In his attempt to apply his Zen Buddhist training to economics [“Wash Your Bowls,” June 2005], Norman Fischer overlooks the fact that markets, be they modern or ancient, all use a system of exchange. Under such a system I don’t give my goods, services, or money unless I’m convinced I’ve received something of equal or greater value in return. The motivation built into this system is not goodness, as Fischer suggests, but greed, one of the three “poisons” elucidated by the Buddha.
There is another system. In the Theravadan Buddhist tradition it is sometimes called dana, which is the Pali word for “generosity.” In modern contexts it is called a “gift economy.”
Under a gift system I offer my goods or services in response to others’ perceived needs. I don’t expect anything in return, because my needs are met by the gifts that others in my community offer me. In Southeast Asia thousands of Theravadan Buddhist monasteries operate on this model. The potlatch tradition of the Northwest Coast Native Americans and the economic system at the annual Burning Man gathering are other examples of gift economies.
Fischer quotes Zen master Dogen: “Producing things can be nothing other than giving.” This is true only in a gift economy, not in an exchange-based market system. It is not possible “to buy and sell in a spirit of . . . compassion.”
Norman Fischer responds:
Casey Heart is correct that market systems are based on exchange, not goodwill. But I think it’s overly pessimistic to say that markets are necessarily evil, being driven solely by greed, and that the only alternative to them is a form of gift economy. The point of my essay was that, short of society’s wholesale economic overhaul, it is possible for individuals, through intention and mental cultivation, to mollify or even transform market systems — at least, as far as their own subjective experience of them is concerned.
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