Buddhism, wealth, and happiness

Scrooge McDuck diving into a pile of money

Be forewarned. You’re going to see a bunch of headlines soon like this one from Business Week: Economists Nail It: You Can Never Be Too Rich.

The Business Week post is rather breathless: “I just spoke with Justin Wolfers, co-author of a short but important new paper that concludes the more money you have, on average, the happier you are.” I almost see the author’s laptop screen misting as he pants with excitement.

Business Week describes this finding thus: “That may seem to deserve a Homer Simpson “Duh!” award for most obvious research finding of the month” before going on to admit that actually previous research has shown this not to be the case: once one’s basic needs are met, happiness increases with income, but only to a point. Thereafter (and if I recall correctly the limit is about $100,000) there’s pretty much a plateau.

The Buddhist perspective on this is nicely expressed in a verse from the Dhammapada: “Not even if it rained gold coins would we have our fill of sensual pleasures.” Craving is essentially insatiable. We can satiate simple needs, as for food or companionship. But there’s no end to craving. Real happiness is more to do with the quality of our experience — how mindful, patient, kind, wise we are — and is less to do with our annual income.

Craving for wealth is usually tied up with desire for status — wanting to be “better” than others. I heard an amazing interview on the radio with someone who had been studying the rich, and he recalled a conversation with someone who had “only” $2 billion. The billionaire had lamented, “You know, I look at these people with five, six billion, and I think, Where did I go wrong?” So the problem with basing your happiness on being richer than others is there’s always someone richer than you, and even if you’re number one there’s a load of people on your heels.

But back to that research. It’s based on a Gallup poll question:

“Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time, assuming that the higher the step the better you feel about your life, and the lower the step the worse you feel about it? Which step comes closest to the way you feel?”

Did you notice the bit about where it asks you how happy you are? Neither did I. The question isn’t about happiness. The word happiness isn’t in there, nor are any closely related words.

The question asks you to rank where you rank yourself on a scale of “the worst possible life for you” to “the best possible life for you.” What does that mean? The “best possible life” could mean happiness, or feeling loved, or having more money. How do you rank where you “stand at this time” on that ladder. Well, let’s assume that the worst possible life for you is being very poor. And that the best possible life you can imagine is being very rich? You’re now being asked to rank where you are on a scale of being very poor to being very rich: what’s your social standing? And you’d therefore expect there to be some correlation — perhaps even a high degree of correlation — between where people think they stand socially and where they stand socially. But that’s a different question from “how happy are you compared to other people in general” or “how satisfied are you compared to other people in general” — both of which are quite straightforward questions.

Yes, having imagined the idea of a hierarchy from “the worst possible life” to “the best possible life,” participants in the survey were asked then how they felt about their lives, but now the question is affected by the earlier assumption. “On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time” comes before the factors that you’re supposed to now go back and integrate into what you’ve already imagined. Those factors now ask you how you feel about your social standing, which is not the same as “how happy are you?” Altogether, this is a complex question asked badly. Actually it’s more than one question, and we don’t know which one people were replying to, or how they understood the various components.

But this interpretation, “the more money you have, on average, the happier you are,” will get a lot of press. For one thing, it’s entertaining and provocative. Second, there are vested interests that try to convince us that we have to have more stuff in order to be happier. And third, there are people who are near the top in terms of wealth who now see their mission as raw power and they need us to be passive so that we can allow them to gain political power and gain even more wealth and power.

Their aim seems to be to amass enough wealth to completely insulate themselves from the effects of their wealth-gathering. So you trash an economy and throw millions out of work? No problem. There are always other economies to loot. And in any event, in amassing billions in this way you’re not just making yourself richer. You’re making others poorer. Which means you’ve landed on hedonism’s “Double Word Score,” because craving wealth is about feeling superior, and you’re now both absolutely richer and comparatively richer because of having brought everyone else down.

Back when the late Margaret Thatcher was first elected, I had a shocking encounter with a young man I’d worked with one summer. I bumped into him at the train station, and we got chatting until the train arrived and the doors opened. As the crowd got onto the train I hung back to allow others to get seated. There were lots of older people and people with young children boarding, and being well-trained in manners it was natural to let them sit first. If I had to stand as a consequence, I’d feel fine about it. But this former colleague tried to drag me to the front of the line: “You’ve got to grab what you want; otherwise someone else will get it, right?” He looked at me for confirmation, but I suspect all he got was confusion, and possibly even distaste. I’d honestly never heard selfishness articulated as a personal virtue before, at least by real people. Yes, I’d heard Thatcher and her crew advocating selfishness as the answer to society’s problems, but I didn’t think anyone actually believed it. Certainly not people I knew. I thought, “My god, what kind of a world am I living in now?” I soon found out.

We’re still living in Thatcher’s world (and Reagan’s). And Gordon Gekko’s. The crash of 2008 and the Great Recession that many of us are still experiencing, even if it no longer officially exists, were perhaps its high water mark. But I think the tide is starting to turn. More people are beginning to realize that we actually have to think of everyone’s wellbeing, and not just our own. If we’re all only thinking of our own wellbeing, then who’s going to be there to help you when you fall?

But any hint of this turning of the tide is a threat, which is why the Occupy movement was so roundly criticized in the media: “No one knows what they want!” Of course we knew what they wanted: an economy that works for everyone, not just the rich, and for the people who had destroyed the economy through fraudulent practices to be punished. It’s obvious. But the media couldn’t, in general, admit this. You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, and the media is well-fed. So the message has to be spread: wealth makes you happy! This justifies the cravings of the super-rich, and keeps us on the hedonic treadmill of consumerism. And so papers like this will appear, and will be relentlessly repeated until they are “common knowledge.”

The Buddha’s realization that happiness is something, fundamentally, that can’t be bought is his “dangerous idea.” Or one of them. One of his other dangerous ideas was that for the long-term stability of a nation, there has to be a fair distribution of wealth — something that’s been notably lacking in recent years, where productivity has soared, and yet wages for ordinary people have remained stagnant.

