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Buddhistdoor View: Betting on Our Better Angels


The Buddhist perspective on gambling is fairly unambiguous: be it beting on machines or in casinos, at football matches or horse races, it is just not worth the risk. Some people no doubt strike it rich, but the frequency of winning is amplified by media coverage of successful gamblers. In reality, our chances of winning the lottery are so miniscule that it is far more fulfilling and productive to spend time building one’s skillsets, making art, cultivating relationships, and helping others. We should think back to the Buddha’s analogy of the rarity of a human birth. We are fortunate to have been reborn as human beings and we should make the most of it by focusing on spiritual maturity and working toward enlightenment rather than frittering away our hard-earned money on financial gambles.

Gambling is tragically often not simply harmless fun and relinquished pocket money with friends. For many, gambling is an addiction that can drive people to financial ruin and destroy families. Research has shown that repeated gambling conditions the mind and changes our neurobiology: it strengthens neuropathways associated with the reward and excitement of gambling, giving areas such as the amygdala (associated with emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation) more control over our behavior, causing habitual vicious cycles. In a recent report on the legalization of casinos in Japan, it was estimated that “3.2 million Japanese have at some time in their lives been hooked on pachinko, football pools, lotteries, and government-run races involving horses, bicycles, speedboats, and motorbikes.” (The Guardian)

The Buddhist principle of Right Livelihood seems to reinforce a general injunction against frittering away money. Money is to be spent on caring for family, offering to Dharma causes and other worthy charitable activities, and on wise investments for the future. Gambling not only reaffirms the unskillful values of “greed is good” and winning something for no discernible effort, but also the idea that even when one wins, it is never enough. The casino always wins: if we lose our bets we are encouraged to keep going, and when we win we are seduced into betting even more.

Even setting aside the financial aspect, the idea or act of gambling at a general level is one of taking risks, of taking the plunge, of breathing in deep and rolling the dice. If we see “gambling” as taking a chance without being certain of the outcome, then it would seem to be more part and parcel of everyday life than we assume. In a civilized society, we put our trust in institutions of all kinds and assume that they work more or less smoothly and ultimately in our favor. We do business, sign contracts, and seal relationships with partners and collaborators. And in our personal lives, we take many small (or big) leaps into the unknown, and this mystery is part of the magic: especially when we are in love, or when we decide to have children.

Granted, a reasonable observer might say that these “gambles” or “bets” are often based on much more evidence than the blind luck of Pachinko machines. We choose to marry because we feel that we have found the “right person” for us—even if we have not yet had the experience of married life with our partners. We decide on a job offer not because we know exactly what it will be like, but because we have read the contract and we like what we see. There is an intellectual, calculated component in such choices, and although those passionate about casino games might beg to differ, gambling is ultimately a game, while people are making real-life bets every day.

Nevertheless, in both of these instances, there are questions and uncertainties that add an element of unpredictability to our designs. We can never live life in a fully rational way because we are not computers programmed by algorithms. Very often, our reasoning and logic only take us to a certain point—even with the most promising romantic partner or the most tempting job offer—before we allow ourselves to step into the unknown.

Honor, contracts, obligations, and interpersonal harmony: the maintaining of these critical aspects of social, cultural, political, and individual interaction depend on trust far more than laws. Trust, in turn, is something that can be broken, lost, risked—gambled on. There is no absolute principle or agent that will guarantee the smooth running of these institutions, contracts, and relationships. Yet we are immersed in them, defined by them, and depend on them because we have invested trust in them. What preserves and bolsters these societal conditons is our sense of integrity and propriety, which require a sense of the common good and reciprocal respect.

There is a qualitative difference between risking money while gambling and risking one’s own heart in trusting people. The latter will always involve a degree of vulnerability. When we are able to be vulnerable—a sign of strength rather than weakness—we will rightly risk our ego being damaged because we allow ourselves to be criticized by others.

Embracing life’s unpredictability with wisdom and compassion for oneself and others is a productive way to live authentically and happily. It will allow us to see clearly that it is far better to behave simply and transparently, without dissembling or deceit. We do not need to wear poker faces in our everyday lives. This is because trust—the most powerful asset others can invest in us—is an indicator of the kind of “gambles” they are willing to take with us. For others to trust us, we must be authentic. We would certainly feel more inclined to trust someone who posesses compassion, wisdom, and integrity. We would likely trust them deeply and be willing to risk more with them than someone who is less upright. 

Perhaps we do “gamble” in our daily lives more than we think. However, what are the things we should be betting on? What are the risks we are willing to open ourselves up to? These might be some of the most important questions we can ask ourselves.  

See more

Experts shine spotlight on early signs of problem gambling (
Casino project will offer Japan’s addicts a new way to lose (The Guardian)

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