Many of us have wondered why some people are blessed with wealth while others are always struggling to make ends meet. Some people are like magnets for wealth. Their homes are beautiful like those showcased in interior decoration magazines; their biggest problem of the day is which car they should drive or where they should go to have lunch. At the other end of the spectrum, some people toil their whole lives and still cannot afford a home of their own. Why is there such a disparity? What exactly is poverty? What do we mean by wealth?
Cause begets effect. How much wealth we have depends on a combination of how hard we work and our past karma. Wealth is not something that is bestowed by the gods. It is the fruit of past generosity. While alms giving is the seed of wealth, hard work is the condition that nurtures the seed to fruition. We cannot change the past, but we can definitely change the future by our present actions.
The amount of money that one has does not determine one’s happiness. True, the rich may not have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, but they can be burdened by social engagements and wearied judging others’ ulterior motives. The poor are not troubled by such problems. As long as they have their dignity and self-esteem, they can stand tall and be proud. In the phenomenal world, everything is subject to impermanence. Wealth and poverty are no exceptions. Wealth can disappear, and people can go from rags to riches. Wealth cannot solve all problems, and our happiness is dependent more on how we feel about ourselves than how much money we have in our bank accounts.
The Buddha shows us by example how we should look at our wealth. He was just as happy with a simple robe as he was with a royal garment. He enjoyed the food that he collected from his alms rounds as much as the food that was offered to him when he was the guest of honor. He could sleep under a tree and yet was equally at ease in a royal palace. Sometimes he lived in solitude, and at other times he lived in the company of his followers and bhiksus. The Buddha was always at ease with his circumstances. The distinctions of rich and poor, coarse and fine, or fame and rejection had no bearing on his inner peace.
The great contemporary monk, Hung-yi, also led a life of equanimity. He never complained about anything. He lived a simple life of little want and great contentment. Whether it is a worn-out handkerchief, a simple plate of pickled vegetable, or a spartan bed, he was equally appreciative. Most of us look at a life of subsistence as a burden, but Hung-yi truly enjoyed what he had. One day, the famous scholar Hsia Mien-tsun visited him while he was finishing his lunch of rice and pickled vegetables. The venerable showed such delight that Hsia Mien-tsun exclaimed, “Only someone wise like the venerable can truly relish such simplicity.”
I want to share with you this parable. Once there was a wealthy businessman who lived in a penthouse with a breath-taking view of the city. He had a childhood friend who was poor but happy. This friend had a loving wife who adored him and greatly appreciated his hard work to provide for the family. The tycoon was a successful business man and had to spend many evenings away from home socializing and finalizing business deals. He was quite enviable of his friend’s simple lifestyle and thought to himself, “What is the point of having all this money if I cannot enjoy it? My friend may be poor, but he is having a grand old time with his wife. Sometimes I wish my life could be more like his.”
One day, someone told him, “If you want to be more like your friend, just give some of your money to him.” He was tickled with the suggestion and decided to give his poor friend two hundred thousand dollars, a small fraction of what he had. The poor couple was ecstatic. They thought the money was the best thing that could happen to them. When night fell, they began to worry about how to safeguard their newfound wealth. Should they put it in the drawer? Someone might steal it. How about under the mattress? That did not sound like such a good hiding place. Worried about their fortune, they hardly got a wink of sleep that night. After a few days, they began to argue how to best use the money. The wife wanted to do one thing, while the husband wanted to do something different. Their fights almost destroyed their marriage. Upon reflection, they realized that all their problems started when they were given the money. They decided to return the money to their tycoon friend instead.
This is, of course, a parable, but there is a valuable lesson here. Money can solve many problems, but it can also create many new ones. One of Confucius’ students, Yen Hwei, was said to have lived a life consisting of “a bowl of rice, a gourdful of drink, and an abode on a humble lane. Many could not tolerate such subsistence, yet Hwei would not change his life of joy a bit.” One of the Buddha’s disciples, Mahakasyapa, practiced a life of poverty and often spent his nights by tombstones without much of a thought. It is one thing to be poor in a monetary sense, it is quite another to be lacking spiritually. The store of treasure within our hearts and minds is inexhaustible, and it is up to us to mine this internal wealth. If we know how to apply the treasure within, we are wealthy in the truest sense of the word.