Thursday, December 7, 2017

Buddhist Analysis of the Causes and Consequences of Poverty


According to Buddhism poverty is bad because it involves dukkha. The Pali term dukkha is arguably the most fundamental concept of Buddhism, yet it is often misunderstood. The usual English translations are "suffering, frustration, dissatisfaction", but "ill-being" is perhaps the best in this context. The point of the Buddhist path is to end our dukkha, and that does not involve making any significant distinction between worldly dukkha and some other transcendental sort.

As a philosophy and way of life which advocates eliminating dukkha, Buddhism does not and cannot value poverty that is a source of duhkha. In the Anguttara Nikaya, for example, the Buddha says that for a person who enjoys sense-pleasures poverty (Pali, daliddiya) is miserable, because it leads to borrowing and increasing debts and thus ever-increasing suffering.

In looking at this issue, we have to take into account and observation on the part of some critics of Buddhist tradition that the Buddhist way of thinking does in some way contribute to poverty. It is rather a widespread point of view that has received a western education. They believe that countries like Sri Lanka cannot overcome poverty because of Buddhist ideology. They say that Buddhism encourages elimination of craving, desire, and so any system of thoughts that strives to eliminate the desire for developing craving cannot materially progress.

Do Buddhist ethics related to economics, affect to increase poverty?

When we draw our attention to the practical social context in the contemporary world some scholars say that Economics and ethics don’t go together. Ethical values should be subservient to economics. Economic development cannot be achieved unless abandoning some traditional values.

Buddhism has laid down the distinction between Sammā-ājiva (right livelihood) and Micchā-ājiva (wrong livelihood). Some occupations are considered wrong forms of livelihood, like the occupation of killing animals. So those who proposed economic reforms in a country, with the influence of western ideas, the people should be encouraged to occupy themselves in areas of livelihood which Buddhist tradition does not approves, portray farming, inland fishery, where one treats animals like treating plants. So, this kind of economic activities was prioritized but objected by Buddhist communities.

Now let’s first look at the issue that Buddhism is the cause of poverty. We see that theoretically, Buddhism never considers poverty as a virtue. What is considered as virtue in Buddhism, is a reasonable reduction of human wants. There is Buddhist concept of “Appicchatā” having fewer wants. That’s why in Bhikkhu’s life, only the primary requisites are taken for basic needs: healthy food, adequate clothing, housing and medical needs. “Subharoca” having less possession.

This is recommended for the monk's life at the same time, in canonical sources, it is mentioned that Dāliddhiyam Bhdikkhuave dukkhavam gihino kāmabhogino[2] (for a householder who enjoys sense desire). It is taken for granted that in Buddhism that one remains lay person because he has not given up sense gratification. So for a householder, poverty is suffering. So Poverty is never encouraged, instead, all Buddhist teachings to laypersons all instructions given to lay persons by the Buddha relate to developing a secure economic basis for one’s life.

So the Buddha thought very much about the acquisition of material wealth. But all acquisition of material wealth in order to eliminate poverty should be done according to the Buddha by ethical means. The ethical mean should be adopted. There is a clear distinction between economic good achieved by ethical means and economic development achieved by unethical means.

Roots of Poverty

Kamma as a cause of poverty

“Appabhogasavattanikā esā māava, paţipadā yadida na dātā hoti samaassa vā brāhmaassa vā anna pāna vattha yāna mālāgandhavilepana seyyāvasathapadīpeyya

Young man the behaviour of not giving to recluses, or Brahmins, eatables, drinks, clothes, conveyances, flowers, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings and illuminations is conducive to be born poor with little means.

This says that the poverty has a karmic effect. In that sense karma is something existing in the world as long as people commit bad deeds that cause for becoming poor. This is the ethical explanation of which one has to determine rich or poor by birth.

Deserving poverty through unethical livelihood

Sometimes people deserve poverty for their evil and unethical behaviours and we can give evidence from Buddhist canon. “Itthidutto surādutto – akkhadutto ca yo naro laddha laddha vināseti – ta parābhavato mukha

Addiction for women, liquors, gambling make the life of a person miserable and declined.
On the other hand, Sigālovāda sutta of Digha nikāya points out six ways of squandering the wealth of a person as follows; indulging in intoxicants, wandering the streets at inappropriate times, frequenting public spectacle, compulsive gambling, malevolent companionship, habitual idleness. Thus, Buddhism suggests earning wealth in the proper and righteous way while it instructs to spend it in a systematic way.

