From Cover Girls to Monastic Banking

Speech by 

Although the founder of a religion which is defined by the ‘other-worldly’ goal of nirvana, the Buddha did not appear to have any problem with people having ‘this-worldly’ economic success. However, this is on the conditions that such success is achieved ethically and that one is not attached to the wealth so generated. This paper considers the ethics of economics found in accounts of pre-modern Tibet and in the recent experience of diasporic Tibetans in India. Firstly, some underlying principles of Buddhist economic ethics are considered, drawing mainly from Pāli sources.

Buddhism appeared out of an urbanising, Iron Age, Indian subcontinent (see Bailley and Mabbet, 2006). Along with this urbanisation came greater specialisation and differentiation of labour; features which make for a more economically efficient society. Along with this differentiation comes a distinct merchant class, and in fact the first people purported to take refuge in the Buddha were the merchants Tapussa and Bhallika, who encountered the Buddha while he was still in his post-awakening glow in the village of Uruvela. They provided the Buddha with his first meal and after hearing him speak they then take refuge in the Buddha and the Dhamma (A.i.26). As an aside, it is interesting to note that Tapussa and Bhallika are characters in the iterative narratives of Buddhas and in Kassapa’s story they are herdsmen, possibly pointing towards a socio- economic evolution in their stories given their later ‘progression’ to merchant status.

As with any consideration of Buddhist impact on society, two population of Buddhists need to be taken into account: lay and ordained. The ordained community is regulated by hundreds of fine-grained rules which prohibit specific activities, including how one can subsist and what one can own. On the other hand, the lay community is given a much freer rein and is regulated more by general principles and this is the community which will be considered here first. In the magga, ‘path’, section of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta sammā ājiva (Tib. yang dag pa’i ‘tsho ba) or right or perfected livelihood or way of living is stipulated. The fine detail of the magga may be the result of later interpolation (ref), but it is nevertheless interesting that ājiva does not seem to be restricted to a renunciate way of life and that a lay livelihood is not in and of itself an obstacle to success on the Path. Evidence can be found of this within Buddhist literature, for example Tapussa mentioned above becomes a sotapanna while still a layman. Although there is no list of sammā ājiva options for lay people, some wrong ways of living are mentioned in the Vanijja Sutta, namely trade in weapons, living beings, alcoholic drinks and poisons (A. iii. 208). It would be interesting to know how the Buddha would expand on that list to further its relevance to today’s global economy. Successful in one’s right livelihood is also seen as a good thing and evidence of having accumulated puñña in previous lives (Harvey, 2000; p189).

Having earned one’s income ethically there is guidance on how it can be used. For example the Sigālovāda Sutta describes how 50% of income should be reinvested in one’s business, 25% should be enjoyed with family and 25% put aside for contingencies (D. III. 188). Elsewhere in the same Sutta lay people are warned against losing their wealth through matters such as addiction to substances or gambling, attending fairs and keeping bad company (D. III. 182). Generosity in the sense of dāna, is encouraged and seen as one of the best uses of wealth, bearing wholesome karmic fruit and even heavenly rebirth if offered to the virtuous (A. II. 68). It is not only Pāli sources which stress generosity: dāna pāramitā is, after all, the first of the Mahāyāna perfections.

Regarding the ordained community, the default setting is living dependent on the above-mentioned generosity of the lay community. However, in today’s reality a bhikkhu may also have a salaried job, for example as an academic, working in a government ministry, or as a physician and/or astrologer. These jobs tend to be public sector and focused to some extent on public service rather than private sector profit-making enterprises. With regards to monastics spending income (donated or otherwise), Harvey gives the list personal, permitable, property as:An upper-, lower- and middle-robe, a belt, a bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer, a staff and a tooth-pick. In practice, any monk also has such articles as sandals, a towel, extra work robes, a shoulder bag, an umbrella, books, writing materials, a clock and a picture of his teacher.2000; p203

In 2017 the list could be extended to at least a mobile phone, and possibly a tablet or laptop computer. Having given a brief overview of some basic principles of Buddhist economic ethics, this paper now turns to the Tibetan scenario, beginning with the pre-1959, pre-modern, era. The sources used for this section are classic historical, ethnographic and quasi-ethnographic monographs of pre-modern Tibet including Tucci (1970) and Stein (1972), as well as Cassinelli and Ekvall’s interviews with members of the Sakya Phuntsog Podrang as presented in A Tibetan Principality (1969).

