Is wealth compatible with religious living?
by Most Ven. Dr. M. Vajiragnana Nayaka Thera Sangha Nayaka of Great Britain and Head of the London Buddhist Vihara
Extracts from a talk given to an Interfaith gathering organised by Birkbeck College, University of London in conjunction with the World Congress of Faiths.

It is sometimes felt that material possessions are an obstacle to spiritual progress. For hundreds, even thousands, of years there have been examples of people from all religious faiths who have renounced the world in order to devote themselves to the spiritual life without the distractions of material possessions. This tension between material progress and spiritual progress is even more keenly felt today as many of us live in an age of unparalleled material prosperity. People living in an industrialised nation are enjoying a higher material standard than ever before, and their entire society is organised in order to maximise economic activity. Consumption is encouraged, regardless of the cost to the individual, society or the environment. The more affluent a society becomes, the greater is the attention paid to the satisfaction of sense desires.
Speaking as a Buddhist, however, I do not think it is a question of rejection of material things in order to pursue a spiritual goal; it is a matter of striking the right balance between the two - what Buddhists call the Middle Way. Certainly, spiritual progress is impossible without a certain level of material well-being. Poverty in Buddhism is not a virtue. The Buddha said, "For householders in this world, poverty is suffering." (A.III.350) and again, "Woeful in the world is poverty and debt." (A.III.352)
He also said that poverty (daliddiya) is the cause of immorality and crimes such as theft, falsehood, violence, hatred and cruelty (Cakkavattisihanada sutta). He explained that it is futile for a king to try to suppress crime by means of punishment. Instead the king should eradicate crime by improving the economic condition of his people. The Buddha said that grain and other facilities for agriculture should be provided for farmers and cultivators; capital should be provided for traders and those engaged in business, and adequate wages should be paid to those who are employed. When people are thus provided for with opportunities to earn a sufficient income, they will be contented, will have no fear or anxiety, and consequently the country will be peaceful and free of crime.
The purpose of wealth is to facilitate the development of the highest human potential. Wealth is only a means to an end, not an end itself; it creates the conditions under which spiritual progress may flourish. If the creation of wealth is regarded purely as a selfish occupation, then the results will often lead to unhappiness because this activity is self-centred, based only on ideas of "me" and "mine". We should, however, regard wealth as something to be shared with other people. If human beings could expand their love to all other people, irrespective of their class, colour or creed, rather than confining it to their own people, then they might be able to part with things without expecting anything in return, and experience more satisfaction in doing so. This satisfaction comes not from tanha, a desire to obtain things to make ourselves happy, but from chanda, a desire for the well-being of others. In decisions dealing with every sphere of economic activity, whether it is production, consumption, or the use of technology, we must learn how to distinguish between the two kinds of desire and make our choices wisely.
Bearing this in mind, there is nothing wrong with material wealth by itself and the Buddha never prescribed a ceiling on income. Even among Bhikkhus, Buddhist monks well-known for having the fewest of possessions, to be a frequent recipient of offerings was regarded as good kamma. The monk Sivali was praised by the Buddha as foremost among those "who are obtainers of offerings". Wealth as such is neither praised nor blamed, it is the way it is acquired and the way it is used which are important. Blameworthy qualities are greed, stinginess, grasping, attachment, hoarding. Acquisition is acceptable when it is used for good causes like furthering spiritual progress and helping other people. So the problem with wealth is our attitude towards it. If we devote ourselves entirely to amassing material things, neglecting moral, spiritual and intellectual well-being, then that is not skilful. Material progress should always be accompanied by moral and spiritual progress, otherwise it cannot be considered as true progress. A certain level of economic prosperity is vital for a happy, peaceful society, but this should not be an end in itself, rather it should be a base on which one should build spiritual development.
The ethical value of wealth is judged by the ways in which it is obtained, and the uses to which it is put, such as generosity or hoarding. Giving should always be done sympathetically, not exalting the giver above those who are receiving. Speaking to King Pasenadi, the Buddha said that wealth hoarded by a miser is like a forest pool, clear, cool and fresh with good approaches and a shady setting, but situated in a savage region. Because of fear of the people living there, no one can drink, bathe in or make use of the water. But a wise man uses his wealth for the benefit of his family, friends and for good works for society in general. This wealth is like a forest pool not far from a village or town, with cool, clear, fresh water, good approaches and a shady setting. People can freely drink of that water, carry it away, bathe in it, or use it as they please (S.I. 89-91). A wealthy person who uses his wealth generously is also likened to a fertile field in which rice grows abundantly for the benefit of all.
