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The Buddha Thought It Was Okay to Be Rich
It’s easy to get the impression Buddhism opposes earning much wealth beyond what’s “necessary,” or using wealth for one’s own benefit instead of giving away everything beyond the minimum needed to get by. After all, monks shave their heads, put on robes, and take up alms bowls. If you listen to a lot of contemporary, politically engaged Buddhists, you’ll get the impression that Buddhism necessarily opposes market economies and that wealth inequality runs counter to Buddhist values.
But that view of Buddhism is misleading—and rather inaccurate if we look to the ancient texts to discover what the Buddha actually said about acquiring and using wealth. In fact, it turns out that while he had ideas about the ethics of both, he saw wealth in a quite positive light.
Monks vs. Lay Followers
A distinction worth clarifying up front is that between expectations for monks and the rest of us. Yes, Buddhist monks refrain from commerce, don’t seek wealth, are sometimes expected to beg for their food, and own very little. But this is because a monk has consciously and with great consideration dedicated his life to achieving enlightenment on the Buddhist path. That’s a big deal—and a time consuming one. All the duties of a householder—i.e., someone who still has to participate in the world and materially provide for herself and others—get in the way of a laser focus on ethical training and meditative practice. That includes making and spending money.
But being a Buddhist doesn’t mean becoming a monk, any more than being a Catholic means becoming a priest. The expectations for lay Buddhists aren’t at all as demanding and limiting as those for mendicants. With that in mind, let’s look at what the Buddha said about wealth in the context of us non-monks.
A Buddhist is expected to live by the Eightfold Path, a set of guidelines for achieving the end of suffering. When it comes to acquiring and using wealth, the two aspects of the path most relevant are Right Action and Right Livelihood. We need to make sure that the methods by which we gain our wealth, and the ways we use it once we have it, don’t run afoul of these rules.
In the Magga-Vibhaṅga Sutta (SN 45:8) the Buddha says, “And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from sexual intercourse: This, monks, is called right action.” (For lay followers, abstaining from sex is instead replaced with not engaging in sexual misconduct, meaning harmful sexual activities.) He continues, “And what, monks, is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood. This, monks, is called right livelihood.”
This later definition isn’t all that immediately helpful, outside of saying it’s wrong to earn your living through dishonest means. Peter Harvey, in his An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, unpacks Right Livelihood as follows:
The “right livelihood” factor of the Eightfold Path entails that one’s means of livelihood should not be dishonest or otherwise cause suffering to other living beings. “Wrong livelihood” is trade in: weapons (being an arms salesman), living beings (keeping animals for slaughter), meat (being a slaughterer, meat salesman, hunter or fisherman), alcoholic drink, or poison (A. 111.208). ... Wrong livelihood is also seen as any mode of livelihood that is based on trickery or greed (M. 111.75), that is, which entails breaking the second precept: stealing, directly or by deception. To be able to see how to increase one’s wealth is fine, but to be blind to moral considerations, so as to do so “with tricks, fraud and lies: worldly, purse-proud,” is to be “one-eyed.”
Beyond that, things are pretty open. In the Ādiya Sutta, the Buddha talks about “legitimate wealth,” which is wealth the householder has “earned by his efforts and initiative, built up with his own hands, gathered by the sweat of the brow.”
As is typical of Buddhist ethics, what matters mainly is avoiding doing wrong. There’s nothing wrong with gaining wealth, even great wealth, provided it’s done in an honest and non-harmful way. Notice, too, that there isn’t a rule adding, “... and only up to a certain amount” or “... only so long as the amount of wealth you have isn’t greater than some multiple of what the poorest people have.” Income and wealth inequality weren’t of concern, and this was in a society where poverty was far more grinding and absolute than it is in our modern economies today.
So that’s acquisition. What did the Buddha say about using the wealth you have?
In the Ādiya Sutta (AN 5.41) the Buddha sets out “five reasons to get rich,” or five ethical ways to use one’s wealth.
Firstly, with his legitimate wealth—earned by his efforts and initiative, built up with his own hands, gathered by the sweat of the brow—he makes himself happy and pleased, keeping himself properly happy. He makes his mother and father happy … He makes his children, partners, bondservants, workers, and staff happy … This is the first reason to get rich.
Furthermore, with his legitimate wealth he makes his friends and colleagues happy … This is the second reason to get rich.
Furthermore, with his legitimate wealth he protects himself against losses from such things as fire, water, kings, bandits, or unloved heirs. He keeps himself safe. This is the third reason to get rich.
Furthermore, with his legitimate wealth he makes five spirit-offerings: to relatives, guests, ancestors, king, and deities. This is the fourth reason to get rich.
Furthermore, with his legitimate wealth he establishes an uplifting religious donation for ascetics and brahmins—those who avoid intoxication and negligence, are settled in patience and gentleness, and who tame, calm, and extinguish themselves—that’s conducive to heaven, ripens in happiness, and leads to heaven. This is the fifth reason to get rich.
Harvey summarizes the Buddha’s view on using wealth as follows: “As to using the product of one’s work, it is praiseworthy to use it: (a) to give ease and pleasure to oneself; (b) to share it with others, and to use it for generous, karmically fruitful action.”
This aligns quite well with the way most of us think about wealth. If you’ve earned it, you should use it to bring yourself and your family pleasure and to make your lives easier. But it’s also good to use your wealth to help those less fortunate, or to otherwise make the world a better place. Giving to charity is good and praiseworthy, as is supporting causes you care about, or paying for things that will benefit your community. Few object to this expectation. We tend to think of misers as, well, miserly.
In a market economy, another way we can make our wealth improve the lives of others is to invest it, or to use it to start or expand businesses that provide jobs, produce products people want, and come up with new and innovative solutions to existing problems. We then capture some of the value we create in profits, but only a fraction. Most of that benefit flows to employees, customers, and others via positive externalities and economic growth.
Where Wealth Can Go Wrong
This doesn’t mean great wealth can’t lead us astray. If our goal is Buddhist practice and, ultimately, enlightenment and the end of suffering, wealth can be a barrier if we give it too much primacy in our lives, give in to craving, and make the pursuit of it a substitute for our practice. In the Appaka Sutta (SN 3.6), King Pasendai remarks to the Buddha that many people with great wealth will use it in bad ways out of negligence and complacency about the path.
Few are the sentient beings in the world who, when they obtain luxury possessions, don’t get indulgent and negligent, giving in to greed for sensual pleasures, and doing the wrong thing by others. There are many more who, when they obtain luxury possessions, do get indulgent and negligent, giving in to greed for sensual pleasures, and doing the wrong thing by others.
The Buddha replies, “That’s so true, great king! That’s so true!” and then, in verse, adds:
Full of desire for possessions and pleasures,
greedy, infatuated by sensual pleasures;
they don’t notice that they’ve gone too far,
like deer falling into a trap set out.
It’ll be bitter later on;
for the result will be bad for them.
But that is not a reason to shun wealth, or to prevent the acquisition of it. Rather, it’s a call to be mindful and wise about how we use our wealth and what we allow our relationship to it to become.
The Buddha saw nothing shameful in wealth, provided it was achieved and used ethically. Our path to wealth should be an honest one, and not come through violence or theft. Once we have it, we should be mindful of how we use it. There’s nothing wrong with putting our wealth to work benefiting ourselves and those near to us, but we should try to benefit the less fortunate, as well. The good news is that a society embracing economic liberty gives us ample means for doing just that.