The lay economy in pre-modern Tibet was overwhelmingly agricultural, with around 90% of the lay population subsisting in this way (Cassinelli & Ekvall, 1969; p.259). The basic economic unit was, and to a large extent in rural Tibet still is, the household. Land rights for growing crops and grazing rights for livestock would be attached to a household and the extended family living within. Some of this land may be given as dowry (basically to ensure that a daughter has the resources to feed herself), but such land returns to the household when the marriage ceases, for example through divorce or death (Swann, 2012). While agriculture would be the core activity of a household, some members would likely be involved in trade as well. The other main non-agricultural lay occupations included artisans and bureaucrats. It is worth noting that around 90% of households were also in debt. This mostly concerned capital funding for the business enterprises that most households also engaged in, and was not used to cover things like shortfalls in agricultural output (Cassinelli & Ekvall, 1969; pp. 276-7).

The account so far has focused on pre-modern Tibet as somewhat of an ethnic and religious monoculture, which it was not. There were dynamic populations of traders and artisans from neighbouring territories such as Nepal and China, as well as Muslims historically attributed to originating from Kashmir. Lhasa has two mosques, and the other main towns of central Tibet, Shigatse and Tsetang, both have one each. As well as being merchants and shopkeepers, the Muslim community conveniently provided butchers for their Buddhist neighbours.

Monks made up 15-20% of the population of pre-modern Tibet. In this context the basic economic unit was the monastery itself, and in many ways a monastery was managed like a very large household. In common with other Buddhist cultures, the ordained community was seen as the best ‘merit field’ in which to practice dāna, and again in common with other Buddhist cultures monasteries became quite wealthy in terms of land and other assets. A key source of revenue for monasteries was leasing such land to lay people to farm, for which the monastery would receive a proportion of the harvest. Another income stream was butter production (Tucci, 1970; p. 158)). Butter was used extensively in making torma (gtor ma) and butter-lamp offerings, as well as being sold for consumption. When tormas were no longer needed, the butter was sold on and used for tanning leather (Cassinelli & Ekvall, 1969; p.162). Monasteries also made money through offering financial loans to lay people. Interest rates were capped, but the level seems to have varied across Tibet. Tucci puts the maximum interest rate at 25%, Cassinelli & Ekvall (writing about the Sakya region of southern Central Tibet) at 12.5% (pp.276-7). In the Sakya region it monasteries lending money was not seen as a good business, and larger monasteries avoided the practice. Still in the financial sector, there were monasteries such as Dargye, near Kandze in Kham (East Tibet) which functioned as banks, the currency they printed being guaranteed against the reserves of tea held at the monastery. And, of course, donations from the public, offered at shrines, also formed an important income stream, as did the sale of amulets.

Individual monks could also make a private income through money-lending (Cassinelli & Ekvall; op. cit.), but many were also provided for by income from family land. The two main monasteries in Sakya were mostly populated by monks ‘drafted in’ on a levy system, whereby a family or families would be told to provide and support a boy as a monk (Casinelli & Ekvall, 1969; pp294-7). Some monks had jobs, working in government administration, or as physicians / astrologers. Others drew stipends as professors in monastic universities. Stein gives the figures for Samye monastery in Central Tibet as 70 loads of grain per month for the abbot, 35 for professors and 12 for monks (1972; p. 142). Rank-and-file monks could also receive donations for performing ritual services for the lay community, keeping a proportion for themselves with the balance going to their monastery. Some specific donations at specific shrines might be allocated to that shrine’s caretaker. For example money placed on the maṇḍala offering on a shrine might be reserved in this way.

So much for monks and monasteries in the pre-modern context, what of nuns and nunneries? The two nunneries in Sakya employed a similar draft / levy system to the monasteries, indicating institutional support for nuns (Cassinelli & Ekvall, 1969; p. 297) albeit in smaller numbers – around 100 nuns were supported this way, compared to almost 500 monks. There is no mention of nuns in Stein, and Tucci… Drawing on material on Northern Buddhism from beyond Tibetan borders, Kim Gutschow’s 2002 ethnography On Being a Buddhist Nun paints a difficult economic picture for nuns in 20th century Zangskar, whereby they have to engage in subsistence agricultural work in addition to study and practice, while counterpart monks have no such worries. Sakya aside, it might not be too far-fetched to infer similar scenarios in parts of pre-modern Tibet.

