Wisdom and Wealth

“Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.” — Proverbs 29:11
Visualisation of 1%, 1‰, 1‱ and 1 ppm as the fraction of the red cube to its respective block. Author: Cmglee | Source: Wikipedia | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

What a Scrooge — Bill Gates is only giving .001% (that’s one hundredth of a percent) of his wealth to his kids. Yup, that’s correct. Bill and Melinda Gates are giving a reported $10 million for each of their three children: pocket change compared with their $90 billion in wealth. By comparison, Buffett’s three kids each have a $2 billion foundation funded by Dear Old Dad. For scale, 0.0001 is called a basis point (‱): “A basis point (often denoted as bp, often pronounced as “bip” or “beep”) is a unit equal to one hundredth of a percentage point, or one part per ten thousand, 1/10,000. The same unit is also (rarely) called a permyriad, literally meaning ‘for (every) myriad (ten thousand)’.”[1]

To me, Bill Gates is truly an exemplar of wealth and wisdom. He has not only generated the greatest amount of financial wealth of any person in history, he has also used that money wisely to reduce disease and poverty and improve health and education throughout the world. He has given back generously and put his money where his mouth is. He is a man of few words and big actions. And his kids aren’t even mad at him for their paltry inheritance.

Over the centuries, most religions have had a lot to say about wealth and wisdom.

In the Koran, hikmah is translated literally as “wisdom” and means that knowledge is the power to discern what is true and right.

“Zakat…that which purifies,…is a form of alms-giving treated in Islam as a religious obligation or tax, which, by Quranic ranking, is next after prayer (salat) in importance. … Silver or gold coinage are one way of granting zakat.” -Wikipedia

According to the Koran, anyone who has wisdom will not adopt the narrow ways of “Satan, but will follow the broad Way of Allah.” In the Koran, a distorted view of wisdom is to be clever and miserly with one’s wealth and to be always looking for ways to acquire more and more of it. Those who have true wisdom spend their wealth generously in good deeds after fulfilling their own necessities of a moderate standard.[2]

In Christianity, there are also many passages in the Bible concerning wealth and wisdom.

Proverbs 21:20 says: “There is precious treasure and oil in the dwelling of the wise, but a foolish man swallows it up.”

Ezekiel 28:4 says, “By your wisdom and understanding you have acquired riches for yourself and have acquired gold and silver for your treasuries.”

Matthew 19:21 says, “if you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” According to the Bible, one of the ways a wise person can be identified is by the way he or she handles money. Wisdom is not measured by the amount of money one possesses, but by one’s attitude toward money, the way it is acquired, and by the way it is used.

In Judaism, the Torah contains a story about the Mishkan — or Tabernacle — the portable Sanctuary that pre-dated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to this legend, a huge amount of gold, silver, and precious gems went into the construction of the Mishkan. The wealth, it is told, came from the treasure the Jews brought out of Egypt as reparations for their decades of slavery.

The Torah, however, does not suggest that possessions are an end in themselves. Indeed, if anything, a person whose life revolves around them becomes a slave to his or her property.

Title: Messy Kitchen | Author: Mark Knobil | Source: knobil on Flickr | License: CC BY-NC 2.0

The story warns of the danger of ending up right back in an Egypt of our own making. According to the Torah, when God grants us wealth, we should use it for charity in all its guises. The effort we put into our professions then becomes an effort put into sustaining the poor.[3]

It seems to me that Bill and Melinda Gates are knocking it out of the park on the standards established in the religious texts of Muslims, Jews, and Christians for wealth and wisdom. Trump…not so much.

All religions allude to the challenge of acquiring enough wisdom to deal with whatever wealth you may have.

Title: Half Full Half Empty | Author: Thomas Hawk | Source: thomashawk on Flickr | License: CC BY-NC 2.0

These various points of view help us address the questions, “What is wisdom?” and “How do you measure wealth?” For me, one of the greatest sources of wisdom is the Tao Te Ching.

