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

Chapter Five

 

Teachings on Economics from the Buddhist Scriptures

The Buddhist teachings on economics are scattered throughout the Scriptures among teachings on other subjects. A teaching on mental training, for example, may include guidelines for economic activity, because in real life these things are all interconnected. Thus, if we want to find the Buddhist teachings on economics, we must extract them from teachings on other subjects.

    Although the Buddha never specifically taught about the subject of economics, teachings about the four requisites -- food, clothing, shelter and medicine -- occur throughout the Pali Canon. In essence, all of the teachings concerning the four requisites are teachings on economics.

 

The Monastic Order

The Books of Discipline for the Monastic Order stipulate the attitude and conduct Buddhist monks and nuns are to adopt toward the four requisites. As mendicants, monks and nuns depend entirely on donations for their material needs. The Discipline lays down guidelines for a blameless life that is worthy of the support of the laity. A life dedicated to Dhamma study, meditation and teaching is Right Livelihood for monks and nuns.

    The Discipline also contains standards and regulations for ensuring that the four requisites, once supplied to the Order, will be consumed in peace and harmony rather than contention and strife. Buddhist monks are forbidden from demanding special food or requisites. A monk must be content with little. In this passage, the Buddha instructs monks on the proper attitudes toward the four requisites.

A monk in this Teaching and Discipline is one content with whatever robes he is given and praises contentment with whatever robes are given. He does not greedily seek robes in unscrupulous ways. If he does not obtain a robe, he is not vexed; if he obtains a robe, he is not attached, not enamored of it and not pleased over it. He uses that robe with full awareness of its benefits and its dangers. He has wisdom which frees him from attachment. Moreover, he does not exalt himself or disparage others on account of his contentment with whatever robes are offered. Any monk who is diligent, ardent, not given to laziness, who is fully aware and recollected in contentment with robes, is said to be stationed in the time-honored lineage.

Moreover, a monk is content with whatever alms food he is given ...

Moreover, a monk is content with whatever dwellings he is given ...

Moreover, a monk is one who delights in developing skillful qualities and praises their development; he delights in abandoning unskillful qualities and praises their abandoning; he does not exalt himself nor disparage others on account of his delighting in skillful qualities and praising their development, nor on account of his abandoning of unskillful qualities and praising their abandoning. A monk who is diligent, ardent, not given to laziness, but fully aware and recollected in such development (bhavana) and abandoning (pahana) is said to be stationed in the time-honored lineage. [A.II.27]

    This passage shows the relationship between contentment with material possessions and effort -- material requisites are used as foundation for human development.

    The monastic discipline exemplifies a life-style which makes use of the least possible amount of material goods. This is partly for practical reasons, to enable the Order to live in a way that does not overtax the community, and partly so that the monks can devote as much of their time and energy as possible in the study, practice and teaching of the Dhamma. It also enables them to live a live that is as independent of the social mainstream as possible, so that their livelihood is not all geared to any socially valued gain. All Buddhist monks, be they Arahants (completely enlightened beings) or newly ordained monks, live their lives according to this same basic principle of a minimal amount of material possessions and an optimum of devotion to Dhamma practice.

    To live happily without an abundance of material possession, monks rely on sila, morality or good conduct. Note that each of the four types of good conduct mentioned below [Vism.16; Comp.212] calls upon another spiritual quality to perfect it:

Restraint of behavior (patimokkha samvara sila) means to live within the restraint of the Monastic Code of Discipline (Patimokkha); to refrain from that which is forbidden, and to practice according to that which is specified, to diligently follow in all the training rules. This kind of sila is perfected through saddha, faith.

Restraint of the senses (indriya samvara sila) is accomplished by guarding over the mind so as not to let unskillful conditions, such as like, dislike, attachment or aversion, overwhelm it when experiencing any of the six kinds of sense impressions: sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation in the body or thought in the mind. This kind of sila is perfected through sati, mindfulness or recollection.

