Saturday, March 19, 2011

Buddhism and Wealth

I have long struggled with how to consider material wealth within the context of Buddhist teachings. One reason is that unlike many of my fellow American converts, I have experienced some "poorness," have always lived on the financial edge, and have worked with, and heard the stories of poor people much of my life. I frequently see the unexamined classism in the larger convert Buddhism community, and wonder how much of that impacts the way we interpret Buddhist teachings on money and material wealth.

There is a small discussion over at the Tricycle blog about all of this. It takes off from a recent column by Lewis Richmond in the Huffington Post. Lewis wrote:

In my 1999 book, Work as a Spiritual Practice, I introduced the idea of right livelihood as conscious livelihood. In other words, regardless of our job (or lack of a job) we should be aware of the implications and consequences of what we do. Though Work as a Spiritual Practice, by intention, emphasized the choices and changes an individual could make in his/her workplace, I also feel that conscious livelihood should not be limited to individual awareness and action. Society at large also has a responsibility to be conscious of the consequences of its economic and employment policies, even more today than in 1999 when when the economy was booming. It is not clear whether the Buddha thought of right livelihood in this way, but it behooves us to do so now.

I read his book perhaps three years ago. It's pretty decent, and asks some important questions about what work is, how we do it, and what Buddhism might have to say about it.

However, the larger questions around accumulation of wealth, what constitutes "need," how teachings about Right Livelihood fuction (or don't function) in a globalized capitalist environment aren't addressed as head on as I would have liked.

Nor are they in this current article.

Clearly, the Buddha saw prosperity and financial security as a good and appropriate activity for laypeople; "rightful means" meant any occupation that did not cause unnecessary harm to other living things. In the simple economy of 500 B.C. this meant avoiding occupations such as butcher, tanner, or soldier -- if possible. It also meant to be honest and ethical in business dealings -- not to cheat, steal or lie, and in general make one's living in an upstanding way. I daresay that all religions have ethical principles of this sort regarding making one's living -- certainly the Judeo-Christian tradition does.

I'm not sure what he means by "prosperity and financial security" here, but I'm not sure the Buddha was all that concerned about "security" of any kind. Why? It doesn't really exist. Beyond this, though, the word "prosperity" in the average American mind, even amongst Buddhists, means having a lot of stuff, a good job, retirement funds, and the rest. And when all of that is "yours" - in the relative sense - it's pretty easy to have a lot of attachment, which certainly isn't too helpful in term of liberation.

A commenter called Wtompepper on the Tricycle blog post who earlier had questioned the accumulation of wealth we tend to support in the U.S. - even amongst middle class types - wrote the following interesting response:

I don't think I've ever heard Buddha referred to as a pragmatist, or the "middle way" compared to pragmatism. I cannot imagine you mean that in the true sense of pragmatism. However, there is no need to "tie oneself in knots" avoiding anything--instead, just DO something that makes such knot tying less necessary. I hear the "tying in knots" argument all the time; it is too hard to figure out how to make the world better, so we all want to think that Buddha would have thought everything we are doing is just fine, and that all we need to do is avoid things we already wouldn't do (slavery, weapons trading); but we can't just feel better about ourselves through ignorance. Well, we maybe can, but that's not awakening. Didn't Buddha also say "Strive with diligence"?

And I really think it is important to remember the difference in historical period. Buddha recommends that lay people produce wealth, but he could not possibly have meant investing in the stock market. Remember that money was a very recent invention, and it is the coining of money Buddha is referring to with the term "gold and silver." The accumulation of wealth in a pre-monetary economy meant producing more useful goods and storing food, not having a 401k. Buddha does encourage such production, but warns against the delusion of money, for anyone hoping to become enlightened.

It's interesting to think about the abstractions that have come into the wealth equation in modern society. Paper and coin money. Stocks. Bonds. Credit Cards. Derivatives. I think it's true that the historical Buddha wasn't talking about these things, but the fact is they are here, part of a lay life - so now what? How do you work with them in a way that exemplifies Right Livelihood?

