"Had a fun time in San Francisco this last weekend.Visited many of the old Beat haunts including the Buddha Lounge and the LiPo Bar.The oldest Buddhist Temple is on a side street four flights up. It is still in use. Really love how casual the folks…"
Writer Allan Badiner made this bald pronouncement in the midst of a conversation that spanned the wee hours of a cloudless Burning Man night. Sitting in a vast tent where, during the day, scores of partygoers had washed off their dust and grime in a plexiglass chamber, we discussed prevailing notions of a Buddhist godhead and, conversely, our mutual embrace of the religion in its secular form.
I was most intrigued, though, by Badiner’s description of the Buddha as an atheist. I asked for sources.
Allan’s first response:
I would need time to do it, but there are passages from the Tripitaka that strongly indicate that the Buddha denied the existence of a creator god. Rather than classify him as an atheist or an agnostic, it would be more appropriate to use the term nontheist. An atheist believes only what he can see but, of course, the Buddha suggested that not all that you see is real.
I responded with enthusiasm and persistence: "I like nontheist—thanks—but do send me the citation when you can."
According to Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, on the few occasions in the [Pali] Canon . . . where the question of God is addressed, Gautama is presented as an ironic atheist. The rejection of God is not a mainstay of his teaching, so he did not get worked up about it. Such passages have the flavor of a diversion, a light entertainment, in which another of humanity’s irrational opinions is gently ridiculed and put aside. This approach stands in contrast to the aggressive atheism that periodically erupts in the modern West. The Buddha regarded questions about the cause of the universe, or other questions related to a creator god as not useful, in light of the more important task of bringing about the cessation of human suffering.
A few weeks later, at a conference on psychedelic research in Marin, California, I asked Insight Meditation Society cofounder Jack Kornfield the same question: "Was the Buddha an atheist?"
He responded later in an email, in his usual sweet manner:
"Yes, the Buddha was a nontheist. But he believed in and talked a lot about Brahma, King of the Gods and about other Gods . . .”
He continued, rather cryptically, with a quote from the Buddha himself: A star at dawn, a drop of dew, an echo, a rainbow and a dream.
Now we were getting somewhere, or perhaps nowhere, or maybe somewhere rather koan-istic.
Then Stephen Batchelor himself weighed in on our group email:
I’m happy you are happy with nontheist. The problems are manifold. The term atheist as we use it today would not have been used in that way at the Buddha’s time. Nor, for that matter, would the concept nontheist. There are no equivalents for either in Pali or Sanskrit, though many Hindus today still regard the Buddha as a nastika, usually translated as nihilist but which means something like one who asserts there is nothing.
Again, the Buddha would have rejected this since he warns against the two extremes of atthi [it is] and natthi [it is not] and seeks to establish his dharma in the middle (madhyama), which does not lapse into the extremes of eternalism or annihilationism. The Buddha simply did not define himself or his teaching in such ways. So trying to capture him in these terms is bound to misrepresent him.
On the other hand, the only way we can talk about him and his vision is via the concepts of our own time and language, which has been the case throughout Buddhist history in the different countries in which it took root. I take nontheist to mean one who does not employ God as a necessary term in his or her teaching. In this sense, yes, the Buddha was a nontheist.
However since he is recorded in the Agganna Sutta as mocking and rejecting the very idea of God, he also comes close to being an atheist in the modern sense. It is probably best to drop trying to categorize the Buddha in any of these ways, to cultivate a healthy skepticism regarding views and opinions, and to concentrate on practicing the dharma instead.
Stephen, as usual, had cut through the Gordian Knot with that “practice the dharma” thing—or get over yourself with the intellectual stuff that leads to more intellectual stuff: the obsessional path. It stung like the smack of the keisaku provoking a kensho.
Then, some weeks later when I had almost given up, Bob Thurman, noted Columbia University Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, gave his view:
From the records we have, I think we can fairly say that Buddha was a non-monotheist—or non-creator-theist— and also a non-atheist, since he was in conversation with various gods quite often, actually one of his names was devamanusyanam shasta (Pali), or teacher of gods and humans. So the Buddha is an example of one who can be a theist while rejecting a creator. As I like to say, no one person is to blame for creating this whole mess—other than each of us, that is!
