The Dharma of Money
This article is based on a dharma talk that I gave at Upaya Zen Center on May 11, 2016.
To listen to the podcast of the recorded talk, click here.
Money is a powerful force in our lives.
On the one hand it’s simply a piece of paper. It’s just a symbol, and yet such a powerful one. How can we relate to money from the perspective of a meditation practice? How can it be a vehicle for doing harm, but also for doing good, for empowering people and causes?
Let’s start with this…. What is money, and where did it come from?
Money was originally set up as a system to streamline the process of exchange. Barter worked out well if we lived in a village together and you had pigs and I had cows, and we needed what each other had. But what if I needed your pigs but you didn’t need my cows? How could we come up with some way to exchange things?
So a system of currency was set up to mediate these kinds of transactions. Over time, the form of this currency changed and got more abstract, and moved away from the natural world—from cowrie shells to pieces of metal like gold and silver, to paper notes, until the present time when many of our transactions happen in the digital world.
Over time, the system grew more complex and layers were added on like loans and interest. We then designated special professionals to navigate this system, such as bankers and investment advisors. Eventually we outsourced most of our exchange needs to them. But in the process, something of the more human and messy nature gets lost and power becomes held by a small number of people, this time in the form of money.
Money and Buddhism
Money is a gateway for both greed and generosity. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once said, “In its wide sense, everything is a teaching for us: the color of the mountain, the sound of the river, or the sound of a motorcar. Each one is a teaching of Buddha.” This is true of money as well.
The Buddha’s approach to money and possessions was all about practicing the middle way. While the monastics who followed him were required to not have personal property or financial resources, the Buddha recognized that economic stability is actually an essential element of wellbeing.
He offered us a wholesome definition of wealth, which is comprised of four aspects. The first two are positive aspects of the friendliness and nourishment that is possible through this wholesome kind of wealth. The second two are the renunciatory aspects of non-greed. They are:
1) Atthisukha – The happiness of ownership, a kind of wholesome sense of “mine-ness.”
2) Bhogasukha – The happiness of sharing one’s wealth; connected to dana paramita, generosity.
3) Anavajjasukha – The happiness derived from wealth which is earned by means of right livelihood, i.e. not dealing in the sale of harmful weapons, not dealing in the slaughter of animals and sale of flesh, not dealing in the sale of liquor, not dealing in the sale of human beings, and not dealing in the sale of poisons.
4) Ananasukha – The happiness derived from not being in debt.
Lay practitioners were not required to get rid of their financial assets or possessions, only that they should find responsible ways to relate to money.
It’s interesting to consider how the Buddha set up his original monastic sangha. There was a requirement that his disciples did not have personal property. Instead, early every morning the sangha of monks would head out to the village streets and beg for alms from the community, which usually took the form of food. This is not viewed as ‘charity,’ as we might see it through our Western lens, but rather as a mutual generosity.
In return for the alms, the monks and nuns would offer teachings and dedicate the merit of their practice to the wellbeing of the community. This was a true local economy. If you travel to many parts of Southeast Asia, you can still see this beautiful ritual unfold most mornings in cities and villages throughout Thailand and Laos.
When the monks returned to the temple or monastery after their alms rounds, they would pour all the alms that had been collected into the same common bowl. The term that the Buddha gave to his closest followers was bhikkus and bhikkunis. “Bhik” is derived from the Sanskrit word “bhaj” which means something like “the wish to share.” Bhaj was the portion of food that a person shared from a common pot. And the term for the alms bowl, often translated incorrectly as a begging bowl, literally means “the bowl of sharing.”
The begging bowl is much more than a vessel or utensil. It becomes a statement of our “wish to share.” This wish to share depends on the four aspects that I mentioned above – on not doing harm, as well as a wish to do good. This is a wholesome kind of sharing, right sharing, in the same sense that we would say right livelihood. This is the origin of practices of communal feeding and eating within Buddhist communities, including our Zen practice of oryoki. All these practices are living manifestations of our profound intention to share with others, to serve others, and to go against the stream of selfish consumption.
Perhaps the Buddha noticed that money can be used as a way to stake out our identity and reinforce the delusion that we are separate, independent beings. These practices of sharing in the monastic community became an everyday way to realize the truth of interdependence.
What is the Value of Money?
