Buddhist Economics
A Middle Way for the Market Place
...Ven. P. A. Payutto...

Chapter Four


The Role of Wealth in Buddhism

Although Buddhism has been characterized as an ascetic religion, asceticism was in fact experimented with and rejected by the Buddha before he attained enlightenment. As far as Buddhism is concerned, the meaning of the word 'asceticism' is ambiguous and should not be used without qualification.

    The term 'poverty' is also misleading. The familiar Buddhist concepts are rather contentment (santutthi) or limited desires (appicchata). Poverty (dadiddiya) is in no place praised or encouraged in Buddhism. As the Buddha said, "For householders in this world, poverty is suffering" [A.III.350]; "Woeful in the world is poverty and debt." [A.III.352]

    In fact, the possession of wealth by certain people is often praised and encouraged in the Pali Canon, indicating that wealth is something to be sought after. Among the Buddha's lay disciples, the better known, the most helpful, and the most often praised were in large part wealthy persons, such as Anathapindika.

    Even for the monks, who are not expected to seek wealth, to be a frequent recipient of offerings was sometimes regarded as a good quality. The monk Sivali, for example, was praised by the Buddha as the foremost of those "who are obtainers of offerings." However, these remarks must be qualified.

    The main theme in the Scriptures is that it is not wealth as such that is praised or blamed but the way it is acquired and used. For the monks, as mentioned above, it is not acquisition as such that is blamed, nor poverty that is praised. Blameworthy qualities are greed for gain, stinginess, grasping, attachment to gain and hoarding of wealth. Acquisition is acceptable if it is helpful in the practice of the Noble Path or if it benefits fellow members of the Order.

    On the other hand, this does not mean that monks are encouraged to own possessions. As long as it is allowed by the Vinaya, or monastic code, gain is justifiable if the possessions belong to the monastic community, but if a monk is rich in personal possessions, it is evidence of his greed and attachment and he cannot be said to conform to Buddhist principles. The right practice for monks is to own nothing except the basic requisites of life. Here the question is not one of being rich or poor, but of having few personal cares, easy mobility, the spirit of contentment and few wishes, and, as the monk's life is dependent for material support on other people, of making oneself easy to support. With high mobility and almost no personal cares, monks are able to devote most of their time and energy to their work, whether for their individual perfection or for the social good.

"The monk is content with sufficient robes to protect the body and sufficient alms food for his body's needs. Wherever he may go he takes just these with him, just as a bird on the wing, wherever it may fly, flies only with the load of its wings." [A.II.209]

    Thus, it is contentment and paucity of wishes accompanied by commitment to the development of the good and the abandonment of evil that are praised. Even contentment and paucity of wishes are to be qualified, that is, they must be accompanied by effort and diligence, not by complacency and idleness. The monk contents himself with whatever he gets so that he can devote more of his time and energy to his own personal development and the welfare of others. In other words, while it may be good for a monk to gain many possessions, it is not good to own or to hoard them. It is good rather to gain much, and give much away.

"Furthermore, monks, he is content with whatever necessities, be it robes, alms food, shelter or medicines, he obtains. Furthermore, monks, he is continually stirring up effort to eliminate bad qualities, making dogged and vigorous progress in good things, and never throwing off his obligations." [D.III.226, 296; A.V.23]

*  *  *

"One is the road that leads to wealth, another the road that leads to Nibbana. If a monk, disciple of the Buddha, has learned this, he will yearn not for honor, but will foster solitude." [Dh.75]

    For the laity, as mentioned above, there is no instance in which poverty is encouraged. On the contrary, many passages in the Scriptures exhort lay people to seek and amass wealth in rightful ways. Among the good results of good kamma, one is to be wealthy.[3] What is blamed in connection with wealth is to earn it in dishonest ways. Worthy of blame also is the one who, having earned wealth, becomes enslaved by it and creates suffering as a result of it. No less evil and blameworthy than the unlawful earning of wealth is to accumulate riches out of stinginess, and not to spend it for the benefit and well-being of oneself, one's dependents, or other people. Again, squandering wealth foolishly or indulgently, or using it to cause suffering to other people, is also criticized:

"Monks, if people knew, as I know, the fruits of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart. Even if it were their last bit, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it if there was someone else to share it with." [It.18]

    Good and praiseworthy wealthy people are those who seek wealth in rightful ways and use it for the good and happiness of both themselves and others. Accordingly, many of the Buddha's lay disciples, being wealthy, liberally devoted much or most of their wealth to the support of the sangha and to the alleviation of poverty and suffering. For example, the millionaire Anathapindika is said in the Commentary on the Dhammapada to have spent a large amount of money every day to feed hundreds of monks as well as hundreds of the poor. Of course, in an ideal society, under an able and righteous ruler or under a righteous and effective administration, there would be no poor people, as all people would be at least self-sufficient, and monks would be the only community set apart to be sustained by the material surplus of the lay society.