So be skeptical. Be very skeptical of this research “showing” that money makes you happier — research based on a question that didn’t even ask about happiness. These “memes” can be poisonous. Just think how much suffering has been caused by austerity measures in Europe, which were justified in part by a paper based on an Excel spreadsheet error.

If you want to be happy, there are plenty of things you can do, and those things will tend to make other people happier too. Earning more money? Don’t let me put you off, especially if you’re struggling financially, but if your basic needs are covered there are better uses of your precious human existence than pounding away on the hedonic treadmill.

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Buddhists speak on Occupy Wall Street

Thanks to Maia Duerr and the follow-up comments on a post on her blog, the Jizo Chronicles, here’s a quick round-up of some of the recent posts that Buddhists have made on the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.

  • There’s a post by Maia herself, along with Roshi Joan Halifax: “This is What Compassion Looks Like.”
  • Nathan Thompson has post on “Occupy Minnesota: Zen Style” on his blog, Dangerous Harvests where he describes “coming out” as a Zen Buddhist at a peaceful protest.
  • Chris Wilson, president of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship board of directors, compares OWS to the Arab Spring and asks why engaged Buddhists should get involves. Chris states that BPF endorses OWS, “based on our agreement that the influence of money in politics is blocking many of the social justice and environmental goals that BPF promotes.”
  • In “We Are the 100%,” Ari Pliskin of the Zen Peacemakers offers a “mindful response” to OWS: “We Are the 100%.” Drawing on the precepts and particularly this one: “When peacemakers vow to be oneness, there is no Other,” Ari’s piece makes the case for a non-dualistic view of the current situation.
  • Madrone Phoenix is a dharma practitioner based in Providence, RI. In “Waking Up From the American Dream” she shares her experience visiting OWS in New York last week, and she reflects on her earlier experiences as an “angry activist” and how her Buddhist practice over the past few years has impacted her way of being involved in this movement.
  • Michael Stone, a yoga and meditation teacher based in Toronto, also visited NYC last week. He offers his perspective in an article titled, “Remaining Human: A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street.”
  • Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Marselean Manuel is past executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Zen priest based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In “Un-Occupy the Land” she notes the troublesome connotations of the word, “occupy.” She writes, “The word brought up visions of invasion, people marching in to take over. I also saw a consciousness of us holding down specific territories (turfing) that seems to persist as the way to conquer.”
  • The Rev. James Ford, who is both a Unitarian Universalist minister and a Zen priest, begins his piece by echoing the words of Harvey Milk: “I’m here to recruit you.” In his piece, “An American Autumn: A Yom Kippur Meditation,” he says, “Sometimes you have to be outside. Sometimes you have to stand up. And sometimes you have to shout. You have to make demands that may be uncomfortable to the status quo. The Vietnam war ended for many reasons, but one principal among them were the people willing to mass together, take some tear gas, and bear witness to another way.”
  • Meredith Arena on the Interdependence Project site, has written “Politics and Practice: How we Face Social Injustice. Occupy Wall Street.” She writes, “Regardless of my ambivalence about how-why-when-where-who, sometimes you just have to SHOW UP.”
  • And on this site we have already brought you “The Buddha and Occupy Wall Street” and “Robert Thurman talks at Occupy Wall Street.”

Please let us know in the comments of any other posts you come across.

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The Buddha and Occupy Wall Street

The Buddha and King Bimbisara

The Buddha’s concerns with politics — or at least those what found their way into his teachings and have been recorded — were very limited.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since he lived at a time when kingdoms ruled by absolute monarchs were expanding their territory at the expense of clan-based republics and other kingdoms. The rise of monarchies was probably unstoppable, and there was little chance of any alternative for the foreseeable future.

Some of the kings were notoriously paranoid, placed spies in religious communities, and would literally kill their own parents to consolidate their power. It would have been very dangerous to criticize them directly, and so the Buddha’s emphasis in talking about politics tended to be on presenting models of how kings could rule well. And often those — no doubt for protection — were framed as myths.

In one of these myths, the Buddha indicated that one of the duties of kings was to prevent social unrest and to promote economic well-being through making sure that wealth was fairly distributed in society. He has no communist — he clearly recognised that there would be wealthy people and people with less wealth, and he was after all talking about a monarchy — but he recognized that a fair distribution of wealth was essential to a healthy society. The alternative, he suggested, was a repressive regime that kept people in line through heavy-handed law and order tactics.

Do you see any relevance to Occupy Wall Street?

As Frank Reynolds observed: “When the very large volume of the early Buddhist Dhamma literature is taken into account, it is evident that the amount of material devoted to kingship and political affairs is actually rather modest. Nevertheless, the presence of these elements in the early tradition is significant in that it indicates that even among the supposedly world-renouncing monks who were responsible for the preservation and extension of the Buddha’s teaching, such matters constituted one important focal point of interest and concern.” [1]

As for the actual content of the material on kingship and political affairs, Gombrich has pointed out that there are two approaches to kings in the Pāli canon. The first deals with real kings, and is literal and historical, while the second approach is what Gombrich calls “fantasy,” although the latter might better be described as a “mythic” approach. Uma Chakkavati makes a similar two-fold distinction, referring to passages describing “the actual or existing exercise of power by contemporary kings” versus “the ideal or normative exercise of power by the king.”[2] The two categorizations are broadly equivalent. The passages dealing with real, historical kings tell us much about attitudes to and interactions with royalty at the time of the Buddha, including the “exercise of power.” The mythic passages are also normative in that they posit an ideal society where rulers are themselves governed by Dhamma.

