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?