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 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).