Mythic Kings in the Pāli Canon

A number of texts (suttas and Jātakas) deal with the topic of with kings in a non literal and mythic way. Such suttas include the Kūṭadanta , the Cakkavatti, and the Agañña. As myths, precisely in what manner they are to be interpreted is, and no doubt always will be, open to question. While the stories are fantasy, these stories can still, I believe, reveal useful perspectives on broader ethical and social issues that Buddhism concerned itself with.

Northrop Frye posited that there are two social conceptions that can be expressed only in terms of myth. “One is the social contract, which presents an account of the origins of society. The other is the utopia, which presents an imaginative vision of the telos or end at which social life aims.”[3] Buddhist texts contain elements both of a social contract and of Buddhist utopias. Frye continues: “ These two myths begin in an analysis of the present, the society that confronts the mythmaker, and they project this analysis in time and space. The contract projects it into the past, the utopia into the future or to some distant place.” We may also add to this that utopias could even be projected into the distant past in the form of a myth of a “golden age.”

If social contract and utopian myths do, as Frye puts it, “begin in an analysis of the present,” then an analysis of them may be useful in throwing light on the views of the Buddha. I argue here that the utopian elements in these myths may cast light onto the telos — and the social contract — that the Buddha saw as being desirable.

The Kūṭadanta Sutta and the 99%

The Kūṭadanta[4] frames a Jātaka tale concerning the realm of King Mahāvijit (Great Victor). The Jātaka is framed by the story of a Brahmin, Kūṭadanta (we could translate this as “Gnasher”), who comes to ask the Buddha’s advice on the correct way to perform a sacrifice. Since the social role of a Brahmin is to perform sacrifice, and since the Buddha was known to oppose animal sacrifice, the scenario is absurd, but the story allows the Buddha to get some points across.

In his reply to Gnasher, the Buddha tells the tale of King Mahāvijit, who wished to make a sacrifice “which would be to his benefit and happiness for a long time.” Instead, Mahāvijit’s purohitaṃ (minister-chaplain) persuades him that he should rid his country of a plague of robbers. He should not attempt to do this “by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment.” These methods would only postpone the problems because of future retributions from survivors of the punishments.

Instead, he should distribute grain and fodder to those who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle; give capital to those in trade; and give proper living wages to those in government service. As a result of implementing these policies, the king is able to announce: “I have got rid of the plague of robbers; following your plan my revenue has grown, the land is tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people with joy in their hearts play with their children and dwell in open houses.” The Buddha later admits that he was the purohitaṃ who gave advice to the king.

This sutta, with its utopian elements, is interesting for the specific policy objectives that are advocated by the Buddha, in his previous life as minister-chaplain to Mahāvijit, as well as for the results of those objectives. Peace, harmony, and freedom from crime are posited as the telos of the social policies of redistributing wealth and paying living wages to government employees. More conventional policies such as “executions and imprisonment,” and “confiscation, threats and banishment” are abjured.

There is a clear suggestion that crime arises from poverty, and if prosperity were achieved, then crime would be eliminated. This might seem paradoxical as part of the belief system of a religious tradition which has full-time property-less practitioners, but there are, as Mavis Fenn has pointed out, two notions of poverty in the Pāli canon.[5]

One is the practice of what could be called “voluntary simplicity,” and represents “the rejection of human relationships based on differentiation and hierarchy.” As Fenn puts it, “poverty undertaken for religious ends can promote spiritual development.” This it does by creating a life-style of such simplicity that ample time is created for self-developmental pursuits such as reflection and meditation.

The second form of poverty that Fenn discusses is “deprivation.” Involuntary material poverty, far from conducing to spiritual development, “results in dehumanization that severely restricts, if not destroys, the possibility of spiritual progress.” In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,[6] if the individual is struggling to meet the most basic needs for food and shelter, the need for self-actualization is unlikely to be a priority.

A fair distribution of wealth and investment in infrastructure are advocated, and since this wealth comes from the King’s own surplus, which can only have come from the people themselves, there is an implication that over-taxation has resulted in poverty-related crime. A fair and moderate taxation system which protects the poor would be logically consistent with the moral of the sutta. As a result of these policies, everyone benefits. Citizens are no longer forced by poverty into criminal activity, and therefore escape the risk of dire punishments. Ordinary citizens enjoy peace of mind, and can “with joy in their hearts play with their children and dwell in open houses,” and the King’s job of maintaining a stable society is made considerably easier.

There are strong resonances here with the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, which has moved far beyond Wall Street, to over 1500 places at the time of writing.

The corporation is king

We no longer have a literal king, but the corporation is now our metaphorical monarch. The mechanisms of the Republic are now controlled, in large part, by the rich, and by the corporations that made them rich. More than half of congress-people are millionaires. It can cost literally tens of millions to run for Senate, and our incumbent president is likely to spend a billion dollars running for reelection. Where does this money come from? Much of it comes from corporations. You do not accept the money of the rich without making an implicit promise in return. That promise is, in effect, “I will represent your interests.” Our political system has become a subsidiary of Wall Street. We live in a metaphorical monarchy, and the corporation is king.

What kind of monarch do we have? A rapacious one, it would seem.

Ordinary people are being asked to tighten their belts. Although the country as a whole has been getting morse prosperous (see “US GDP per capita” on the graph above) ordinary people’s income has stagnated. Meanwhile, costs have risen. Just to take one example, according to Time,

Today, the average cost of a family health insurance offered by an employer is $13,375. That’s up 131% over the last decade—a period in which inflation rose only 28%. And one estimate says that if costs continue on their current trajectory, premiums will go up another 166% in the decade ahead.

The cost of a college education has been soaring as well, also by much faster than inflation.

Look again at the graph above, and you’ll see that the incomes of the richest — those who control the corporations who control the government — have been rising faster than GDP, or the nation’s wealth as a whole.

It gets worse when you look at the incomes of the top 1%:

Compare the lines for the top 5% and the top 1%. Since 1992, the bottom 90 percent of Americans have seen their incomes rise by 13 percent in 2009 dollars, compared with an increase of 399 percent for the top 400.