Good governance takes steps to eliminate poverty

According to Kutadanta sutta of long discourses of the Buddha, the government has a responsibility to respond in a positive manner when the country beset with problems and oppressions like poverty. It is natural seen of thieves when people do not have any refuge at least to have their basic needs. Reactions of the government directly affect to the problem of poverty. Therefore, the authority has to be rational whenever they take decisions against criminals.

“Bho to kho rañño janapado sakaţko sauppīlo. Gāmaghātā’pi dissanti, nigāmaghātā’pi dissanti, panthadūhanā’pi dissanti.”

While a country beset with problems and oppression. There is a tendency that people start to steal others possessions.

Bhava ce kho pana rājā eva sakaţhake janapade sauppïle balimuddhareyya, akiccakārï assa tena bhava rājā.

When the country is beset with problems and oppression if the king levies tax, you are doing what ought not to do.

Ye te hatāvasesakā bhavissanti, te pacchā raňňo janapada viheţessanti.

Left robbers will go on harassing in the country.
Kutadanta sutta suggests that the government must provide people’s needs whenever the country has problems to overcome poverty.

bījabhatta anuppadetu  - needs for farmers, pābhata anuppadetu  – good price for businessmen. bhattavetana  pakappatu  -  needs for royal servicemen

“Ye ca te tāta vijite adhanā assu tesañ ca dhanamanuppadeyyāsi. adhanāna dhane anuppadīyamāne dāliddiya vepullamagamāsi, dāliddiye vepulla gate aññataro puriso paresa adinna theyyasakāta ādii

This says that giving wealth to the poor is helpful to cure poverty and crimes. When kings do not give needs to the poor it develops to make the poor criminals.

Righteous way of earning wealth to overcome poverty

When the material resources are gained, it should be based on an ethical method, through ethical means. So economic good gained by this means – Dhammikehi dhammaladdhehi – achieved by righteousness. This is connected with Buddhist idea of noble wealth. The Buddhist concept of noble wealth which is called the Ariyadhana (Nobel wealth, Vyagghapajja Sutta). Every sphere of human life, the Buddhist way of thinking of trying to instil some ethical values. When we consider environmental issues, but the psychological and ethical values are involved. Poverty and wealthy, you can suffer from ethical poverty. There are certain ethical qualities that have to be cultivated. There are seven ethical qualities (Satta ariyadhana) recognized as person’s wealth, moral wealth:
Saddhā, Sila, Hiri, Ottappa, Suta, Cāga, Panna

Vyagghapajja Sutta[10] of AN, important for discussions of Buddhism and Household Well-being. Regarding one’s economic life, Buddha gave following advice:

1.   Utthanasampada One should strive to produce material goods. 
2.  Arakkahasampada – what has been protected/reserved by right means should be protected from various threats.
3. Samajivikata – being very circumspect regarding how one spends his earning. Family and friends have to be treated properly with the materials earned. Income and expenditure have to be properly balanced, neither a miserly or extravagant life should be embraced.
4. Kalyanamittata – having good friends, good companions. Not having good companions also lead to ways of wasting money.

Ethical poverty and Material poverty

Being content and wise is another method of overcoming poverty. According to the teaching of Ratthapala sutta of MN, when one’s mind is overcome by craving, even this whole world is not enough to fulfil it

Anana sutta of AN the Buddha defines four kinds of happiness a layperson can attain instead of being crave:

  1. Atthisukha – having enough economic resources to lead a satisfactory lay life
  2. Bhogasukha – while having enough material resources, sharing with family, friend your wealth
  3. Ananasukha – a kind of happiness not being in debt
  4. Anavajjasukhua – free from wrongdoings

The first three kinds of happiness derive from economic aspect of one’s life is not worth even the sixteenth part of the fourth. What is considered happiness in Buddhist perspective is not prioritized on economics, rather on moral values. That’s why Buddhism emphasizes the idea of making economic progress only by ethical means.

Thus, the lay person’s life is although accumulation of wealth is very much encouraged, wealth earned with efforts has to be intelligently utilized, and your relationship with a material richness that you don’t depend your happiness on these materials alone.

Economic progress in Buddhist viewpoint

Peace can totally break down when poverty increases. Buddhism encourages the leadership of any state to give priority to the economic security of the people. One of the main issues the Buddhism focuses its attention on is the fact for poverty to be eliminated, it is necessary that there is a fair economic system, where there is a basis of wealth distribution. One of the dilemmas in organizing the economy in a country is the conflict between distributing wealth among the society members, such as capitalism, socialism and communism.

