Earning and giving: A Buddhist take on wealth accumulation

Written by Loh Wei
5 mins read
Published on May 8, 2024

TLDR: Buddha talked about money and how to handle it wisely. Work hard, spend mindfully. Giving with compassion and understanding emptiness helps grow spiritually and lets go of ego, bringing joy.

Is money the root of all evil?

We may have heard the sayings: “Money is the root of all evil”, “Money can’t buy happiness”, “The best things in life are free”, and so on. Do they ring true for you? Do you wonder what the Buddha had to say about money and finance?

Many Buddhists tend to shy away from the topic of money, thinking that it is somehow incompatible with being a “true Buddhist”. However, the Buddha did not ignore the importance of money for lay people. 

He gave practical advice on how to manage and grow wealth in some of the earliest sutras. For example, in the Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta (DN 8.54), he taught rich householders how to protect and increase their prosperity and how to avoid losing it.

The Buddha emphasised the need for diligent work as a condition for material success. He said: “Herein, Vyagghapajja, by whatever activity a householder earns his living, whether by farming, by trading, by rearing cattle, by archery, by service under the king, or by any other kind of craft — at that he becomes skilful and is not lazy. 

He is endowed with the power of discernment as to the proper ways and means; he can carry out and allocate (duties). This is called the accomplishment of persistent effort.”

Mindfulness of spending

In the sutta, the Buddha also stressed the importance of mindful spending as a way of exercising discernment.

He urged us to distinguish between needs and wants and to make conscious choices in a world that constantly tempts us with stimuli. 

He said: “A householder who knows his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will exceed his expenses, but not his expenses his income.… Likewise, a householder who knows his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will exceed his expenses, but not his expenses his income.”

What to do if we feel poor?

If we feel poor and insecure about our finances, we can examine within to see if we have fulfilled the right conditions for wealth, namely:

  • The accomplishment of persistent effort (utthana-sampada): Becoming skilful and not lazy at perfecting our work

  • The accomplishment of watchfulness (arakkha-sampada): Safeguarding our wealth through tax planning (so that kings will not confiscate it), proper security and custody of assets (so that thieves will not steal it), safe storage and insurance, legal protection (so that fire will not burn it, water will not wash it away, or ill-intentioned heirs will not take it)

  • Good friendship (kalyanamittata): Having friends who are full of faith (saddha), virtue (sila), generosity (caga), and wisdom (pañña)

  • Balanced livelihood (sama-jivikata): Spending neither too much nor too little
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While wealth does not guarantee happiness, it can support our spiritual growth. If we are financially stable, we are more likely to have the space and time to deepen our practice. 

We may be able to take unpaid leave for longer retreats, donate to help our spiritual teacher build a meditation centre, afford to travel overseas to attend teachings that are crucial for our development, etc.

Giving and Generosity

Giving, or dana in Pali, is a fundamental practice in Buddhism. It is the first of the ten paramitas (perfections) that a Bodhisattva cultivates on the path to enlightenment. It is also the first topic that the Buddha taught to lay people who wanted to progress in their spiritual journey. 

Giving is closely related to the virtue of compassion, which is the motivation to alleviate the suffering of others.

Giving also helps to overcome the defilements of greed, attachment, and self-centeredness, which are obstacles to liberation.

Giving can take various forms, depending on the giver’s and recipient’s needs and capacities. The early Buddhist texts classify giving into two types: the gift of material things and the gift of the Dharma. 

The gift of material things includes food, drink, clothing, shelter, medicine, and other necessities that support life and well-being. The gift of the Dharma includes the teachings of the Buddha, the guidance of spiritual friends, and the inspiration of good examples. 

Both types of giving are considered meritorious and beneficial, but the gift of the Dharma is said to be superior, as it leads to the ultimate happiness of nirvana.

Giving from a Mahayana Perspective

The Mahayana teachings expand the practice of giving (generosity) in several ways. They introduce the concept of the six paramitas, with generosity being the first paramita for someone aspiring to follow the Bodhisattva path.

Mahayana teachings emphasise the emptiness and non-attachment of giving. They teach that giving should be done without any notion of self, other, giver, recipient, or gift. These are all conventional and relative terms, which do not capture the ultimate reality of emptiness. 

Emptiness means that all phenomena are interdependent, impermanent, and devoid of inherent existence. 

For instance, if we have donated a computer to a charity, there is no need for us to hold on to the idea that “I have donated a computer”, “the computer was mine”, “the charity is indebted to me because of my donation” or “I will be checking every day for the next three years to make sure the charity is putting MY computer to good use”, etc. 

We simply acknowledge that the computer is useful for the charity, and I have the resources to give a computer, thus while there is the act of giving, with no attachment to the giving, the giver and the beneficiary. 

It is simply the play of emptiness wisdom and compassion at work. In this way, giving is practised with the awareness of emptiness, which is the true nature of all things.

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Emptiness as the ultimate gift

One of the most famous Buddhist saints who talked about the emptiness nature of generosity was Shantideva, an 8th-century Indian monk and scholar. He composed a famous text called the The Way of the Bodhisattva (TWB), a comprehensive and practical manual on cultivating the six paramitas, including giving. 

In chapter eight, Shantideva explains how the spirit of generosity is a gift to ourselves and others. He writes:

All the joy the world contains

Has come through wishing happiness for others.

All the misery the world contains

Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.

(TWB, 8.129)

Moreover, when one realises emptiness nature, one will have received the ultimate gift, understanding that:

Thus there are no entities

And likewise there’s no ceasing of the same.

And therefore beings, each and every one,

Are without origin and never cease.

In ultimate reality there’s no distinguishing

Between the states of sorrow and beyond all sorrow

With things that in this way are empty

What is there to gain and what to lose?

(TWB 9.149,150, 151)

Giving is possible only because of the emptiness of the giver, recipient, and gift. There is no inherent or independent existence in any of these, but only the interdependence of the giver, recipient and gift (recall our computer example previously). 

Therefore, in giving without any attachment, pride, or expectation of reward, but with a pure and compassionate mind, a Buddhist practitioner may try to emulate the way of a Bodhisattva.

The accumulation of wealth and giving it away

If we have spent some effort to accumulate wealth, then giving it away is a wonderful way to observe our relationship with money.

We also learn to appreciate both the useful nature of money and its ephemeral nature.

Ego clinging is a form of ignorance, which is the root cause of suffering. Giving wealth away can help dissolve ego clinging by shifting one’s focus from oneself to others, by recognising the interdependence and equality of all beings, and by expressing gratitude and appreciation for what one has.

With mindfulness, we can also observe if there is any inherent pain or unwillingness when we give away our hard-earned money. If there is discomfort, then we have projected the wealth as “mine” or identify closely with the accumulated money as “my wealth”.

By acquiring our wealth ethically and willingly letting go of what we have, we can experience the freedom and joy of non-attachment, and realise that one’s true nature is not dependent on external conditions.

May we rediscover our relationship with money, and deeply respect both money’s useful nature in supporting our practice and its impermanence and emptiness nature.

Wise Steps:

  1. Mindful consumptions – Noticing Needs vs Wants
  2. Practice generosity in everyday life. Volunteer our time or donate our resources, and notice if any mental afflictions (e.g. greed, pride, etc) accompany our act of generosity

Author: Loh Wei

Blessed with opportunities to pursue his twin loves in life: financial literacy & meditation. As a Singapore Chartered Accountant and a qualified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher, he enjoys compounding his spiritual wealth & counting his blessings.

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