Purity of livelihood (ajiva parisuddhi sila) demands that one conduct one's livelihood honestly, avoiding ways of livelihood that are wrong. For a monk, this includes not bragging about superhuman attainments, such as meditation accomplishments or stages of enlightenment, or asking for special food when one is not sick; refraining from extortion, such as putting on a display of austerity to impress people into giving offerings; not fawning or sweet talking supporters; not hinting or making signs to get householders to make offerings; not threatening them or bullying them into making offerings; and not bartering with them, such as in giving something little and expecting much in exchange. This kind of sila, or purity, is perfected through viriya, effort.

Morality connected with requisites (paccaya sannisita sila) means using the four requisites with circumspection, with an awareness of their true use and value, rather than using them out of desire. At meal time, this means eating food for the sake of good health, so that one is able to live comfortably enough to practice the Dhamma conveniently, not eating to indulge in the sensual pleasure of eating. This kind of sila is perfected through paa, wisdom.

 

Householders

While much of the Buddha's teachings were directed towards monks, there is no indication anywhere in the Scriptures that the Buddha wanted householders to live like monks. Nor is there any indication that the Buddha wanted everybody to become monks and nuns. In establishing the order of monks and nuns, the Buddha created an independent community as an example of righteousness, and community that could nourish society with the Dhamma and provide a refuge for those who wished to live a life dedicated to Dhamma study.

    Within this community there are both formal members and true members. The formal members are those who are ordained into the Buddhist Order as monks and nuns and who live super-imposed, as it were, onto normal "householder society." The truly free members, however, are those of Noble Order, both ordained and householders, who have experienced transcendent insight and are scattered throughout the regular society of unenlightened beings.

    While the teachings in the Books of Discipline can be applied to the lives of householders, they are more directly related to monks. The monastic life is designed to be comfortable even when the four requisites are in low supply. In this regard, monks and nuns serve as living examples that life can be happy and fulfilling even when the four requisites are not plentiful.

    Most lay people, however, see the four requisites as basis on which to build more wealth and comfort. While householders may seem to require more material goods than monks and nuns because of their demanding responsibilities, such as raising children and running a business, the fact remains that all of life's basic needs can be met by the four requisites.

    Practical teachings on economic matters for householders are contained in the Books of Discourses, or Suttas. The Suttas recount the advice the Buddha gave to various people in various stations throughout his life. In the Suttas, the Buddha stresses four areas in which householders may relate skillfully to wealth [D.III.188; A.V.176-182]:

    Acquisition -- Wealth should not be acquired by exploitation, but through effort and intelligent action; it should be acquired in a morally sound way.

    Safekeeping -- Wealth should be saved and protected as an investment for the further development of livelihood and as an insurance against future adversity. When accumulated wealth exceeds these two needs, it may be used for creating social benefit by supporting community works.

    Use -- Wealth should be put to the following uses: (1) to support oneself and one's family; (2) to support the interests of fellowship and social harmony, such as in receiving guests, or in activities of one's friends or relatives; (3) to support good works, such as community welfare projects.

    Mental attitude -- Wealth should not become an obsession, a cause for worry and anxiety. It should rather be related to with an understanding of its true benefits and limitations, and dealt with in a way that leads to personal development.

    The Buddha praised only those wealthy people who have obtained their wealth through their own honest labor and used it wisely, to beneficial ends. That is, the Buddha praised the quality of goodness and benefit more than wealth itself. The common tendency (in Thailand) to praise people simply because they are rich, based on the belief that their riches are a result of accumulated merit from previous lives, without due consideration of the factors from the present life, contradicts the teachings of Buddhism on two counts: Firstly, it does not exemplify the Buddha's example of praising goodness above wealth; secondly it does not make use of reasoned consideration of the entire range of factors involved.

    The present life is much more immediate and as such must be afforded more importance. Previous kamma determines the conditions of one's birth, including physical attributes, talents, intelligence and certain personality traits. While it is said to be a determining factor for people who are born into wealthy families, the Buddha did not consider birth into a wealthy family as such to be worthy of praise, and Buddhism does not place much importance on birth station. The Buddha might praise the good kamma which enabled a person to attain such a favorable birth, but since their birth into a wealthy station is the fruition of good past kamma, such people have been duly rewarded and it is not necessary to praise them further.

