When you begin in a trade or profession, it is appropriate to accumulate wealth. Once you have accumulated some wealth, you should divide it into four parts: one part to be used for daily necessities, two parts to be used for your profession, one part to be saved in case of unexpected need.
— Samyukta Agama
Appropriate Ways to Gain Wealth
Buddhism has never been a religion that rejects wealth. Some of the most important early Buddhists were wealthy kings or wealthy merchants. Without their help, it is doubtful that Buddhism could have spread as far as it did as quickly as it did.
Wealth can be like a poisonous snake if it is acquired illegally or if it inspires the mind to become lustful or greedy. At the same time, legally acquired wealth in the hands of a wise and generous person can bring great benefit to the world. Donations from wealthy people are a major source of funds needed to spread the Dharma, to publish Dharma literature and to build temples. The heart of Buddhist morality is intention. If our intentions are good, we will be able to use wealth to benefit others. If our intentions are not good, whether we are wealthy or poor, we will be a negative influence in the world.
How to Acquire Wealth
The most basic way to acquire wealth is to learn a skill. Once one has acquired a skill one must practice it with diligence and complete honesty. The money one earns through the practice of one’s profession should be saved, invested and used wisely. If one consumes too much or if one develops too many expensive habits, then one’s wealth will only become an agent of harm. Money should never be used to harm anyone.
The Buddha specifically mentioned several ways that one must not acquire wealth. Whether these ways are legal in your country or not, the Buddha stated specifically that one must not operate or work in a gambling establishment, a place which serves drugs or alcohol, a slaughterhouse or in the hunting or fishing industries.
The Sigalovada Sutra says:
Anyone who wants to acquire wealth must know that there are six ways of gaining wealth that run contrary to Buddhist morality. These six ways are: 1) devious or tricky ways, 2) ill-timed ways, 3) sloppy ways or ways that use alcoholic beverages, 4) ways that depend on evil companions, 5) ways that depend on prostitution, and 6) lazy and slothful ways.
How to Use Wealth
The Buddha spoke fairly often on the subject of how one should use material wealth. In the Samyukta Agama he suggested the four divisions of wealth quoted at the beginning of this section. In the Maharatnakuta the Buddha tells the wealthy King Prasenajit that he should think of his wealth as being divided into three parts. The Buddha suggested that one part be used for the encouragement of religion, one part for helping the poor and one part for national investments. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha suggested another four part plan for our wealth. He said that one part should be used for taking care of our parents and immediate family members, one part should be used for helping employees or others who are dependent on us, one part should be given to friends and relatives and one part should be given to the monastic community.
The Buddha was a practical and skillful thinker. He taught his followers how to achieve control over all aspects of their lives. Since the society to which the Buddha spoke was so much different from the ones we live in today, it is important for all of us to extract the core spirit of his words and not attach ourselves to exact divisions mentioned long ago. The Buddha often said different things to different groups of people at different places. This was how he taught. These were his skillful means. A wealthy person can actually consider giving one-fourth of his wealth to a monastery while a poor person cannot.
The heart of the Buddha’s teachings on wealth is to acquire it honestly and use it to help others. Wealth gives us a material opportunity to practice the positive aspects of Buddhist morality in this world; through the thoughtful and generous use of wealth we can learn non-attachment, compassion, generosity and clear thinking. In the end, the greatest wealth of all is knowledge of our own Buddha nature. One glimpse of the awesome spiritual wealth that lies within you is worth more than all of the material wealth in the universe.
Subhuti, if a bodhisattva is attached to his own generosity, then when he is generous he will be like one who enters a dark room and sees nothing.
If a bodhisattva is not attached to his own generosity, then when he is generous he will be like one standing in the sunlight and he will see all colors and forms clearly.
— Diamond Sutra