In Prisoners of Shangri-la, Lopez singles out specific, exotic, features of Tibetan culture – or more accurately Western perceptions of these features – and builds the case that these take on a life of their own, reinforcing stereotypes of Tibet as a mysterious ‘other’. These features include the controversial works of T. Lobsang Rampa and the imagery of tantric deities. In contrast to this he also looks at Tibet from the standpoint of Buddhist Modernism. In Buddhist modernism, Buddhist practices which jar too heavily with Western sensibilities or which do not hold up under empirical scientific scrutiny are labelled as irrelevant cultural phenomena which can be overlooked or discarded. McMahan identifies that 19th century European intellectuals began this process, in which a romanticised and somewhat sanitised version of Buddhism is projected onto Buddhist cultures and then spokespeople for those cultures read this Buddhism back to the West (2008). Highlighting Bechert’s original identification of the features of Buddhist Modernism, which include meditation as a key practice, social ethics, and a non-superstitious world view, Lopez concludes that “[t]his version of Buddhism was unknown in [pre-modern] Tibet” (1998; p. 185). This may be reflected in the accounts we have of economic ethics practices within the monastic world. While there are no Buddhist stipulations against usury, the notion that monks and monasteries had accumulated enough of a surplus of wealth that they could lend it and make interest on it seems somewhat exploitative and does not seem to fit comfortably with an attachment-free renunciate life. This was acknowledged, at least, in the larger Sakya monasteries.

The aftermath of the Lhasa uprising of 1959 and the tightening control of Tibetan territories by the Chinese Communist Party precipitated the flight into exile of the 14th Dalai Lama and the beginning of the Tibetan diaspora (Kapstein, 2006; p. 288). Over 100,000 Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into exile and in common with other refugees they brought with them what material wealth they could carry. Some had foreseen the situation and had already moved assets to Himalayan regions of India and Nepal with historic trade links to Tibet, such as Kalimpong in West Bengal, or Kathmandu. Others made trips back to Tibet – in some cases multiple times – to collect valuables for their families or for important lamas. Nevertheless, the refugees could not live off of this capital and needed to find ways to subsist. Many found employment building roads to India’s border with what was now the People’s Republic of China. Principally these were to enable the Indian Army to mobilise. This was gruelling manual labour.

In due course, Nehru granted land to Tibetan refugees to settle on. The largest settlements were – and still are – in the south, in areas such as Bylakuppe, Karnataka (granted in 1961). However, despite agricultural land being given with the intention of creating self-sufficient farming communities (in line with the Indian Government ideals of the time), Tibetans did not take to farming in south India. The climate, crops and techniques were alien, and the majority of Tibetans resorted to other ways of making a living. In some cases (for example in Puruwala, Himachal Pradesh) the land itself was leased to local Indians who could use it to generate a surplus for their own households. The principal business which Tibetans engaged in was, and still is, selling sweaters in the winter season. Around 80% of Tibetan households in India make at least some income this way each year. Beyond that, lay Tibetans make a living in a whole variety of ways, mirroring the opportunities available to socio-economically mobile modern Indians. Of the more notable individuals are fashion model Tenzin Dolma (who appeared on the cover of the August 2015 edition of Indian magazine Fashion Ethics), IT entrepreneur Tenzin Norzang, and travel agent turned restauranteur Sonam Topgyal. In terms of Buddhist ethics and economics, it is notable that Tenzin Norzang used some of his profits to start and fund the website, while Sonam Topgyal funded a monthly video news service for Tibetan communities from his travel company Sumico, as well as mentoring young Tibetans entering the world of business.

Entrepreneurship is also being fostered institutionally by the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamasala, Himachal Pradesh through, for example, the Tibetan Entrepreneurship Development initiative. This began in 2014 with the aim of bringing on diasporic business talent. This initiative in part chimes with ideas presented by the Dalai Lama in the 2008 book The Leader’s Way, co-authored with management consultant Laurens van den Muyzenberg. Buddhist ethical and social values have frequently been associated with those of socialism, but this book looks at how Buddhist values might inform capitalist business leaders. Organised into three parts, the book looks at leaders, their organisations, and the global context of international business. Leaders should make decisions in a calm state of mind, and be conscious of the intentions and the effects of their decisions (Part I). This is linked to ‘Right View’ and ‘Right Conduct’; the book is quite explicit in its Buddhism. Organisations should not just create profit and jobs, but happiness too (Part II). Global organisations should respect and empower local communities and not reflect post-colonial exploitative practices (Part III). In conclusion the book advocates for a responsible free market economy, and the use of entrepreneurship to lift people out of poverty. As stated earlier, there is nothing wrong with Buddhists making money, provided that it is acquired and disposed of ethically. The above fits quite neatly with Buddhist Modernist ideas, and is in contrast with the pre-modern Tibetan scenario.