    Thus, contrary to the popular image of Buddhism as a religion of austerity, Buddhist teachings do acknowledge the role of material comfort in the creation of happiness. However, Buddhism aims at the development of human potential and, in this regard, material wealth is considered secondary. A lucrative economic activity that is conducive to well-being can contribute to human development -- the accumulation of wealth for its own sake cannot.


Right Livelihood

Right Livelihood is one factor on the Noble Eightfold Path. It is not determined by the amount of material wealth it produces, but rather by the well-being it generates. Many livelihoods which produce a surplus of wealth simply cater to desires rather than providing for any true need.

    For the individual, the objective of livelihood is to acquire the four necessities or requisites of human existence: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Again, the acquisition of these four requisites, be it in sufficient amount or in surplus, is not the ultimate objective. The four requisites are merely a foundation upon which efforts to realize higher objectives can be based.

    Some people are content with few possessions and need only a minimum to devote their energies to mental and spiritual development. Others cannot live happily on such a small amount; they are more dependent on material goods. As long as their livelihood does not exploit others, however, Buddhism does not condemn their wealth. Moreover, people who are charitably inclined can use their wealth in ways that are beneficial for society as a whole.

    In opposition to contemporary urban values, Buddhism does not measure a person's or nation's worth by material wealth. Nor does it go to the opposite extreme, as do Marxist thinkers, and condemn the accumulation of wealth as an evil in and of itself. Instead, Buddhism judges the ethical value of wealth by the ways in which it is obtained, and the uses to which it is put.



Obtaining wealth in immoral ways and using it to harmful ends are two evils associated with wealth. A third is hoarding wealth -- refusing to either share one's wealth or put it to good use. In this story, the Buddha recounts the evils of miserliness:

    At one time, King Pasenadi of Kosala visited the Buddha. The King told the Buddha that a rich old miser had recently died leaving no heir to his huge fortune, and the King had gone to oversee the transfer of the miser's wealth into the kingdom's treasury.

    King Pasenadi described the amount of wealth he had to haul away: eight million gold coins, not to mention the silver ones, which were innumerable. And, he said, when the old miser was alive he had lived on broken rice and vinegar, dressed in three coarse cloths sewn together, used a broken-down chariot for transport and shaded himself with a sunshade made of leaves.

    The Buddha remarked:

"That is how it is, Your Majesty. The foolish man, obtaining fine requisites, supports neither himself nor his dependents, his father and mother, wife and children, his servants and employees, his friends and associates, in comfort. He does not make offerings, which are of great fruit, and which are conducive to mental well-being, happiness and heaven, to religious mendicants. That wealth unconsumed and unused by him is confiscated by Kings, stolen by thieves, burnt by fire, swept aside by floods, or inherited by unfavored relatives. His wealth, accumulated and not used, disappears to no purpose. His wealth is like a forest pool, clear, cool and fresh, with good approaches and shady setting, in a forest of ogres. No-one can drink, bathe in or make use of that water.

"As for the wise man, having obtained fine requisites, he supports himself, his mother and father, his wife and children, his servants and employees, and his friends and associates comfortably, sufficiently. He makes offerings, which are of great fruit, and which are conducive to mental well-being, happiness and heaven, to religious mendicants. The wealth that he has so rightly used is not confiscated by Kings, thieves cannot steal it, fire cannot burn it, floods cannot carry it away, unfavored relatives cannot appropriate it. The wealth rightly used by him is put to use, it does not disappear in vain. His wealth is like a forest pool not far from a village or town, with cool, clear, fresh water, good approaches and shady setting. People can freely drink of that water, carry it away, bathe in it, or use it as they please.

