Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A reincarnated monk as a challenge to the economics of religion

Every so often we come across something in the world of religion which seems beyond the scope of the economic approach to religion. Consider excerpts from this Telegraph article from last week:

Jigme Wangchuk, an 11-year-old boy based in Boston, was today enthroned near Darjeeling [in India] as the reincarnation of Gyalwa Lorepa, a monk who passed away in 1250 AD. . .

The fifth-grader from Boston’s St Peter’s School will now have to spend the rest of his life at the Druk-Sa-Ngag Choeling monastery at Dali, 3km from Darjeeling. He can visit Boston later in his life but to deliver discourses. If he badly misses his friends back in the US — he is an American citizen now — he can speak to them but the conversation cannot be as carefree as what 11-year-olds usually indulge in. . .

The reincarnate touched upon some things he has left behind. “It is a big transition, and yes, I do miss being a joyful schoolboy and my friends, my home, my grandparents, aunts and uncles.”

The rinpoche added later: “In fact, I already miss them” but took solace in the fact that his parents had moved to Darjeeling to serve him.

I mentioned at the start of the quarter that there has been little effort in the economics of religion to study eastern religions. Anyone want to take a stab at this one? Can you give a good economics explanation for this practice of identifying reincarnated monks? Other comments are welcome, too.


  1. From a supply and demand perspective, if the people in these eastern religions are drawn to reincarnations for whatever the reason may be, the various religious groups are going to supply them in order to capture that share of the market. Many religions are going to charter to the belief in reincarnation because that is a good way for them to increase the overall size of their religion as well as their overall religious capital. Of course, there must be some sort of proof or validity in who they claim to be reincarnations. If they picked people at random, of course their members would question these claims and the religious group would end of declining. I am not aware of what evidence they have that shows this boy is a reincarnation, but I am sure that they have some sort of evidence suggesting he is the reincarnated Gyalwa Lorepa.

  2. From the perspective of the boy and the family, it is clear that they rather prefer to give up most of their lives for their religious beliefs. The opportunity cost of the boy (living a normal childhood) does not outweights their otherwordly gains (being the reincarnation of Gyalwa Lorepa). The way he gave up most of his life to play his religious role also shows the level of high commitment for his faith. Though others may perceive this act as "unreasonable", we know that from their view, being possibly a reincarnation of a religious historical figure is inelastic compared to an American lifestyle.

  3. Jia Hui Huang,

    I can't imagine how a 11-year old has to give up all the fun and pleasure it was having to be the reincarnated Gyalwa Lorepa. The opportunity cost of being the reincarnated monk was his freedom and the fun of his childhood that he is never going to experience anymore.

    Because the citizens demand the practice of identifying reincarnated monk, so the market supplies the people with their needs. The citizens that believes in the reincarnated monk and demand this practice probably have developed a high religious capital in this religious belief, so they trust the 11 year old boy to be the reincarnated Gyalwa Lorepa. The citizens with low religious capital and religious commitment will not consider the Jigme Wangchuk as the reincarnated monk because they would doubt his ability from his small age.

  4. Casey Kiesling 29605481

    The first thought that popped into my head after reading this article was the notion of strictness that we discussed recently in class. This young boy will give up his life in Boston in order to move to Darjeeling and study for up to ten years. I believe this proves the point made in class that the more strict the religion the more loyal the followers. Jia you made a great point about religous capital because he obviously must have a tremendous amount in order to undertake this journey. However, I wonder if the removal of his friends and most of his contact with the outside world won't diminish that religous capital and perhaps allow doubt to seep into his mind.

  5. Matt, Juliano, Jia, and Casey, Nice comments. I think one of more interesting things about this story is the method by which this new religious leader is selected. Religious leaders obviously have important positions in the group, and so you don't want just anyone to be the leader. Usually there is some sort of screening involved, like requiring a particular type of college degree or requiring the person to demonstrate their commitment and trustworthiness, so that those who might not be good leaders are not made leaders. The screening here seems quite different. (Notice that the screening I refer to here does not necessarily involve stigma though it might.)

  6. The practice of identifying a reincarnated monk is to give hope and inspire other people into believing that the religion is more credible. A reincarnated monk is supernatural icon in which people may look towards to offer sacrifice. It functions more or less like a religious charm or statue as a reincarnated monk is a physical representation of a supernatural and higher being. The appeal to him would be a cost-benefit decision and thus, a rational and economic one. This relates somewhat closely to the economic theory of church attendance. When there is a popular figure in the religious community that will speak at a mass, it is proven that more people will attend that mass because the opportunity cost has risen. In this same way, identifying a reincarnated monk creates this sort of popular figure. His glorified presence will attract people to see him at religious ceremonies and thus, raise their religious capital. The more people that show up to see him, the more they invest in their religion. The religion ultimately hopes to increase the number of followers and their influence.

    Chris Weiskirch

  7. Chris, Interesting idea that identifying a reincarnated monk can increase the credibility of the religion. Can you elaborate on this?

  8. Kevin Santora

    Tashi Norzum said near the end of the article that he feels blessed and is honored to be recongnized as a reincarnated monk. This is hard to believe for me as at the age of 11 I definitely would not be able to call myself a monk or want to live the life of a monk for the rest of my life, let alone go away from all my friends. This seems like a pretty strict religion in order to do something like this with reincarnation beliefs. If new leaders are chosen this way, it could economically hurt the religion if one of the chosen reincarnated monks refuses to comply with the religious ways. Then again, everytime a reincarnated monk is found and becomes a religious leader, the religion and its community would rejoice and more faith would be installed in the religion which would be off great economic benefit.


Comments of economic content are welcome. Comments that deride or criticize others will be removed.