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“Even two mountains of gold are not enough…”: Livelihood, scarcity, & the dukkha of individualism

It’s “Super Tuesday” as I write this, and though I’m mainly worried that the Dems will mess this up and the world will get another 4 years of the current situation, I’m also amazed. Never in my life have two of the leading contenders for president been strong progressives, each with intelligent progressive economic ideas that if enacted would change so much in this country and the world for the better.

I’m the kind of lefty intellectual that feels like so much of what we fight about in our culture comes down to economics. This is not to diminish the importance of any of the big, structural oppressions that so define our lives. Suffering is directly caused by racism, sexism, nationalism, and all the forms of systemic bias we suffer from. But economic factors are interwoven with all of these. At the heart of every oppression can be found a story about money and resources.

Continuing our slow walking meditation through the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, we’ve arrived at the least emphasized of the 8 limbs: Right Livelihood. I don’t think I’ve heard a complete talk on this limb in 25 years of Buddhist practice! Maybe this is a symptom of the general emphasis on meditation and emotional healing in my lineages. Maybe it’s a symptom of neoliberal Buddhism in general, which focuses on individual healing in the context of middle-class family life, rather than on renunciation, monasticism, or communal religious observance. Those two symptoms are the same thing, of course.

So here we start talking about how we make our money, how we spend it, and what it means to be an economic actor, as they say. How we think about the natural resources everyone needs to live, and the moral ideas we develop around how resources should be distributed. We’ll start with the traditional outlines of Right Livelihood, which are about having an ethical profession, and move on over the next few weeks into larger-scale ideas about social structures, which are implicitly economic ideas.

As a teaser, I’ll say now that I do read the Buddha’s ideas around governance and economics as more or less Socialist, and that’s certainly how they were read by a generation of South Asian thinkers including Ajahn Buddhadāsa (Thailand), B.R. Ambedkar (India), A.T. Ariyaratne (Sri Lanka), and Norodom Sihanouk (Cambodia). We’ll talk about the monastic Saṅgha as an example of a radical communitarian experiment, and about a text where the Buddha explicitly talks about a king redistributing resources as an antidote to crime. Here are a few text references to begin our study.


Right (and Wrong) Livelihood defined

The standard definition of Right Livelihood is simple ethical avoidance of the worst businesses:

“Mendicants, a lay follower should not engage in these five trades. What five? Trade in weapons, living creatures, meat, intoxicants, and poisons. A lay follower should not engage in these five trades.”

(“Trades”, AN 5.177, tr. Sujato)

A complex and interesting discourse called The Great Forty has a different definition, embedded in an almost rhythmic litany around how the factors of the Eightfold Path work together:

And what is wrong livelihood? Deceit, flattery, hinting, and belittling, and using material possessions to pursue other material possessions. This is wrong livelihood.

And what is right livelihood? Right livelihood is twofold, I say. There is right livelihood that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment. And there is right livelihood that is noble, undefiled, transcendent, a factor of the path.

And what is right livelihood that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment? It’s when a noble disciple gives up wrong livelihood and earns a living by right livelihood. This is right livelihood that is accompanied by defilements.

And what is right livelihood that is noble, undefiled, transcendent, a factor of the path? It’s the desisting, abstaining, abstinence, and refraining from wrong livelihood in one of noble mind and undefiled mind, who possesses the noble path and develops the noble path. This is right livelihood that is noble.

(“The Great Forty”, MN 117, tr. Sujato)

As we look into Right Livelihood, we come immediately into contact with all of economics, because the web of material exchange that connects people is inseparable from the web that is the entire world. So we’ll start with individual livelihood, and move quickly into communal economic structures, including governance, since they’re inseparable. Here’s two texts where the Buddha talks about being a king—first on the dangers of thinking that ruling in an enlightened way is even possible, and then on the economic action taken by a righteous king to allay poverty.

Māra tempts the Buddha with worldly power

In this text that seems to parallel Jesus’s conversation with Satan in the desert, Māra the Deceiver suggests to the Buddha that he’s powerful enough to rule the World righteously. The Buddha rebuffs him, and delivers a powerful teaching on the nature of greed, observing accurately (then as now) that even two mountains of gold would not be enough to slake the greed of a single person.

At one time the Buddha was staying in the land of the Kosalans, in a wilderness hut on the slopes of the Himalayas.

Then as he was in private retreat this thought came to his mind, “I wonder if it’s possible to rule legitimately, without killing or having someone kill for you; without conquering or having someone conquer for you; without sorrowing or causing sorrow?”