I have often thought that after a certain point, we should figure out ways to pool our surplus wealth to use for developing/supporting our communities. That what is already happening with skill swaps, free exchanges like Freecycle, and grassroots money pooling should become the norm.

This is where things get really sticky I think. "Buddha does encourage such production, but warns against the delusion of money, for anyone hoping to become enlightened." And I'd argue, he warned against the "delusion of money," not necessarily against having money for lay folks. But that same argument I have heard taken as a license for millionaires to keep squirreling money away, or for huge corporations to rake in billions and justify that by offering millions in charity.

And one of the problems I have always had with this is that you end up with a small number of wealthy folks determining a large part of what is "socially good." A single couple, Bill and Melinda Gates, have the power and financial resources to decide what's worth spending money on, and what isn't. There is something greatly screwed up about this in my view. Some might say they are bodhisattvas in the world, but it often seems more like paternalism to me.

What do you think about all of this? How do material wealth, especially accumulating wealth as individuals, fit into Buddhist teachings? Is the pursuit of relative financial "security" always a hindrance, or is that a new "necessity?" What is Right Livelihood to you?


Barry said...

Hi Nathan,
Thanks for writing about this. I have three short thoughts (I wrote an earlier, longer comment but Blogger trashed it and I couldn't recover it):

- In my experience, Western Buddhist communities contain a disproportionately large number of people who live on the margins of economic society. Certainly some people have considerable economic security; but many, including many who live in Buddhist communities, have dedicated themselves to practice and work only to support their practice.

- Money is no more a problem than broccoli is a problem. What we do with that money, however, can create a big problem. Consider the case of a Zen master in my tradition. He worked for many years as a real estate developer and took a lot of grief for it from people who were not close to him. However he used his considerable wealth to build the Zen centers in which the criticizing folks were practicing. That is, he used his money to help all beings. Zen Master Seung Sahn called this "correct direction." If we have a correct direction in life, we can use money with wisdom and compassion. If we have a correct direction in life, we can use poverty with wisdom and compassion. This is not to diminish the awful effects of poverty (disease, malnutrition, etc.), but to point out that how we have the privilege of determining how to use our life - it is not determined material wealth.

- Is there a difference between Bill & Melinda Gates and the Zen master than I described above? Was the Zen master paternalistic in how he spent his wealth?

Well, this is sort of rambling and top-of-mind - I'll probably regret this comment in an hour. But here it is - hope it's useful to you and your readers!


Petteri Sulonen said...

It's like a stone in my shoe, that's what.

My attitude towards my work has shifted since I started practicing Zen about two years ago. How and what that means and what I ought to do about it remains a mystery, beyond trying not to fuck stuff up moment to moment, and the necessity of giving something, not just taking or expecting something, in work or out of it.

But money and the Buddha make for uneasy neighbors, that's for sure.

David Ashton said...

I agree with Petteri. It's one thing to live from moment to moment trying steer a path by taking actions and making choices that feel like the kindest and most helpful thing to do in the immediate situation. It's another to formulate "Buddhist" economic guidelines for myself, let alone a nation or the world.

For individuals, I'm not sure that rules help us make the right decisions, e.g. whether to give the last of the cash in your pocket to a homeless person or to use it to get home in time for dinner with the family. You have to go with your gut.

As for setting economic rules for the country, I'm afraid that's in the realm of economists and philosophers - well over my head.

I agree with Lewis Richmond that society needs to become aware of the consequences of its actions - in all areas of life. As it evolves and awakens, I hope it will. How to make it happen on a large scale, I'm not sure, but I suspect the social media will play a major role in it. I also suspect that imposing "Buddhist" values on people who don't have "Buddhist" thoughts may be going about it backwards.

This is not to belittle social welfare and law reform movements - far from it - I think they need support and encouragement, but the only way I can see social change occurring is one individual at a time, and each one of us is different.

Algernon said...

