The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity - Selections
Chapter 1 examines the causes behind the obscurity and misinterpretation of the Buddha’s guidance for the layperson’s life. Why have these teachings on everyday life drawn so little attention? Why had they remained hidden for so long? Chapter 1 answers these questions.
Chapter 2 focuses on the freedom the Buddha offered to the layperson to be prosperous, and denies the popular but erroneous view that the Buddha discouraged striving for success. Based on this false view, some people mistakenly believe that being wealthy goes against the Buddha’s teachings—a misunderstanding that may make the Buddha’s teachings seem irrelevant to lay life. Chapter 2 examines this in detail.
The following chapters identify the requirements for a successful life. In them, the Buddha clarifies virtually everything that makes a layperson’s life prosperous, meaningful, and peaceful.
Chapter 3 introduces his instructions, techniques, and tips for reaching material success, and clarifies how to initiate that journey.
Chapters 4 through 13 discuss the various topics that the Buddha identified as important for a layperson’s success, including personal and social relationships, decision-making, and personality development.
The final chapter brings the discussion to the most important topic: the achievement of inner peace and lasting happiness. This, the Buddha emphasized, should be life’s ultimate goal. To reach this elusive but feasible goal, he introduced effective techniques. For readers who might feel confused about how to obtain inner peace and happiness, these techniques should be revealing.
The purpose of this book is to present practical, helpful instructions for daily life. The contents have been selected, organized, and designed to serve this purpose. Metaphysical concepts have been omitted since they represent an altogether different field. Anyone looking for practical guidance to prosperity and lasting happiness should find this book extremely beneficial.
CHAPTER 1: A TREASURE BURIED IN TIME
The moon, the sun, and my teaching…
They all shine brightly when they are uncovered.
– The Buddha, The Numerical Discourses
For some readers, the Buddha’s guidance to the skillful living of lay life might seem an altogether new and unusual topic. Many embrace the common assumption that the Buddha taught only about impermanence, suffering, and the denial of pleasure. Influenced by this belief, you may assume that he ignored the happiness of lay life and discouraged people from seeking success. What’s more, you may make the common assumption that the Buddha advised all his listeners to renounce the pleasures of daily life and seek happiness in the spiritual life.
However, an in-depth study of the Buddha’s teachings reveals this interpretation to be inaccurate. The Buddha clearly recognized and admired happiness in life. He not only encouraged people to obtain wealth but instructed them on how to save, invest, and manage their wealth as well. He also offered guidance to his lay community on successful interpersonal and social relationships, decision-making, and healthy personality development. Above all, he showed the lay community the path to happiness.
Contrary to what some believe today, the Buddha’s teachings include invaluable instructions for success and happiness in everyday life.
Unique Society, Unique Religion
A curious reader might wonder why the Buddha would focus on secular life. We might expect a religion to have a system of beliefs beyond sensory experience, rather than a system of guidance for worldly life. The Buddha’s teachings, however, offer an approach to religion notably different from most others’.
Both his basic philosophy and the unique social factors present in India in the sixth century B.C.E. paved the way for the Buddha not only to guide his listeners’ spiritual progress but also to oversee their daily lives. The Buddha never presented himself or his disciples as messengers or representatives of a divine power. Therefore, the importance and value of his teaching to society had to be specifically and empirically demonstrated mainly in terms of its social usefulness.
Whereas a Brahmin teacher might recommend and direct a huge offering to a deity to avert an impending catastrophe, the Buddha refused to stress such beliefs and practices. Instead, he emphasized human effort and human responsibility as the key to dealing with difficult situations. Whenever a listener raised a question about his or her personal life, the Buddha would analyze the problem and offer a solution based on human responsibility and skill. Because he and his ordained disciples constantly offered such rational solutions to their lay followers, “worldly life” became a popular topic in the Buddha’s teaching.
Social expectations further encouraged this focus on daily life. The Buddha lived in an age during which hundreds of thinkers and religious leaders were competing for followers. Some of those campaigners argued openly against spiritualism and convinced people that such concepts as enlightenment, after-death existence, and rebirth were myths. As a result, that society became so atheistic and secular that most people found their present lives more attractive than what seemed to await them—and they were more attentive to those teachers who provided assistance for their everyday life than to those who talked about life after death.
