A reader recently asked me to write about money. Since I just finished doing my taxes a couple days ago it seemed like a reasonable theme to write about. I’ve written about topics involving money before, quite recently even. But I’m not sure I’ve written a whole lot about money itself.
Talking about the Buddhist attitude toward money is a little like talking about the Christian attitude toward money. There are a huge variety of ways various Buddhist sects feel about money and a large number of different ways Buddhists deal with it.
Like the Christians, Buddhists follow a philosophy founded by a person who, the legends have it, rejected wealth and lived a life of simplicity. The Buddha was born to great riches, but left that all behind and lived by begging. He encouraged his followers to do the same. The Metta Sutra contains the line “may I not take upon myself the burden of riches.” The Gospel of Luke contains the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which has basically the same message.
And, also like the Christians, Buddhists have managed to interpret this idea in a truly baffling variety of ways.
In Japan, Buddhists priests are often looked down upon as social parasites who collect money from gullible people, living in luxury and working very little. The image of a shaven-headed monk driving a fancy car is pretty common in comedies and comic books (see illustration, he is waving a fan of 10,000 yen notes worth about $100 US each). A couple years ago, the British tabloid, The Daily Mail, ran a story about a supposedly scandalous Buddhist monk from Thailand riding in a private jet and carrying a Louis Vuitton bag. They said the monk was a fake. But I’ve seen plenty of real monks doing the same kind of stuff.
About ten years ago some folks came to a retreat I led in Japan. They spent a great deal of time that weekend telling everyone there about some other Buddhist teacher who, they said, was really terrific and inspirational (What was I? Chopped sushi?). They gave me a flier for a day-long retreat this guy was holding, which was close to where I lived at the time. So I went and checked it out.
He was a Canadian monk ordained in one of the Buddhist sects that forbids its monks to touch money. This custom is supposed to make those monks aware of their dependence upon others. I watched him scarf up a scrumptious Indian meal at a nice restaurant and listened as he regaled his followers with tales of a skydiving adventure he’d taken a few days before. After the meal he made some remark about how he could not touch money, which cued his followers to step in and pay his tab for the food, as I’m sure they’d done for his skydiving. I was not impressed.
Begging for money doesn’t always mean being poor. That guy reminded me of observant Jews who, in order to follow the rule of not working on the Sabbath, live in buildings where the elevators run 24 hours a day on Saturday. The original purpose of the rule ends up being violated by following it.
Money has been a fact of human life for a very long time. It was already a well established system when Buddha lived 2500 years ago. It’s a means of standardizing exchange. Instead of trading your pigs for another guy’s figs, you trade beads or pieces of metal and paper or blips in a computer representing your pigs. That way if the guy already has plenty of pigs, you can still get some figs.
It’s an unfair and corrupt system and always has been. Yet pretty much all human societies subscribe to it to some degree. You can sometimes pretend to opt out of it, but usually that’s not what’s actually happening.
For example, whenever I go to Tassajara Zen monastery one of the first things I do is put my wallet away in a drawer. You don’t need money at Tassajara. Everything is provided. You can even do something like shopping down there for free. They have a little area in one of the student housing buildings where they put clothes, books and other items that guests have left behind or discarded and you can just walk in and take whatever you want.
Even so, the food, the living quarters and all the rest that Tassajara provides its students are being paid for by the guests who pay money to stay there during the summer. So the idea that you’re free from money while you’re there is just an illusion.
To me, systems in which Buddhist monks refuse to handle money seem very much counter to the real spirit of Buddhism. If there is “bad karma” associated with handling money, how is it better for a monk to ask someone else to take on that burden for him? The system may have worked in ancient India where there was a tradition of supporting wandering monks was well-established long before Buddha was even born. But it doesn’t work in the capitalistic societies we have today.
More money does not equal greater happiness. I don’t think there can be any disputing that fact. And crushing poverty is miserable. I know this from my days trying to make a living as an indie-rock musician. I’ve never known great wealth, but I’ve been around enough rich people to see that lots of money doesn’t fix everything.
Having too much money tends to give people a false sense of perfect autonomy and often leads them to believe they have no accountability to anyone. I live in Los Angeles, where abuses by the super-rich are clearly evident all over the city. This is a desert town. Why are there lush green golf courses all over it? The rich steal water from the poor and ultimately ruin the future for everyone including themselves and their heirs. That’s just one example.
Those of us interested in Buddhism – or indeed anyone simply wanting to live a life that just makes sense – should watch ourselves carefully when it comes to money. I don’t think it’s necessary to live in abject poverty, but it’s best to learn to live within our means.
I have a lot of possibly quirky rules for myself when it comes to money. For example, I like books and I buy a lot of them. As an author myself, I know that other authors as well as bookstores, publishers, editors and a whole slew of others depend on people to buy books. If I find a book in a shop and I want to buy it, I will not try to get it cheaper on-line. I find the fact that Amazon has an app that allows you to scan a book in a store and find it on their website really offensive. I would never use such a thing. That bookstore made it possible for me to find that book, it’s my duty if I want it, to buy it from them even if it costs more. I also don’t want bookstores to go out of business because I like bookstores.
I don’t offer this as an admonition for you to do the same. I mention it as an illustration of how the Buddhist attitude toward money has influenced my own life here in 21st century America. (By the way, you can purchase signed copies of my books directly from this very website if you’d like to help support me. I earn far more per book that way than I do if you buy them on-line or at a store.)
Money isn’t good or bad in itself. But what we do with it can help others or harm them. That’s where we should be careful.
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