Excerpted from Dialogues in a Dream: The Life and Zen Teachings of Muso Soseki (transalted by Thomas Yuho Kirchner).
Question: The Buddha, in his great compassion, alleviates the suffering of sentient beings and seeks to give them comfort. Why, then, do the Buddhist teachings urge restraint in our desire for prosperity?
Answer: Those who seek worldly wealth engage in farming or trade, devise moneymaking schemes, or sell their skills, knowledge, or services to others. Their activities differ, but the goal is the same. Observing them, we see that such people suffer lifelong hardship in body and mind while gaining none of the true prosperity they seek. Even when they do acquire some measure of wealth, there is always the danger that it may be lost to fire, swept away by floods, stolen by thieves, or confiscated by the authorities. Those lucky enough to avoid such misfortunes still cannot retain their property once their allotted years have passed.
Furthermore, great wealth commonly involves great wrongdoing, so that the rich often fall into the evil realms81 in their next existence. This is what is meant by “small gains bring great losses.” Poverty in this existence is retribution for avarice in past lives. Unaware of this basic principle, people often assume that poverty stems from a lack of worldly wisdom. They fail to realize that unless the karmic seeds for prosperity have been sown in past existences it is impossible to gain wealth in the present life regardless of what practical skills one may possess. Rather than blaming poverty on a lack of worldly wisdom, people should recognize that a lack of worldly wisdom is the result of not having planted the karmic seeds for success.
Other people blame their poverty on their superiors, whom they accuse of refusing to grant them land due to them or wrongfully seizing their property. Here again, the situation of these individuals is the result, not of their superiors’ lack of generosity or their own loss of property, but rather of their having sown the karmic seeds for poverty. If people simply abandoned their craving for prosperity they would feel quite satisfied with the share of good fortune that comes their way in the natural course of things. It is for these reasons that the Buddhist teachings urge us to restrain our desire for prosperity. It is not because they expect people to renounce all wealth and live in destitution.
In ancient India, Śākyamuni’s great patron Sudatta83 lost his fortune during his old age and was left without any means of livelihood. Sudatta and his wife were utterly alone in their household, abandoned by everyone whom they had supported for so many years. Sudatta’s wealth was gone, and the storehouses that had once held his possessions stood empty.
One day, searching through his storehouses once again in the hope that something might still remain, Sudatta came across a rice-measure made of fragrant sandalwood. This he was able to trade for four shō of rice. Delighted, he calculated that this would be enough to keep him and his wife alive for a number of days. Soon afterward, however, while Sudatta was out on an errand, the Buddha’s disciple Śāriputra85 called upon the household during his begging rounds. Sudatta’s wife gave him one shō of the rice. Next came Maudgalyāyana86 and Māhākāśyapa, and to each of them, too, she donated a shō of rice, so that finally only a single shō remained. This, she thought, will at least suffice to keep us alive for today. Just then, however, the Tathāgata appeared. Unable to refuse him, she immediately offered the final shō of rice.
Afterward, though, she sadly pondered on what she would do when her husband returned, exhausted from his errand. Surely, she thought, he would be angry with her, saying that there’s a proper time and place even for dāna88 to the Buddha and Sangha, and that, at this critical moment when they were hard pressed simply to stay alive, it was absurd to donate their last four measures of rice. Heartsick, she fell to the ground and wept.
Just then Sudatta returned from his errand. When he asked why she was crying, she related everything that had happened. Hearing this, Sudatta said, “For the sake of the Three Treasures89 one mustn’t begrudge even one’s very life. Though we stand on the brink of starvation, how could we, out of our own personal concerns, refuse to make donations? How admirable that you understand this!”
Later Sudatta decided to search his storehouses again, thinking that something like the rice-measure might still be there. When he tried to enter, however, he found that every door was jammed and couldn’t be opened. Thinking this strange, he broke through the doors and found that each and every storehouse was filled with grain, money, silk, gold, silver, and various other treasures, just as they had been before. With this all the members of his household returned, and Sudatta was once again a wealthy man.
The restoration of Sudatta’s wealth was not a reward from the Buddha for the four measures of rice. Rather, it came forth from the pure, generous hearts of Sudatta and his wife. Even in this Latter Age of the Dharma, anyone as free from avarice as they were is sure to have happiness and prosperity to his or her full satisfaction. Though you may by nature lack such a spirit, if you renounce the mind that seeks after small gains and aspire to the spirit of Sudatta and his wife, how could you not but profit greatly? If you fail to emulate Sudatta’s freedom from avarice and, desiring only a comfortable lifestyle, seek after prosperity with a covetous mind, then you not only fail to gain any true benefit in the present life but invariably fall into the realm of the pretas in the next.