    A favorable birth is said to be a good capital foundation which affords some people better opportunities than others. As for the unfolding of the present life, the results of previous kamma stop at birth, and a new beginning is made. A good "capital foundation" can easily degenerate. If it is used with care and intelligence it will lead to benefit for all concerned, but if one is deluded by one's capital foundation, or favorable situation, one will use it in a way that not only wastes one's valuable opportunities, but leads to harm for all concerned. The important question for Buddhism is how people use their initial capital. The Buddha did not praise or criticize wealth; he was concerned with actions.

    According to the Buddhist teachings, wealth should be used for the purpose of helping others; it should support a life of good conduct and human development. According to this principle, when wealth arises for one person, the whole of society benefits, and although it belongs to one person, it is just as if it belonged to the whole community. A wealthy person who uses wealth in this manner is likened to a fertile field in which rice grows abundantly for the benefit of all. Such people generate great benefit for those around them. Without them, the wealth they create would not come to be, and neither would the benefit resulting from it. Guided by generosity, these people feel moved to represent the whole of society, and in return they gain the respect and trust of the community to use their wealth for beneficial purposes. The Buddha taught that a householder who shares his wealth with others is following the path of the Noble Ones:

"If you have little, give little; if you own a middling amount, give a middling amount; if you have much, give much. It is not fitting not to give at all. Kosiya, I say to you, 'Share your wealth, use it. Tread the path of the noble ones. One who eats alone eats not happily." [J.V.382]

    Some people adhere to the daily practice of not eating until they have given something to others. This practice was adopted by a reformed miser in the time of the Buddha, who said, "As long as I have not first given to others each day, I will not even drink water." [J.V.393-411]

    When the wealth of a virtuous person grows, other people stand to gain. But the wealth of a mean person grows at the expense of misery for those around him. People who get richer and richer while society degenerates and poverty spreads are using their wealth wrongly. Such wealth does not fulfill its true function. It is only a matter of time before something breaks down -- either the rich, or the society, or both, must go. The community may strip the wealthy of their privileges and redistribute the wealth in the hands of new "stewards," for better or for worse. If people use wealth wrongly, it ceases to be a benefit and becomes a bane, destroying human dignity, individual welfare and the community.

    Buddhism stress that our relationship with wealth be guided by wisdom and a clear understanding of its true value and limitations. We should not be burdened or enslaved by it. Rather, we should be masters of our wealth and use it in ways that are beneficial to others. Wealth should be used to create benefit in society, rather than contention and strife. It should be spent in ways that relieve problems and lead to happiness rather than to tension, suffering and mental disorder.

    Here is a passage from the Scriptures illustrating the proper Buddhist attitude to wealth:

"Bhikkhus, there are these three groups of people in this world. What are the three? They are the blind, the one-eyed, and the two-eyed.

"Who is the blind person? There are some in this world who do not have the vision which leads to acquisition of wealth or to the increase of wealth already gained. Moreover, they do not have the vision which enables them to know what is skillful and what is unskillful ... what is blameworthy and what is not ... what is coarse and what is refined ... good and evil. This is what I mean by one who is blind.

"And who is the one-eyed person? Some people in this world have the vision which leads to the acquisition of wealth, or to the increase of wealth already obtained, but they do not have the vision that enables them to know what is skillful and what is not ... what is blameworthy and what is not ... what is coarse and what is refined ... good and evil. This I call a one-eyed person.

"And who is the two-eyed person? Some people in this world possess both the vision that enables them to acquire wealth and to capitalize on it, and the vision that enables them to know what is skillful and what is not ... what is blameworthy and what is not ... what is coarse and what is refined ... good and evil. This I call one with two eyes ...

"One who is blind is hounded by misfortune on two counts: he has no wealth, and he performs no good works. The second kind of the person, the one-eyed, looks about for wealth irrespective of whether it is right or wrong. It may be obtained through theft, cheating, or fraud. He enjoys pleasures of the sense obtained from his ability to acquire wealth, but as a result he goes to hell. The one eyed person suffers according to his deeds.

