Some of my earliest childhood memories feature a series of what seemed to be unendurable debates my parents assailed over the spiritual values of securing good incomes and the rewards and pitfalls wealth produced from one’s work and career. Such arguments were more than idle intellectual concerns; both my parents were first generation Americans who grew up amidst considerable poverty, and their sentiments toward finances revealed deeper issues involving both assimilation and the existential purpose of life itself.
My father, for many years a Zen Buddhist who started his practice in the early 70s, came to view the post 60s era as far too object-oriented and consumerist by nature, at odds with his veneration of the heroic, anti-materialist abstract painters and jazz musicians he venerated. From this vantage, financial concerns were profane affairs that distracted from one’s deepest purpose in life: creating art and attaining peace through meditation. He quit his job as a “refrigeration specialist” (thankfully he never bothered to explain what that profession entailed) at 50 years of age and never returned to work, spending the balance of his life painting, while permitting my mother to address the baser concerns of making a living. It is somewhat ironic to note that despite his lack of earnings, he was fond of purchasing expensive foreign cars and, during one forgettable period, owned a succession of second hand sailboats, which he never failed to sink into the Long Island sound.
My mother, a very worldly advertising copywriter who enjoyed the creative challenges of her career, was deeply invested in attaining enough security so that we—which additionally included my sister and I— could avoid the hardships that abounded throughout her childhood in The Bronx. This was a prospective that could discern little ease or abatement resulting from ‘seeking the sublime by turning one’s back on financial security;’ indeed, spiritual endeavors were more like a perk or supplement to life rather than an essential component. And so she diligently attended to her work, ascending the career ladder, while maintaining a careful eye over the family’s budgetary concerns. Rarely setting foot on my father’s sailboats—for good reason—her financial flourishes involved good books, meals and off broadway theater evenings. Pleasures, but not that those that significantly depleted one’s savings.
In the decades that have passed I’ve come to view these debates as needlessly combative. Over the course of practice and study, the domain of spiritual endeavor has revealed itself to engage both concerns of “the sacred” and “the profane;” transcendent experiences—my recent jungle retreat in Thailand—and mundane responsibilities—paying the mortgage, bills from a sinus operation, purchasing clothes for harsh northeastern winters—overlap, reinforcing each other when properly balanced, causing stress only when they placed directly at odds for our attention. (There have been times in my life, when falling into the story of being a spiritual seeker, I neglected to secure enough funding to pursue much seeking to speak of; the resulting bills that piled up made it difficult to develop any peace during those prolonged periods of practice in upstate New York.) And so, rather than only being of use on the cushion, the tools and insights of spiritual practice serve me well in establishing a budget, planning vacations and other expenditures, setting aside income for the future, etc. As a student of the Pali Canon I’ve found a rich array of concepts that allow me to address these concerns.
To the Western practitioner, locating fiscal guidance in the canon may sound unlikely. Buddhism has long been portrayed in our literature and culture as a spiritual practice that is entirely anti-materialistic in dharma, presenting finances and material possessions as a principle causes of misery. The Buddha is thought of as a renunciate figure who who lived above the mundane and secular concerns of money, viewing wealth and possessions as hinderances to serenity and being utterly distinct from the relief of human suffering. However, a review of relevant texts of the Pali Canon, particularly in the teachings given to an array of householders—such as the wealthy Anāthapiṇḍika, the merchant Vyagghapajja of the Koliyans and Sigala, son of a householder—reveal an “Awakened One” who was well acquainted with the budgetary concerns of lay householders, understanding how maintaining and managing personal finances presented significant challenges.
This should not be eye-opening: Siddharta was born heir to the thrown of a wealthy warrior clan, the Shakya, and spent most of his years, until his renunciation of lay life at 28 years of age, at Kapilavastu, the clan’s commercial center and palace. The Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana, fully intended his son to take on his duties running the clan, and so the prince was not only raised amidst great luxury (he enjoyed the use of three seasonal castles) but was also well acquainted with the pleasures and responsibilities of court life. The Buddha’s disavowal of his splendid life was due to the distractions it presented, diverting him from addressing the deeper issues of life:
“While I lived amidst great fortune, I become oblivious to the inevitable onslaught of aging, sickness and death I would one day face; seeing other people experiencing these universal horrified and disgusted as I was oblivious to their universal nature.”
(AN: 3.38 my trans.)