"The evil person, obtaining wealth, neither uses it nor lets others use it, like a forest pool in a haunted forest -- the water cannot be drunk and nobody dares to use it. The wise man, obtaining wealth, both uses it and puts it to use. Such a person is exemplary, he supports his relatives and is blameless. He attains to heaven." [S.I.89-91]

*  *  *

"Your Majesty, those people who, having obtained vast wealth, are not intoxicated by it, are not led into heedlessness and reckless indulgence which endangers others, are very rare in this world. Those who, having obtained much wealth, are intoxicated by it, led into heedlessness and reckless indulgence which endangers others, are truly of far greater number." [S.I.74]

    Elsewhere in the Scriptures, the miserly person is likened to a bird called the "mayhaka" bird, which lives in the fig tree. While all the other birds flock to the tree and eat its fruits, all the mayhaka bird can do is stand there calling out "mayham, mayham" ("mine, mine"). [J.III.299-302]

    To sum up, harmful actions associated with wealth can appear in three forms: seeking wealth in dishonest or unethical ways; hoarding wealth for its own sake; and using wealth in ways that are harmful.


Knowing Wealth's Limitations

Wealthy people with virtue use their wealth to perform good works for themselves and others, but the truly wise also understand that wealth alone cannot make them free. In the passages below, the Buddha expounds on the limitations of wealth and exhorts us to strive for that which is higher than material possessions.

"Actions, knowledge, qualities, morality and an ideal life: these are the gauges of a being's purity, not wealth or name."[4]

*  *  *

"I see beings in this world who are wealthy: instead of sharing their wealth around, they become enslaved by it; they hoard it and demand more and more sensual gratification.

"Kings conquer whole lands, reigning over realms that stretch from ocean to ocean, yet they are not content with simply this shore ---they want the other side as well. Both Kings and ordinary people must die in the midst of want, never reaching an end to desire and craving. With craving unfulfilled, they cast off the body. There is no satisfying the desires for sense objects in this world.

"Relatives let down their hair and grieve over deceased loved ones, wailing, 'Oh, our loved one has passed away from us.' They wrap the body in a cloth, set it upon the funeral pyre and cremate it; the undertakers take sticks and poke the body until it is wholly burnt. All the deceased can take with them is a single cloth, all wealth is left behind.

"When it is time to die, no-one, neither relative nor friend, can forestall the inevitable. Possessions are carried off by the heirs while the deceased fares according to his kamma. When it is time to die, not one thing can you take with you, not even children, wife (or husband), wealth or land. Longevity cannot be obtained through wealth, and old age cannot be bought off with it. The wise say that life is short, uncertain and constantly changing.

"Both the rich and the poor experience contact with the realm of senses; both the foolish and the wise experience contact also. But the foolish person, through lack of wisdom, is overwhelmed and stricken by it. As for the wise man, even though he experiences contact he is not upset. Thus, wisdom is better than wealth, because it leads to the highest goal in this life." [M.II.72-3; Thag.776-784]


Mental attitude to wealth

A true Buddhist lay person not only seeks wealth lawfully and spends it for constructive purposes, but also enjoys spiritual freedom, not being attached to it, infatuated with it or enslaved by it. This is the point where the mundane and the transcendent meet. The Buddha classifies lay people (kamabhogi, those who partake in sense pleasures) into various levels according to lawful and unlawful means of seeking wealth, spending or not spending wealth for the happiness of oneself and others, and the attitude of greed and attachment or wisdom and spiritual freedom in dealing with wealth. The highest kind of person enjoys life on both the mundane and the transcendent planes as follows:


    1. Seeking wealth lawfully and honestly.

    2. Seeing to one's own needs.

    3. Sharing with others and performing meritorious deeds.


    4. Making use of one's wealth without greed, longing or infatuation, heedful of the dangers and possessed of the insight that sustains spiritual freedom.

    Such a person is said to be a Noble Disciple, one who is progressing toward individual perfection. Of particular note here is the compatibility between the mundane and the transcendent spheres of life, which combine to form the integral whole of Buddhist ethics, which is only perfected when the transcendent sphere is incorporated.

