Buddhist Philosophy

Repaying Debts on Time and Not Cheating With Weights and Measures

Introduction to the Societal Human Values Series

Among his many achievements, the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo (Srong-brtsan-sgam-po), who reigned 629-650 C.E., promoted a moral code known as the Sixteen Principles of Societal Human Values (Tib.: mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug). His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s translator Thubten Jinpa writes, “Most of these sixteen values have to do with promoting greater societal well-being and living one’s life with dignity, honesty, and respect for others.”

Phakchok Rinpoche has frequently emphasized the importance of living respectfully in society. Therefore he encourages his students to memorize and internalize these sixteen points of conduct to establish a core foundation for our practice of Dharma. If we don’t hold this moral code well, any higher practices that we engage in will be unlikely to bear much fruit.

This is the twelfth in a series of explanations of these sixteen principles.

12. Repaying debts on time and not cheating with weights and measures (bu lön dü su jel zhing tré sang la yo mé pa)

The bodhisattva-king’s adage here reminds us to maintain honesty in our business dealings. And such advice also corresponds to the concept of right livelihood, a core principle of the Buddha’s noble eight-fold path. Although some readers might believe Buddhism and business have little to do with one another, history shows us a different story. The Buddha himself taught merchants and rulers, and members of the merchant class aided in spreading the teachings throughout Asia. Buddhist teachers and rulers recognized that laypeople need to take or give loans and to exchange commercial goods. But in doing so, we can be expected to conform to standards of fairness, honesty, and compassion in our interactions.

According to the Tibetan literary sources, such as the Pillar Testament (bka’ chems ka khol ma), Songtsen Gampo saw the need to regulate business activities in order to align societal development with the ten virtuous behaviors. Throughout human history, people have asked others for financial assistance, and many societies developed law codes to regulate such activities. We know that borrowing and lending were ubiquitous throughout the ancient world, and allowed trade and agriculture to flourish. Archaeologists have discovered references to ancient loan contracts in discoveries such as the Code of Hammurabi from 1755–1750 B.C.E. Babylonia.

In the Buddhist context, the Tibetan king’s edict emphasized that just as we should repay the kindness of others, we also should repay any material debts we have incurred. When we borrow from others, we remember their kindness in providing funds when needed. If we repay our loans, then we are not stealing; we do not take something that is not freely given.

Similarly, all cultures developed systems of standardized weights and measures to assure fairness in the marketplace. Most languages have idiomatic expressions that condemn cheating on weights such as “tipping the scales” or “putting a thumb on the scale.” These days many of us may no longer make our living by directly selling things. But we can still apply a doctrine of fairness in all our dealings. The precept of right livelihood means that we should not be motivated by greed or any sort of trickery or cheating. We can check ourselves—does our own business language overvalue anything we promote?

The precept of right livelihood means that we should not be motivated by greed or any sort of trickery or cheating.

As modern individuals whose business practices affect the world widely, we can begin to expand our view of how to practice fair trade and consumption. Can we adopt more mindfulness in our behavior as consumers so that we are not (even unwittingly) participating in unfair practices? When we begin to travel again, are we sensitive to the local economy and environment? Are we contributing in a meaningful and sustainable way to the inhabitants and are we being sensitive to their situation?

If we produce something, are we pricing it at a reasonable level? We can examine our product and determine if we are truly offering fair value. Is our advertising and promotional material honest and straightforward? And is our product helpful and not harmful to sentient beings and for the environment?

As employers, we might ask a number of questions. For example, we can avoid causing harm to those we employ. Are we paying a fair wage and providing proper benefits? As taxpayers, we can challenge our local and national governments to spend the monies wisely and compassionately. We can examine our own livelihoods and check to see that we are operating ethically and justly. And if we are fortunate enough to make profits, we can be generous in sharing with those who are less fortunate. We can support charitable institutions and help to ease suffering in our families, companies, and communities.

With mindfulness and self-reflection, we can assure ourselves that we are ethical as we engage in trade and business. We can train ourselves to treat our customers, workers, and trade partners fairly and equitably. Instead of allowing ourselves to be intoxicated by greed and competition, we can cultivate a sense of contentment. We can respect all those we work with and those our products and supplies touch. And if we carefully observe the precept not to harm others, and experience financial success, we can share the wealth and benefit with those around us.

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