When we look deeply at money, we can see its subjective nature. Usually it’s not the amount of it that makes us feel secure, but something else. (This is true up to a point: studies about happiness actually do show that a minimum amount of money to take care of basic needs is required, which I’ll talk about a bit later.) There are billionaires who feel they don’t have enough of it, and there are people with a very modest amount who feel rich. As Coco Chanel once said, “There are people who have money and people who are rich.”
It might help to think of money more generally as ‘currency’ – as a material that mediates relationships and exchanges. Other forms of currency are time, energy, and love. And in fact, all of nature is part of our wealth, in the biggest sense. Wealth is not limited to money. What we do with these precious resources tells us a lot about who we are and what matters to us.
My Journey of Practicing with Money
I’d like to share with you some of my story of practicing with money, and specifically with debt. By the time I was 35 years old I had accumulated more than $30k of credit card debt. This happened through a perfect storm of factors —bad financial decisions, a large student loan from graduate school in the 90s, several thousand dollars of medical bills from ER visits for asthma during a time when I was uninsured, and many years of low-paying jobs in the nonprofit sector.
Initially I had a complete disconnect between the fact that I had all this debt and my Zen practice. When I started meeting with my teacher, Shosan Victoria Austin, for practice discussions at San Francisco Zen Center around 2001, this was not something I shared with her. I can’t even remember how it came up, but I am sure I had a lot of shame about all that debt and tried to avoid disclosing this information to her.
When it did come out in the open, Vicki encouraged me to embrace the process of paying off my debt as part of my practice. She asked me to study the precepts and to look at my karmic debt, both financial and other sorts of debt to myself and to others. And she very clearly requested that I resolve this indebtedness so that I could be able to access to parts of myself that were hidden by the chronic pain of indebtedness. This was a completely new way for me to see it. But with that invitation came an amazing journey.
The first gift this brought me was learning how to see things just as they are, cutting through my own delusions and clearly seeing the situation I had gotten myself into. This was not easy at all… I had spent years avoiding looking at the numbers and had no idea how much I owed. I only knew that each month, I was spending almost half of my income on making the minimum payments on my credit card bills.
I had to sit myself down and write down all my credit cards and the amount of debt attached to each one – as well as the astronomical interest rates. When I finally did this, I felt sick to my stomach. I had no idea how I would get out of that much debt (at the time, my monthly income was around $1800). It seemed impossible. But at least I had taken the first step.
Close your eyes right now and think of how much money you are carrying with you right now in your wallet… cash, and even what’s on your credit cards, balances. Notice if you are even aware of what you have. If you are, notice what feelings come up from this experience — shame of having not enough? Or too much?
I’m not sure I could have taken that step or the ones that followed if I hadn’t had Vicki placing all of this in the context of dharma practice and reminding me that being in debt is not only a financial reality, it’s an energetic state.
When we are in debt we owe our energy to someone or something outside of ourselves. The years that I had credit card debt weighed down on me like a physical sensation, like carrying a heavy burden. More than anything, I cultivated a desire to liberate myself from that burden so I could be more available to myself and others in a truly whole way.
A second gift of this practice was a deeper understanding of the nature of causes and conditions. I reflected quite a bit on how I got into this situation from the guidance of a great book called The Energy of Money by Maria Nemeth. I took a lot of time to write my money autobiography. This helped me to gain insight into where a lot of my patterns for relating to money came from, and to have some degree of compassion for myself, given the family patterns that shaped my own beliefs and behaviors around money. Once I had clarified that insight, I could take steps toward making more responsible choices around money.
Finally there was the gift of the persistence and patience I developed in order to pay off that debt. I had to understand that I was relieving myself of a burden, and this commitment would require me to delay short-term gratification in the interest of my long-term wellbeing. I also learned to become much more mindful of my resources, and how to ask for help in healthy ways. I think of this verse from the Dhammapada:
If, by giving up a lesser happiness,
One could experience greater happiness,
A wise person would renounce the lesser
To behold the greater.
(Dhammapada 290 – tr. Fronsdal)
It took me eight years to pay off that $30,000 debt — in 2009 I finally made my last credit card payment. In so many ways, facing my debt and getting myself out of it turned into a vehicle for waking up to some deeper truths and building strength in areas of my life that I had carefully avoided.