"The two eyed person is a fine human being, one who shares out a portion of the wealth obtained through his diligent labor. He has noble thoughts, a resolute mind, and attains to a good bourn, free of suffering. Avoid the blind and the one-eyed, and associate with the two-eyed." [A.I.128]

 

Government

The Buddha said "poverty is suffering in this world." Here he speaks to the use of wealthy by governments. Poverty and want, like greed (to which they are closely related) contribute to crime and social discontent. [D.III.65, 70] Buddhism maintains that it is the duty of the government or the administrators of a country to see to the needs of those who are in want and to strive to banish poverty from the land. At the very least, honest work should be available to all people, trade and commerce should be encouraged, capital should be organized and industries monitored to guard against dishonest or exploitive practices. By this criteria, the absence of poverty is a better gauge of government's success than the presence of millionaires.

    It is often asked which economic or political system is most compatible with Buddhism. Buddhism does not answer such a question directly. One might say Buddhism would endorse whatever system is most compatible with it, but economic and political systems are a question of method, and methods, according to Buddhism, should be attuned to time and place.

    What is the purpose of a government's wealth? Essentially, a government's wealth is for the purpose of supporting and organizing its citizens' lives in the most efficient and beneficial way possible. Wealth enables us to practice and to attain progressively higher levels of well-being. Wealth should support the community in such a way that people who live in it conduct good lives and are motivated to a higher good.

    A political or economic system that uses wealth to these ends is compatible with Buddhism (subject to the stipulation that it is a voluntary or free system rather than an authoritarian one). Specific systems are simply methods dependent on time and place, and can vary accordingly. For example, when the Buddha established the Order of monks as a specialized community, he set up rules limiting a monk's personal possessions. Most requisites were to be regarded as communal property of the Order.

    The Buddha gave different teachings regarding wealth for householders or worldly society. In his day, there were two main political systems in India: some parts of the country were ruled by absolute monarchies, others were ruled by republican states. The Buddha gave separate teachings for each. This is characteristic of his teachings. Buddhism is not a religion of ideals and philosophy, but a religion of practice. The Buddha made his teaching applicable to the real life of the people in the society of the time.

    If the Buddha had waited until he had designed a perfect society before he taught, he would have fallen into idealism and romanticism. Since the perfect society will always be a "hoped-for" society, the Buddha gave teachings that could be put to effect in the present time, or, in his words, "those truths which are truly useful."

    For the monarchies, the Buddha taught the duties of a Wheel-Turning Emperor, exhorting rulers to use their absolute power as a tool for generating benefit in the community rather than a tool for seeking personal happiness. For the republican states, he taught the aparihaniyadhamma -- principles and methods for encouraging social harmony and preventing decline. In their separate ways, both these teaching show how a people can live happily under different political systems.

    When the absolute monarchy reached its highest perfection in India, the Emperor Ashoka used these Buddhist principles to govern his empire. He wrote in the Edicts, "His Highness, Priyadassi, loved by the devas, does not see rank or glory as being of much merit, except if that rank or glory is used to realize the following aim: 'Both now and in the future, may the people listen to my teaching and practice according to the principles of Dhamma.'" [Ashokan Edict No.10]

    The ideal society is not one in which all people occupy the same station; such a society is in fact not possible. The ideal society is one in which human beings, training themselves in mind and intellect, although possessing differences, are nevertheless striving for the same objectives. Even though they are different they live together harmoniously. At the same time, it is a society which has a noble choice, a noble way out, for those so inclined, in the form of a religious life. (Even in the society of the future Buddha, Sri Ariya Metteyya, where everyone is said to be equal, there is still to be found the division of monks and laypeople.)

    While absolute equality is impossible, governments should ensure that the four requisites are distributed so all citizens have enough to live on comfortably and can find honest work. Moreover, the economic system in general should lead to a harmonious community rather than to contention and strife, and material possessions used as a base for beneficial human development rather than as an end in themselves.

    In one Sutta, the Buddha admonishes the Universal Emperor to apportion some of his wealth to the poor. The emperor is told to watch over his subjects and prevent abject poverty from arising.[7] Here we see that ethical economic management for a ruler or governor is determined by the absence of poverty in his domain, rather than by a surplus of wealth in his coffers or in the hands of a select portion of the population. When this basic standard is met, the teachings do not prohibit the accumulation of wealth or stipulate that it should be distributed equally.

    With an understanding of the Buddhist perspective on social practice, those involved in such matters can debate which system is not compatible with Buddhism. Or they may opt to devise a new, more effective system. This might be the best alternative. However, it is a matter of practical application which is beyond the scope of this book.

