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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“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.”
Or obey the Sabbath restrictions by leaving a hot plate turned on to heat food…
which starts a fire and kills 7 children.
But hey, at least they didn’t violate the Sabbath. Because that would have been terrible.
This is a poor metaphor. Chopped liver is perceived as being of little value or worth, whereas sushi is perceived as more of a delicacy.
Do your research, dude.
Oh man! I never get it right!
Yah, do your research. Who ever heard of chopped liver roll?
This is now…is the worst comment thread ever.
Jesus, unconscious racism, gratitude, money. These are dull topics. We need a sex scandal Mr Warner
No, this will be “the worst comment thread ever” after exactly seven more comments.
This interview with Bill Porter is interesting. He talks about the effect of China’s increasing wealth on Buddhist temples in China.
Thank you for that video link. That is the best comment in this horrible thread.
I read “Zen Baggage”. Interesting, to hear about temples that rotated the length of the sitting periods; 30, 45, 60, 90, if I recall. Abbots who were chain-drinking cups of tea, and very busy with the ceremonies and the duties of their office, but who would pause and offer very different thoughts about Zen to Bill Porter. Interesting life, for Mr. Porter, selling books about China to the Chinese.
“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.
…By the way, you can purchase signed copies of my books directly from this very website… I earn far more per book that way than I do if you buy them …at a store.”
This is by far my worst comment on this thread (so far).
“The Buddha was born to great riches”-
I know this is the standard line, but tell me, does this passage make it sound like his father was a king?-
“This, Aggivessana, occurred to me: ‘I know that while my father, the Sakyan, was ploughing and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree…”
“He was… 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.”
The rule about money is apparently a part of the Vinaya rules attributed to Gautama (“Buddhist sects”, indeed!). A dispute arose when monks living in Vaisali relaxed the rule, and accepted gold, silver and money: “the extant recensions of the Vinaya agree on the main point, that the Vaisali community was out of order, and thus indicate that the Buddhists at this time remained united and overcame the threat of a schism” (“Indian Buddhism”, A. K. Warder, pg 209). That would be about 100 years after the death of Gautama.
“This custom is supposed to make those monks aware of their dependence upon others. “-
I hear Ajahn Amaro say that the awareness you describe was one of the benefits of the rule, but never that it was the intention of the rule.
“To me, systems in which Buddhist monks refuse to handle money seem very much counter to the real spirit of Buddhism.”
Counter to the spirit of the fourth partriarch, Daoxin, maybe; Daoxin is the fella who instituted a lot of monks living in a fixed location and tending crops, I believe he’s also the one who added supper to the menu in China, but all I can find online is the Sotoshu saying it was the practice in the Song and Yuan Dynasties.
“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.”
Yes, there were sramanas in the time of Gautama who lived from the forest or by begging; they taught that the Vedic literature could not be taken literally and that the Brahmins did not have a monopoly on truth, so it should come as no surprise that the Brahmins reviled them, and anyone who begged. Sort of the same as things are now: some folks give to the people on the street, and others revile them.
I agree that trying to wear a costume such as is worn in Thailand or Japan and beg for bread on the streets of the U.S.A. is not likely to succeed, especially if a group of monks or nuns were to attempt it. And yes, there are lots of contradictions in Theravadin rule-keeping, including laypeople who accept money on behalf of the monks and nuns and attend to the necessities, and making laypeople clean the mosquitoes out of the community water supply (because they haven’t yet vowed not to kill). Nevertheless, I think it’s important to try to be accurate about the history; to do otherwise makes it seem like Gautama was an infallible teacher, when in fact his teaching on at least one occasion resulted in the suicides of scores of monks a day, and also makes it seem like the cause of the schism between the Theravadin and Mahayana schools was the compassion of the Mahayana school, when in fact it was the acceptance by what came to be called the Mahayana school of the possibility that an arahant could have a wet dream.
If people want to be turned off by that history, so be it; however, in my opinion the science in the teaching is unequaled in the wisdom literature of the world, and not lessened by the human foibles of the original teacher and those who came after.
Is this now the worst comment I’ve made in this thread, or what!
That should have been, “making novices clean the mosquitoes out of the community water supply”.
In the end, the karma generated by the creation or movement of money falls past the working poor and lands squarely on the environment. The environment always pays the ultimate price.
“Karma’ is an illusionary abstraction invented to justify abstruse, manipulative rationalizations.
When you do, just do.
And when you don’t, just don’t.
This is the worst comments Fred ever
It seems that before King Midas of Phrygia (715 – 676 BC). invented coinage, because on his land flowed the Pactolus which rolled flakes of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, money as we know it didn’t exist You had to carry around, as quoted Brad, your herds of heavy chunks of metal and so on, in order to trade.
It seems that, actually, coinage was invented for the temples, so as to make it easier for the faithful to make offerings…
In Mesopotamia, much earlier than this, not having coinage, and being advance civilisations, they parried by using the cheque and credit. Actually, credit was hyper important until very recent times, because coin units were worth much too much. There was always a possibility that the person wouldn’t be able to give small change. A gold coin could be equivalent to carrying a 500 euro banknote nowadays (with no one wanting to take it in…).
Which made it, in times of dearth of money, which often happened from the Middle Ages until the 19 century) that you needed references in order to be given credit in bars, restaurants, groceries, and so on. Your landlord might eventually be paid for a whole year sums that seem ridiculous to us, but you couldn’t buy a loaf of bread with a silver coin of, let’s say one Florin: that could maybe buy you whole needs for a month of bread. So you’d pay the baker at the end of the month, if he knew you, at the beginning if he didn’t, and he’d keep giving you bread until your provisions were exhausted. If you were passing by, you needed to go to a changer. Eventually, present a credentials letter from a banker or a big shot of your hometown, known well enough to be of reference.
Have that in mind before condemning “money” as an abstraction.
+ If I don’t have what I need, others will not share what they have.
+ If I need something to not feel suffering, others will not give something to me because they will feel suffering.
Something like this… isn’t that the basis of money?
Alan Watts posited things quite simply: money is a measurement unit. And he added that, sometimes (he alluded to the Great Depression, but that applies to our times too) that when bankers tell us there’s no money left, they are just like a foreman on a building site who would say to his workers one morning “Look, guys, we can’t work any longer, we’ve run out of inches”…
Alan must have been drinking that day, assuming there were days of non-drinking. “Inches” are always available, but those in control hoard them.
New Age douche bro Jonas Elrod interviews Alanis Morissette.
I liked the chopped sushi joke. Some people have no sense of humor (I am referencing the guy’s earlier remarks who was upset over it.) To quote Buddha, “The key to enlightenment is to lighten up!”
“To quote Buddha, ‘The key to enlightenment is to lighten up!'”
I think that is actually a quote from Thomas Edison, but he stole it from Nikola Tesla.
Or maybe it was Richard Simmons…
I’d say this was ironic, but religious folk are always two steps behind.
Two steps behind or Left Behinds?
No one left them behinds, they simply must always contend with the confusion of what they are “supposed to be” and what they are. That slows a person down and compromises their ability see clearly.
Do 21st Century religious people act like Electric Sheep?
I bet if they made squirrel bacon they’d call it squacon.
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