    In spite of its great utility, then, too much importance should not be given to wealth. Its limitations in relation to the realization of the goal of Nibbana, furthermore, should also be recognized. Though on the mundane level poverty is something to be avoided, a poor person is not completely deprived of means to do good for himself or society. The ten ways of making merit[5] may begin with giving, but they also include moral conduct, the development of mental qualities, the rendering of service, and the teaching of the Dhamma. Because of poverty, people may be too preoccupied with the struggle for survival to do anything for their own perfection, but when basic living needs are satisfied, if one is mentally qualified and motivated, there is no reason why one cannot realize individual perfection. While wealth as a resource for achieving social good can help create favorable circumstances for realizing individual perfection, ultimately it is mental maturity and wisdom, not wealth, that bring about its realization. Wealth mistreated and abused not only obstructs individual development, but can also be detrimental to the social good.

"Wealth destroys the foolish, but not those who search for the Goal." [Dh.355]

    A life that is free -- one that is not overly reliant on material things -- is a life that is not deluded by them. This demands a clear knowledge of the benefits and limitations of material possessions. Without such wisdom, we invest all our happiness in material things, even though they can never lead to higher qualities of mind. In fact, as long as we remain attached to them, possessions will hinder even simple peace of mind. By their very nature, material things lack the ability to completely satisfy: they are impermanent and unstable, they cannot be ultimately controlled and must inevitably go to dissolution. Clinging onto them, we suffer needlessly. When we were born they were not born with us, and when we die we cannot take them along.

    Used with wisdom, material goods can help relieve suffering, but used without wisdom, they only increase the burden. By consuming material goods with discrimination we can derive true value from them.

    One who gains riches by diligent application to livelihood, and who puts that wealth to good use for himself and others, is said in Buddhism to be victorious in both this world and the next. [D.III.181] When he is also possessed of the wisdom that leads to detachment (nissarana-pa˝˝a), when he neither becomes enslaved by possessions nor carries them as a burden, when he can live cheerfully and unconfused without being spoiled by worldly wealth, he is even more commendable.


The Major Characteristics of Buddhist Economics

1. Middle Way economics: realization of true well-being

Buddhism is full of teachings referring to the Middle Way, the right amount and knowing moderation, and all of these terms may be considered as synonyms for the idea of balance or equilibrium. Knowing moderation is referred to in the Buddhist scriptures as matta˝˝uta. Matta˝˝uta is the defining characteristic of Buddhist economics. Knowing moderation means knowing the optimum amount, how much is "just right." It is an awareness of that optimum point where the enhancement of true well-being coincides with the experience of satisfaction. This optimum point, or point of balance, is attained when we experience satisfaction at having answered the need for quality of life or well-being. Consumption, for example, which is attuned to the Middle Way, must be balanced to an amount appropriate to the attainment of well-being rather than the satisfaction of desires. Thus, in contrast to the classical economic equation of maximum consumption leading to maximum satisfaction, we have moderate, or wise consumption, leading to well-being.

2. Middle Way economics: not harming oneself or others

A further meaning of the term "just the right amount" is of not harming oneself or others. This is another important principle and one that is used in Buddhism as the basic criterion of human action, not only in relation to consumption, but for all human activity. Here it may be noted that in Buddhism "not harming others" applies not only to human beings but to all that lives.

    From a Buddhist perspective, economic principles are related to the three interconnected aspects of human existence: human beings, society and the natural environment. Buddhist economics must be in concord with the whole causal process and to do that it must have a proper relationship with all three of those areas, and they in turn must be in harmony and mutually supportive. Economic activity must take place in such a way that it doesn't harm oneself (by causing a decline in the quality of life) and does not harm others (by causing problems in society or imbalance in the environment).

    At the present time there is a growing awareness in developing countries of environmental issues. People are anxious about economic activities that entail the use of toxic chemicals and fossil fuels. Such activities are harmful to the health of individuals and to the welfare of society and the environment. They may be included in the phrase "harming oneself and harming others," and are a major problem for mankind.


3. See, for example, A.II.204; cf. the Culakammavibhanga Sutta in M.III. [Back to text]

4. M.III.262; S.I.34, 55. It is said that by 'action' here is meant Right Action, 'knowledge' is Right Thought and Right View, 'qualities' (dhamma) refers to the factors of samadhi, and morality refers to Right Speech and Right Livelihood. [Back to text]

5. See Appendix. [Back to text]


Chapters | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |