A popular notion of Buddhism depicts it as a simple and ascetic way of life. Many people assume that Buddhism is hostile to wealth and achievement, since it is so focused on spiritual development and non-attachment to the physical world. However, to say that Buddhism is averse to material success, and the accumulation of wealth and personal achievement, is overly simplistic because there is a place for prosperity in Buddhist thinking.
The goal of Buddhism is spiritual development that culminates in the attainment of Nirvana. Buddhism asserts that life is full of suffering, and the Buddhist path is intended to end this suffering. Attachment and desire are understood to be the root cause of suffering. An attachment to wealth or material things can poison and imprison our spirit, causing great suffering. However, the Buddha was not hostile to wealth and achievement in and of itself. Rather, Buddhism takes issue with the outlook that personal gain and the accumulation of wealth alone can lead to happiness. To believe that material possessions bring happiness is to enslave the self.
There is a popular perception that equates Buddhism with an endorsement of poverty and asceticism, but this perception is incorrect. In fact, during the Buddha's life, he tried an ascetic lifestyle and found it to be a spiritual dead end, as useless as the meaningless indulgence of great wealth. Buddhism looks on poverty as bad, because it is a type of ill health called Dukka. Although Buddhists do not believe that great wealth and personal ambition are needed for happiness and enlightenment, they also understand that a state of poverty cuts short spiritual development. People need to have their basic needs met in order to grow spiritually and find contentment.
The Joys of Wealth
Although the Buddha found a certain level of decadence to be spiritually unhealthy, he also acknowledged some real joys that can be experienced through wealth and accomplishment. Buddhism acknowledges the happiness of ownership, the happiness of earning wealth in an ethical manner, the joy and freedom of not being in debt, and the warmth and compassion of sharing wealth with friends or giving to charity. Wealth in itself is not the answer, but a certain level of achievement can make us feel good, and wealth can provide a level of comfort and freedom that allows for spiritual growth. The key is thought to be balance and moderation.
In Buddhism, the key to happiness in one's personal accomplishments and amassing of wealth lies in the principle of right livelihood. This means that people should be cautious and aware of their actions and how they go about making a living. The goal is to avoid harming oneself or anyone else in the pursuit of wealth. In his time, the Buddha discouraged certain occupations, such as anything that could contribute to war and violence. However, right livelihood has always been more about walking a path to prosperity that is also spiritually fulfilling, making it a matter of personal choice. Right livelihood also involves moving away from motives, such as greed, and towards compassion and a desire for comfort.
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