The Buddhist Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

I was reading an introductory book on Tibetan history for a class on Dūnhuáng 敦煌 manuscripts and came across a rather interesting paragraph:

The strong partnership between Buddhist monastics and merchants had been part of the character of the religion from its very foundations, when the Buddha received the support of such princes of early Indian commerce as Anathapindada, and Budhism’s later international success, particularly in the trade-dependent city-state of the Silk Road, such as Khotan, continued to reflect this. Buddhist ethical order, with its emphasis on scrupulous attention to merits and demerits (the former often quantified precisely in terms of donations of cash and kind to the monasteries), tended to favor the rationalization of human activity in terms that were congenial to commercial interests. A late reflection of this may be seen in the nineteenth-century autobiography of Shakbar, who reports that, after his public teachings in western Tibet,

Food, wealth and riches rained down on me: Dorjé Wangchuk of Limi offered 50 zho of gold. The Rich lady of Lhongö offered 15 zho of gold. [1 zho = roughly 1 gram.] The rich man of Log-pa, the rich man of Gyashang, the military commander of Kyitang, and the other rich men of Purang offered 15, 20 or 30 zho of gold each; and those who were without still offered 2 or 3 zho of gold each, or whatever clothing, jewelry, wealth or objects they could afford. Just the gold I was offered came to a whole horseload altogether. Moreover, I received 30 tamkas [large coins] of gold; 100 big and small silver amulet boxes; 5 silver mandalas, large and small; 2 silver lamps; 3 trays for offering-cakes; 80 pearl and coral earrings; a bag full of turquoise, coral, and amber headdresses; 43 new silk and flannel robes; 10 old ones 25 good horses; and 2 mules. Also, innumerable persons offered silver tamkas and ingots, woolen blankets, cotton cloth, and ceremonial scarves.

What is remarkable here is not just the quantity involved, but the author’s interest in quantification, in bearing witness in concrete terms to the precise nature of the merit earned by his generous devotees.
The Tibetans, Matthew T. Kapstein, pp. 88-89

I find this such a  fascinating little paragraph because of Americans’ and Europeans’ haste to attribute the rise of capitalism with Protestant Christianity (à la Max Weber) while ignoring the important role commodities play in all religions, even such seemingly “pure” and “spiritual” religions like Tibetan Buddhism. It demonstrates how “Buddhism” as we know it in the USA is an Orientalist construct, the idealized opposite of the Abrahamic religions. The serious religious seeker (or student of religion), coming from either the Buddhist or the Christian tradition, must face such facts squarely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *