The Buddha Thought It Was Okay to Be Rich
A look at what the Buddha actually said about acquiring and spending wealth.
It’s easy to get the impression Buddhism opposes earning much wealth beyond what’s “necessary,” or using wealth for one’s own benefit instead of giving away everything beyond the minimum needed to get by. After all, monks shave their heads, put on robes, and take up alms bowls. If you listen to a lot of contemporary, politically engaged Buddhists, you’ll get the impression that Buddhism necessarily opposes market economies and that wealth inequality runs counter to Buddhist values.
But that view of Buddhism is misleading — and rather inaccurate if we look to the ancient texts to discover what the Buddha actually said about acquiring and using wealth. In fact, it turns out that while he had ideas about the ethics of both, he saw wealth in a quite positive light.
Monks vs. Lay Followers
A distinction worth clarifying up front is that between expectations for monks and the rest of us. Yes, Buddhist monks refrain from commerce, don’t seek wealth, are sometimes expected to beg for their food, and own very little. But this is because a monk has consciously and with great consideration dedicated his life to achieving enlightenment on the Buddhist path. That’s a big deal — and a time consuming one. All the duties of a householder — i.e., someone who still has to participate in the world and materially provide for herself and others — get in the way of a laser focus on ethical training and meditative practice. That includes making and spending money.
But being a Buddhist doesn’t mean becoming a monk, any more than being a Catholic means becoming a priest. The expectations for lay Buddhists aren’t at all as demanding and limiting as those for mendicants. With that in mind, let’s look at what the Buddha said about wealth in the context of us non-monks.
A Buddhist is expected to live by the Eightfold Path, a set of guidelines for achieving the end of suffering. When it comes to acquiring and using wealth, the two aspects of the path most relevant are Right Action and Right Livelihood. We need to make sure that the methods by which we gain our…