Buddhist economics

By James East, The Straits Times, 17 August 2000

BANGKOK—Thailand's future economists do not know what to make of their lecturer, a meditating professor who believes Buddha's teachings are the key to the country's future.

Professor Apichai Phanthasen, of Bangkok's Thammasat University, says Western economists have got it all wrong and he is about to tell Thais as much in a radical new book due to hit the shelves within weeks.

If it proves a hit, an English-language version will follow.

Every week 150 of Thailand's bright young things rush through the hallowed halls of their riverside campus to hear the professor criticise Western economists and unlock the economic secrets of the Buddhist scriptures.

To his university faculty's 80 lecturers and professors, the professor is like one calling in the wilderness.

Until now, the staff, like Thailand's finance gurus and politicians, have followed with almost unquestioning obedience the theories of the West, many now say to disastrous effect.

But Prof Apichai's forthcoming book will debunk the idea that the West has all the answers and that material possessions lead to happiness.

His book, Buddhist Economics, could not come at a better time.

Thailand is just emerging from three years of recession following a decade of unbridled economic growth.

The pain of unemployment, the financial meltdown, the effects of mass migration in and out of the cities, pollution, traffic woes, and an embarrassing IMF-bailout that effectively emasculated a country of the power to set its own economic policy, have forced Thais to consider whether the country has lost its bearings.

The professor's students, like Thais nationwide, are torn between those who would rather stick to their materialist mobile-phone- owning, BMW-driving dreams and those who would follow King Bhumibol Adulyadej's advice to turn the country towards self-sufficiency and not neglect its agrarian past.

Professor Apichai is clear. He says Western economists have a poor grasp of the nature of man or of reality.

“They look at human beings as basically robots that have unsatisfied wants for material possessions,” he says.

The world is treated as providing endless resources in which happiness is linked to thrill-seeking, excitement and material possessions.

The professor says Buddhists link happiness to a lack of conflict and inward peace, characteristics that traditionally make Thais so easy-going.

The substance of what he lectures on has been known to Buddhist devotees and monks for centuries.

But never before has someone written a book critically taking apart the West's great economists using Buddha's teachings as the counterpoint.

It has meant teasing 2,500-year-old thoughts from the scriptures and turning them into theories of consumption, production and distribution.

One of Prof Apichai's students is even doing a masters degree on “Buddhist economics and the auto industry”, while others are going through ancient texts and drawing out economic theories.

“My students are stunned because they have been bombarded with typical Western economics and, all of a sudden, they are being exposed to me. So they don't know who to trust,” said Prof Apichai.

Critics say the professor's theories are impractical in the greedy globalised culture of the new millennium.

But elsewhere in Thailand there is growing grassroots opposition to Thailand's fixation with growth, car sales and export figures.

Rural groups, academics and monks say the king has the right idea with his “New Theory of Self-Sufficiency”.