The Buddha’s view of prosperity stands out as one of the most misinterpreted aspects of his teachings. Many writers have either stated or implied that the Buddha did not encourage people to prosper and become wealthy. This misinterpretation influenced some to believe that achieving prosperity goes against the Buddha’s teachings. But let us examine what the Buddha actually maintained with regard to the layperson’s wealth and prosperity.
The Freedom to Prosper
First, the Buddha never imposed limitations on his lay follower’s efforts to be successful; instead, he clearly encouraged them to strive for success. Whether in “trading, cattle farming, archery, government service, or any other profession or industry,” a layperson should strive to advance in his or her respective field. Notably, the motivation to achieve success is an important requirement in any person’s life — an attitude of “I have a job that’s enough for me to live on” has no place in the Buddha’s teaching.
Next, the Buddha set no limits to a layperson’s wealth and never told his prosperous lay followers to stop or slow down. Instead, he unequivocally encouraged them to plan, organize, and even to obtain more…
The emphasis, here, is on the fact that the Buddha enforced no restrictions on the layperson’s personal wealth. Using the phrase “immense wealth” (ulare bhoge), he indicated the amount one could strive to amass — in other words, as much wealth as possible.
Prosperity and Purpose
It is important to note that the freedom the Buddha offered to become as prosperous as possible hinges on two conditions. First, one must follow certain guidelines in endeavoring to become prosperous. Second, one must use wealth properly. Unless these two conditions are met, one’s immense wealth would never gain the Buddha’s praise — thus the “boundless freedom” to become wealthy relates to the quantity of wealth, not to the means used to accumulate it. On the other hand, prosperity should never be an end in itself, but merely a means to some wholesome purpose.
Indicating both the individual freedom to be prosperous and the importance of using that freedom correctly, the Buddha said:
What is atthi sukkha [the happiness of possessing wealth]?
A certain person accumulates great wealth and property through fair means and rights effort and thinks, “now I have wealth; now I have properly gathered through fair means.”
In thinking so, that person experiences happiness and satisfaction. This is what I call atthi sukkha.
Individual prosperity is clearly supported, as long as the layperson employs “fair means and right effort.”
Collecting Honey Without Harming the Flowers
The Buddha introduced a system of ethics into the process of acquiring wealth. Certainly his general ethics — which always advocate compassion for others — apply to any endeavor, but the Buddha also set specific guidelines regarding business.
First, a person engaged in profit-making should not deceive or harm customers or any others involved. He or she must “gradually increase wealth without squeezing others, just as bees collect honey without harming flowers.” Thus, whatever wealth one possesses should be acquired “through just means.” Fairness is so vital to making a profit that, before beginning an ambitious professional or business, one should first make a resolution not to exploit others…
Wealth Like a Rainfall That Nourishes Life
The proper use of wealth can also be clarified in the light of what some of the Buddha’s contemporaries taught. According to some, one’s own sensory satisfaction is the most important purpose of having wealth, and one should use every possible means to achieve this as long as one lives. In this context, charity makes no sense at all.
The Buddha held a different view. He emphasized that the wealth one acquires through just means should be used to benefit others, as well as oneself…
The Buddha repeatedly emphasized that one’s efforts should be meaningful to oneself, to those one lives with, and, broadly speaking, to the whole of society. “Proper use of wealth” exemplifies this central teaching of the Buddha…
… those who used their wealth to benefit themselves and others won the Buddha’s great appreciation. Like “a rainfall that nourishes life,” great individual wealth should foster a host of people.
Proper use of wealth is essentially the purpose of having wealth. As long as one follows the guidelines, the Buddha indicated that one is entitled to make every effort to earn more wealth….
The Buddha never promoted a carpe diem theory of sensory satisfaction as the purpose of having wealth. He admired, instead, a person who “acquires immense wealth but is not intoxicated by it,” remarking that those who exceed the limits of sensory satisfaction would “suffer later from the related adverse effects.” To be aware of the right measure of sensory gratification is to be aware of the measure that ultimately leads to physical well-being and long life.
The Buddha elaborated on how people should feel about their wealth and guided them toward gaining the proper advantages from their wealth. He stressed that wealth is a clear source of happiness for laypersons. To achieve that happiness, however, they must earn wealth the right way and use it in the most effective way. Money or wealth is neither to keep nor to use solely for one’s own sensory satisfaction; it is to make oneself and others happy and satisfied. While using wealth for oneself, one should be aware of the right measure of sensory satisfaction. Prosperity, according to the Buddha, is the reward when following these recommended guidelines.
© Basnagoda Rahula, 2008. Reprinted from The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity: At Work, At Home, In the World, with permission from Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144. www.wisdompubs.org