by Piya Tan
One of the great things about being a Buddhist is that we are free to choose how “Buddhist” we can be. A better way to put this is perhaps: Being a Buddha follower, we can choose what kind of Buddhist we want to be, or not to be a Buddhist at all. The number of such Buddha-inspired practitioners is much bigger than we know (if we consider how many people actually practise meditation or mindfulness of some kind).
Singapore has the most millionaires per capita and millionaire families in the world. Understandably, as a tiny nation without natural resources, it is strategic to focus herself upon finance. On a worldly level, this is well and good, but there are heavy human costs. The loss is most serious when, goaded on by the glamour and fever of wealth, we see even Buddhism as a tool for winning a place in such a measured realm of being.
Once we limit ourselves to a materialistic idea of Buddhism (including the view that worldly success means “good karma”), we then seriously limit our choices of what is really true, good and liberating for us. It’s like swearing by a certain brand of soap, refusing to try any other, especially where there are better ones.
The bottom line seems to be that we don’t really have a choice in such matters, that is, if we are drawn more by our desires than our spiritual needs. “Desires” arise from seeing a lack in ourselves, a lack conjured up by envying what others have. We (including religion) tend to measure others by what they have (looks, clothing, money, status, titles, power, etc).
The arhat monk Lakunthaka Bhaddiya, a sweet-voiced dwarf, concerned at being misjudged by his deformed looks, and at others’ being captivated by his sweet voice, declares:
Those who have measured me by appearance and who follow me by voice,
overcome by desire and passion, they know me not.
The foolish one, surrounded by mental hindrances, neither knows the inside nor sees the outside––he is indeed misled by voice.
Who knows not the inside, but sees the outside:
seeing only external fruits, he, too, is misled by voice.
Who knows the inside, and sees the outside:
seeing without obstructions, he is not misled by voice.
Every teacher has his teaching. No matter what we desire (or hate) in life, if we look long and far enough, we will find just the guru who will endorse these very things. If we desire wealth or fear something, there is a religion that will preach the holiness of wealth and succour in some imaginary power-figure! Look and you will find.
Still, we only see the “outside” here: we do not really know the “inside,” that is, what these preachers and preachings are really about, or what we really need for our own betterment. We can worship anyone or anything we want, but what does that make us? We need to see what appearances are really about, and to understand what really lies below the beguiling surface.
Looking thus both ways is not easy. It means that we have choices to make. Many of us are simply not used to this, or do not know how to make a right choice. Isn’t it easier if someone told us which is the best soap?
We are given such choiceless scenarios in insightful writings as George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-four” (1949), where the protagonist, Winston Smith, lives daily on black bread, synthetic foods and Victory brand gin, and everyone is watched by “Big Brother” (a shadowy almighty figure who rules “for the greater good”).
Aldous Huxley’s novel “Brave New World” (1931) envisions a futuristic world where humans live centralized, regulated and mind-controlled lives through operant conditioning. These are scenarios where we have given up our choices, where we hand over our remote controls to someone “bigger” or “higher.” Today, this something bigger or higher is our view of wealth.
Here’s a simple truth which, if we accept it, helps to keep wealth in proper perspective. Wealth is the “outside,” what we have, so that we can live healthily. Health is wealth. Happiness is the “inside,” what we are, which cannot be fully measured: it is a feeling. Above all, it is a means to a higher end, which is meaningful happiness.
Meaningful happiness means the joy of living now. If we understand this, then we are making happiness a living habit. No matter how great our buying power is, we can never buy true happiness. However, if we believe that happiness can be bought, then there will be those who would try to see it. The price we pay for such counterfeit is more than a loss of wealth: we do not get the real thing, and the true Dharma, liberation, is out of our reach.
True wealth lies buried deep within us, always there. We gain this inner wealth by joyful breathing. Joyful here means accepting ourselves just as we are, and seeing others as mirrors of ourselves: this is called loving-kindness. When we have love and peace, we are able to put what we have, little or much, and whatever we are, which is immeasurable, to the greatest benefit. Then, contentment is our greatest wealth.