The Buddha asked his closest followers to leave security behind: they cut their hair, left their careers and families behind, and lived as homeless people. Other people who listened to Buddha's teaching did not do that. Buddha talked to anybody, whether they were part of his homeless entourage or not.

There is a deeper level here, which has to do with our participation in the capitalist system. Among us converts there can be a boondoggle by which we convince ourselves we are not really participating in the wretched system -- and thus a concept of "inner peace" becomes a sort of fetish. We can think it's all a game, and even say it in our dharma talks, yet still participate in samsara. There is a challenging question here. Slavoj Zizek called out "Western Buddhism" under just these terms.

Richard Harrold said...

You should read the Sigalovada Sutta, the Lay Person's Code of Discipline, in which the Buddha explains the right way for a layperson to live, including the accumulation and dispersion of wealth.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Richard: I read it. It pretty much boils down to "don't be a dick." Good advice, no doubt.

But it doesn't really address the problem that Algernon points out, and I think what Nathan had in mind when writing it. What if you're part of a system that's profoundly unjust? You can live your life exactly as the Sigalovada Sutta exhorts, and still be part of a great big machine that grinds out exploitation, poverty, suffering, and ecological destruction on a massive scale. A very big and important part, even, if you happen to be rich and powerful.

I'm well within the richest 1% on the planet, solely by dint of having born to middle-class parents in a rich country and having a steady job in an industry where my skills are somewhat scarce. I tick most of the boxes when it comes to ecological and ethical consumption choices (except for air travel, which I do way more than my allowance). Yet my carbon footprint is still about twice as big as it should be, and my very participation in this system kills people. Yet dropping out would seem more like another kind of escape; turning my back on it in order to be able to say "I'm not responsible."

The system stinks, but we're part of the system. There is no way to opt out as long as we're alive. Samsara.

I think the Buddha's said that the only way out is to get enlightened and then die. But what to do in the meantime, now that's a quite a koan right there. Isn't it?

Richard Harrold said...


Yes, the only way out is to attain Nibbana so there is no returning. However, the Buddha knew that most of us would not attain that, at least in the present life. We can still do our best even if we live in an f'd-up world and system (consider the Theranamo Sutta and Bhaddekarrata Sutta).

My dilemma is very similar, my job is really about finding ways to beguile people into reading content on our websites and offering them deals so we can get their email and send them more deals and we make money. And what is our core product? We operate news websites for local TV stations. That's how this capitalistic system works, and for me to live I have to play some role in that system. Is my job Right Livelihood? Probably not, but I can diminish the karmic impacts of my profession through my mental states and through other Right Actions backed with Right Intention. That way, through right living, I can attain some measure of peace and happiness. But for total release? I see no other way than total renunciation. And the Buddha essentially taught there was no other way. That takes f'ing determination, something I don't have right now.


Nathan said...

I suppose this might be one place where the theravada and mahayana stories don't line up. As I see it, one may be liberated, having renounced clinging to everything and everyone, and still operate in the world. In fact, I'd say this is where the historical Buddha was operating from. The final liberation came at parinirvana, but before that you had bodhisattva action in the world coming from the historical Buddha. So, this is where my thoughts about working with wealth, economics, and the rest ultimately rest. How do we move towards that liberated action and understand, regardless of whether total awakening occurs or not?

Because I think it's easy to get caught up in head games around renunciation, around having "the means to be generous," around what careers "are" and "aren't" right livelihood - and also about liberation itself.

What are the marks of renunciation? Do they look the same for each person?

How does generosity function or not function inside this "wretched" economic system?

The "inner peace" comment from Algernon resonates for me because it's easy to stay focused on your little sphere, and not see how your little sphere is playing into and influencing bigger spheres.

Nathan said...

One of the challenges I see is that too many of us, even many who are influenced by Buddhist teachings, look around at the larger social/economic environment and see it as a fixed story. Some love it, and say we've reached a pinnacle of wealth and innovation. Others hate it and see all the exploitation, suffering, and inequalities occurring. But for most of it, it's a stuck narrative and we talk about either trying to cope with all the shitty stuff, or about all the ways it might be beneficial (like developing new technologies to deal with energy crises.)

