Economics of Monk-hood

Thai monk smoking

Disclaimer: When speaking of monk-hood in this article I would be referring to bhikkhus and bhikkhunis that follow Buddhist principles, and their access to resources. This creation of sentences strung together is to look at the economics of products and resources only, and not how celibacy plays a role in economics of monk-hood. That could be another article, or book.

Buddhism brings with it an idea of minimalism, in all aspects. May that be for monks or lay people. The question here is what if we all lived lives of minimalism like Buddhist monks? Let us start by understanding what can a monk can own.

-A bowl

-A double robe

-An upper robe

-A lower robe

-A belt (to fix the robe around the waist)

-A sewing needle – with thread (to mend robes)

-A razor (to shave the head and the beard)

-A water filter (to use water without killing living beings, to filter impurities in the water or fruit pulp –which is forbidden after noon)

-No mirror unless you hurt your face

The scriptures claim many objects to be barred. Nonetheless, in reality the case is different. It is instructive to note that rather than limiting what can be offered, the Vinaya Pitaka lays emphasis on the mode of offering. For example, it does not say you can not eat meat, but says as a meditating bhikkhu/bhikkhuni (which literally translates to mendicant) you must take what is offered with good intention. This is something economics can learn from. There are multiple restrictions of products and services all over the world, which may not be necessary for better economics. Such as alchohol, drugs, prostitution, or kinder chocolate eggs.

Rather than restricting them, if they mediate the mode of offering these services, they can be used effectively. As we know, making any service/product difficult to access only raises demand. Especially for those who are unaware of the availability of the product, speculation increases. With increasing speculation, the price then increases the demand. Further this pushes for its access and it increases even more.

An example of this is Bhutan’s STD problem which started to get noticed in 2009. 1 out of every 5 citizens is an ordained monk. There children pledge to a monastic life before they know what it may entirely mean for them. Of course the pledge to celibacy by the Bhikkhu Patimokkha holds importance, but that does not supersede the need for a healthy life.

Here we can note how smart availability of resources helps a better quality of life. You need to scrutinize what (and how much) is provided, rather than not provide at all. Bhutan provides monk training schools and monasteries with free condoms, since young monks aged 19 have been found HIV positive. And monks as young as 12 have STDs.

Same is the case with ownership of objects. Monks may be directed to own less, and not live in luxury, but at the same if hosted by a community in great respect and glory, must accept that position. They are also not allowed to damage living plants, and tell lies. However the question of intention comes in here. Every action by the Buddha holds importance based on its intentions. What a monk can and can not do falls under a very precarious section. It is somewhere between the right path, and good intentions.


Even the monk in the photograph smoking does not necessarily need to be restraining from it. The Vinaya Pitaka will instruct them to stay away from intoxicants, but at the same time it is only by accepting your current self, that one can heal it. By indulging in the reality one can understand it. By understanding our addictions better than they understand us, can we defeat them. And by controlling our mind, rather than letting it control us, can we meditate upon it.

There are two basis on which Nirvana can be achieved; with basis, and without basis. The Buddha attained Nirvana with basis i.e. by indulging in defilements, and then straying from them. This is the case for most people today. We want to live simply, and live in the moment. However, for many this feeling may only come  when a significant portion of time has already been wasted. Nirvana without basis is for heavenly humans who have never been lured by desires. They have always walked on the path of minimalism.

Monks attaining Nirvana with basis are humans, before they are “committed individuals on their path to nirvana”. They too have desires and demands. However, it is by analysing these desires that one can completely curb its demand and subsequent supply. Supply may create its own demand (Say’s law) but is not powerful before one that has already surpassed a period of comprehending desires, and their lack of requirement.

Photo Courtesy: The Gaurdian

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