Monasteries in diaspora initially had to establish themselves simply as the community of monks but with no fixed abode. In the Sakya Tradition, based near Dehra Dun in Uttarakhand, diasporic monks initially lived in tents, until funds were raised to rent and eventually buy property and land. Although starting with very little, these days substantial funds can be raised for constructing spectacular new temples, such as Namdroling Monastery’s Padmasambhava Temple in Bylakuppe, also known as the ‘Golden Temple’.

The Central Tibetan Administration’s Department of Religion and Culture provides support for ‘financially weaker’ monasteries / nunneries amongst the 262 under its purview. Similarly, it provides support for the destitute and unaffiliated amongst its 39,479 monks and nuns, as well as stipends for monastery caretakers (CTA website). The Department also employs some monks directly (most notably its Minister).

Monks might receive some support from their families, and their monastery may provide a stipend. Again this is more generous for those with teaching and administrative roles, or even those who act as drivers or IT specialists. If they develop a good reputation it is possible for a monk to become quite wealthy through offering astrology or divination services, and it is not uncommon for monks to support destitute lay people. Furthermore, lamas who travel internationally to give teachings and initiations usually distribute the income from such events by donating a proportion to their monastery and ‘windfall’ donations to monks and nuns.

Along with public dāna, monasteries themselves can receive some income from monks’ performing rituals for sponsors (typically receiving 50%). Entrepreneurship is not just limited to lay Tibetans; some poorer monasteries are quite creative and innovative with their fundraising. For example monks from Tashi Lhunpo monastery (not far from the Golden Temple in Bylakuppe) regularly tour Europe giving performances of ritual and monastic dance, as well as workshops for schools which give insights into monastic life. This brings an income from fees, tickets, sales of merchandise and potentially attracts new sponsors. Ironically, the monks who go on such tours are rarely (if ever) Tibetan, but mostly from Ladakh, Lahaul Spiti, or other Northern Buddhist regions of India, the reason being that most Tibetan monks have refugee documentation making visa clearance problematic.

The phenomenon of non-Tibetan Buddhist monks – whom the public will ‘consume’ as Tibetan regardless – commodifying monastic practices chimes well with Lopez’ analysis in Prisoners of Shangri-la. As the title indicates, the Shangri-la image of Tibet seems inescapable, so why not mobilise this in order to maintain one’s monastic community? That said, the performances are authentic (albeit highlights rather in contrast to extended rituals) and conducted by well-trained and qualified monks. The commentary between each segment is informative, accurate, and while colourful it does not sensationalise. The exception to this is perhaps the Snow Lion Dance, which is more associated with the repertoire of lay performing arts, not ritual monastic dance (‘cham), adding a further post-modern twist to the phenomenon.

To conclude, in the Buddhist regime of pre-modern Tibet lay people appeared, by and large, to engage in suitable Right Livelihood practices, although some monastic income streams appear a little dubious. In diaspora in India, although not a Buddhist regime, the local ethos of Tibetans – lay and monastic – appears to fit more closely to models of Buddhist economic ethics.



  • Bailey, G. and Mabbett, I. (2006) The Sociology of Early Buddhism. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Cassinelli, C.W. and Ekvall, R.B. (1969) A Tibetan Principality: The Political System of Sakya. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press.
  • Harvey, P. (2000) An introduction to Buddhist ethics: Foundations, values and issues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kapstein, M.T. (2006) The Tibetans. 7th edn. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell (an imprint of John Wiley & Sons Ltd).
  • Lopez, D.S. (1999) Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the west. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • McMahan, D.L. (2008) The making of Buddhist modernism. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Stein, R.A. and Driver, J.S.E. (1972) Tibetan Civilization. United States: Stanford University Press.
  • Tucci, G. (1970) The Religions of Tibet. Thetford, Norfolk: Routledge.
  • van, L., Muyzenberg, XIV, D.L., van den Muyzenberg, L., Bstan-’dzin-rgya-.., D.L.X. and His Holiness the Dalai Lama (2009) The leader’s way: Business, Buddhism and happiness in an interconnected world. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
  • Walshe, M. (1996) The long discourses of the Buddha: A translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. 3rd edn. Boston: Wisdom Publications,U.S.

Additional Bibliography



related to this presentation


related to this presentation

Copyright 2020 © Swedish Buddhist Studies Association
Developed by Eugene Rossin