The Dharma of Money at the Collective Level
I don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that our practice can ‘overcome’ anything and that the conditions that we grow up in and have to live with every day don’t have an impact on our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. This is a spiritual bypass.
Yes, our practice helps us to develop the capacity to be more mindful and aware in our responses, including to what money or lack of it brings up for us. At the same time, the world and the conditions around us undeniably shape us. There is a collective level to the dharma of money as well.
A number of studies have shown a correlation between income level and a reduction in stress and other negative emotions. The most recent study, from a professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University, found that negative emotions like sadness, nervousness, and hopelessness dropped off significantly as family income rose. This was true up to a certain point – once family income reached $75,000 the positive impact of the money began to drop off, and once it reached $200,000 it disappeared.
In another study, a British economist looked at what happened when the UK government implemented minimum wage legislation in 1999. He discovered that those who received the higher wage had a lower probability of mental health issues compared with control groups who didn’t receive the wage increase. The improvement in their mental health was equivalent to the effect of antidepressants on depressive symptoms. Increasing wages significantly improves mental health by reducing financial strain in low-wage workers.
In Flint, MI, health care workers are scrambling to help people cope with consequences of the city’s water contamination crisis: profound stress, worry, depression and guilt. Dr. Nicole Lurie, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, went to Flint to assess the situation and said, “The first thing I noticed when I got to Flint, quite honestly, was the level of fear and anxiety and distress.”
Sometimes I think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how that might apply to spiritual practices, including Zen. It seems to me that there is a basic level at which our survival needs must be taken care of – food, water, safe shelter – so that we can then begin or continue a meditation practice in way that we are supported to stabilize our minds.
We cannot expect a meditation practice, no matter how diligent or strong, to take the place of safe and affordable and safe housing, healthy food, clean water, and medicine for people.
The Buddha pointed toward this as well in the Kutadanta Sutta, where he taught about the importance of improving the social and economic conditions of a country. In that particular story, he advised a king that the farmers and traders should be given the necessary resources to carry on their farming and business, and that the people should be paid adequate wages. When they have enough for their subsistence and are economically secure, crime is lessened and peace and harmony prevail. (Dighanikaya)
Then there is the karmic impact of money, particularly here in the United States where we have a long history of people of color being systematically exploited, enslaved, and even killed in the name of making a profit.
Not long ago, when the news came that Harriet Tubman’s image would soon appear on our $20 bills, I came across this powerful video from Jay Smooth, a writer and hip hop artist:
The dollar is history’s measure of the distance between power and virtue….
How far we will travel from our humanity in pursuit of this thing…
America was built on our willingness to believe someone else is less than human
as long as that belief would get us more of this.
4 Money Practices
These four practices can create the space to transform your relationship with money, to use it as another vehicle for waking up to your life.
So much of what has distorted money is that it becomes a way for us to avoid relationships and contact with each other. What would it be like if you increase your amount of in-person, warm hand-to-warm hand transactions? If you give money to a homeless person, don’t just offer them a dollar and turn away, make eye contact with them too. Take a moment to have a conversation with them. Even if you can’t offer them money, can you simply look them in the eye with respect and care and acknowledgement of their humanity and their situation?
Keep the mind of the precepts when you handle money and make choices about how you spend or invest it. You can trace the path of that product you are about to purchase and consider whether those who labored to bring it to you were treated fairly. I remember when I was a kid in Southern California and how one year we had no grapes in the house because my mom was supporting the United Farmworkers and Cesar Chavez for fairer wages and fewer pesticides.
Write your money autobiography. Discover the source of your unconscious beliefs and assumptions about money by taking time to reflect on and write about the following questions:
- What attitude did your mother hold toward money? How about your father?
- Did you worry about money while you were growing up? Did your family?
- As a child, where did your money come from (allowance, chores, etc.)?
- What kind of family rules governed how you used that money?
Finally, practice with giving it away.
Gelek Rinpoche once said, “When you are practicing generosity, you should feel a little pinch when you give something away. That pinch is your stinginess protesting.” There are so many wonderful teachings about the practice of generosity in Buddhism. See what it feels like for you to give money to someone in need, or to a good cause, and to give the amount that makes you feel that little pinch.
Please feel free to share your reflections and questions about practicing with money in the comments below…
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