Middle Way for the Market Place
P. A. Payutto...
Role of Wealth in Buddhism
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."
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
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
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.
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,
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."
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. 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:
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.
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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]
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").
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
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.
knowledge, qualities, morality and an ideal life: these are
the gauges of a being's purity, not wealth or name."
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.
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.
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.
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
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;
attitude to wealth
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
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
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 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
destroys the foolish, but not those who search for the Goal."
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
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.
Major Characteristics of Buddhist Economics
Middle Way economics: realization of true well-being
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.
Middle Way economics: not harming oneself or others
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.
See, for example, A.II.204; cf. the Culakammavibhanga Sutta
in M.III. [Back to text]
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
See Appendix. [Back to text]
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