 

The Inner Perspective

The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains the Buddha's more esoteric teaching. While the Abhidhamma does not directly address economics, it does have a strong indirect connection because it analyses the mind and its constituents in minute detail. These mental factors are the root of all human behavior, including, of course, economic activity. Negative mental constituents such as greed, aversion, delusion and pride motivate economic activity as do the positive constituents such as non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion, faith, generosity, and goodwill. In this respect, the Abhidhamma is a study of economics on its most fundamental level.

    In a similar connection, the more esoteric practices of Buddhism, meditation in particular, relate indirectly but fundamentally to economics. Through meditation and mental training, we come to witness the stream of causes and conditions that begin as mental conditions and lead to economic activity. With this insight, we can investigate our mental process and make sound ethical judgments. Meditation helps us to see how ethical and unethical behavior are the natural consequence of the mental conditions which motivate them. Individual people, classes, races and nationalities are neither intrinsically good nor evil. It is rather our mental qualities that guide our behavior toward the ethical and the unethical. Greed, hatred and delusion drive us to unethical acts. Wisdom and a desire for true well-being guide us to ethical behavior and a good life.

    With meditation, we gain perspective on our motivations: we sharpen our awareness and strengthen free will. Thus, when it comes to making economic decisions, decision about our livelihood and consumption, we can better resist compulsions driven by fear, craving, and pride and choose instead a moral course that aims at true well-being. In this way, we begin to see how mental factors form the basis of all economic matters, and we realize that the development of this kind of mental discernment leads the way to true economic and human development.

    Perhaps more importantly, through meditation training it is possible to realize a higher kind of happiness -- inner peace, the independent kind of happiness. When we have the ability to find peace within ourselves we can use wealth, which is no longer necessary for our own happiness, freely for the social good.

 

Seeking and Protecting Wealth

The following Sutta offers teachings on livelihood for a householder with an emphasis on the benefits that arise from right livelihood.

    At one time, the Brahmin Ujjaya went to visit the Buddha to ask his advice on how to gain prosperity through right livelihood. The Buddha answered by explaining the conditions that would lead to happiness in the present and in the future:

"Brahmin, these four conditions lead to happiness and benefit in the present. They are, industriousness, watchfulness, good company and balanced livelihood.

"And what is the endowment of industriousness (utthanasampada)? A son of good family supports himself through diligent effort. Be it through farming, commerce, raising livestock, a military career, or the arts, he is diligent, he applies himself, and he is skilled. He is not lazy in his work, but clever, interested. He knows how to manage his work, he is able and responsible: this is called endowment of industriousness.

"And what is the endowment of watchfulness (arakkhasampada)? A son of good family has wealth, the fruit of his own sweat and labor, rightly obtained by him. He applies himself to protecting that wealth, thinking, 'How can I prevent this wealth from being confiscated by the King, stolen by thieves, burnt from fire, swept away from floods or appropriated by unfavored relatives?' This is called the endowment of watchfulness.

"And what is good company (kalyanamittata)? Herein, a son of good family, residing in a town or village, befriends, has discourse with, and seek advice from, those householders, sons of householders, young people who are mature and older people who are venerable, who are possessed of faith, morality, generosity, and wisdom. He studies and emulates the faith of those with faith; he studies and emulates the morality of those with morality; he studies and emulates the generosity of those who are generous; he studies and emulates the wisdom of those who are wise. This is to have good company.

"And what is balanced livelihood (samajivita)? A son of good family supports himself in moderation, neither extravagantly nor stintingly. He knows the causes of increase and decrease of wealth, he knows which undertakings will yield an income higher than the expenditure rather than the expenditure exceeding the income. Like a person weighing things on a scale, he knows the balance either way ... If this young man had only a small income but lived extravagantly, it could be said of him that he consumed his wealth as if it were peanuts. If he had a large income but used it stintingly, it could be said of him that he will die like a pauper. But because he supports himself in moderation, it is said that he has balanced livelihood.

"Brahmin, the wealth rightly gained in this way has four pathways of decline. They are to be given to debauchery, drink, gambling, and association with evil friends. It is like a large reservoir with four channels going into it and four channels going out opened up, and the rain does not fall in due season, that large reservoir can be expected only to decrease, not to increase ...

