The Difference Between Rich and Wealthy
I was recently asked to answer this question on Quora for which I wrote the following response.
What’s the difference between being rich and being wealthy?
An answer to this interesting question is contained almost exactly in one of my favorite books. In “Battle Against Infinity”, Fields argues that Buddhism is a religion for wealthy intellectuals, and proposes that humankind first needs to overcome the gross dissatisfactions of life before we’re able to ponder, understand and appreciate the lofty sublimity of the Buddha’s message — That a certain level of self-sufficiency and its contingent benefits like the luxury of leisure and consequent intellectual advancement is presupposed in individuals best positioned for enlightenment.
Here is the relevant passage:
Although I said, in the first chapter, that Buddhism is the ideal religion for wealthy intellectuals, now is the time I should clarify what I mean by wealthy. To be sure, wealth does imply self-sufficiency, and being rich does make it easier. However, the key word I want to stress is really not wealth, but rather self-sufficiency. There is a beautiful Zen parable that illustrates this point far better than I could.
Once, a Zen master was sitting in meditation when a thief entered his hut. Thinking the master to be in a trance, the thief set upon exploring the hut for valuables to steal. But the master was fully aware of what was going on. He called out to the thief and told him where to look for his and his disciples’ meagre savings, requesting only that, if the thief could help it, he leave a little behind for the sustenance of his school. The thief was greedy, however, and he took it all. But unfortunately, he ran into royal guards not far from the hut and was promptly apprehended. The guards immediately recognised his pickings as the property of the Zen master and had him hauled back to the hut.
“We have apprehended your thief, venerable Sir,” said a guard. “We believe these things that we found on him belong to you?”
“I am afraid you are mistaken, gentlemen,” the master replied calmly, scarcely lifting up his brow. “I did give him, of my own free-will, all those things you showed. This man is no thief. He should be set free.”
At that moment, the thief had an awakening and he fell at the master’s feet.
The thief’s awakening was the realisation that the master was immensely wealthy. But note that I said “wealthy” rather than convey a similar meaning by saying something purpler like “had immense wealth”. The reason for this specific word choice is that the distinction is significant to the point I wish to make. We can be wealthy without possessing a great deal of wealth. Actually, this fact is quite obvious and stares us in the face at all times if only we are willing to accept it. The thief had not recognised the fact until the master’s remark. But when the master had spoken, the epiphany hit him. When can a person be called wealthy? It is clear that no measure of wealth itself can be used to make that call. What is sufficient wealth to one person is hardly enough pocket change to another. But we may safely conjecture that a man who has more wealth than he wants is a wealthy one. By unequivocally demonstrating that he had no want for the things that the guards returned to him, or at any rate less need for them than the thief had, the master had established in the thief’s mind that he was the wealthier one.
Of course, you can be wealthier than someone else but still be in need. Yet since the parable is metaphorical, and the master is presented as one who presumably has no urgent needs whatsoever, I suppose we may say that the master was not only wealthier than the thief but also one who was truly wealthy in the best sense of the word, with no want for anything more, and therefore ideally positioned to ponder the Buddhist message.