Few clichés are truer than “money can’t buy happiness.” This common idea has been the central thread of many Dharma talks to highlight the need to be mindful of the fragility and volatility of our search for profit and wealth. The pursuit of profit dominates our globalized financial system: the currencies of business, running across the ubiquitous stock market charts on airport televisions or our smartphones, or screened in city squares, can feel so real. In the midst of our day-to-day handling of banknotes, coins, and credit cards, and the managing of our bank accounts, we can easily forget that human cultures have accorded incredible priorities, privileges, and power to a concept that does not inherently exist. Sometimes it takes a penetrating, even challenging, Dharma talk to awaken us to this fact (until we once again drift back into the samsaric stupor of daily life and money-making).
Since being part of this world is inevitable, there are other finance-related clichés that should be added to a Dharma teacher’s repertoire. “Save for a rainy day while the sun is shining” and “live within your means” come immediately to mind. It is understandable that in today’s conventional yet not-quite-ideal economy, most of us rely on debt for the big things, such as a mortgage for a home or a loan for a car. Private debt levels are higher than ever in both developed and emerging economies. However, finance, wealth, and money need not be avoided like four-letter words in the Buddhist vocabulary. In fact, talking practically about money should be welcomed, especially if it involves discussing the means by which we can benefit our loved ones, friends, strangers, and all beings through intelligent financial decisions.
To save and spend wisely is its own lesson in understanding the value of our earnings and hard work (or the earnings our guardians nurture us with). It also allows for more money to be spent on helping others. If there is an opportunity to assist someone in need and money is required to do so, sound financial management will obviously help. As Dharma teacher Ethan Nichtern told Reuters, there is good to be found in the accumulation and use of money when it’s seen from the perspective of relations with others: “We are taught to use money in ways that isolate us. But money is an exchange. If there was only one person in the world, you could be a trillionaire, but it wouldn’t even matter because all that money would be worthless. Think about how money connects you to other people. From a Buddhist standpoint, you should think about how to use that money to empower others.”
Charity and generosity that don’t come at the cost of breaking the bank are possible when there is a surplus of savings and holdings. This is not to say that charity performed by the poor is unwise or unwanted: their generosity despite their poverty has been celebrated by saints of all religions through the ages. The Buddha praises those who have both the means to acquire wealth and the means to exercise good conduct and faith as “two-eyed” people, as opposed to the blind unable to accumulate wealth or the “one-eyed” people who have the means to earn wealth but can’t perceive wholesomeness and unwholesomeness (Anguttata Nikaya 3.29). Nichtern is correct when he flips the ethical question of money on its head: if money is an abstract “fact” of life, the question must be how it is used, not whether it should be avoided completely. “When people say money is dirty, then they are just leaving it all to people who don’t have any spiritual practices or values. That is an abdication of our responsibilities. Those of us with compassion actually need to go deeper into these arenas. With money, we can empower some very meaningful things in the world,” he said.
Historically, we know that Buddhism has refrained from judging the wealth of individuals, preferring to aim ethical scrutiny at how they’ve accumulated their holdings. This distinction is the essence of Right Livelihood, the fifth component in the Noble Eightfold Path. Perhaps more openly than other religious traditions, Buddhism has depended on wealth creators and philanthropists for institutional flourishing. We are reminded of the first lay followers of the Buddha, who were explicitly recorded to be traders (Trapusha and Bhallika), or of his good friend, the banker and philanthropist Anathapindika. There is even evidence, given in Ronald Davidson’s book Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (2002), that the decline of Buddhism in India, while culminating in the Islamic invasions and the ideological victory of Shaivism, had its origins in the collapse of the North Indian trade guilds (shreni) that had once dominated local and international commerce and allowed merchants and caravan managers to support Buddhist institutions (Davidson 2002, 80–83).
The perennial question in Buddhist finance is: how we can balance non-attachment to money even as we do our best to pursue it, fully mindful of the fact that we do so with the intention of helping others? One critical factor is our ego-delusion. If our sense of ego is strong, it will be very easy to pursue money for its own sake even if our intentions begin well.
At The University of Hong Kong on 12 September, meditator and humanitarian Venerable Matthieu Ricard gave a talk on a theory he called the “altruism revolution” in which he lauded the act of giving a percentage of one’s income to a good cause on a regular basis. He also cautioned against the idea of entering a profession with the intention to make a great deal of money in a lucrative industry for the sake of others. Of course it is all very noble to become a wealthy person with the hope of giving away much of the earned money in the future, but Ricard felt that this was rather over-idealistic. At the same time, there is a rising number of non-profits at the grass-roots level in many countries that employ people and direct their hard work and career aspirations toward a good cause. These groups may well be the altruistic institutions of the future. Additionally, only those with enough financial firepower can support these groups, whether through a trust, a foundation, or a philanthropist’s grant. Along with the immense potential of social entrepreneurship, it is almost certain that we may yet surprise ourselves with the possibilities for a symbiosis of wealth and selflessness.
Davidson, Ronald. 2002. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.
The dharma of dollars: What Buddhism says about money and meaning (Reuters)
A Buddhist Perspective on Economics and the Alleviation of Poverty (Buddhistdoor Global)
Adding Buddhism to Business (Buddhistdoor Global)
The Altruism Revolution (powells.com)