"Brahmin, wealth so gained rightly has four pathways of prosperity. They are to refrain from debauchery, drink and gambling, and to associate with good friends, to be drawn to good people. It is like a large reservoir with four channels leading into it and four channels leading out. If the channels leading into it are opened up, and the channels leading out are closed off, and rain falls in due season, it can be expected that for this reservoir there will be only increase, not decrease ... Brahmin, these four conditions are for the happiness and benefit of a young man in the present moment." [A.IV.241]

    The Buddha then went on to describe four conditions which lead to happiness and benefit in the future. In short, they are to possess the spiritual qualities of faith, morality, generosity and wisdom.

 

The Happiness of a Householder

The following teaching was given to the merchant Anathapindika. It is known simply as the four kinds of happiness for a householder:

"Herein, householder, these four kinds of happiness are appropriate for one who leads the household life and enjoys the pleasures of the senses. They are the happiness of ownership, the happiness of enjoyment, the happiness of freedom from debt, and the happiness of blamelessness.

"What is the happiness of ownership (atthisukha)? A son of good family possesses wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained. He experiences pleasure, he experiences happiness, thinking, 'I possess this wealth that has been obtained by my own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of my own arms and the sweat of my own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained.' This is the happiness of ownership.

"And what is the happiness of enjoyment (bhogasukha)? Herein, a son of good family consumes, puts to use, and derives benefit from the wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained. He experiences pleasure, he experiences happiness, thinking, 'Through this wealth that has been obtained by my own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of my own arms and the sweat of my own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained, I have derived benefit and performed good works.' This is called the happiness of enjoyment.

"And what is the happiness of freedom from debt (ananasukha)? Herein, a son of good family owes no debt, be it great or small, to anyone at all. He experiences pleasure and happiness, reflecting. 'I owe no debts, be they great or small, to anyone at all.' This is called the happiness of freedom from debt.

"And what is the happiness of blamelessness (anavajjasukha)? Herein, a noble disciple is possessed of blameless bodily actions, blameless speech, and blameless thoughts. He experiences pleasure and happiness, thinking, 'I am possessed of blameless bodily actions, blameless speech, and blameless thoughts.' This is called the happiness of blamelessness.

"When he realizes the happiness of being free from debt, he is in a position to appreciate the happiness of owning possessions. As he uses his possessions, he experiences the happiness of enjoyment. Clearly seeing this, the wise man, comparing the first three kinds of happiness with the last, sees that they are not worth a sixteenth part of the happiness that arises from blameless behavior." [A.II.69]

 

The Benefits of Wealth

In this passage, the Buddha explains to the merchant Anathapindika some of the benefits that can arise from wealth. Since the teachings are specific to an earlier time, the reader is advised to glean the gist of them and apply it to the modern day:

"Herein, householder, there are five uses to which wealth can be put. They are:

"With the wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained, the noble disciple supports himself comfortably, sufficiently, he applies himself to seeing to his own happiness in rightful ways. He supports his father and mother ... wife and children, servants and workers comfortably, to a sufficiency, applying himself to their needs and their happiness as is proper. This is the first benefit to obtained from wealth.

"Moreover, with the wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained, the noble disciple supports his friends and associates comfortably, to a sufficiency, taking an interest in their happiness as is proper. This is the second benefit to be derived from wealth.

"Moreover, with the wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained, the noble disciple protects his wealth from the dangers of confiscation by kings, theft, fire, flood, and appropriation by unfavored relatives. He sees to his own security. This is the third benefit to be derived from wealth.

"Moreover, with the wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained, the noble disciple makes the five kinds of sacrifice. They are: to relatives (supporting relatives); to visitors (receiving guests); to ancestors (offerings made in the name of ancestors); to the king (for taxes and public works); and to the gods (that is, he supports religion). This is another benefit to be derived from wealth.

"Moreover, with the wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labor, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained, the noble disciple makes offerings which are of the highest merit, which are conducive to mental well-being, happiness and heaven, to religious mendicants, those who live devoted to heedfulness, are established in patience and gentleness, are trained, calmed, and cooled of defilements. This is the fifth benefit to be obtained from wealth.