So we have greedy kings, and the people are suffering.

Compassion before anger

What is our response to that? Obviously there’s no one response. Some will watch the incomes of the top 1% soar skyward, and cheer — even as their own incomes stagnate. Americans like to think of themselves as temporarily distressed billionaires. Some will look at those who are suffering, and scold them for a lack of initiative and entrepreneurial spirit. As presidential aspirant Herman Cain said, “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself … it is a person’s [own] fault if they failed.”

But more and more people are living in anxiety, in this culture where GDP has been growing, insecurity has been mounting, and median wages have been falling. And more and more people are realizing that our economic and political system is not working for them.

It behooves us to look at a website like We Are the 99%, and to see that even if we’re doing alright just now, we’re one crisis away from disaster. And if you’re not, most of the people you know and love are. Lose your health and you lose your job. Lose your job and you lose your health insurance. Lose your health insurance when you’re sick and you may well lose your house and your savings. Lose your house and you may lose your family. It can happen to anyone — anyone in the bottom 99%.

Some people may feel anger, and anger can be healthy. I’m not advising people to get angry, but it may happen and it’s natural. The thing is to handle anger skillfuly. Anger is energy, and handled properly our anger can lead us to accomplish much good. Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., and you hear an angry man — one who helped transform a political system that was not working for all people, but only for those with white skins (and not even all of those). If the energy behind our anger (a desire to overcome injustice, for example) is handled properly, it can be used constructively. But if it’s not channeled properly, anger can turn into hatred. Anger doesn’t necessarily want to cause harm — it can just want to overcome an obstacle. Hatred wants to hurt people, and anger can turn into hatred. This is the danger that faces us.

How do we handle our anger? Anger needs to be experienced within the context of compassion. Compassion is a natural response to other’s suffering. Read some of the stories on We Are the 99%. Feel for those people. Then if you’re still angry, feel compassionately and angry. Let compassion soften your anger so that your desire to change things is “clean” and free from the desire to hurt, despise, or belittle. Let go of hatred. Despising the 1% isn’t going to help.

It’s about the hundred percent

And realize that Occupy Wall Street is about all of us. Despite the language of “We are the 99%,” realize that this is not about the 99% versus the 1%. It’s about the 100%. The king was troubled by robbers. Kings should be worried about robbers, because the king is the wealthiest and has the most to lose. What’s happening now, with the incomes of the richest soaring and those of ordinary people falling — is unsustainable. No economy can endure under those conditions. What happens when cutbacks to education leave us without enough skilled people to create a vibrant economy? What happens when our crumbling infrastructure hinders commerce even further? What happens as fewer and fewer people are able to buy the goods that allow the corporations to flourish? What happens when the economy is milked dry, and plunged into a depression?

Perhaps the 1% will then take their wealth and flee to tropical islands, investing in the now-vibrant economies of India and China. Do the wealthy really want to destroy the largest country in the world? Do they want to have that on their consciences (and I assume that they have consciences)? Perhaps they’ll hang in here and make do, staying within gated communities, protected from the rabble by private police forces, and scraping by on $5 billion instead of $10 billion. Is that how they want to live?

Are they even happy? The 1% are getting richer and richer, but they’re not getting happier. Economic dissatisfaction arises when we compare ourselves to others. Most people would prefer to earn $50,000 when others earn $40,000, than to earn $60,000 when others earn $70,000 — even if the cost of living is the same. Who do billionaires compare themselves to? Other billionaires. The top 1% are in a race to the top that has no end. Or it will end, because the economy will be destroyed. It’s in the interests of the happiness of the rich to inhibit their craving. This has long been recognized as one of the benefits of progressive taxation.

The king recognized that for the good of the entire country — and for his own good — he needed to pay fair wages and invest in the infrastructure of his country. As a result, the king himself becomes more prosperous, and so do the people. Both the 1% and the 99% benefit.

What Occupy Wall Street is about

I’ve heard many people say that they don’t understand what Occupy Wall Street is about. Here’s what it’s about: Our corporations, and the rich, own our political system. Nothing that protects ordinary people from the harm that unrestrained corporations can cause — whether it’s protecting people from pollution, ensuring a fair minimum wage, or even just making it easier for people to get access to health care — can go through Congress without enormous sums being spent on lobbying to prevent those benefits from coming about. Even a modest tax increase on the top 1% will be met with a tsunami of money sweeping over Congress. Politicians depend on money from corporations in order to run for office. If they displease the rich, they know that corporate money will be used in attack ads, which frequently twist the truth out of all recognition.

Our corporations are king, but they shouldn’t be. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had our current system in mind. They wanted government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Right now we have government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. [Actually, this is wrong. For further details see the comments below. The framers of the constitution despised the idea of democracy as we undertand it today, but as the US evolved socially, the understanding of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” — as expressed by Lincoln in the Gerrysburg Address — emerged.]

That’s what Occupy Wall Street is about. Thomas Jefferson talked about a “wall of separation between church and state.” And the constitution itself, realizing that religions could co-opt entire political systems in order to further their own agendas, creating theocracies, prohibits government from from becoming a subsidiary of any church. It’s time to erect a wall of separation between corporate money and state. It’s time to stop our political system from being a subsidiary of Wall Street. It’s time that the economy worked for the 99% as well as the 1%. It’s time for government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

That’s what Occupy Wall Street is about.

1. “The Two Wheels of Dhamma: A Study of Early Buddhism,” in Gananath Obeyesekere, The Two Wheels of Dhamma, AAAR Studies in Religion Number 3, AAR Chambersburg, Pennsylvannia 1992.

2. Uma Chakravarti, The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism, Dehli, OUP, 1987, p158.

3.Utopia, Robert M. Adams (tr. and ed.), Norton, (NY 1992), p205.