The Buddha’s audiences brought these expectations to the Buddha and inquired whether he had anything to offer toward their worldly success. The Buddha’s teaching ideally suited such a society. He relentlessly applied his philosophy toward the benefit of his lay community, which added depth to the topic of worldly life. Thus the prosperity of the Buddha’s society resulted in secular life becoming a broad and profound subject in his teaching.
The sixth century B.C.E. was an age of renaissance in India. Business people carried on extensive trading with Persia and the Greek world by land and by sea. With business booming and wealth increasing, affluent communities expanded in Magadha and Kosala—the two states in which the Buddha traveled widely. Consequently, business management and wise decisionmaking—along with family life and managing social relationships—emerged as important aspects of daily life. The Buddha, with his power, popularity, and rational approach to such topics, distinguished himself in that society as the most qualified adviser to the lay community.
Moreover, the Buddha had to play an especially active role in nurturing the prosperous lay community, because his ordained community could not have existed without affluent lay supporters. Neither the Buddha nor his ordained disciples were ascetics who practiced self-torture; they were social campaigners who lived a moderate life, avoiding both self-denial and self-indulgence. For the welfare of his ordained disciples, the Buddha freely accepted lands and houses donated by wealthy admirers; and he regularly accepted invitations to their palaces and mansions for meals, often with hundreds of bhikkhus. With the existence of his ordained community resting upon the prosperity of lay supporters, it was essential for the Buddha to skillfully guide their material success.
The Buddha’s approach to various aspects of secular life seems to have been inspired by his own relationships with the wealthy. Some of the Buddha’s most faithful followers and supporters were kings, princes, and business people who strove to increase their wealth and satisfy their senses. King Kosala, for instance, often asked the Buddha such questions as “Which sense should be satisfied most?” Many others inquired about making their lives happier. Given this unique social background, “success and happiness in secular life” became an important topic in his teaching. The Buddha also voluntarily helped families in various ways in their daily lives, and he persuaded his ordained disciples to do the same.
Two Attitudes Toward Happiness
The Buddha viewed the subject of happiness realistically: as something that actually exists. Addressing his ordained disciples to encourage their search for happiness in the renounced life, he taught:
Two kinds of happiness exist: one in lay life [gihi sukha] and the other in renounced life [pabbajja sukha]. Of these two, happiness in renounced life is better.
Two kinds of happiness exist: one derived from sensory satisfaction [kama sukha] and the other derived from giving up sensory satisfaction [nekkhamma sukha]. Of these two, the happiness derived from giving up sensory satisfaction is better.
These two statements offer a vital clue to the Buddha’s attitude toward happiness. He explicitly noted that happiness exists in lay life, and in the satisfaction of the senses. Even in the presence of bhikkhus, who needed strong emphasis on the dissatisfactions of secular life, the Buddha never denied the fact of happiness in the material and sensory worlds. He merely placed happiness in the renounced life above it.
More evidence found elsewhere in the Sutta Pitaka confirms this attitude. Defining happiness, the Buddha again said:
Happiness exists in worldly life….What is that happiness?
It is the satisfaction gained through the five senses (kamaguna). Sensory objects related to sight, sound, smell, taste, and physical contact do exist. These objects are attractive, desirable, pleasant, appealing, and worthy. Experiences through the five senses means the fivefold advantage one can obtain in lay life. The happiness one derives from experiencing these five kinds of benefits is called happiness in worldly life.
The Buddha’s view of happiness in secular life is clear and complete. A layperson constantly experiences sensory pleasures, or kamaguna, and their five benefits: beautiful sights, pleasing sounds, pleasant scents, delicious tastes, and agreeable physical contact. These benefits are inherent in worldly life, and people are entitled to enjoy them.
Appreciating the Benefits of Lay Life
Not only did the Buddha acknowledge the existence of happiness in secular life, he also admired it. Although he stressed (especially in the presence of bhikkhus) that the happiness of lay life is secondary to the happiness of the renounced life, this assertion was not meant to devalue lay life. It simply meant that a more profound happiness awaits those who are willing to give up worldly pleasures.
Because renunciation grants a more stable form of happiness, this “happiness in detachment,” or vimutti sukha, is said to be “better.” This is the happiness experienced by the Buddha himself and by his ordained disciples. With fewer duties, those who renounce worldly life find fewer hindrances to inner peace. Happiness in lay life, on the other hand, fluctuates constantly because of the numerous conflicts and burdens inherent in that life. But other than this single comparison, which does indeed raise spiritual happiness above worldly happiness, no evidence suggests that the Buddha found fault with secular life or the happiness associated with it.
