Let’s begin with a partner exercise. First let’s check in with how you feel about money. What is the feeling tone? How does it feel in the body? In this exercise you’re going to become your financial life emotionally and express it to your partner. You’re going to exaggerate it, dramatize it. Eg. I don’t have enough money, I can’t sleep at night, I can’t think of anything else… Five minutes each. Let your partner dramatize their financial life to you. Take a risk and try to articulate at the feeling level of your body how you hold feelings around money.
When I was a kid my father advertised that he had lots of money but he was always in debt. My mother advertised that she never had any money even though she had plenty. I grew up with such dishonesty around money matters. So when I went into spiritual life I thought at last I would gain freedom from the world of money. I was interested in the life of the mind, in immaterial qualities. Money became a shadow that I wasn’t able to escape. In many spiritual communities there are three central themes that are rarely discussed: sex, politics and money.
Most of the Buddha’s teachings about money was for monks. There were two basic guidelines. The first was not to have debt. The Buddha felt that debt caused stress. There were two kinds of suffering. Dukkha. And dukkha dukkha. Stressful stress. Debt leans into the worst doubled down kind of dukkha. But tell me: how is it possible in the modern economic world, not to have debt?
The second guideline was that money shouldn’t come into contact with selling arms. The Buddha said that 25% of your income should be put away for a rainy day. 50% of your income should be spent on your expenses (rent, food, hydro, water). In Toronto most people’s rent/mortgage is 70-80% of their income. How can you spend money on yourself, or save money for retirement?
The Buddha lived in a moment which saw some of the first cities in the world arise, these cities generated surpluses, and these surpluses could support the sangha. But with surplus, there is also the creation of debt.
Is this such a different time that we can’t adhere by these percentages, or is this such a different time that we must adhere? This is the dilemma, because in today’s culture we have no guidelines. There is no mechanism to keep our spending or saving in check. How do you know when enough is enough? Are these outdated ethics or is there a bar to be reset in my life?
A lay person named Tiger Paw comes to see the Buddha and asks him: how could my relationship with money lead to happiness and well being?
[The Buddha said:] “There are these four qualities, Tiger-Paw, that lead to a lay person’s happiness and well-being in this life. Which four? Being consummate in initiative, being consummate in vigilance, having admirable people as friends, and maintaining one’s livelihood in tune.
And what does it mean to be consummate in initiative? There is the case where a lay person, by whatever occupation he makes his living — whether by farming or trading or cattle tending or archery or as a king’s man or by any other craft — is clever and untiring at it, endowed with discrimination in its techniques, enough to arrange and carry it out. This is called being consummate in initiative.
And what does it mean to be consummate in vigilance? There is the case when a lay person has righteous wealth — righteously gained, coming from his initiative, his striving, his making an effort, gathered by the strength of his arm, earned by his sweat — he manages to protect it through vigilance [with the thought], ‘How shall neither kings nor thieves make off with this property of mine, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?’ This is called being consummate in vigilance.
And what does it mean to have admirable people as friends? There is the case where a layperson, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called having admirable people as friends.
And what does it mean to maintain one’s livelihood in tune? There is the case where a layperson, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], ‘Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income.’ Just as when a weigher or his apprentice, when holding the scales, knows, ‘It has tipped down so much or has tipped up so much,’ in the same way, the lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], ‘Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income.’ If a layperson has a small income but maintains a grand livelihood, it will be rumored of him, ‘This clansman devours his wealth like a fruit-tree eater [Commentary: one who shakes more fruit off a tree than he can possibly eat].’ If a layperson has a large income but maintains a miserable livelihood, it will be rumored of him, ‘This clansman will die of starvation.’ But when a lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], ‘Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income,’ this is called maintaining one’s livelihood in tune…” Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Here the Buddha describes a relationship between not being in debt and generosity. You can be generous because you have enough to give.
How to prevent a split between income and livelihood? John Cage said: wouldn’t it be wonderful to have unemployment rates so high that people had to do what they were supposed to do?
