Buddhist Concept of Wealth

P. Wattegama

(Mr. P. Wattegama is the Deputy Editor of The Buddhist. Retired Secretary of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, he is also a member of the Buddhist Forum of the SLBC and a Dhamma teacher.)

Although the Buddhist ethical system has, as its foundation, detachment from sensual enjoyment and restraint of material consumerism, the Buddha has, without seeing any contradiction or inconsistency, treated material wealth, the substance of prosperity, as a positive asset that promotes the happiness of the lay householder. Buddha’s attitude towards material wealth is a splendid example of a pragmatic approach in dealing with matters of human life reconciling moral values with material imperatives. It is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha that craving (tanha) causes suffering (dukkha) and fetters beings to Samsaric existence. Quest for wealth could generate craving. Nevertheless, Buddha has not seen any inherent danger in man’s quest for or possession and enjoyment of wealth that would necessitate cautioning human beings to keep aloof from wealth. Buddha recognized that lay householders are, by nature, prone to sensual gratification (gihi kamabhogino). They are eternally subject to an inadequacy in their quest for pleasure, their desires are unsatiated, and are slaves to their cravings (uno, atittho, tanhadaso). Buddha conceded that these propensities are the inescapable lot of the householders and material resources are indispensable for their satisfaction.

Buddha recognized happiness as a virtue. But the happiness envisaged in Buddhism is not hedonistic indulgence of sense desires but the psychological tranquility realised on an ethical plane. In this sense Buddha has identified four forms of happiness: (i) happiness of possession (atthi sukha), (ii) happiness of enjoyment of wealth (bhoga sukha), (iii) happiness or freedom from debt (anana sukha) and (iv) happiness of blameless and faultless life (anavajja sukha).

The first three forms of happiness are clearly derivatives of possession of wealth while the fourth is the sublime happiness of a pure life. Buddhism does not promise a distant ethical goal totally disregarding worldly happiness. Buddha has enunciated an abundance of guidelines on how to manage individual economic prosperity without violating the fundamental moral principles. First and foremost, Buddha has emphasised that wealth should be earned righteously. Buddha says as one reason for getting rich: “Take the case of an Ariyan disciple with riches gotten by work and zeal, gathered by the strength of the arm, earned by the sweat of the brow, justly obtained in a lawful way he makes himself happy, glad, and keeps that great happiness, he makes his parents happy, his wife and children, his slaves, work-folk and men. This is the first reason for getting rich.” (Gradual Sayings III – p. 37).

Buddha has declared a number of occupations to be peaceful and innocuous according to the vocational scenario of the day. They were agriculture, trade, livestock, farming, state service and defence force. In the business of trading, Buddha categorised as unethical, dealing in live animals, lethal weapons, poison, animal flesh and alcohol. Merchandise trading should be conduced honestly without resorting to deception or misrepresentation by employing unethical practices such as short weight (tula kuta), short length (mana kuta), and counterfeit currency (kansa kuta). Buddha recognized that wealth has a utilitarian purpose. Wealth is necessary for achieving one’s happiness and providing happiness to others by discharging one’s obligations to them. One should enjoy wealth while at the same time entertaining others with one’s wealth (Datv ca bhutava ca yathanubhavam). The purposes for which one’s wealth should be utilised are spelt out in the Pattakamma Sutta (AN). They are (i) taxes to the State (raja bali), (ii) gratuities to relatives (nati bali), (iii) hospitality to guests (atithi bali), (iv) donations to recluses (devata bali) and oblations in the name of departed relatives (pubba peta bali).

As basic principles that should characterize the utilization of wealth, Buddha has enjoined that one should avoid entanglement (agathito), (b) avoid infatuation (anuccito), © know the limitations (avajjhapanno) and (d) be mindful of possible consequences (adibava dassavi). Buddha condemns both the extravagant prodigal who lives ostentatiously and the parsimonious niggard who hoards his earnings forgoing even the bare necessities of life. Buddha compares the prodigal to a “fig eater” who fells the entire crop to eat a few fruits and brands the niggard as `one fasting to death’.

Buddha’s admonition to youth Sigala (Singalovada Sutta D.N.31) to utilise one quarter of earnings on consumption, invest two quarters in the business and save one quarter is not simply a homily on prudential living but an embodiment of a modern economic theory defining the significance of savings and investments as two pillars of economic stability.

Buddha valued the householder’s life that harmoniously balanced moral values with material aspirations. A layman’s life would be successful if the moral practices have been cultivated and material resources acquired during the appropriate periods of his life. Where such timely action has not been taken one’s life would be one of despondency. This reality is expressed in the Dammapada stanza 155 thus: “Those who in youth have not led a holy life, who have failed to acquire wealth, languish like old cranes in a pond without fish”.

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