RICH OR POOR - A BUDDHIST'S CHOICE

By Low Teck Suan


      Over-consumption is the order of the day. Man is expected to consume more and more. In fact, a society is often assessed on the basis of its per capita income; the higher its population and consumption, the more developed it is generally regarded. Some societies produce so much food that the produce would have to be burnt to prop up agricultural prices, while in some other societies people die out of starvation.The rich who controls the access and consumption of resources use them up very quickly instead of sharing their usage with their less fortunate fellow beings or spreading out the non-replenishable resources such as metals and certain sources of energy are ruthlessly depleted to cater to the material comforts and over-consumption of man. At the same time, industrial waste hazards and pollution are endangering life and human survival. The over-emphasis on the materialistic aspect of life also created social problems of crime, suicides, mental illness, drug addiction, and other social tension and dislocation. 

      The Buddha taught that one of the sources of happiness among lay people is to enjoy economic security or sufficient wealth acquired by just and righteous means, the production of wealth by being skilled, efficient, earnest and energetic in whatever profession he is engaged in. He also taught the protection of one's wealth, savings, freedom from debt and to live within one's means. He did not approve of hoarding wealth with desire and attachment nor did He approve of each and every way of earning one's livelihood. He also taught that another source of happiness is to spend that wealth produced liberally on himself, his family, relatives and friends, and on meritorious deeds. He also taught that the equitable distribution of income among people is important for there to be peace, harmony and prosperity in a society. In short, it is evident that Buddhism does not neglect the importance of economics as a condition for happiness in a lay life.


      The Buddha taught some factors for material success and the sources of happiness for a lay person. These advices pertain to the production, maintenance, expenditure and distribution of wealth. However, the Buddhist approach to economics is viewed from a much border context than modern economics. A human life must not be completely involved in accumulating material wealth or seeking material comfort at the expense of the development of some important wholesome qualities of the body, speech, and mind. Material development must be in harmony with moral and spiritual development before there can be real happiness for the individual and progress in the truest sense in society. From the spiritual perspective of almost all cultures on earth, there is still very much a world/money negating attitude towards the use and effect of money. From money-the "poisonous snake", "root of all evils" to the regular Sunday sermons on the evil of money and the sins of wealth. However, it is an indispensable commodity in life for it is impossible to get along without using money in one form or another. Money is a matter of interpretation in many ways. Some thinkers call it "stored up energy" while other suggest that it can be created by visualizing it. After all, money is only three things; first a unit of measure; second, a cipher on a page; and third, an agreed-on value for exchange purposes. Money is instrumentally good. It is not money that is bad, it is the "love of money" that is bad, the desire to have more and more and more of it, the craving for riches, the constant planning of how to get another dollar. It is the fanatical attachment to the belief that money can solve all problems that is bad. The love of money, and it is this craving that is the root of all evils, not money itself. Let us be practical about it. What do you expect a young man with a family supposed to do? Isn't he supposed to try to provide the best for them? Is it wrong to aim for the 5 Cs? Is it unBuddhistic to be wealthy? It is hard to live at that same basic fundamental life style in our materialistic society when all your friends are moving ahead with better quality of life, at least materially as I am not sure at the end of the day, they really achieve "quality of life" in the real sense of happiness and peace of mind. Yes, he has to make money, and he is not wrong to aim for the 5 Cs and to be wealthy. But what is his objective? This is the one question that will determine whether his pursuit of material welfare will lead to a abundant life filled with true happiness, peace of mind and contentment. This is when the wisdom of the Buddha's teaching is most needed to provide him the guidance and the right path to a balanced approach to money and wealth. Perhaps, the too materialistic world in which we lived has taught us the misconception that to attract wealth, you have to be selfish, materialistic, and even unscrupulous. While many of the world's fortunes were built on greed and inhumanity, we need not give up principles of goodwill, honesty, and fairness to attract wealth of any kind. There is a grave misconception justified by those who seek wealth unethically to say that we have to chose between being spiritually rich and materially rich. More and more people are bringing wealth into their lives with the joy of goodwill, rather than the grim determination and deadly seriousness of greed and ill-will. And more wealth are flowing into the hands of people who are deeply concerned with using their resources in ways that promote the well-being of others. If we follow the essence of Buddhist economics and the teaching of the Buddha on the correct approach to material welfare, wealth then becomes a blessing and a useful instrument for us to do good and to help other people relieve their sufferings.

      "I have learned - the more good that I did, the more money comes in."

      - Ted Turner

      Contentment is true wealth, not possessions. How you enjoy your riches depend on how you define contentment. A person's life does not consist of the abundance of things which he possesses.