Because the Buddha appreciated lay life, he readily advised and instructed those wanting to know how to make their lives happier and more prosperous. Many people visited the Buddha and requested his guidance toward success and happiness. The following request occurs in many suttas and expresses what the lay community expected from him:
Master, we are the laypeople who live with a family, wear beautiful clothes, use perfumes and ornaments, and accept gold and silver. Please advise us in such a way that we may make our present existence and the next life happy.
In reply to these requests, the Buddha never showed the slightest disrespect for the speakers’ lifestyle and often gave detailed explanations on how to make their lives more successful. He identified these instructions as sampada, the factors that bring benefits for secular life. Forty-five years of his vigorous social involvement left invaluable instructions in the Sutta Pitaka—and these are what we will explore in this book.
Addressing Diverse Audiences
Despite the Buddha’s considerable attention to the layperson’s happiness and material success, the Sutta Pitaka admittedly also contains passages with seemingly conflicting views. Some of the Buddha’s speeches advocate a sense of dissatisfaction with the material world and mental detachment from worldly pleasure. While this contradictory view occurs repeatedly in numerous suttas, we must look at these discourses from social and historical points of view to discover their intended audiences and purposes.
Misinterpretation of the Buddha’s teachings has arisen, in particular, from confusion about his various audiences.
As noted above, the Buddha spent considerable time countering the concepts presented by various traditionalist and extremist groups, and for this purpose he needed a committed and accomplished community. The Vedic system had its Brahmins, the educated ascetics who defiantly defended its tradition. The Jain order trained its own male and female ascetics to organize its social system. Influenced by both these traditions, the Buddha molded the concept of Sangha. This ordained community fulfilled an important need: the organization of a highly dedicated and qualified community to take the Buddha’s message to society. The concepts of impermanence, dissatisfaction with worldly pleasure, and detachment from secular life served predominantly to train and maintain this community.
This does not suggest that nibbana, the blissful state one can achieve by eliminating mental attachment to worldly pleasure, is merely a technique to train the Sangha. We can hardly disregard the repeated assertions of the Buddha and his disciples that their nonattached existence was extremely happy—a happiness that one may experience irrespective of time and place, upon detaching oneself from the greedy pursuit of sensory pleasures.
Nevertheless, being nonattached to worldly pleasure did serve as an effective technique to train, organize, and strengthen the community of monks and nuns, the very foundation of the Buddha’s position in society. And while the repeated emphasis on the mental suffering in the material world was meant for that community and anyone interested in entering it, the same teaching was not appropriate in the same way to the Buddha’s lay community.
Mental detachment from sensual pleasure provided a dependable cause for the ordained community to live a renounced life. And while a modern priest might prefer a spiritual life simply to better serve a divine power, no such religious motive was present in the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha encouraged men and women to enter the Sangha because he knew that a renounced life would allow for more inner peace than a lay life would do. He, therefore, encouraged his disciples to meditate constantly on the impermanence and dissatisfaction of worldly pleasure. This attitudinal change toward secular life made his ordained disciples self-controlled and dedicated monks and nuns, who successfully promoted the social influence intended by the Buddha.
Not everything in the Sutta Pitaka is for everybody. To avoid misleading claims, we need to identify the various audiences for the various discourses. Just because the Buddha repeatedly told his ordained disciples to meditate on impermanence and dissatisfaction, we cannot conclude that he wanted everybody to follow that teaching.
In fact, there is no evidence in the Nikayas, the most authenticated collections of the Buddha’s teachings, that he appealed to his lay followers to meditate on impermanence or dissatisfaction. The Buddha did, of course, recommend useful meditation methods to his lay community, but these were never meant to obstruct the happiness of lay life. Instead, original texts show that his lay disciples were persuaded to live their lives joyfully and meaningfully.
To consider the audience and the purpose of the suttas, we may roughly categorize them into three divisions:
1. Instructive discourses for ordained and soon-to-beordained disciples
2. Rational and argumentative speeches to counter opposing views
3. Instructive and rational discourses for the lay community
Of these three groups, the suttas that address the ordained community of males (bhikkhus) clearly outnumber the others. This may lead to the erroneous conclusion that the Buddha’s only endeavor was to train his bhikkhus rather than to help his lay followers. There seem to be, however, other reasons for this than the Buddha’s overwhelming attention to bhikkhus alone.