In a recent on-line conversation with Luke Chan, my QiGong master in China, we exchanged views on wisdom as expressed in Chapter 41 of the Tao Te Ching. Here is a condensed translation:

Oh faith! A great scholar hears of Tao and practices it diligently.
 Oh doubt! An average scholar hears of Tao and gives it a thought now and then.
 Oh stupid! A foolish scholar hears of Tao and laughs out loud.
 If it is not being laughed at, it is not enough to be the long life Tao. Thus it is said:
 He who is enlightened with Tao seems stupid.
 He who leads from behind seems timid.
 He who is profound seems ordinary.
 Oh how true that if one does not understand a man, one tends to regard him as a fool!
 Yes, he who has obtained virtuous Te is humble but seems empty;
 Has great purity but seems tarnished;
 Has abundance to share with others but seems not enough;
 Has great strength but seems frail;
 Has real quality but seems unreal.
 Oh it’s true that the greatest appears beyond the ordinary:
 The greatest sound is silence.
 The greatest image has no shape. Oh nameless!
 Tao is hidden in everything and in every thought.

I commented:

“I loved this translation of Chapter 41. I wonder if the converse is also true: he who is truly ordinary and stupid appears enlightened and profound to some. Having the wisdom to make accurate discriminations is always a challenge.”

Luke responded:

“I agree with your comment. Like the other 80 chapters, this chapter invites us to look inside ourselves to find humility, purity, abundance, strength, and quality.

You see people according to what you are (a mirror of yourself). In other words, you see real quality if you have real quality.

Title: maze | Author: hélène veilleux | Source: shiborisan on Flickr | License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

This chapter describes how people look from the outside, not from the inside. In Chapter 47, the Tao Te Ching suggests that the farther you go away from your core, the less you know. Each reader of this chapter will obtain different information.

You are not reading the Tao Te Ching; Tao Te Ching is reading you.

I classify this chapter as ‘silence’ because I like the sentence ‘Silence is the greatest sound.’”[4]

I commented back,

“The whole chapter speaks to me, but I especially like the sentence, ‘Tao is hidden in everything and every thought.’ Your perspective on how this chapter invites us to look inside ourselves in very helpful. Everything depends on making accurate discriminations and that starts with seeing ourselves with impartial objectivity and compassion. If we can find humility, strength, and quality inside ourselves, we are more likely to find those same qualities in others.”

To me, wisdom does not come from financial wealth, just as wealth does not necessarily come from wisdom.

Wisdom is being able to discern accurately who we are internally as well as understanding clearly how the world works externally.

Wealth can be measured by our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being as well as our financial well-being. I happen to love the wisdom contained within the Tao Te Ching, but I acknowledge there are many other sources of wisdom. The real issue is how do we wisely manage our wealth or lack thereof. Too many people suffer from a scarcity of resources when there is such an abundance of wealth in the world.

Title: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center in Seattle, Washington, USA | Author: Jacklee | Source: Wikipedia | License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Bill and Melinda Gates have shown us the possibilities for wisely and generously distributing our financial wealth. Even if we don’t have the amount of money the Gates have accumulated, we may have other sources of wealth that we can think about giving away wisely and generously. I know many wise people who don’t have much money, but have abundant intellectual knowledge, emotional intelligence, and spiritual energy. Many of these people are generously giving away their wealth and wisdom to those who are wise enough to see their quality, purity, humility, and strength.

And, by the way, I’m not too concerned about the Gates children’s ability to navigate this world with a $10 million starter. I hope they will be as wise with their wealth as their parents have been.

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More Information:

[1] “If 0.01 is 1 percent, what is 0.0001 called?,” Quora

[2] Hikmah, definition by Oxford Islamic Studies and by Wikipedia

[3] More about the Mishkan and attitudes towards wealth: “Intention Equals Value,” Rabbi Wein

[4] Luke Chan and Chi-Lel Qigong

Originally published at rickbellingham.com on April 4, 2017.

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