4. DN 5.

5. Mavis Fenn, “Two Notions of Poverty in the Pāli Canon,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume III, 1996.

6. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a six-level hierarchy of motives that, according to his theory, determine human behavior. Maslow ranks human needs as follows: (1) physiological; (2) security and safety; (3) love and feelings of belonging; (4) competence, prestige, and esteem; (5) self-fulfillment; and (6) curiosity and the need to understand.

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Russell Simmons on money, bliss and veganism

wildmind meditation news

The message of music mogul Russell Simmons’ latest book, “Super Rich: A Guide to Having It All” (Gotham), may seem contradictory: A person can become “super rich” by reaching the state of needing nothing.

Simmons, the self-made millionaire often credited for putting hip-hop on the map with Def Jam Recordings, is one of the wealthiest black Americans in the country, but he argues a person can become rich not by obsessing about money but by giving to others.

Being rich is about finding the happiness inside, he says.

Slender and with a kind smile, the 53-year-old still looks youthful, part of what he attributes to a strict vegan diet he embraced 10 years ago.

“The last book helped change so many people’s lives. I wanted this one to do the same,” he says of the new book he co-wrote with Chris Morrow. (His previous one, “Do You! 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success,” also co-authored by Morrow, became a New York Times best-seller upon its release in 2007.)

The following is an edited version of our interview:

CNN: What does it mean to be rich?

Russell Simmons: The idea of “Super Rich” is likened to a state of yoga, being in a state of needing nothing. There is this space where you are awake, a heightened awareness, and this kind of space is very attractive.

The title is a little deceptive to some. It certainly is the road to having success in the world, having the toys, the trappings people refer to as rich. (It’s also about) those people who are good givers and feelers — the book practices to bring you toward a more enlightened state.

CNN: Has your definition of rich always been this way?

Simmons: No, I think “Super Rich” is a fun title, and I think I couldn’t call the book “Christ Consciousness.” It’s really about being in a blissful state, and I think all of us are looking for that.

CNN: What is that blissful state?

Simmons: I think the idea is we want to be happy, and happy is something that is not based on the outside forces. It’s something from inside. And when you’re calm and you’re in a state of needing nothing, it’s a place of operation and of abundance.

CNN: Do you think you’ve reached that state?

Simmons: I certainly can’t say I’m enlightened. I have faith in the process.

CNN: Why did you write the book?

Simmons: This is my second book on the subject. The last book was a big best-seller. It was fun bringing all the scripture together and making it simple and putting the book out. I never expected it to be so big. So many people from the last book — “Do You!” — came up to me and told me that my book changed their life.

I wrote this book more as a “how to” book but with a greater intention. It was not just — can I bring these teachings together but can I really make it an offering.

CNN: What are some of these teachings people can incorporate into their everyday life?

Simmons: The idea of giving. Wake up in the morning and decide on what you are going to give. Those people, who are selfless servants, always are successful. Many of my interns from Puffy, who you could put your left hand out and there would be a cup of coffee. … If you make someone better, then they keep calling on you to make them better. Then one day you’re their president, and they look to you for inspiration.

CNN: What are the ways you give?

Simmons: I run many charities. I make music. I have a financial service company that is very special.

CNN: The book talks a lot about being focused and awake. How can we do that?

When I say you need nothing, it’s a state of awareness so you can be focused on your work. People are sometimes focused on their results, and it can be a distraction. Be focused on the action, the work, and that’s what we want to teach people.

CNN: People can often link success to material objects, perhaps a new car or house. How do you break away from that belief when so many people are inundated with material objects?

Simmons: There is a simple chapter on meditation to watch your thoughts just a bit — to not to be a sheep through that practice and other practices. You start to think on your own, and you can check what society is telling you, whether the collective unconscious behavior is your behavior or your future. Do you have to do what everyone does?

As you come to meditate and look inside, you can make your own choices. And entrepreneurs absolutely have to think outside the box, don’t they? You want to have the creativity and a spacious mind. The book is about creating that kind of mind-set so you can be a better entrepreneur.

CNN: Meditation is one way to achieve that clarity. Are there other ways?

Simmons: Take stock in yourself. When you meditate, you take inventory before you transcend the thoughts. As you come to know what they told you is true … when you hear the truth, it rings a bell. This book is written in such a way that many people who might not hear it from their mother, their preacher, their prophet or their scripture, they are hearing it in this book.

CNN: Tell me about being vegan.

Simmons: I’ve been vegan for more than 10 years. It’s maybe the worst disaster in human history — 15 billion suffering farm animals. And I don’t want to participate in it. I’m 53 years old, and do I look sick to you? I don’t eat animal or animal products, and I feel fine. I feel pretty healthy.

CNN: What are your favorite dishes?

Simmons: I like this spicy tempeh dish. I like that a lot. People ask my favorite stuff, and I say the thing in front of me a lot. Right now if I weren’t on a liquid diet, if I had an avocado roll and some soy sauce, it would be that.

CNN: What can people learn from your book?

Simmons: I hope people become more compassionate and happier, and I guess the fringe benefit is they will be successful in the world.

Original article no longer available


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Review of “Super Rich,” a self-help book by hip-hop promoter Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons Super RichThe transformation of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons from the recreational drug-using, model-chasing manager of seminal 1980s rap artists Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Will Smith into a serene 21st-century prophet of veganism and meditation may be surreal, but it’s also quite real.

Even in his dark days of excess, Simmons had a lot of light around him. As 1990s entrepreneurs like Suge Knight made the rap business virtually synonymous with invective and violence, Simmons stood above them as a relative paragon of virtue, achieving unmatched success with humor and hustle rather than brutality. As he matured and embraced his holistic lifestyle, Simmons became “Uncle Rush,” purveyor of hip-hop brands but also philanthropist and father-figure.