Buddhism has many objections against the new economic order, which is kind of globalized economic order. The approach to human values that the current free market and globalization involved can be said the direct legacy of classical economic doctrine that kept the economy and human value apart. We find that in classical economics, the economic man is distinguished from the moral man, creating an unpredictable gap. This ideology can be traced to Adam Smith. He denies the economic activity of man can never be regulated or modified by moral values. The economic activities shall be in accord with market laws working through self-serving interests.

Buddha says that contentment is the greatest wealth. But what we find today is quite the opposite of that. There is unending desire to make more and consume more. It has become socially collective psychological attitudes leading to greater suffering. For instance, in Sri Lanka, many women chose to work in middle-east countries for higher earning. The consequences are visible having a negative impact on families, society and the workforce themselves. In earlier days, it was tea or rubber plantation contribute to the economy, nowadays, its labour exportation.

This doesn’t mean Buddhism advocate poverty. There is an interesting inscription by an ancient Sinhalese King Nissankamalla (12-13 AD). He said that he was so happy in this country, that he can hold a jewel in his hand from the southern tip of his country to the northern tip, not worrying about stealing or luting. Poverty begins with invasions, the breakdown of the culture, the loss of values, it is in Kamma is taken as an explanation for certain events of one’s life, but never a justification. Buddhism never justifies suffering in terms of Kamma. Wherever there is suffering, a human being should make every effect to remove it. Every effort should be made to keep society healthy. Buddhism maintains that effort is very necessary for economic life – achievement by efforts.

According to the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha taught that some people are like the completely blind because they do not have the vision to improve their material circumstances, nor the vision to lead a morally elevated life. Others are like the one-eyed because, although they have the vision to improve their material conditions, they do not have the vision to live morally elevated life; the third class have the vision to improve both. Such Buddhist teachings imply that when measuring poverty it is not enough to evaluate the material conditions. For a more comprehensive evaluation of deprivation, it is necessary to take into account the moral quality of people's lives. But that is not to minimize the importance of the first eye. There is a causal relationship between material poverty and social deterioration, according to the Lion's Roar Sutta (Cakkavatti-sihanāda Sutta).

In this sutta the Buddha tells the story of a monarch in the distant past who initially venerated and relied upon the Buddhist teachings, doing as his sage advised: "Let no crime prevail in your kingdom, and to those who are in need, give property." Later, however, he began to rule according to his own ideas and did not give the property to the needy, with the result that poverty became rife. Due to poverty one man took what was not given and was arrested; when the king asked him why the man said he had nothing to live on. So the king gave him some property, saying that it would be enough to carry on a business and support his family.


Buddhism does not deny that the economic progress is important; alleviation of poverty is a must for society. According to Buddhist tradition, poverty is the starting point of society’s ethical values. Material progress and economic security of the people is considered to be an essential requirement for a peaceful society.

Poverty is a nature in the human society which ever exists. It is complicated to describe what its proper root is since poverty could exist for many reasons. Sometimes kamma affected to poverty and perhaps one's idleness and effortlessness affected to it even though people inherited fortune for their lives. However, those who concern about humanity can overcome or console the poor's suffering to some extent. Buddhism challenges our understanding of poverty by contextualizing the problem in a different way, one which questions the assumptions that still dominate our thinking about "undeveloped" societies.

Effort, contentment, generosity, righteousness, good governance, fairness, justice, equality etc… are qualities to be developed in a society in order to overcome poverty from a society. Buddhism has provided ethical distinctions to achieve social and economic well-being by overcome poverty


  • Diga Nikaya, Vol.iii.  Colombo, Sri Lanka: BJTS. 2500.
  • Diga Nikaya, Vol.i.  Colombo, Sri Lanka: BJTS. 2500.
  • Majjhima Nikaya, Vol.iii.  Colombo, Sri Lanka: BJTS. 2500.
  • Sanyutta Nikaya, Vol.i.  Colombo, Sri Lanka: BJTS. 2500.
  • Anguttara Nikaya,  Colombo, Sri Lanka: BJTS. 2500.
  • Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon. 1957).
  • Georg Simmel, "The Poor", Social Problems vol. 13 (1965).
  • P. D. Premasiri, "Religious Values and the Measurement of Poverty: A Buddhist Perspective", written for the World Faiths Development Dialogue with the World Bank, Johannesburg, South Africa, 12-14 January 1999.
  • Jose Maria Sbert, "Progress", in The Development Dictionary.
  • Wolfgang Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary (London: Zed Books, 1992).

Ven. Sumiththa T.
Sri Lankan Buddhist Cultural Centre - Hong Kong 
3F, 27 Sheung Heung Road, To Kwa Wan, 
Kowloon, Hong Kong

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