The way I see it, though, not only is this "global capitalist" narrative we have going on not permanent, but it's also not even all that old. It's a really tall tree with entirely short and weak roots. The roots are in our head; but they aren't embedded in our body/minds. So, while it's true that we have to do the hard work of facing what's going on now - it's also the case, in my view, that if enough of us do more deliberate pawing and clawing around those roots - through shifted thoughts and actions - that the tree could be tumbled to the ground.

Richard Harrold said...

Actually Nathan, when you read the Theranamo Sutta, one of the teachings the Buddha gives Thera is one can live in the world and be mindful and released, that renunciation does not literally mean running off to the forest to be alone. That is one way, but unless one is alone with one's own mind, it doesn't matter where you are, and you can be "alone" anywhere, even in a crowded city. Thich Nhat Hanh provides a wonderful commentary in the book "Our Appointment with Life." So you are exactly correct in your presumption, and it jibes in both traditions. There is no greater or lesser vehicle, there are only the Four Noble Truths.

Nathan said...

"There is no greater or lesser vehicle, there are only the Four Noble Truths."

Yeah, I have never believed in the greater/lesser vehicle view. And certainly, I have heard teachers of both traditions speaking similar narratives. Perhaps it's more accurate to say things like bodhisattvahood tend to be more subtler in expression in Theravadan teachings.

David Ashton said...

At the risk of going round in circles, I agree that you can live in the world mindful and released and live a life of renunciation, but being there in that environment if we choose the bodhisattva path, we have no choice but to engage in deliberate pawing and clawing no matter how insignificant the apparent results are.

daishin said...

you ask: "How do material wealth, especially accumulating wealth as individuals, fit into Buddhist teachings?"

I confess that I haven't given much thought to this. Most luikely because I grew up poor (i mean it, my family had no savings, food came day by day, we owned no property, all post-war germany working class). to find myself at age 67 with some savings and a partially paid-for home seems "right" in the sense that I need to be responsible for my own care and not rely on the state or freinds and distant family to look after me in old age/sickness/death. Meanwhile, I volunteer 3-4 days a week, donate money to "right" causes, try to live ethically, and ensure that anything that's left when I die goes to people and organizations who'll make good use of it. efinally fi

Nathan said...


It doesn't sound to me like you're rolling in excess. And I know from your blog that you're frequently supporting others and giving back. Part of bringing this all up is that I don't feel there is a clear cut answer as to what is excess, or what Buddhist teachings might say about working with material possessions as a modern lay person.

This part of your comment interests me:

"I need to be responsible for my own care and not rely on the state or freinds and distant family to look after me in old age/sickness/death."

Even though I'm basically half your age, I also feel similarly at times, about my life now, but also about my elder years, if I'm given them.

But what is it about this self-reliance drive? Where does it come from, especially given that being supported by others when sick or dying has been a natural part of most cultures and communities?

I mean, for myself, I often feel like I have to be able to "do it myself" - to always be able to provide for myself? Even when, at the same time, I support others to not have to do it themselves.

And why do you feel compelled to not rely on others to take care of you in old age, sickness, and death?

There are probably some different reasons here because we are different.

But perhaps there is an internalized cultural narrative at play here - that a successful life and death is one you finance yourself, and somehow control yourself, and in the end, aren't a "burden onto others."

I have heard this from both of my grandmothers, who are both independent, but also - it seems to me - cut off from others in a way I don't see other elders doing - especially the elders from other cultures I have been connected to through my work in our immigrant communities.

I know I have worried about being a burden somehow, and have often turned down help from others, as well as opportunities to get money from the state to tide me over during periods of unemployment. And when I have looked at the reasons why, it mostly came out of separation. That somehow, I could pull off everything on my own, and that I don't need my community to support me - but I can support my community (Zen community, yoga community, my friends and family).

And I see this as part of the destructiveness of the dominant paradigm. That too many of us feel like we have to do everything on our own in order to be successful, and that the worst thing that can happen is that someone else will need to be called in to help us - especially as we age.

