Wealth (bhoga, dhana or vitta) is money or valuables in large amounts owned by a person, institution or country. The Pali word dhana originally meant ‘grain’ – rice, wheat, sesame or barley – because before the advent of money this was the main criteria of wealth (dhaṭṭaṃ dhanaṃ, A.II,32).
A family that had many fields and a full granary was considered wealthy. At the Buddha’s time wealth was still being measured in grain but more so in gold and silver (A.IV,7). The Buddha had an intelligent, realistic and appreciative attitude towards wealth. He said: ‘Take the case of the person who makes their wealth lawfully and without harming others and in doing so makes himself happy and fulfilled, shares it with others, does good works, makes use of it without greed, without infatuation, aware of its limitations and keeping in mind his own spiritual growth; that person is praiseworthy on all these counts’ (A.V,181-2). A wealthy person is, the Buddha says here, ‘praiseworthy’ (pāsaṃso) according to three things – (1) how they make their wealth, (2) how they utilize it and (3) the attitude they have towards it.
A Buddhist should make his or her wealth lawfully (dhammena) and without harming others (saṃvibhajati), that is, within the bounds of the five Precepts, in accordance to the ethics of Right Livelihood and without infringing the standards and laws of their society. Having made it, they use it meaningful and in ways that make them happy and fulfilled (attānaṃ sukheti pīṇete), rather than squandering it on frivolous and trite luxuries or never spending it at all. But while enjoying themselves they never forget that there are many who do not enjoy the blessings they do. In a spirit of generosity and philanthropy they share their wealth with others (saṃvibhajati) and support charities and religious institutions (puṭṭāni karoti).
It is interesting to note that the first people to take refuge in the Buddha were the merchants Tapussa and Bhallika (Vin.I,4) and that Buddha's teaching took root as quickly as it did due in large part to the generous patronage it received from rich merchants like Anāthapiṇḍika, Ghosita, Kukkuṭa, Pāvārika, Visakha, and others.
Wealth has a tendency to make people proud and complacent, especially if it has been acquired suddenly or with little effort. As the Buddha observed: ‘Few are the people in the world who, when they acquire great wealth, do not get carried away by it, become negligent, chase after sensual pleasures and mistreat others’ (S.I,74). Remembering this warning, the mature wealthy Buddhist keeps in mind the limitations of their wealth (ādīnavadadassāvī). They know that while it can give them so much in some areas, it cannot deliver many of the most important things in life, and this encourages them to use their wealth without greed, infatuation or longing (amucchita). They also understand that their wealth can have an even greater value if they use the time, freedom and opportunities it gives them to focus on their spiritual growth.
While praising wealth rightfully acquired and intelligently used, the Buddha always balanced this by pointing out that there is another type of wealth, of greater value, that is accessible to everyone, that can never be stolen or lost and that can be taken into the next life. He said: ‘There are these five types of wealth. What five? The wealth of faith, the wealth of virtue, the wealth of learning, the wealth of generosity and the wealth of wisdom’ (A.III,53). Whoever is ‘rich’ in these and other kinds of spiritual treasures ‘whether they be a man or a woman they are not poor nor are their lives empty’ (A.IV,5).
Benefits of wealth
In the Adiya Sutta; the benefits of wealth (Anguttara Nikaya 5.41), the Buddha outlines 5 benefits of wealth:
- 1. Through righteous wealth righteously gained, he provides for his family, parents and his workers.
- 2. Through righteous wealth righteously gained, he provides for his friends and associates.
- 3. Through righteous wealth righteously gained, wards off calamities coming from fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs, and keeps himself safe.
- 4. Through righteous wealth righteously gained, performs the five oblations: to relatives, guests, the dead, kings, and devas.
- 5. Through righteous wealth righteously gained, institutes offerings of supreme aim, heavenly, resulting in happiness, leading to heaven, given to brahmans and contemplatives who abstain from intoxication & heedlessness, who endure all things with patience & humility, each taming himself, each restraining himself, each taking himself to Unbinding.
From this Sutta we can see that the Buddha does not condemn those who have attained high levels of income and wealth and advises them to use it wisely; to be generous. This is seen further in the closing verses of this Sutta:
"My wealth has been enjoyed, my dependents supported, protected from calamities by me. I have given supreme offerings & performed the five oblations. I have provided for the virtuous, the restrained, followers of the holy life. For whatever aim a wise householder would desire wealth, that aim I have attained. I have done what will not lead to future distress.' When this is recollected by a mortal, a person established in the Dhamma of the Noble Ones, he is praised in this life and, after death, rejoices in heaven."
Hard work or energetic work for monks and nuns to attain the goal is permeated throughout the Suttas. Viriya (energy) is listed or mentioned 9 times throughout the 37 factors of enlightenment. This is the factor mentioned most, more than wisdom, mindfulness, or any other factor.
"Though my skin, my nerves and my bones shall waste away and my life blood go dry, I will not leave this seat until I have attained the highest wisdom, called supreme enlightenment, that leads to everlasting happiness." (Majjhima Nikaya 70)
"This Dhamma is for the energetic, not for the lazy." (Anguttara Nikaya 8.30)
The Buddha also advised this same type of energy for lay people too.
"There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in being addicted to idleness:
He does no work, saying: (i) that it is extremely cold, (ii) that it is extremely hot, (iii) that it is too late in the evening, (iv) that it is too early in the morning, (v) that he is extremely hungry, (vi) that he is too full.
Living in this way, he leaves many duties undone, new wealth he does not get, and wealth he has acquired dwindles away." (Digha Nikaya 31)
Numerous similes of the Buddha demonstrate the hard work of a lay person, the tedious work sometimes needed and compares that to the hard work needed for his monks and nuns to attain the goal; for example, the Pansadhovaka Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.100) where the Buddha describes the goldsmith or his apprentice removing the dirt from the gold, washing over and over, removing the impurities and then preparing it for making into jewelry. In the same way the monastics work hard, over and over to remove impurities and reach higher meditative states.
Anathapindika ("feeder of the orphans or helpless") was the chief lay disciple of the Buddha. His given name was Sudatta. He was extremely wealthy and a patron of the Buddha. He gave Jeta Park to the Buddha having purchased it from Prince Jeta. He honored the Buddha with laying out 1.8 million gold pieces in the grove, for the purchase price of the land. Anathapindika upon death entered Tusita heaven, or the heaven of the Bodhisattvas. Anathapindika was known as the "foremost disciple in generosity" as well as character.
He was a banker and after learning the Dhamma from the Buddha, became a sotapanna (stream entrant). He continued to conduct his business and continued to be very generous, again demonstrating that the Buddha was not opposed to the acquisition of wealth and other capitalist concepts.