While Buddha championed improvement of economic conditions, he clearly differentiated this from hoarding wealth. He taught about “just a right amount” of wealth. There should be enough to sustain oneself, some savings, and plenty to share appropriately with others. He actually spelled out how much of the earnings one should save, how much to operate with, how much to reinvest in one’s business, how much to give to people who are more needy. He did not just expound the lofty dharma; he also got nitty-gritty and pragmatic in his teachings. Sometimes he talked like a cave-dwelling sage, sometimes like a good bookkeeper.
In the context of the teachings of the Eightfold Path, Buddha helped householders by elaborating on the topic of right livelihood. Besides indicating what trades a person should avoid in order to actualize the innate harmony of this world, he spoke about the qualities one should cultivate in one’s work. When a student asked for doctrines that would help in attaining happiness and peace in this lifetime, the Buddha listed four points pertaining to one’s profession. First, one should be skilled, efficient, honest, and energetic in whatever profession one engages oneself. One should thoroughly master it. Second, one should protect one’s income and savings, one’s home, the fruits of one’s efforts. Third, one should cultivate good friends—people who are honest, faithful, and open-minded, friends who reinforce the virtuous qualities of the dharma. Fourth, one should find the middle way in dealing with money: do not be extravagant, do not be self-abnegating.
Buddha also described four virtues that are conducive to happiness. A person should have faith and confidence in his or her moral, spiritual, and intellectual values. Each one of us should keep these values conscious; we should really know what they are. This is reflected in Zen training today when we make vows to keep the Buddhist precepts and when we periodically renew those vows, making our values conscious and public. The second virtue the Buddha spoke of is that people should abstain from destroying life, stealing, cheating and falsehood, adultery, and intoxicating drinks. (This particular list was a kind of abridged precepts package directed to nonmonastic practitioners.) I find especially interesting the focus the Buddha places on use of intoxicants, citing the dangers they pose, citing their potential to turn people’s lives upside down. Further, a person should practice charity and generosity, without craving recognition or needing a payoff for good acts. People should also, he taught, strive to develop the wisdom that leads to a complete cessation of suffering.
On another occasion, while talking with a successful banker who was one of his disciples, Buddha offered him advice about circumstances associated with happiness. He pointed out that there are several types of contentment—the happiness associated with enjoyment of economic security and sufficient wealth that was acquired by just and righteous means; the happiness that comes from spending that wealth liberally on oneself, one’s family, one’s friends, and on meritorious deeds; the happiness of being free from debts; and the happiness of living a faultless and pure life, without committing evil in thoughts, words, or deeds—of not creating evil karma. Three of these four contentments are economic in nature, implying that the Buddha clearly saw that not all of his students were destined for the lifestyle of the monastic renunciate and that there was a vital spiritual teaching and practice involving householders.
Outside the sphere of personal finances and making a living, Buddha commented frequently on the pointlessness of war. It is clear that Buddhism does not advocate violence and that its intrinsic message is one of peace and harmony. Buddha not only taught nonviolence but even went into the battlefield to prevent a war. There was a conflict between the Shakyas and their neighbors the Kuhlahs. These two tribes were getting ready to fight over a border dispute that involved rights to the water use of the river that ran between the two lands. Buddha intervened and helped the parties reach a settlement. He accomplished this goal by making people see the incredible waste and pain involved in ending human lives through war.
Buddha was also acutely aware of corruption in government. He knew about the hunger for, and the addiction to, power, and the vanity, intrigue, and malice that could infect ministers and kings. He saw that when officials were corrupt and unjust, the whole country would fall into a state of economic and spiritual decline. In his teaching “The Ten Duties of the King,” he establishes guidelines for an effective and just government. What he said about the duties of the king can easily be translated to the duties of a president, a prime minister, the head of a union, the chief officer of a large corporation or a small business, a legislator, or a judge. It is applicable to that broad segment of society which wields power and in many ways controls the lives of its people. And since all of us, whether we like it or not, take up the koan of power, this teaching applies to each of us as we realize our responsibility to this great earth and to one another.