Title: Super Rich: A Guide to Having It All
Author: Russell Simmons with Chris Morrow
Publisher: Gotham
ISBN: 978-1592405879
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Simmons takes his mentoring role seriously. In 2007, he wrote his first self-help book, a go-get-’em career primer called “Do You.” Now, he issues his follow-up, “Super Rich,” a slim, succinct and sagacious volume about the true meaning of wealth (spoiler alert: It ain’t about the money).

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While Americans easily welcome advice from wealthy men, could anything be more obnoxious than a rich guy telling the aspiring masses, as Simmons does, that “there’s no difference between being broke and being a millionaire”? But Simmons knows this and spends the first passages of “Super Rich” front-loading his explanation: There’s nothing shameful in enjoying the worldly fruits of your labor, he argues. But it’s the labor, and not its fruits, that brings happiness.

This isn’t some spiritual sleight-of-hand or mystical mumbo jumbo. Simmons may be a multimillionaire, but his real love has never been the dough; it has always been his work, which in his life has always seemed more like the yogic concept of “leela,” or divine play. In “Super Rich,” the philosophy is sound – articulated in simple prose with assistance from journalist Chris Morrow, but filled with anecdotes, humor and raw language that are unmistakably Simmons’s.

Simmons reworks the “Bhagavad Gita” as if Arjuna and Lord Krishna were two guys from his neighborhood in Hollis, Queens. These moments might read like blasphemy, but they sit atop a foundation of real knowledge and practice. Simmons does more than talk: He teaches, providing meditation tools for the reader to put his concepts into action.

Hip-hop and spirituality might seem to have little in common. But like yogic philosophy, hip-hop is all about the power of vibration, the power of the word. In “Super Rich,” Simmons emerges as the first influential voice to make that connection for a new generation.

bookworld@washpost.com Charnas, author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” is a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor.

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How to be rich and happy (whatever that means)

Tim Brownson

Writing a book entitled How To Be Rich and Happy means rather unsurprisingly I regularly get asked by interviewers, “What is rich and happy?” and I always respond by saying, “I have absolutely no idea”.

As you can imagine, that is seldom the answer the person is looking for, or indeed expecting, and it usually leads to a furrowing of the brow and a quizzical look before the follow up question of “Well how can you write a book on it then?” comes my way.

Philosophers have been debating the meaning of happiness almost since the dawn of time and we still don’t have a definition that everybody agrees upon. Modern day advancements in the field of positive psychology led by Martin Seligman have certainly helped determine what happiness isn’t, but not necessarily what it is.

For example, we know pleasure isn’t happiness. In fact, counterintuitively the denial of pleasure can often lead to an increase in levels of happiness. If you quit something that brings you immediate pleasure, such as drinking or smoking, there is a high probability (once you get over the cranky stage), that will lead to enhanced levels of happiness.

We also know that money has almost zero correlation to happiness once you remove somebody from abject poverty. Billionaires, statistically speaking, are no happier than millionaires, and millionaires no happier than whatever you call people earning six-figure salaries.

We can take that a stage further when you consider that seven-figure lotto winners, are on the whole, no happier 6 months after their win than somebody that has been paralyzed in a road traffic accident.

That is an amazing statistic uncovered by Harvard Professor, Daniel Gilbert, in his book “Stumbling On Happiness”, and one that demonstrates perfectly why defining happiness is so difficult. The incredible ability of Human Beings to overcome adversity and find happiness in all sorts of unusual situations makes it nebulous at best. Especially when you consider that the reverse applies and many people seem skilled at snatching misery from the jaws of happiness.

On the plus side of the equation, we do know having a sense of purpose in our lives (especially at work) can lead to feeling more satisfied, content and thus happy. Doing work that you know makes a positive difference in peoples lives is often a short-cut to feeling better about yourself, and your life.

Further, we recognize that people with a strong religious faith tend on the whole to be happier with life, as do married people and those that do volunteer work. Although you could undoubtedly find very religious married people that do volunteer work and yet are deeply unhappy.

We talk in How To Be Rich and Happy about ‘the formula’ to a rich and happy life, but this is no A+B=C formula. It’s more dynamic than that and will be different for every person on the planet.

For example, I have no idea what your core values are as everyones are different. I do know from my own experience and that of hundreds of clients though, that if you don’t know what they are (and very few people genuinely do by the way) you are massively reducing your likelihood of achieving long-term happiness.

Living in alignment with your core values may not necessarily guarantee happiness, but it hugely stacks the deck in your favor and being out of alignment will certainly lead to, at best, a life of frustration and discontent.

Of course you may slip into alignment by chance, in the same way you may win the lottery, but as a Life Coach it’s not really a plan I‘d advise a client of mine to adopt. You are far better working out what your values are and then doing whatever you can to meet those values than simply hoping things will turn out for the best.

For example if ‘freedom’ is your most important value, think twice about taking that office bound job irrespective of how much money they are paying. All the money in the world will not bridge that gap.

Shortly before the book came out I had a meeting with my co-author, John Strelecky. We were talking about the launch and I said to John, “I do feel a tad uncomfortable writing a book about being rich and happy, when I live very much hand to mouth”.

I’m grateful to John for dragging me back to (my) reality by saying something like, “Tim you work when you like, you play golf when you like, you walk your dogs when they like and you love what you do for a living. Which part of that isn’t rich and happy?”

When I say I have no idea what being Rich and Happy is, I mean I have no idea what it is for you.

It is no mistake that the tagline to the book is “Whatever you want, whenever you want” because that is what rich and happy is all about, even if the whatever and whenever is not defined.

Of course there will always be occasions when it isn’t possible to do exactly what you want. Few people enjoy a root canal or filing taxes. But if you can utilize the principle of doing what you really, really, want for 80% of your time and you are true to your core values, then my guess is you will feel rich and happy irrespective of the amount of money in your bank account.