Nathan said...

It's just so different from the narratives I heard my students tell - people who had come from all over the world. They just expected that family or the larger community would be there to support them if they needed it, especially at the end of life. Maybe having such an expectation can be a set up for great misery if it doesn't happen that way, but somehow I also think that this whole "do it yourself" all the time narrative brings about more misery.

Sorry if all that is a hell of a divergence from your comment. Somehow, it just sparked all this stuff I have been thinking about a lot lately.

Daniel said...

I don't see earning a living as going against your quest for enlightenment... What I understand is that we should strive to be fully present in whatever we do, and to do good for the world. In my job I can do both: I'm an ESL teacher which requires presence and which helps people to improve their lives. Are other jobs out there as karmically sound as mine? Well, some are and some aren't.

Anyway, I've experienced poverty, too. And it's a lot easier to renounce things when you have more than enough.

Nathan said...

"What I understand is that we should strive to be fully present in whatever we do, and to do good for the world." I agree with this Daniel. I have never viewed vows of completely renouncing all possessions as the sole way to practice and awaken. The challenge, I think, is to remain diligent in checking in on that "do good" portion of the equation. Because it's easy to trick yourself that you're doing good, when that might not be the case.

Nathan said...


Your comment got tossed in the spam box, and I just found it now.

"In my experience, Western Buddhist communities contain a disproportionately large number of people who live on the margins of economic society." This is probably true of more monastic communities.

However, if you walk into the average weekly service or dharma class of a lay convert sangha, it's mostly middle class, college educated folks.

This to me is one of the major divides we have in Western sanghas. The monastics or more intense lay practitioners are trying to live with little economic security in societies that don't support that - while regular lay sanghas struggle to attract or retain poorer folks, or have structures where poorer folks feel included and supported.

The reason why I question individuals having large expanses of wealth and controlling the decision making power over that is because it's so easy to be seduced by that position. The Zen Master you mentioned might have worked well with that seduction and thus, was able to offer what he had to benefit many others. However, most of us, even those with great insight - flop in the face of that kind of power.

Which is why I'm interested in developing ways to have more collaborative processes around wealth. What this means exactly, I'm not sure.

Petteri Sulonen said...

I've lately gotten more and more interested in Pirate Parties. I think there's a genuine, coherent, and serious political philosophy emerging there, that's off the traditional left-right axis and reflects some genuinely new ideas about how we could organize a just society based on an information economy. It goes way beyond wanting to play games for free.

I think Marx would've approved. The relations of production have changed; the postwar model of redistributive capitalism which did sort of OK is broken, and tinkering won't fix it. Arrxism much?

Nathan said...

I'll have to look into Pirate Parties. I'm all for figuring out coherent ways to break away from the old left-right paradigm.

peter said...

Nathan, I only now got around to reading your reply. In it you ask: "why do you feel compelled to not rely on others to take care of you in old age, sickness, and death? ... But perhaps there is an internalized cultural narrative at play here - that a successful life and death is one you finance yourself, and somehow control yourself, and in the end, aren't a 'burden onto others.'"

I feel "compelled" out of responsibility for my life (and death, as it were). Clean up your own mess, or as we used to say when I still worked in commercial kitchens, "clean up as you go."

Having worked in healthcare (incl hospice chaplain) with friends in protracted cancer care, I'm aware of the huge costs for specialist care. Although we (still) have a better system here in Canada, dying can be a long and costly process.

You have, however, alerted me to the another aspect of long-term care: the opportunity to receive care from others. I don't see that and my money-hoarding ways as incompatible.

Nathan said...

Hi Peter,

I totally agree with this:

"I feel "compelled" out of responsibility for my life (and death, as it were). Clean up your own mess, or as we used to say when I still worked in commercial kitchens, "clean up as you go."

And it's so very true that end of life care, as well as specialist care for terminal illnesses, is extremely expensive. A fair amount of it is beyond our control, but at the same time, respecting your life and death enough to take care of yourself, live as healthy as possible, very much reduces the potential for great "messes" later on.

