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The Karma of Nations

Nambaryn Enkhbayar

Buddhism explains that everything has been created by a cause or is the result of causation. In other words, there was and/or still remains a cause behind everything and every phenomenon witnessed in the world. One can say, in a very general way then, that in its search to understand the nature of every phenomenon or a complex of phenomena, Buddhist philosophy seeks the cause or a complex of causes lying behind a phenomenon or phenomena. We can draw a parallel between Buddhist philosophy and economics here in that economics should generally be a science to discover the reason or a complex of causes behind every economic and social phenomenon.

An understanding of the theory of causation regulating the very existence and activity of everything in the world according to Buddhist philosophy brings us to the next category of Buddhist philosophy—that is, the concept of karma. Karma is a kind of accumulated potential power or weakness gained as a result of each deed done in the past. Thus, every human being is unique, and all human beings and all communities and nations are different from each other because of their deeds. The economic development of each nation is unique in the sense that it is an accumulation of actions, both good and bad, that the leadership of a given country has carried out after being given power to rule a nation.

The responsibility of every individual and every nation is to be aware of the results of their respective actions and inactions because in the course of time these actions and inactions accumulate and form one’s current condition. Put simply, one is responsible for one’s present status, however good or bad it is, and each nation is responsible for the condition in which it finds itself. Karma indirectly means accountability. Every person, every government and every nation should be accountable for its deeds. There is no individual without his or her karma; similarly, there is no nation or government without accountability.

Understanding the principles of karma also provides a deeper appreciation for one’s rightful place or location in the world and the appropriate time for undertaking an activity. Additionally, karma means that one should be aware of the necessity to stay within the limits of historical time and space for one’s activities to accumulate good deeds.

In Eastern societies, especially those in which a nomadic culture is still alive and very much enriched by Buddhist culture, as in Mongolia, one can find a very strong feeling of community and cohesion. It is revealing to investigate the question of a link between Buddhist philosophy and economics from this nomadic point of view, because economics can be defined as a science that deals with finding ways for human beings to have sustainable and more fulfilling lives within a community, and now in the global society. 
The strong community feeling of nomadic or seminomadic people in countries where Buddhism is the dominant religion can be explained in several ways.

First, nomads can survive only by gathering together and helping each other. Living in a community used to mean simply surviving. Members of nomadic societies survive not at the expense of other “weak” fellows but by forming a community in which distinguishing the “strong” from the “weak” is irrelevant, and where one’s helping others to survive actually results in helping oneself to survive. Anyone who is more or less familiar with Buddhism knows that one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism is sangha, the Buddhist fellowship or community of monks and nuns. The community, or living in a community, is considered one of the treasures of Buddhism. Living in community means learning to share — sharing not only good but also, for example, sharing suffering, happiness and others’ pain. This can be compared with the modern understanding of economic and social development. In the Buddhist model, development can be achieved not at the expense or exclusion of any person or any nation but rather in the larger collective community by including everyone and every nation in the process of development.

From living in a community, whose principles are based on learning to share others’ pain, it is easy to come to one of the very important ideals of Mahayana Buddhism—the ideal of the bodhisattva. According to tradition, a bodhisattva is one who has already perceived the meaning of life and reached the condition of readiness to attain a higher, if not the highest, level of existence and nonexistence. But the bodhisattva chooses to stay at his or her present level of existence out of great compassion and mercifulness towards other human beings—because of her or his great empathy to feel the pain of others. The deeper meaning of the ideal of the bodhisattva in terms of the karma of nations is as follows:

If someone or some nations have reached a relatively better level of existence—in our sense, development—than other people or nations, it is immoral; and because of this immorality, it will be impossible to develop further without “feeling the pain of the underdevelopment of others” (both human beings and nations).

The meaning of the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva can be stated in modern economic terms, “The more you help others, the better, faster and more qualitatively you develop yourself.” In other words, according to Buddhist philosophy, development means assisting others. The main difference between quantitative and qualitative development is that the latter means and includes morality, responsibility, accountability, the feeling of community and of the necessity to assist others, and uniqueness in each example of development, while the former does not.