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Meditations on ‘lazy investing’

Commentary: Turning to Buffett, Bogle and Buddha for wisdom on how to invest

By Paul B. Farrell, MarketWatch

ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. (MarketWatch) — Last May, 35,000 shareholders crowded into the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting. One of the faithful asked a fundamental question: “What is the secret to value investing?”

According to an article in Harper’s Magazine — “The Church of Warren Buffett: Faith and Fundamentals in Omaha” — Buffett replied with all the serenity of the Buddha: “Independent thinking and inner peace.”
Billionaire’s bright lights bring big cheer

WSJ’s Alan Murray shows us the latest extravagant light display decorating the home of hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones in Greenwich, Conn.

Independent thinking? Traditional left-brain wisdom you’d expect from a Western leader. But inner peace? That’s hot Eastern wisdom served with down-home Nebraskan wit by Buffett the Buddha.

Recently, I reflected on the world’s wild ride since the catastrophe Wall Street’s Scrooges created more than a year ago. Through it all the Lazy Portfolios were, like Buffett, quite serene. Check out our Lazy Portfolio pages.

I started wondering how the inner peace and wisdom of three of my heroes — Buffett, Bogle and Buddha — would translate into meditations to help Lazy Portfolio investors. Suddenly it all came together in the “Zen millionaire’s” 12 principles we’ve written about before.

Here’s how I see our three wise men meditating on Lazy Portfolios in 2010:

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1. Zen first — get it before you get the million

Buffett the Buddha was born with it. “I am really no different from any of you,” he says. “I may have more money than you, but money doesn’t make the difference. Sure, I can buy the most luxurious handmade suit, but I put it on and it just looks cheap. I would rather have a cheeseburger from Dairy Queen than a $100 meal … If there is any difference between you and me it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do.”

And he still “tap-dances into work every day.”
2. Your mind creates money

“We are what we think,” Buddha says. “Our thoughts create our world.” Today, Wall Street’s thoughts are driven by a mindless, obsessive addiction to “get rich quick,” creating a world of endless self-destructive bubbles. In contrast, Buffett creates long-term wealth.

“One of the keys to Buffett’s success,” says an admirer, “is compounding … If you put $2,000 a year into an IRA for just eight years, until you are 27, when you retire at age 65 the $16,000 will have ballooned to over $1 million. You do not need unusually high returns to make good money with compound interest, but you do need to be consistent.”

Bogle adds: “Investing is all about common sense. Owning a diversified portfolio of stocks and holding it for the long term is a winner’s game. Trying to beat the stock market is theoretically a zero-sum game (for every winner, there must be a loser), but after Wall Street’s substantial costs of investing are deducted, it becomes a loser’s game.”
3. Being a millionaire is ‘nothing special’

Ancient Zen masters warned students that enlightenment is “nothing special.” Neither is having a million. Nor even a billion, to Buffett: “Of the billionaires I have known, money just brings out the basic traits in them. If they were jerks before they had money, they are simply jerks with a billion dollars.”
4. Investors play a lazy game of solitaire

The Buddha: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

Jack Bogle introduced us to the Lazy Portfolios doctrine: “Start with the total stock market index. The idea is to own the stock market, own every company in America, and hold it for Warren Buffett’s favorite holding period: Forever. And that’s the secret: Own everything, and hold it forever. The S&P 500 is about 80% of the value of the total stock market.” The Wilshire 5000 is a great alternative.

The eight Lazy Portfolios had a successful year in 2009, riding the turmoil with inner peace. Just before Christmas, all eight no-load index portfolios had one-year returns averaging 24% to 33%. Check out our Lazy Portfolio pages.

The Second Grader’s Starter Portfolio consists of just three funds including the Bogle-recommended big-cap index fund plus the Total Bond Index (FUND:VBMFX) and Total International Stock Index Fund (FUND:VGTSX) . The portfolio’s 33.3% returns beat the S&P 500, proving Buffett’s point that “a great IQ is not needed to do well as an investor,” just “the ability to detach yourself from the crowd.”

We know the crowd will focus on the two hottest funds in the eight Lazy Portfolios — Vanguard’s Emerging Markets Stock Index (FUND:VEIEX) was smoking at 79% this year, and its REIT Index Fund (FUND:VGSIX) at 39%. But remember: Diversify, don’t just trade hot funds of stocks.
5. No outside authorities — you are centered within

“The future is never clear,” Buffett warns. “You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.” Strategy: No trading, buy value, never sell. “I never have the faintest idea what the stock market is going to do in the next six months, or the next year or two,” Buffett says. “But I think it’s very easy to see what’s going to happen over the long term.”
6. You are always a beginner

Zen masters say: “Zen mind, beginner’s mind.” Step into Buffett’s Zen mind, and meditate: “I’m going to buy hamburgers for the rest of my life. When hamburgers go down in price, we sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in the Buffett household. When hamburgers go up, we weep. For most people, it’s the same way with everything in life they will be buying — except stocks. When stocks go down, you can get more for your money, but people don’t like them any more. That sort of behavior is especially puzzling.”
7. The Zen-millionaire makes peace with the dark side

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently,” Buffett says. And to Congress: “I want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear on the front page of their local paper the next day, be read by their spouses, children, and friends … If they follow this test, they will not fear my other message to them: Lose money for my firm and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

Meditate on working for Buffett every day … you’ll get the “Zen first.”
8. Wealth-building is about building character

Today Wall Street’s addiction to massive wealth is creating an America with the mind of a teenager on speed, hell-bent for instant gratification. “Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies,” Buffett says. “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” Meditate on this: Who are you? Are you a money machine or rich in integrity?
9. You are the only guru

Bogle offers a practical reason for being your own guru: A decade ago “the total revenues paid by investors to investment bankers and brokerage firms exceeded $1 trillion” and “more than three-quarters of the cumulative financial wealth produced by stocks over an investor’s lifetime will be consumed by fund managers.” You cannot trust Wall Street. Zen masters warn: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Why? Because Buddha is never “out there.” Not on CNN. Nor at Goldman. Not even Buffett. You’re it.
10. You’re on a never-ending journey of self-discovery

“You do things when the opportunities come along,” Buffett says. “I’ve had periods in my life when I’ve had a bundle of ideas come along, and I’ve had long dry spells. If I get an idea next week, I’ll do something. If not, I won’t do a damn thing. … You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.”

