Sunday, November 13, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What can a Buddhist teach a politician about poverty?  How do we define wealth? Are our problems rooted in money or simply the "idea" of having and needing money?" 
In the Cakkavatti-Sīhanāda Sutra (The Lion's Roar on the Turning of the Wheel) we are told the story of how a society failed. A king "did not give property to the needy, and as a result poverty became rife. With the spread of poverty, a man took what was not given, thus committing what was called theft." As more and more people engaged in theft "the use of weapons increased, from the use of weapons, the taking of life increased...lying increased...the speaking evil of others increased" along with sexual misconduct, harsh speech and idle chatter, covetousness and hatred, false opinions, incest, excessive greed and deviant practices, lack of respect for mother and father, for ascetics and Brahmins and the head of the clan. 

Commenting on this sutra, H. Saddhatissa says in Buddhist Ethics that, "If rulers do not prevent the spread of poverty in their domains they not only induce disorder therein but create disrespect for all recognized forms of authority, so contributing to the deterioration of the human race." Put another way, this very old story states that widespread poverty causes the collapse of all the gossamer-thin structures of civilized life, and plunges men and women into a degenerate state of living like "goats, sheep and such animals."

From a Buddhist perspective, then, some degree of material prosperity is required for all who have not renounced the world and donned the robes of monks and nuns. If you traveled through Japan in the 1990s, as I did on a five-city lecture tour, you probably discovered in your hotel room a Buddhist version of the Gideon Bible in the drawer of a desk. The title of that work is The Teaching of the Buddha, a text with English on the left side page and Japanese on the right, published in 1966 by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Buddhist Promoting Foundation). 
In Chapter Two of that book, entitled "Practical Guide to True Way of Living," we are informed that householders, especially those engaged in business, have a moral duty to succeed and create wealth for the sake of others. In the family of a householder, "Every member must work hard like the diligent ants and the busy bees. No one must rely upon the industry of others, or expect their charity. On the other hand, a man must not consider what he has earned as totally his own. Some of it must be shared with others, some of it must be saved for an emergency, some of it must be set aside for the needs of the community and the nation, and some of it must be devoted to the needs of the religious teachers." Far from being motivated by greed, the householder inspired by Buddhist ideals labors to create wealth as a form of service or seva. He is not attached to wealth, nor does he cling to it. This passage continues by saying:
          "One should always remember that nothing in the world can strictly be called 'mine.' What comes to a person comes to him because of a combination of causes and conditions; it can be kept by him only temporarily and, therefore, he must not use it selfishly or for unworthy purposes."
So wealth is more than just an idea. It is one of life's necessities, required to reduce physical suffering for oneself and others, despite its impermanence. But what is true wealth or riches for a follower of the Dharma? H. Saddhatissa gives us an answer when he writes:
          "To Ugga, the King's minister, the Buddha gave seven states that are not subject to fire, theft and other damage:
The riches of confidence, riches of morals, of shame and fear
  of wrong-doing.
The riches of listening, of charity, wisdom are seven.
Of whom is possessed these riches, or woman or man,
That one is invincible either to devas or men.
Because confidence, morals, are brightness, the vision of
Give yourselves up, wise one, to remembering
That which the Buddha has taught."
          True wealth, then, is found in one's spiritual practice.

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