"Householder, there are these five benefits to be obtained from wealth. If wealth is used by a noble disciple in such a way that these five benefits are fulfilled, and if it should then become spent, that noble disciple can reflect thus: 'Whatever benefit is to be obtained from wealth, I have obtained. Now my wealth is spent.' That noble disciple experiences no distress on that account. And if, after that noble disciple has used his wealth to provide these five benefits, that wealth should increase, that noble disciple reflects thus: 'Whatever benefit is to be obtained from my wealth I have already obtained. And now my wealth has increased.' That noble disciple is also not distressed on that account; he is distressed in neither case." [A.III.45]

 

Wealth and Spiritual Development

The Buddha taught that basic material needs must be met before spiritual development can begin. The following story [Dh.A.III.262] illustrates how hunger is both a cause of physical suffering and an obstacle to spiritual progress:

    One morning while the Buddha was residing in the Jetavana monastery near the city of Savatthi, he sensed with his psychic powers that the spiritual faculties of a certain poor peasant living near the city of Alavi were mature enough for him to understand the teaching, and that he was ripe for enlightenment. So, later that morning, the Buddha set off walking to Alavi, some 30 yojanas (about 48 km) away.

    The inhabitants of Alavi held the Buddha in great respect, and on his arrival warmly welcomed him. Eventually a place was prepared for everyone to gather together and listen to a discourse. However, as the Buddha's particular purpose in going to Alavi was to enlighten this one poor peasant, he waited for him to arrive before starting to talk.

    The peasant heard the news of the Buddha's visit and, since he had been interested in the Buddha's teaching for some time, he decided to go to listen to the discourse. But it so happened that one of his cows had just disappeared and he wondered whether he should go and listen to the Buddha first and look for his cow afterwards, or to look for the cow first. He decided that he should look for the cow first and quickly set off into the forest to search for it. Eventually the peasant found his cow and drove it back to the herd, but by the time everything was as it should be, he was very tired. The peasant thought to himself, "Time is getting on, if I go back home first it will take up even more time. I'll just go straight into the city to listen to the Buddha's discourse." Having made up his mind, the poor peasant started walking into Alavi. By the time he arrived at the place set up for the talk, he was exhausted and very hungry.

    When the Buddha saw the peasant's condition, he asked the city elders to arrange some food for the poor man, and only when the peasant had eaten his fill and was refreshed did the Buddha start to teach. While listening to the discourse the peasant realized the fruit of 'Stream Entry,' the first stage of enlightenment. The Buddha had fulfilled his purpose in traveling to Alavi.

    After the talk was over, the Buddha bade farewell to the people of Alavi and set off back to the Jetavana monastery. During the walk back, the monks who were accompanying him started to discuss the day's events: "What was that all about? The Lord didn't quite seem himself today. I wonder why he got them to arrange food for the peasant like that, before he would agree to give his discourse."

    The Buddha, knowing the subject of the monks' discussion, turned back towards them and started to explain his reason, saying, "When people are overwhelmed and in pain through suffering, they are incapable of understanding religious teaching." The Buddha went on to sat that hunger is the most severe of all illnesses and that conditioned phenomena provide the basis for the most ingrained suffering. Only when one understands these truths will one realize the supreme happiness of Nibbana.

    Buddhism considers economics to be of great significance -- this is demonstrated by the Buddha having the peasant eat something before teaching him. Economists might differ as to whether the Buddha's investment of a 45 kilometer walk was worth the enlightenment of one single person, but the point is that not only is Right Livelihood one of the factors of the Eightfold Path, but that hungry people cannot appreciate the Dhamma. Although consumption and economic wealth are important, they are not goals in themselves, but are merely the foundations for human development and the enhancement of the quality of life. They allow us to realize the profound: after eating, the peasant listened to Dhamma and became enlightened. Buddhist economics ensures that the creation of wealth leads to a life in which people can develop their potentials and increase in goodness. Quality of life, rather than wealth for its own sake, is the goal.

-oOo-

Footnotes:

7. Dhananuppadana -- apportioning of some wealth to the poor -- one of the twelve duties of a Universal Emperor. [D.III.61] [Back to text]

 

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