You’re on earth for a reason. Not just to get rich. What is it? That journey never ends.
11. You are making a difference

“It’s class warfare and my class is winning, but they shouldn’t be,” Buffett says. “If you’re in the luckiest 1% of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99%.” Most don’t. So it’s no surprise that Buffett’s actions speak louder than words: The richest man on earth is giving away all of his fortune.
12. The secret power within you

Life and investing are simple for Buffett: “We enjoy the process far more than the proceeds.” He lives in the same modest house, drives an old car. The computer in his office is only used to play bridge with friends around the world. He knows you get the Zen first, or you don’t get it. The secret? “Independent thinking and inner peace.”

“I can only to point the way for you,” Buddha says. “Be a lamp unto yourself.” And if you wonder how you’ll ever know if you got the “Zen First” secret (because Buddha also says “you may be enlightened but never know it”), I’ll bet Buffett would reply something like: “You’ll know you’re enlightened when you sense inner peace while tap-dancing with your portfolio.” At least I hope he’d say something Nebraskan like that.

Bottom line: There’s no secret to the Zen. If anything, it’s too simple. Zen is within you. So here’s my gift to help you discover your “Zen First” this wonderful season and all through 2010. Discover 40 wonderful ways people worldwide and throughout history have meditated to find inner peace: Download my free book, the “Millionaire Meditation.” And yes, both work and dancing are in the top 40.

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Dharma on zero dollars a day

Brass buddha statue

In a time of global financial meltdown, it may be wise to consider that many of the best things in life are indeed free, including self-awareness, happiness, and the freedom to explore one’s own experience. Bodhipaksa shares some reflections from a former monk.

“Rise before dawn and bow three times to the Buddha within you. Bow three times to whatever Buddha image you may already have. If you have no Buddha image, trace the outline of a footprint or a circle on the wall and bow to that. Bow three times to anyone else who may be doing this practice at this very moment, to those who have done it in the past, and to those who may yet come to this practice in the future. When you have thus performed your prostrations, fold your blanket into a square and be seated on the floor.

See also:

“Next, begin the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day. Maintaining awareness of your breathing in as you are breathing in, breathe in. Maintaining awareness of your breathing out as you are breathing out, breathe out. As thoughts arise, make note of them. As physical sensations arise, do the same. From moment to moment, follow only the breath. Do not follow anything other than the breath.

At all times maintain a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars

“Note carefully when thoughts or impulses arise in regard to purchasing the dharma: the impulse to buy incense or a cushion, to pay membership dues, to purchase dharma teachings in the form of books or tapes or initiations. At the very moment that these thoughts or impulses arise, unbind yourself from them and return to the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day.

“At the end of your meditation session, replace the blanket and proceed about your ordinary business, at all times maintaining a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars. Be especially mindful of advertisements for dharma products and of catalogs or stores where such products may be displayed. To enter such an establishment or touch such products, or to gaze longingly upon images of such products, is an impure act requiring confession before another practitioner of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day within a period of one month.

As you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them.

“When you have returned from work, and have taken your evening meal, meditate once more on your folded blanket in the prescribed manner. Afterward, reflect on the quality of your behavior throughout the day. Did your acts in any way contribute to the idea that the dharma was for sale? Did you engage in rootless discussions on the merits of teachers who live in faraway places? Did you do or say anything to imply that the dharma was unavailable to yourself or another at the present place and time? Stated more positively, what did you do to encourage yourself and others in the belief that the dharma can manifest itself right here and now without consumption of any kind?

“As you retire, in the moments before you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them. Reflect on the Four Noble Truths of Buddha and the fact that no dollars need be spent to understand them or to take them to heart.

“Once a week, go to your public library and read books on Buddhism (all kinds). Be mindful that these books may or may not have been written by someone who understands and follows the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day. Take that which comes without a price tag and cherish it as a holy text.

Walker Douglas is a former Tibetan Buddhist monk.

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True wealth…

Gold lily

Although the Buddha encouraged his householder disciples to create wealth, he also repeatedly pointed out the relative worth of outer and inner riches. This short teaching outlines seven sources of inner abundance.

Then Ugga, the king’s chief minister, approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: “It’s amazing, lord, & awesome, how prosperous Migara Rohaneyya is, how great his treasures, how great his resources!”

[Then the Buddha said:] “But what is his property, Ugga? What are his great treasures and great resources?”

“One hundred thousand pieces of gold, lord, to say nothing of his silver.”

“That is treasure, Ugga. I don’t say that it’s not. And that treasure is open to fire, floods, kings, thieves, and hateful heirs. But these seven treasures are not open to fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs. Which seven? The treasure of conviction, the treasure of virtue, the treasure of conscience, the treasure of concern, the treasure of listening, the treasure of generosity, the treasure of discernment. These, Ugga, are the seven treasures that are not open to fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs.

The treasure of faith (saddha),
the treasure of virtue (sila),
the treasure of conscience and concern (hirī & ottappa).
The treasure of listening (suta), generosity (cāga),
and wisdom (paññā) as the seventh treasure.
Whoever, man or woman, has these treasures,
has great treasure in the world
that no human or divine being can excel.
So faith and ethical conduct, confidence (pasāda) and insight into the Dhamma
should be cultivated by the wise,
remembering the Buddhas’ instruction.

The Ugga Sutta, from the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali canon.

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“The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, At Work, in the World” by Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula

“The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, At Work, in the World” by Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula

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.

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