Buddhists can work hard and improve their material quality of life
Many people incorrectly believe that to be a good Buddhist, you have to have absolutely nothing to do with the materialistic life. This is not true. Buddhism does not condemn the acquisition of wealth nor does it prohibit you from having material possession.
On the contrary, Buddha expressly encouraged hard work to gain wealth because wealth can give a person the opportunity to lead a decent life and to do meritorious action.
What are the caveats to hard work and accumulation of wealth?
Buddha did give some stipulations and warnings to his endorsement of hard work and wealth accumulation. Buddha considered economic welfare as a prerequisite for inner peace, although material progress is not ‘real and true’ if it was only material, without any spiritual or moral foundation. What the Buddha discouraged was attachment to that wealth and the belief that wealth alone can bring ultimate happiness.
As Buddhists, we know that separation from any wealth, power or position that we acquire is inevitable. This is the natural law of impermanence. We also know that the pain that accompanies the separation is proportional to the force of attachment: strong attachment brings much suffering; little attachment brings little suffering; no attachment brings no suffering.
Wealth and poverty is impermanent
If you’re poor, don’t try to harm or exploit others. Face the situation and work hard to help yourself. If you’re well off, don’t become forgetful in your wealth and comfort. It’s not very difficult to lose everything. A rich person can become a pauper in a couple of days.
A pauper can become a rich person. How? Material wealth can be lost from theft, flood, fire, government confiscation, economic and market changes, etc. Whereas the benefits of good Karma and merit cannot be lost, although your stockpile can be depleted if you do not replenish it with additional good actions. See Law of Karma for further discussion.
Why? Because these conditions are impermanent and unstable. If we maintain this perspective, whatever we may gain or accomplish in the world because of our good karma is still subject to decay and loss. Therefore, all acquisition of wealth, material possessions and power should be done while having a clear understanding the impermanence.
Buddha taught that while we can enjoy material comforts without going to extremes, we must also put forth effort to develop the spiritual aspects of our lives. While we can enjoy sensual pleasures as laypeople, we should never be unduly attached to them. Buddhism emphasizes the need for people to follow the the Middle Way. Buddhism is about the elimination of ignorance and self craving – not the elimination of the material world we live in.
A person with an understanding of suffering and impermanence is actually in a far better position to do a job well than one who is subject to strong desires, foolish and lacking in understanding. In working hard or building up wealth, position and property, we must remember to do so mindfully – our actions should not be motivated by craving.
If Buddha encouraged hard work and presumably economic development, then why are many Buddhist countries poor?
It is true that many countries with a percentage of Buddhists are economically poor. However many Buddhist countries are quite rich in quality of life, and as we’ve stated in other posts: to be content is to be rich. For example, the United State of American is economically wealthy and very powerful. It enjoys one of the highest gross domestic products per capita in the world.
However, it’s crime rate is one of the highest in the world; million of elderly are neglected by their children and die of loneliness in retirement homes; domestic violence, child abuse and drug addiction are major problem. One in three marriages end in divorce. So rich in terms of earnings and possessions does not always produce a rich quality of life.
Now if you look at some traditional Buddhist countries such an India, Nepal and Thailand, you’ll find a very different situation. Children honor and respect their parents, and take care of them in their old age. The crime rates are relatively low, divorce and suicide are rare.
Furthermore, traditional values such as kindness, generosity, hospitality to strangers, tolerance and respect for others are still strong. Also, not all Buddhist countries are economically poor – a good percentage of the population of Japan call themselves Buddhist and they have one of the wealthiest and most economically dynamic countries in the world today. Therefore, if we are wise, then we will focus on our own inner peace and quality of life rather than comparing or labeling others as ‘poor.’