley: Parallax Press.

New Economics Foundation – an organisation aim at developing an economic system that has parallels with ‘Buddhist economics’ – thanks to Glenn for reminding me about them:

Five Ways to Wellbeing – CLANG – Connect, keep Learning, be Active, take Notice, Give (also mentioned by Glenn) – information can be downloaded here:

Gross National Happiness index – information about Bhutan’s approach to happiness can be found here:

Doughnut Economics Model for sustainable development – another approach to sustainable economics (thanks to Robin for reminding me about this):