So there you have it—as close to the horses’ mouths as I can get. Pick and choose from atheist, nontheist, agnostic, non-creator-theist, and non-atheist; or make up one of your own.
Did I learn something from this? Yes. For one, as Stephen said, pinning the Buddha down to a specific category of belief is a difficult thing, because we live in a different time with a different set of values and a whole other language to express them. Therefore, we cannot know the Buddha directly as a historical personage. Moreover, Buddhism has been of such benefit to a variety of practitioners, its modifications and commentaries leaves grown from a single tree. Why hold the Buddha stuck in place? The dharma is a moving thing. And clearly, he, Gautama, touched its essence. For that wisdom we owe great gratitude to the Buddha, atheist or not, and all those who have breathed life into his path.
Phil Wolfson is a psychiatrist and secular Buddhist practitioner. He lives in the Bay Area.
For Buddhists, the universe has no beginning. Various world systems come into existence and eventually cease to be, but other worlds precede and follow them. The Buddha is said to have discouraged speculation about the origin of the universe; the question of whether the world has a beginning is one of fourteen questions that the Buddha refused to answer. He also remained silent when asked whether the universe will ever come to an end. Individual worlds are destroyed, incinerated by the fire of seven suns; but, no apocalypse, no final end time, is foretold. Individual beings put an end to their individual existence, one that also has no beginning, by traversing the path to nirvana.
This does not mean that Buddhists do not have creation myths. One is offered in the Agganna Sutta, which describes how beings first came to populate a newly formed world system and how gender, sexuality, private property, labor, and government came into existence. The place that they inhabit—and which we inhabit, according to the Buddhists—is an island continent called Jambudvipa, "Rose Apple Island," in a great sea. It is the southern continent, one of four continents in a flat world, situated in the four cardinal directions around a central mountain called Mount Meru. The mountain is in the shape of a great cube, each of its four faces composed of a different kind of precious stone. The southern face of the mountain is made of lapis lazuli and so when the light of the sun reflects off Meru's south face, it turns the color of our sky blue. Gods live on the slopes of the mountain and on the summit. It was in the heaven on the summit on Mount Meru that the Buddha taught the Abhidharma to his mother.
The Buddha, like other teachers of his day, believed in rebirth—a process of birth and death called samsara, literally "wandering." According to the Buddha, this process has no beginning and will not end unless one brings it to an end. Until then, each being is born in lifetime after lifetime into one of six, and only six, realms: as a god, demigod, human, animal, ghost, or denizen of hell. This is not a process of evolution but rather very much an aimless wandering from realm to realm, up and down, for aeons, a process that on the surface appears entirely random. The gods live above our world, some on the surface of the central mountain, some in the heavens above it. Their lives there are long but not eternal. For the gods who live on the summit of Mount Meru, the life span is a thousand years, and every day of those years is equal in length to one hundred human years. In the heavens arrayed above the summit of Mount Meru, the life spans are longer. These heavens as well as the realms of demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and the denizens of hell, together constitute what is called the realm of desire, because the beings there desire the pleasures that derive from the five senses, constantly seeking beautiful things to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Above the desire realm are the heavens of the realm of form, where the gods have bodies made of a subtle matter invisible to humans; having no need for food or drink, these gods only have the senses of sight, hearing, and touch. The highest Buddhist heavens are located in what is called the formless realm. There the gods have no bodies but exist only as consciousness, and the names of its four heavens are derived from the object in which the minds of the gods of that heaven are absorbed: infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, neither perception nor nonperception. But these heavens remain within the cycle of birth and death, and when the karmic effect has run its course, each inhabitant is reborn elsewhere.