It is perfectly possible for a person to pursue a spiritual life whilst remaining involved in the material world, provided the material world is used skilfully. "Actions, knowledge, qualities, morality and an ideal life; these are the gauges of a being's purity, not wealth or name." (M.III.262) The Buddha said that for the layman there are four kinds of happiness that will not interrupt his spiritual progress (A.II.69):-
The first is the bliss of ownership (atthi sukha) of wealth which has been justly and righteously acquired through honest labour and the sweat of one's brow. It should also be accompanied by a sense of contentment with what one has. Unless one has this feeling of contentment, amassing wealth is like trying to fill a jar with no bottom. The second kind of happiness is bhoga sukha, the bliss of using or enjoying that wealth, which means spending it liberally on family, friends and charitable deeds. We should not hoard this wealth like a miser, nor should we live beyond our means and overspend extravagantly. The third kind of happiness is anana sukha, the bliss of debtlessness, being able to say "I have no debts" - which is not an easy thing to say in the modern world of credit cards, mortgages and hire purchase! This kind of happiness also means discharging fully all one's social obligations to one's family, friends, religion and society. The fourth kind of happiness is anavajja sukha, the bliss of blamelessness, leading a blameless life in body, speech & mind, which means we perform no actions that cause any hurt or harm to any living being. Of these four kinds of happiness, the Buddha said that the first three are not worth one sixteenth of the happiness given by the fourth, i.e. the blameless life. The Buddha was showing us here how wealth and spirituality can go hand in hand.
One of the most generous supporters of the Buddhist order was a merchant called Anathapindika. He was an immensely wealthy man, but this was not a barrier to his spiritual progress - having listened to the preaching of the Buddha, he attained what we call the first stage of sainthood (sotapanna). Anathapindika was a fine example of generosity. He did not hoard his wealth, but shared it gladly with his friends and relatives. On one occasion he visited the monastery of some Brahmin pilgrims, who recognised him as a follower of the Buddha and asked him about the Buddha's teachings. Anathapindika became involved in a discussion concerning their different views of the world. He gave them such a brilliant discourse that later when the Buddha heard about it, he said that even a monk who had lived one hundred years in the Order would not have been able to speak better to the pilgrims than Anathapindika the householder had done (A.X.93). He is in fact an excellent example of how it is possible to follow the spiritual path while remaining very much in the world. There are many other examples from our tradition of lay people who have reach an enlightened state.
The Buddhist path is a gradual path, which allows different people to progress at different speeds according to their understanding and inclinations. One of the Buddha's chief disciples, Sariputta, said that an aspirant might be living in a forest, but with his mind full of impure thoughts and defilements. Another might be living in a town, but with his mind free from defilements. Of these two aspirants, said Sariputta, the one living a pure life in the town is far greater than the one living in the forest. Certainly there is nothing against renouncing the world and living a life of voluntary poverty, but this is not an essential requirement.
For those who do wish to devote themselves more intensively to spiritual practice, there is the path of renunciation of the world. The Buddha taught that sense desire is one of the root causes of all human unhappiness. Desires which are satisfied cause attachment and grasping. Desires which are not satisfied cause frustration and further craving. In order to reduce sense desire to a minimum, the monastic life is designed to reduce material possessions to the essentials. A bhikkhu is allowed a minimum of possessions. The ideal is summarised by a psycho-physical discipline, involving acts of thought, word and deed, to lead a life of perfect purity and retirement from all worldly pursuits motivated by sense desire. The perfect pre-requisite for this is pabbajja, which means recluseship. For a monk the best qualities are contentment and few wishes, accompanied by effort and diligence in developing wholesome qualities, such as generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom, and in eradicating unwholesome qualities, such as greed, hatred and delusion, and also in working for the benefit and welfare of oneself and others. "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, make determined and vigorous progress in good things, and never throwing off his obligations." (D.III,226,296) Bhikkhus use the least possible amount of material goods. This is partly to avoid overtaxing the community which supports them, and partly to allow them to spend as much time as possible practising and teaching the Buddha's doctrine.
I should like to end by giving you an extensive quotation from one of our scriptures: "Wealth is neither good nor bad, just as life within the world with its sensual joys is neither good nor bad. It depends on the way the wealth is obtained and what is done with it, and in what spirit it is given away. People may acquire wealth unlawfully and spend it selfishly. Either case will not make one truly happy.
"Instead one can acquire wealth by lawful means without harming others. One can be cheerful and use the wealth without greed and lust. One can be heedful of the dangers of the attachment to wealth and share the wealth with others to perform good deeds. One can be aware that it is not wealth, nor good deeds, but liberation from craving and selfish desire that is the goal. In this way, this wealth brings joy and happiness. One holds wealth not for oneself but for all beings." (Anguttara Nikaya)
There is ample opportunity here for the wealthy layman to pursue a spiritual path which can be of great benefit, both to himself and to society in general. However, for the renunciant, the Buddha said even greater happiness is possible. "There are, monks, these two forms of happiness. What are the two? The happiness of lay-life and the happiness of renunciation. The nobler of the two forms of happiness, monks, is that of renunciation." (A.I.80)
05 May 1997