by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Westerners live in a land of abundance. That isn’t to say that we all have everything and anything we want; it is a fact though that everything and anything is available to us. We live a life thinking that consumerism is a natural state of being human, it is promoted unceasingly in the media, holidays are built around it, and the Prosperity Gospel promises a higher level of buying and owning. Even those who live “below the poverty line” have more material wealth than most of the developing world outside our borders. The saying, money can’t buy happiness seems less true to Westerners than ever before. This is not money’s fault, money is not responsible for how anyone feels; it is individual and societal expectations and fears that lead to disharmony and suffering.
Each of us would like to have enough money to live a comfortable life. Many of us would like to do that AND have some to donate to the well-being of others. Some of us would like to be extremely wealthy. There is another saying, money is the root of all evil. As Buddhists we recognize that money is a phenomena whose influence we can control over and whose value we have the power to direct where it is needed. So, the first question, how much is enough?
Strangely enough the Buddha must have been faced with question, “How much is enough?” because in the Anguttara Nikaya he offers pragmatic advice on balancing greed, selfishness, ambition and hoarding of wealth. He wasn’t directing this advice to monks because they weren’t supposed to have wealth anyway and not to the wealthy because they had different issues concerning wealth. It was directed toward householders, the working people whose relationship with material goods followed a different path.
Thus I have heard,
Back in the day a householder named Anathapindika got the opportunity to ask the Awakened One a question. He was understandably nervous as he wasn’t a king or a brahman, just an average guy who worked hard to support his family. Like any in his position he wondered if more money would bring more happiness. “Awakened One, does wealth equal happiness?”
The Buddha responded, “There are four kinds of happiness that with the proper preparation and realization that a householder can come to experience. The four are: happiness of having, happiness of making compassionate use of wealth, happiness of being debt free, and happiness of blamelessness.”
Earning wealth through honest labor and effort, amassing wealth by strength of arm and sweat of brow is wealth appropriately gained. This is called happiness of having.
Using wealth appropriately gained to offer selfless and compassionate assistance when the householder is able to is meritorious. This is called happiness of making compassionate use of wealth.
A householder, before offering selfless and compassionate assistance ensures that he owes no debt, great or small, to anyone at all has attained happiness of debtlessness.
That householder guided by appropriate having, appropriate compassionate use, and appropriate debtlessness will find themselves blameless in the three aspects of karma – bodily, verbal, mental. This is called happiness of blamelessness.
A householder who engages mindfulness in situations will find themselves engaging in happiness for themselves and those around them.
Recognizing the happiness of debtlessness, & realizing the happiness of having, enjoying the happiness of wealth, the householder can then see clearly that happiness of blamelessness brings about the most joy.
So, the Buddha is saying that having wealth isn’t the issue. The issue is in how the wealth is perceived and used. Very pragmatic. Wealth is useful and productive when it is viewed as the impermanent phenomena that it is. The tool that it is. Wealth can lead to happiness if it is appropriately gained, appropriately viewed and is an avenue to positive karmic consequences.
And, the second question, how can I decide what money goes where? Couple this teaching from the Anguttara Nikaya with the Sigalovada Sutta and the Awakened One’s view of monetary experiences for householders becomes even more clear. Studying the commitments between parent/child, family members domestic partners, and employer/employee offers further guides in the wise use of wealth. The noble work that brings ‘happiness of having’ should be used in five ways. First the householder should provide material welfare to one’s self and family, parents, teachers and employees. Second the householder should be able to do the same for friends and companions in need. Thirdly it is important to keep ones’ goods safe from those who might covet it or destroy it and, fourth some wealth should be used to show respect to ancestors and to entertain guests. Finally the householder should make offerings to monks and the Buddhist community. In a contemporary engaged Buddhist practice we of course look to any other agencies and organization, secular and religious that are also engaged in promoting positive transformation. There is a goal to these practices beyond the wise use of wealth. They are practices of generosity and compassion, and of realizing of the alleviation of craving.
The Buddha may not have agreed that “money can buy happiness” but he did teach that the wise use of wealth could lead to happiness. It didn’t come from the possessions gained or the adulation of others, happiness came instead from the positive karmic consequences engendered through wise and compassionate use of money that began at home. Compassion and generosity are laudable actions unless in doing so the householder causes suffering within his own home and family. There must be certainty that home and family are taken care of in order to truly engage the world with ‘generosity of spirit’. For an engaged Buddhist charity does begin at home but it mustn’t stop there. Remember that it isn’t just your wealth that can be a tool in the alleviation of suffering . . . your time, your skills, and your imagination are equally valuable.