**Partner Exercise 2**
Here’s another partner exercise. Sit together face to face. For five minutes one of you asks this question: What is your greatest fear about money? The other person answers right away. The first person says “Thank you.” Then asks again. There should be no pause between question and answer and question and answer. It’s a little relenetless. The answer happens with just a word, an image, very quickly, so we don’t stay in the realm of what we know. What we’re doing in our practice is to be fully in our lives, not in what we think of as our lives. That’s why we’re ruthless. We do away with our ruth. We set our ruth aside so we can practice. If we only speak about what we know, then you’re only prepared to face your past. The unexpected, the difficult moments, this is also part of our lives.
**The Little Room is Your Heart**
There’s an old monk who approaches his teacher at dusk, as beautiful light falls on the windows. He asks the teacher, “Is light hitting the window, or is the window hitting the light?” The teacher answers, “Venerable old student, there’s a guest in your room, you better go back.” The student is getting a little too philosophical. The teacher slaps him back into the concrete world. “The little room” is your heart, and the guest room is open, it can host many different places and feelings.
**This and That**
Sometimes we’re told that the great teachings of the east were designed to bring us into the now, into the wonder of this moment. But for many years after his death the Buddha’s most important teaching was considered to be: conditioned existence. When this is present it causes that. This line is carved into terracotta plaques, these are some of the oldest remnants of Buddhism that have survived, and were found in Afghanistan. “When this is not present that does not arise.” This is karma, right? When you organize your life so that certain difficult influences are not present, it’s easier. If you’re having problems drinking, perhaps it’s not so wise to work at a bar. Or live right next door.
The great second teaching of the Buddha is about greed and craving. In Mahayana Buddhism this was conceived as hungry ghosts. This is the part of us that is unsatisfiable. It moves from a place of scarcity. There are two basic assumptions: that there’s not enough, and that there’s nothing I can do about it.
In Tantric myths hungry ghosts are depicted at banquet tables piled high with local, vegan, raw, sprouted foods from the farmer’s market. Unfortunately, the necks of the hungry ghosts are thinner than a grain of rice is wide. Their stomachs are bloated, they’re perpetually hungry. But they can’t get anything down their throats. All the utensils are three feet long, so it’s very hard to get the utensils to their mouths. They could easily reach the mouths of others and feed them, but they’re too consumed with their own hunger. This is a helpful teaching because it’s unsolvable. There’s a place in you that can’t be satisfied. There’s never going to be enough men, cars, renovations, vacations. You’ll never have the right lover, the right career, you can’t be content. The way we work with this is to learn how to be present with our hunger. When you’re really craving something can you just stay with the craving, stay with the form, instead of getting caught up in the content? Watch what the animal is doing, how the craving is attached to fantasies (I need a cottage, I need to be famous, I need a husband). The Buddha asks: can you get to know craving independent of the object? Instead of carrying on a conversation about the object. Oh, I should buy these shoes because they’re made of leather. Or: I already have so many shoes. Or: I wouldn’t wear these so often. That’s getting caught up in the content, it keeps you in the same grooves. But can you stay with the feeling of the craving? Can you get to know, get familiar, and get to work with your craving? This is the only way to feed our hungry ghosts.
Our culture manufactures desire endlessly, and this fits too well with those parts of ourselves that can’t be satisfied. We have to work with our hunger in order to take care of it. In yoga this is called “tapas.” It’s usually translated as “heat” but I like to translate it as “anxiety.” It’s burning. You’re sitting on the chair and there’s the thing you crave and you’re filled with desire. It’s the tension of opposites. I want it but I can’t have it. How to find your breath again, and have “right view?” How to see craving as a school where we can learn about the nature of the human condition, as an excellent teacher? If you really open to hunger what happens? It changes. You can begin to notice craving as a series of moments in time that are always changing. We’re not trying to feed something that is unfeedable. No matter what you buy it will never satisfy this hunger.
Maybe there’s part of us that doesn’t want to grow up. Around money we’re like Peter Pan. Part of the practice is simply being able to see that.
Part of interdependence means seeing how my actions affect you. And in relation to money, this can be an uncomfortable feeling.