Diana'sInsights said...

I found this discussion very interesting. However I would like to point out that at least for me, this condemnation of wealth and desire just isn't common sense. Now before you delete my comment, please hear me out.

I am extremely interested in finances and I spend a big chuck of my time pouring over business news and educated myself about stocks. People say that investment is not a "live livelihood" and Buddha would not have approved. But Buddha allowed us the freedom to challenge these teachings and base them on our sense of intuition and common sense.
In my experience both meditating and striving for success, I found that life is much more satisfying if I dedicated myself, to give my all to the thing that I really wanted. I enjoy being beaten down by life and standing up shivering in pain because the pain feels good, pain is progress. Without discomfort we can not grow. Life is more than just living by the rules. I liked that somebody here said that we should rely on our intuition a bit more. I agree with that whole-heartily. How can one be completely content knowing that there's a role in life that he/she failed to be?

Everyone of us, based on our differences, each has the potential to provide significant value to society. To some people, it may be monk-hood, but for me, it's not.

I knew at an early age that I was going to be a very rich and successful business person. I knew because I had the intuition that I would not be average, like my middle-class parents. You might say that's ego speaking, but for me, I treat each day like a battle in my fight against ego.
I realized that the ego doesn't want to be improved, because that would take too much work or discomfort or reveal its weakness. I fight against the thought of settling for less. I found that, just by experience, if I didn't try my hardest that day, that if I had held back because I was too afraid or lazy... that I would innately know subconsciously. And that would hinder my ability to feel good about myself. Yeah, I meditate and chant mantras, I go to temples and explore Buddhist teachings. Whenever I go to these peaceful states and fully present, I am happy too, but the happiness is different. The happiness is a lack of stress and at least for me, it is not able to sustain me. The happiness that I wanting something so bad and than work efficiently but really hard to get it-- that joy is also not able to sustain me (because excessive stress eventually kills you, obviously). So I try mixing it up. using meditation as breaks rather than my sole focus. I do know that... When I try my hardest, I know that I'm being productive and there's not a single thing more that I could have done that day, I wake up in the morning excited and smiling. I look forward to each new day.

People playing professional sports know this too. They play their hearts out on the green for their dream of being a champion. It takes an obsession to achieve something great. Innovators... everyone of them invented something that could be turned around to a negative product (take Steve Jobs, you could link him to the forced labor camps in China, if you wished), but why would we do that? Why can't we have the best of both worlds? It's innovation that we should encourage not discourage. And anything revolutionary these days are made with the innovator's blood and sweat (self starters=sweat equity). Goes without saying, anyway, I'm just passionate about my dreams and I want to take Buddha's advice to heart and really determine for myself if the teachings apply. Too radical?

Nathan said...


My post didn't negate people having money, or even being financially successful. I'm not a monk either, and I'm not against money per se.

But if the end goal of investing and making a lot of money is mostly about being rich and successful, I'd say that's meaningless. And given that a small percentage of people these days own and control a very large percentage of material wealth and resources, I'd also say that folks who simply keep pushing for more and more profits for themselves or their immediate families are also creating serious problems in our societies. Problems Buddha confronted directly in more than one sutra.

And actually, Steve Jobs and Apple are linked to sweatshop labor. The products they sell to those of us with financial means cannot be disconnected from the people who labored for next to nothing to make them. They're completely interconnected, another basic Buddhist teaching.

We have to be honest about all of this, and look at the whole picture. Because no one becomes financially successful alone, and I'd argue that the greatest benefit to being financially successful is being able to turn around and give to your community, and those around you. To help built a better place for everyone; not just build a personal or family empire. Furthermore, it seems wise to me to make the effort to build that wealth on a good foundation to begin with. To figure out ways to not enslave and use others - or destroy the planet - in the name of profit.

To me, it's not really an argument between money and vows of poverty. It's about having the intention to not create piles of suffering, and to act in ways that carry out that intention, as best as possible.