Can money and Buddhism mix?

Reddit user /u/Lloydie1 sent me this message:

Isn’t Buddhism and cryptocurrencies sort of oxymoronic?

This is one of the most common objections people have to the Lotos network — the value assumption that it is impossible to mix wealth with Buddhism.

The truth is that Buddhism and money are compatible, and Buddhist institutions have historically always had economic function.

Ven. P.A. Payutto is a well known Thai Buddhist monk, an intellectual, and a prolific writer.

Much of the following context on has been taken from “Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place” by P.A. Payutto.

Buddhist economics

In Buddhist economics, happiness is achieved between a balance of economics and ethics, by achieving the “Middle-way” between materialism and asceticism. Buddhism acknowledges the role of economic activity in the creation of happiness.

Buddha was a starving aesthetic, before accepting wealth, rejecting poverty, and becoming enlightened.

The beginning

If we go back to the origins story, Buddha only became enlightened when he accepted wealth by rejecting asceticism.

“Woeful in the world is poverty and debt.”

Possession of wealth is often encouraged in the Pali Canon. Anathapindika was the chief lay disciple of Buddha and was often praised even though he was extremely wealthy.

However, there is the caveat that while wealth can create favorable circumstances, ultimately it is wisdom that brings about realization.

“Wealth destroys the foolish, but not those who search for the Goal.”

People that accumulate wealth through good livelihood, and put that wealth to good use, are said to be victorious in Buddhism.

Buddha was a businessman, economist, and lawyer

Gregory Schopen, chair of the UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and an authority on ancient Indian Buddhism has been separating Buddhist fact from fiction for the past 30 years. In this UCLA Faculty Research Lecture, Schopen explores the Buddha as an astute businessman, economist and lawyer.

The following is an excerpt taken from the lecture above.

“And it becomes even more curious when it is noted that what we call the Buddhist monastic community was not modeled to judge by its language and its organization on a religious institution, but on a commercial one. The craft or the mercantile guild.
Buddhist sources for example refer to their organization as a Sangha. But Sangha is a term used to denote a professional guild in early India. Professional guilds have a head, called the “pramukha” and the Buddha is repeatedly called the pramukha of the Sangha.
Senior members in both are called elders, and in both status was as in modern unions, determined by seniority. Induction into the group and training is structured in both on a system of master and apprentice, and both used the same terms for each. Both used seals to mark their goods and correspondence, and the goods of both in transit were subject to taxes.
The Buddha according to some Buddhist sources, devised a number of clever strategies to evade them. But even he seems to admit these were not always successful. And finally as we will see, both guild and sangha functioned in some ways as a modern bank.
Whatever else there it might have been, it appears that what we call the Buddhist monastic community, or buddhist monasticism, would have been most easily identified in early India itself as a kind of commercial guild and an economic enterprise.
There was moreover, no apparent discomfort on the part of the tradition itself about its involvement in business activities. In fact, local monasteries quite literally advertised it.”

The whole hour-long lecture is worth watching if you are interested in the subject.

Monks and business

If you prefer to read I recommend “Buddhist Monks and Business Matters”.

It can be read online.

One of Schopen’s sources in the book is the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya — which is one of the six extant Buddhist monastic codes (vinaya). It is the largest of them, containing some eight-thousand pages.

Here are two interesting excerpts:

“The redactors of the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya either adapted or invented a significant number of sophisticated financial instruments and economic devices, they knew and made rules governing the use of both oral and written wills, written loan contracts, permanent endowments, monetary deposits, interest-bearing loans, negotiable securities, and even what might be called a form of health insurance.”

Buddhist temples were a source for economic innovation.

“They stipulated too that any gold, money, or other precious metals, either worked or unworked, must be divided into three shares, and the share for the Community must again be divided among the monks themselves. These provisions are completely in line, moreover, with a host of rules and practices throughout the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya. In the passage already mentioned from the Ksudrakavastu that deals with monetary deposits made by donors with merchants, the Buddha himself explicitly orders the monks to accept money from the merchants. In yet another passage from the Ksudrakavastu , the Buddha orders monks not to divide certain kinds of expensive cloth that is given to them, but he insists that the monks must first sell the cloth for money and then divide the money among themselves”.

Money in old Chinese Buddhist temples

Reddit user /u/meekale shared the following excerpt from me from David Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”.

David is a Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. The first chapter of the book is about finance in old Chinese Buddhism.

“The Chinese Buddhist approach to charity was nothing if not multifaceted. Festivals often led to vast outpourings of contributions, with wealthy adherents vying with one another in generosity, often driving their entire fortunes to the monasteries, in the forms of ox carts laden with millions of strings of cash — a kind of economic self-immolation that paralleled the spectacular monastic suicides. Their contributions swelled the Inexhaustible Treasuries. Some would be given to the needy, particularly in times of hardship. Some would be loaned.
One practice that hovered between charity and business was providing peasants with alternatives to the local moneylender. Most monasteries had attendant pawnshops where the local poor could place some valuable possession — a robe, a couch, a mirror — in hock in exchange for low-interest loans. Finally, there was the business of the monastery itself: that portion of the Inexhaustible Treasury turned over to the management of lay brothers, and either put out a loan or invested.
Since monks were not allowed to eat the products of their own fields, the fruit or grain had to be put on the market, further swelling monastic revenues. Most monasteries came to be surrounded not only by commercial farms but veritable industrial complexes of oil presses, flour mills, shops, and hostels, often with thousands of bonded workers.
At the same time, the Treasuries themselves became — as Gernet was perhaps the first to point out — the world’s first genuine forms of concentrated finance capital. They were, after all, enormous concentrations of wealth managed by what were in effect monastic corporations, which were constantly seeking new opportunities for profitable investment. They even shared the quintessential capitalist imperative of continual growth; the Treasuries had to expand, since according to Mahayana doctrine, genuine liberation would not be possible until the whole world embraced the Dharma.”

Buddha on using wealth

This excerpt is from the book “After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” by Stephen Batchelor. The following advice addresses laypersons rather than monastics.

“The dialogues with King Pasenadi allow us a glimpse of Gotama’s
attitude to economic activity. One day Pasenadi explains to Gotama that
a local financier had recently died intestate, so he had to arrange for
the transfer of his estate to the palace, as was the law. Yet although
the financier was a very rich man, he ate only the poorest-quality food,
wore cheap clothing, and was driven about in a dilapidated cart. Rather
than praise the financier for leading a simple life, Gotama deplores his
behavior
.
“When an inferior man gains abundant wealth, he does not
make himself, his family, his slaves, servants, or employees happy. . . . That wealth, not being used properly, goes to waste, not to utilization.”
He contrasts this with the behavior of a superior person who uses his
wealth by distributing it wisely. This dialogue shows that Gotama saw
wealth as something to be skillfully and generously put to good use. Is
he condemning only miserliness here? Or is he criticizing the practice
of usury, whereby bankers enrich themselves through interest on loans
without having to engage in labor? In either case, Gotama appears to
regard money as something to be circulated rather than amassed.

Conclusion

The notion that Buddhism and money do not mix, and that Buddhism is a religion of austerity is simply an incorrect and distorted view. Economics should not be separated from Buddhism, and Buddha certainly did not intend to separate the two.

In Buddhism, wealth can provide contentment, which is a good foundation for spiritual development. Economic activity is a means not only to a good life, but also a noble one.

Temples have historically acted as a business or guild, providing basic banking activities like loans, and facilitating economic activity.