Another important category of Buddhist philosophy that we need to consider in our search to find links between Buddhism and economics is the one of attachment and nonattachment. According to Buddhism, attachment or passion for someone or something brings suffering. Once a person or a society, such as a consumer society, is attached in a broad sense to everything that is transitory and subject to change, it starts turning into a body absorbed only by its desire to satisfy insatiable demands. Such a person or society starts to lose its mobility, flexibility and the ability to adapt to new challenges. In contrast, one of the main characteristics of a nomadic society in which Buddhism is the dominant religion is a relatively pollution-free lifestyle lived in a harmonious relationship with the environment, and with a readiness to give up the demands and things that become burdensome. Being unattached means not being occupied by prejudices, being objective and maintaining a harmonious balance between the material and spiritual and between cause and effect and karma.

Taking into account the preceding points, we inevitably arrive at the conclusion that Buddhism considers the creation of a good balance—or in a broader sense—the creation of a healthy environment where every being has the freedom to realize or improve its potential. This is a key for generating the conditions for qualitative economic and social development. This can be simplified further by stating that the realization or improvement of one’s potential or karma is positive development. At the same time, when the material and spiritual, as well as cause and effect, are balanced, the interdependence, instead of independence, of every being is implied. Buddhism proceeds from the understanding that real, qualitative development is based not on the theory of contraction of two or multiple polarities or interests, but rather on the notion of interdependence of everyone and everything. The Buddhist theory of emptiness (shunyata) seems to be a philosophical basis for such an understanding of economic and social development. If one is logically loyal to the general implication of the emptiness concept, one has to accept that there cannot be permanent indicators of development in Buddhism because everything is dependent upon causation and is in constant motion and change—everything is impermanent and relative. The ideas outlined here could be the lines along which one can try to find indicators of development through the eyes of Buddhism. However, in the search for such indicators one must always proceed from understanding the main, ultimate indicator of development—a human being.

Finally, let us recall the fable when Buddha kept silent when he was asked what the ultimate meaning of life was. He said that if a person was wounded, he would not try to find out who did the shooting, what the size of the arrow was or what it was made of. Instead he should try to remove the arrow as soon as possible. Perhaps it is worthwhile to remove immediately the arrows that have wounded us through irresponsibility, lack of accountability, narrowness of mind and ignorance of the fact that everyone and everything is dependent on causation and on each other. Here we find that the indicator and ultimate aim of qualitative development is the human being.

“The Karma of Nations” originally appeared in Elixir 2, Spring 2006.

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Nambaryn Enkhbayar's bio

Nambaryn Enkhbayar has been the president of Mongolia since June 2005; he served as speaker of the Parliament 2004–5 and as prime minister 2000–2004. A graduate of the Moscow Institute of Literature, he has also studied at Leeds University in England. Enkhbayar worked for the Mongolian Writers Union as an editor-translator, and was their secretary general and vice president. He has translated Mongolian epics as well as a number of works of European literature, Dickens among them. Enkhbayar has also translated Buddhist teachings into Mongolian.

Read more about Nambaryn Enkhbayar

Comments (2)
  • On occasion in the political blogs I visit there are references to karma, but almost entirely on a superficial and an individual basis.  The possibility of a national karma has not yet been suggested on such blogs.  Yet, if we clearly understood our connectedness to all other living beings and our collective responsibilty for the turmoil and suffering on earth today, what a giant step forward in human evolution that understanding could produce.

    Thank you for a wonderful explanation of karma.

    — Joanna on April 11, 2009

  • The fact that such an article was written by a person of political power in any country on this earth gives me a great sense of hope.I have often wondered why in modern society power seems to never be entrusted to people of higher spiritual attainment.Thank you for sharing it is certainly encouraging.

    — mike glinsky on December 5, 2009

17 February 2009

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