The prince did not reject the notion of a lay practitioner achieving awakening, he simply referred to it as difficult:
“It’s not easy to lead a holy life that is pure and polished as a shell while living in a home filled with possessions.” (MN 36)
And so Siddhartha took leave of the palace, and all the wealth it afforded, and sought lasting wisdom amidst the spiritual seekers of his time. Having endured years of privation and destitution, starving himself to emaciated severities, he attained his awakening by seeking a balance between the extremes of 1) pure materialism and temporary pleasure seeking and 2) pure abstinence from the requisite substances (food, clothing, shelter, etc) that allow one to practice and skillfully engage with others in comfort. During the years he wandered Northern India, teaching and answering questions about the dhamma, The Buddha often encountered wealthy merchants who approached him for insights into achieving peace of mind amidst wealth. There are quite a number of such interactions in the Pali Canon, and when viewed together present clearly the buddha’s views on how a householder should relate to money:
• Income should be lawfully obtained: illicit or secretive sources of wealth invariably results in fear of and vulnerability to exposure; a compartmentalized, agitated mind invariably results
• Income should be skillfully maintained: we should be heedful of paying taxes that are owed, but not to an unnecessary degree; risky investments, those that tempt us with unlikely and unwarranted payoffs, should be avoided, as the drama of such speculation proves distracting
• Spend money in a balanced way: enjoying its use while supporting those in need and our spiritual community, especially those renunciates who teach and live completely in dependence on the generosity of others
• Surround oneself with skillful examples: the mind is prone to following the precedents and standards embodied by those we associate with.
• Oversee income without unnecessary attachment: it is the way of the world that material gains are prone to unforeseen setbacks and reversals; moreover, our sense of ‘what is enough’ is constantly subject to fear and an underlying sense of vulnerability; so we learn to relate to money without burdening the process without extreme fears or unrealistic expectations.
Reviewing these suggestions, the gist of the Buddha’s teachings are clear to me: if I attach to my finances in the hope they’ll provide any lasting security or happiness I’ll be disappointed, as nothing material can provide such stability or ease (believe me, I’ve tried my fair share of short term pleasures). On the other hand, mundane life does carry requisite foundations for successful practice; the buddha taught that even the most strict renunciate requires clothing, food, safe lodging and medicine to practice the dhamma successfully; as a lay practitioner I additionally require some semblance of financial cohesion in order to not distract me from the challenging process of developing inner peace and compassion and equanimity towards others.
So my view the project is to establish a balanced life: neither reckless with what money I’ve accumulated nor overly penurious; neither unaware and shunning of financial concerns nor overly fixated on the state of my bank accounts and investments. This process of balancing is never fully resolved: for a long period I was able to practice while working long days as an art director for various design firms around the city; eventually the demands and ceaseless dramas of that employment became incompatible with my practice and had to be put aside; fortunately I was able to make due with less income, as I invested the money I made during those earlier years wisely. If I am careful, I can still afford the occasional splurge on a trip or shiny new iGadget. Such a balance requires continual adjustment and will always be an ongoing undertaking, one I address with diligence, for it provides the foundations for my practice and teaching.
Sources in the canon:
“Anāthapiṇḍika, there are five reasons a householder should maintain wealth that was skillfully accumulated by hard work and obtained lawfully:
1) It makes the householder, the householder’s family, and all in their employ contented and relieved.
2) makes the householder’s friends happy, glad, and keeps them contented and relieved.
3) it keeps the householder’s goods in safety.
4) the householder lives up to civic oblations and responsibilities.
5) the householder supports renunciates and arahants who teach the dhamma.
Should the householder’s wealth increase, let the thought arise: 'Truly, I've heeded those reasons and my wealth has grown!' — thus he is not upset in either case."
In this series the Buddha continues to explain that those who are not attached to their wealth or infatuated by it, but are sensible in maintaining it safely so that they can both enjoy the use of it themselves and spend it towards the benefit of others.
To the young Sigala, the son of a householder, on the value of maintaining wealth:
"What are the six channels for dissipating wealth which he does not pursue?
1) indulgence in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness;
2) sauntering in streets at unseemly hours [eg. leaving oneself unprotected];
3) frequenting inebriating performances [eg. gigs where drugs are common];
4) indulgence in gambling which causes heedlessness;
5) association with evil companions;
6) the habit of idleness.”
To the merchant Vyagghapajja:
“If a lay practitioner has accumulated righteous wealth—which is skillfully gained by hard work, honest toil, obtained in a lawful way—this householder should protect it vigilantly, thinking 'How can I maintain my wealth so that neither kings [ie. paying unnecessary amounts in taxes and tariffs] nor thieves [people offering poor investments] will make off with my property, nor unforeseen events destroy it, nor unworthy heirs inherit it?’”