      Your personal worth is not measured by how much more you have. The problem with our materialistic society is that we like to measure and we are caught in the crazy world of personal net worth as measured by how much materialistic possession you have: cash, size and make of the cars you drive, fixed assets, size and type of home, etc. When a wealthy person is killed, it's shocking front-page news, but the murder of a poor person is so common place it hardly merits attention. Even the size of the obituary in the newspaper measures how wealthy the dead person is in a situation when he has to travel one way and all his materialistic possession travels the other way, beyond his control. Contentment and true wealth is 'not having all you want but wanting only what you have'. The essence of Buddhist Economics is self-sufficiency, having all you need and wanting only that much, not craving for more. Having more than what you need is hoarding of wealth and it should be given away to good deeds to help the less fortunate. The problem with wealth or the pursuit of wealth in Modern Economics is the multiplication of wants and it tempts us with the desire for more and infects us with greed. Accumulating more becomes the most important thing in life. It becomes the reason, the why that drives us and the what we hope for. You slipped into the trap that allows an arbitrary number to make you feel that you are wealthy. Ask yourself at what point you would consider yourself wealthy. A million dollars in net worth? Ten million? More? By letting go of fixed ideas about wealth, and understanding that actual wealth, contentment, is not even limited to money, you will enjoy the consciousness of abundance, true happiness and inner wealth. Spirituality is not measured in terms of what you have or don't have, what you do or don't do, according to your standard of judgment. Whatever you are measuring, you are being materialistic. Let me present to you a test to determine whether you are being spiritual or materialistic. Please choose the more spiritual answer:

      1. You have a choice between two cars. Which would you choose?

      A, an older car that gets 20 miles to the gallon and with 3 years remaining usage.
      B, a newer car that gets 40 miles to the gallon with full 10 years usage.

      2. You look into your wardrobe. How many dresses should you own?

      A, keep it for a very select group of clients and take it easy so you make enough and have plenty of time for leisure to play golf and go karaoke in the evening.
      B, grow your business as large as possible so that thousands are served.

      Score one point for every 'A' and two points for every 'B'. A score of 3 means you are very spiritual and a score of 6 means you are very materialistic. This is really a trick-test. The A answers are no more spiritual than the B answers, and the B's are not more materialistic than the A's. There is no measure about how spiritual and how materialistic are you by what you have or have not. What could be more spiritual than to own a car that uses less gas and lasts longer and hence uses less resources. Perhaps, it is more spiritual to own more clothes, after all, you put more people to work which give them more money for food and shelter. What could be more spiritual than seeing thousands are served by your skills than to only be contented with a salary to see you get by with plenty of time for your own leisure.

      The point in the above trick-test is that spirituality is not measured by your materialistic worth. It is your state of mind or attitude towards material possession that determine how spiritual you are. To think 'no money' is the answer to spirituality is being materialistic itself because of your desire to measure. On the other hand, for those who plan to make as much money as possible, chasing after the material dream, and when they have made it, to call it quits and retires to live a simple life, thinking that by then one can afford to pursue a more spiritual lifestyle in simplicity, is also a fallacy. Similarly, for others who had chased the dreams and failed, and have now simply given up has the same problem. Both parties have one thing in common. They both thought that money was the answer. Running away from the dream is really no different than chasing after the dream. Because in both cases, the state of the mind was that the 'dream', the external source could provide fulfillment to their internal value.

      A Buddhist's choice to be rich or poor materially should be independent of one's own effort to develop spiritually. When, only when you have cultivated yourself through the wisdom of the Buddha Dhamma and be spiritually rich, then, irrespective of whether you are rich or poor, you will be materially happy. However, we are living in the most materialistic age of our time and for those who are blessed with special skills and professional expertise should strive to be materially wealthy through Right Livelihood and let the essence of Buddhist Economics be the guiding principles on the right view of economic welfare and on the proper use of the wealth you have generated with your skills and profession for the benefits of all mankind. Only when you are spiritually rich can you be materially happy, rich or poor. As Buddhist professionals blessed with good education and special training, it is our duty to produce the best economic worth within our best ability, not with personal enrichment as our motive. We must understand the instrumental good of money and to employ the wealth that we will produce towards the missionary goal of Buddhism, which is in the purification of human character and the relief of suffering of mankind.

      Given a choice, I prefer to be a practical Buddhist with my two feet still on the ground of this materialistic world, to strive with the best of my ability to be spiritually rich and materially happy, at the same time making sure I off-load the material baggages sufficiently so that when the day comes for me to lift my two feet from this world and travel to somewhere, I can travel light without these baggages of material possession. Sure, money will not buy happiness, but it will at the very least pay for the printing of dhamma books and support the living of the spiritual teachers from whom we can learn the words of wisdom of the Buddha, without which I may never ever find out what true happiness is in my life time.