Why Lay Life Seems Less Important
Why does the Buddha’s guidance of the layperson never seem to occupy its due position in the Sutta Pitaka? To provide a clear answer to this question, we must step into history. The important thing is to consider who, for nearly twenty-six centuries, preserved the Buddha’s speeches—and how.
First, the Buddha’s speeches were preserved by the bhikkhus. And yet, even though the Buddha traveled continuously for forty-five years and talked to great multitudes of people, only a very small percentage of these teachings and conversations seems to have been recorded. Over 80 percent of all suttas in the Sutta Pitaka are addressed to bhikkhus living inside a monastery. Seemingly, the bhikkhus were more interested in preserving what they found useful for themselves and not what the Buddha taught the public.
From the bhikkhus’ point of view, such partial preservation of the teachings is understandable. Immediately after the Buddha’s death, senior bhikkhus found that their most urgent need was to retain unity and discipline among themselves. With their community expanding, different views and practices were emerging from within and demanded action. The first major council, held just three months after the Buddha passed away, was prompted in part by the unruly behavior of some bhikkhus. In this situation, repeated emphasis on the Buddha’s advice to bhikkhus was urgent. And the ordained disciples who memorized Pali suttas for preservation seem to have added, modified, and dropped many suttas in order to stress the disciplines for their own community.
This approach, however, altered the overall appearance of the Buddha’s teaching. In the preserved Sutta Pitaka, instructions for bhikkhus seem more prominent, and the guidance of the lay community more obscure. A reader might consequently assume, mistakenly, that the Buddha ignored his lay disciples.
The method of grouping the suttas also made the Buddha’s speeches for the lay community appear less important. At the first Sangha council, many suttas were categorized according to length. The Buddha’s long dialogues were grouped in the Digha Nikaya, literally “the section of long discourses.” Hundreds of shorter suttas were placed in the Majjhima Nikaya, the section for middle-length sayings. Thousands of other suttas were arranged according to a numerical order in the Anguttara Nikaya. For example, any discourses that explained two causes, two effects, two kinds of individuals, and so on were grouped under “Number Two.” Sub-numerical headings were also added to further organize the division.
This categorization of the discourses was clearly based on their external appearance, not on their content. As a result, the Buddha’s speeches to the lay community are found thinly scattered throughout the Sutta Pitaka.
Moreover, most suttas related to lay life were separated from similar suttas and placed among hundreds of suttas intended for the ordained disciples. This arrangement, again, makes the advice for lay life seem insignificant and contradictory. And to the modern reader, the recurring concept of dissatisfaction may still seem to be the Buddha’s universal philosophy for all people.
Some writers and translators in recent history have become caught in this confusion, thinking mistakenly that the path the Buddha recommended for ordained disciples was his teaching for everyone. In the aftermath of that misunderstanding, such concepts as “Buddhist pessimism” emerged.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the renowned German thinker, reportedly formed his theory of pessimism after reading the few Buddhist texts available to him in translation. Expressing his appreciation of the Buddha, he paved the way for critics to compare his philosophy to the Buddha’s. As a result, “Buddhist pessimism” earned recognition in the Western world alongside Schopenhauer’s theory of pessimism.
Further, almost every translator of suttas rendered the recurrent keyword dukkha as “suffering,” and had readers believing that the Buddha regarded worldly life as miserable. However, dukkha indicates the insatiable nature of the human mind, not merely so-called suffering. The Buddha employed this word for the purpose of directing the bhikkhus toward nibbana—and not for the instruction of his lay disciples.
Worst of all, hundreds of books written about the Buddha’s teachings identify his instructions for the ordained community as the central teaching for the entire Buddhist community. This misconception has led to the common assumption that the Buddha discounted worldly life and scorned its happiness.
Uncovering the Truth
Closer attention to the Sutta Pitaka would make it clear that the Buddha’s teaching for the layperson is more secular than most people expect it to be. We find in the Sutta Pitaka more than one hundred discourses, ranging from long dialogues to short utterances, dealing exclusively with lay life. The following chapters will focus on these suttas in order to clarify the Buddha’s attitude toward worldly life and to elucidate his guidance of the layperson toward success and happiness.