And then Māra the Wicked, knowing what the Buddha was thinking, went up to him and said, “Rule, Blessed One! Rule, Holy One! Rule legitimately, without killing or having someone kill for you; without conquering or having someone conquer for you; without sorrowing or causing sorrow!” …

(SN 4.20, “Ruling”)

Skillful rulers redistribute wealth

In this text from the Long Discourses, a king named Mahāvijita is given good advice by a high priest after learning that his realm is doing poorly, filled with crime and suffering. The wise advice the high priest gives touches not only on economics but on criminal justice and an ancient humanistic understanding of the link between crime and poverty.

…the brahmin high priest said to him: ‘Sir, the king’s realm is harried and oppressed. Bandits have been seen raiding villages, towns, and cities, and infesting the highways. But if the king were to extract more taxes while his realm is thus harried and oppressed, he would not be doing his duty.

Now the king might think, “I’ll eradicate this barbarian obstacle by execution or imprisonment or confiscation or condemnation or banishment!” But that’s not the right way to eradicate this barbarian obstacle. Those who remain after the killing will return to harass the king’s realm.

Rather, here is a plan, relying on which the barbarian obstacle will be properly uprooted. So let the king provide seed and fodder for those in the realm who work in farming and raising cattle. Let the king provide funding for those who work in trade. Let the king guarantee food and wages for those in government service. Then the people, occupied with their own work, will not harass the realm. The king’s revenues will be great. When the country is secured as a sanctuary, free of being harried and oppressed, the happy people, with joy in their hearts, dancing with children at their breast, will dwell as if their houses were wide open.’

The king agreed with the high priest’s advice and followed his recommendation.

Then the king summoned the brahmin high priest and said to him: ‘I have eradicated the barbarian obstacle. And relying on your plan my revenue is now great. Since the country is secured as a sanctuary, free of being harried and oppressed, the happy people, with joy in their hearts, dancing with children at their breast, dwell as if their houses were wide open.

(“King Mahāvijita’s sacrifice” from “With Kūṭadanta,” DN 5, tr. Sujato)

Buddhist, or “Dhammic,” Socialism

One of the great modern Buddhist philosophers and social thinkers was the Thai monastic reformer Ajahn Buddhadāsa (1906-93). I have a thread of connection to Buddhadāsa through his being the teacher of my teacher Christopher Titmuss, and have learned from both his writing on economics and engaged Buddhism and his writing on emptiness, in Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (). His small 1986 book Dhammic Socialism [link is to the book on the Suan Mokh site, but as of this writing the PDF link there isn’t working for me] is one of the foundational texts in the body of engaged Buddhist inquiry into bringing justice and equity into social systems.

In the book, Buddhadāsa identifies Buddhism with its core value of taking only the minimum material resources necessary for survival, and leaving or offering the rest for the well-being of others. This renunciate approach becomes a kind of awakened action, bringing the practitioner into harmony with nature.

A good way to look at the meaning of socialism is to think of it as not taking more than one’s fair share—using only what is necessary so that the rest is available for others use. Both in the teachings of the Dhamma and in the rules for the monastic order (Vinaya), it is written that Buddhist monks must live with only the bare necessities. …

If you preach democracy, it must be a socialist form of democracy, not a democracy of individualism which fosters self-centeredness. Many constitutional forms of government, such as liberal democracies, allow individuals to accumulate vast amounts of material wealth. A socialist democracy, on the other hand has to put the needs of society as a whole first period in socialist societies, therefore, individuals cannot appropriate excessive amounts of wealth for themselves. A socialist democracy is, then, in keeping with the principles of Nature (dhammajāti) that would have us take only what we need, thereby respecting the rights of all beings. …

The spirit or essence of socialism is the Dhamma of Nature (dhammajāti). The goal of socialism is the way of nature. By living with only what we really need, we are living according to the way of nature whether we are aware of it or not.

(Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, Dhammic Socialism (1986), tr. Swearer, 56-59)

The basics of Right Livelihood: money, ethics, interconnectedness

Meditation: equanimity (on “Super Tuesday,” during the democratic primaries) (3.3.20)

Talk: the basics of Right Livelihood (3.3.20)


Right Livelihood means both how we earn and how we spend

Meditation: beginning with what’s right here. (3.10.20)

Talk: Deepening in the implications of livelihood, including how we spend our money, and how resources are the material aspect of interconnectedness, or interdependence. (3.10.20)


Economy means deep interconnection

Meditation: presence with the body, fear, and settling (in relation to the Coronavirus quarantine). (3.17.20)

Talk: From livelihood and the economy to interconnection, self and species-centrism, invasive species, colonialism, technological speed, and sending mettā to the virus itself. I talked a bit about this post I just wrote, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”: Buddhist reflections on the Coronavirus pandemic. Satsang only on live stream because we’re all quarantined, so broadcasting from our office out into the quiet night. What a moment we’re in. (3.17.20)


[talks from 3.24 & 3.31 coming soon.]

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