It’s a widely held view that the Buddha taught his followers to disdain wealth and worldly success, or at best tolerate them as necessary evils. Sunada reviews a book that shatters these misconceptions and repositions the lay life as one of dignity and happiness, and full of opportunities for personal growth.
Here’s a pop quiz for you: What famous spiritual teacher taught that the way to happiness is through accumulation of immense wealth, striving for worldly success, and seeking pleasure through the senses? Would you believe it’s the Buddha? I bet you’re surprised! It’s a widely held view that the Buddha taught his followers to turn away from the secular world and seek happiness in a life of renunciation. While this isn’t wrong, it turns out to be a very incomplete picture.
In this recently published book, Bhikkhu Basagoda Rahula attempts to set the record straight. Based on meticulous research into the Pali scriptures, this book systematically presents how the Buddha advised his lay followers to lead happy and productive lives. Far from disdaining the worldly life, the Buddha suggested that his followers engage with it fully and wholeheartedly, and taught that it is a genuine source of happiness.
So what about all those teachings on renunciation? According to Bhikkhu Rahula, they were specifically intended for the monastic community. There is no doubt that the Buddha spoke of a higher bliss that could be found in a renounced life. “Happiness in detachment” is a more stable form of happiness because it comes from within — not dependent on unreliable things like wealth, relationships, or social status.
Far from disdaining the worldly life, the Buddha suggested that his followers engage with it fully and wholeheartedly, and taught that it is a genuine source of happiness.
But the Buddha understood that the renounced lifestyle is not for everyone. And he never intended those teachings to apply to everyone. What this book draws out is a very different perspective on the Buddha – a secular humanist who fully endorsed the dignity of the lay life, and the potential for happiness and human growth that it offers. There is no mention of meditation or spiritual matters. Just common-sense, practical advice on how to be successful and fully realized as an individual in one’s community.
The Buddha’s view on prosperity can be summarized as follows. First, one is entitled to as much wealth as one wants, as long as it is earned ethically, without harming others. We are told to “gradually increase wealth without squeezing others, just as bees collect honey without harming the flowers.” Secondly, we need to use our wealth to benefit both ourselves and others. In other words, wealth is not to be pursued for its own sake, but for the good it can do for the world. He advised his followers to use their money to satisfy family members, employees, friends, and associates.
He also said that we need to be good citizens – we should pay taxes to our government and also support the monks and other spiritual leaders who have dedicated their lives to the benefit of all. And thirdly, we need to be moderate in our way of satisfying our senses. It’s fine to enjoy good food or fine clothing, for example, as long as we don’t get greedy or overindulge. The pleasures of life are to be appreciated simply for their ability to sustain our physical and mental well-being.
Each chapter in this book covers a different sphere of secular life. The chapter on how to go about gaining wealth almost sounds like a contemporary self-help book. According to the Buddha, inner preparation was the most important prerequisite to personal success. Before we do anything, we first need to eliminate self-defeating views about our potential and empower ourselves with firm determination. Only then are we in a good position to develop our personal and professional skills, and move ahead in the world. There are also chapters covering how to retain your wealth (e.g. by saving and spending according to a financial plan), navigating social relationships effectively, sustaining a happy marriage, effective parenting, dealing with conflict, succeeding socially, decision making, and so on. The sheer breath of the topics covered, as well as the remarkably modern perspectives offered, is really quite striking.
What ultimately matters is how we view the things we have. Do we use our wealth to build up our egos and feed into our sense of entitlement? Or do we share its benefits and the positive advances it can bring?
The author, Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula, seems to be ideally positioned to write on this subject – as both a Buddhist scholar and someone who is fully engaged with life in the Western world. He is Sri Lankan by birth, became a novice monk as a child, and later received High Ordination as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Buddhist Philosophy. He emigrated to the US in 1990 and has lived here since, having earned his Masters and Ph.D. in literature and English, respectively. He currently teaches at the University of Houston-Downtown as well as serving the congregation at the Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Willis Texas.
Let me be clear that if you’re looking for a Buddhist self-help book, you’ll probably be disappointed. I don’t think there’s anything in here that’s hasn’t been covered elsewhere by some other contemporary author. And that’s obviously not the intention behind this work. Instead, what I gained from reading this book is a clear picture, backed by scriptural authority, of what the Buddha REALLY said about the true way for lay practitioners to find happiness.
For those of us living in the modern West, the idea of actually turning our lives away from the world is extremely difficult, if not impossible. The underlying message of this work is that we can practice in ANY circumstance and find legitimate ways to grow spiritually. There is no shame in having money or possessions, nor is it bad to enjoy what abundance we have in our lives. In fact, these things can be tools for creating much good in the world — for creating joy in our own and others’ lives. What ultimately matters is how we view the things we have. Do we use our wealth to build up our egos and feed into our sense of entitlement? Or do we share its benefits and the positive advances it can bring? Do we see wealth as an end in itself, or as a means to greater happiness for ourselves and the world around us?
While I personally found this book a breath of fresh air, I also wouldn’t want us as Western practitioners to completely abandon the ideas of renunciation. In fact, I don’t see these two ideas as being in opposition to each other, as an either/or situation. The practice of the dharma is about working creatively with whatever circumstances we are in, but at the same time it’s also about continually challenging ourselves to see more clearly into the true nature of our human existence. The more we can loosen our dependence on impermanent things, the more we will find happiness that we can rely on. The longer I practice, the more I see that this is truly the way things are. And so I will continue to challenge myself to rely less and less on worldly things to shore up my false sense of ego. It may not make sense for me to sell my home and possessions to take up the life of a renunciant, but I can certainly work toward turning inward more to find a truer sense of happiness from within.
Read an excerpt from this book: Chapter 2, The Buddha’s View on Prosperity.