In general, it is said that one is reborn as a god as a result of acts of generosity and charity in a former life; charity directed toward the community of Buddhist monks and nuns is considered particularly efficacious. However, one is reborn in these heavens of the formless realm by achieving their deep levels of concentration in meditation while a human. Yet even these profound states of bliss, states that last for millennia, are not eternal. Indeed, Buddhist texts sometimes consign the saints of other religions to these heavens, explaining that they have mistaken such states, which lie within samsara, as liberation from it.
Below the gods in the hierarchy of beings are the demigods (excluded in some lists), a kind of catchall category of all manner of spirits and sprites, some malevolent and some benign; one of the words for "plant" or "tree," which Buddhists monks are prohibited from uprooting or cutting down, literally means "abode of being." The demigods are less potent than the gods but have powers that exceed those humans and can cause all manner of mischief if not properly propitiated. In the category of demigod, one finds the gandharvas, a class of celestial musicians who, according to their name, subsist on fragrances; a crude translation of that name would be "odor eaters." One also finds a kind of half-human half-horse creature called the kimnara, literally, "is that a man?"
The third realm is the world of humans, regarded as the ideal state for the practice of the Buddhist path. The realms of the gods above are too pleasurable; those of the animals, ghosts, and denizens of hell below are too painful. The world of humans is said to have sufficient suffering to cause one to wish to escape from it, but not so much as to cause paralysis and thereby block such an attempt. Among the sufferings of humans, the Buddha enumerated eight: birth, aging, sickness, death, losing friends, gaining enemies, not getting what you wish for, and getting what you do not wish for. As we consider, as we always must, the extent to which the doctrines of a religion reflect, on the one hand, the concerns of a distant time and place and, on the other hand, more general elements of the human condition, this list, set forth in ancient India more than two millennia ago, seems to fall on the universal side of the spectrum.
It is said that one is reborn as a human as a result of being an ethical person, generally understood as keeping vows. As mentioned above, for the Buddhist laity, there are five traditional vows: to abstain from killing humans, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying, and from intoxicants. Laypeople could take any one, two, three, four, or all five of these vows, whether for life or for a more limited period. The vows kept by monks and nuns number in the hundreds. They govern all elements of monastic life, including possessions (especially robes), hygiene, and general comportment. The vows are categorized by the weight of the infraction they seek to prevent. Four transgressions result in permanent expulsion from the order: murder, sexual intercourse, theft (of anything above a specified value), and lying about spiritual attainments. Lesser infractions may require probation, confession, or simply a verbal acknowledgment.
Vows play a central role in Buddhist practice. They are not commandments from God, nor do they represent a covenant, but instead are a mechanism for making merit, the good karma that leads to happiness in this life and the next. It is sometimes said that one of the Buddhist innovations in Indian karma theory was to introduce the element of intention. A misdeed was no longer a ritual mistake, a sacrifice poorly performed, as it was in Vedic times, but an intentional action—whether physical, verbal, or mental—motivated by desire, hatred, or ignorance. A vow represented not a situational decision for good over evil but a lifetime commitment to refrain from a particular negative act. It was said that one accrued a greater good karma by taking a vow not to kill humans than by simply happening not to commit murder over the course of one's life. Conversely, one accrued greater negative karma if one took and then broke a vow to avoid a particular misdeed than if one simply happened to commit that misdeed. The scholastic tradition would later explain why this was the case. In the act of taking a vow, a kind of "subtle matter" was created in one's body. As long as the vow was kept, this subtle matter caused good karma to accrue in every moment throughout one's life. For this reason, taking a vow was a much more efficient means to generate the seeds of future happiness than simply being occasionally ethical.
The realms of gods and humans are considered the "good" or "fortunate" realms within the cycle of rebirth, because rebirth there is the result of virtuous actions and because the sufferings undergone by the beings in these realms are far less horrific than those of the beings reborn in the three lower realms.
The realm of animals (which includes all birds, mammals, amphibians, fish, and insects, but not plants) is familiar enough, as are the various sufferings. Buddhist texts say that the particular suffering of animals is that they always must go in search of food while avoiding themselves becoming food; unlike humans, animals are killed not because of something that they did or said, but because of the taste of their flesh or the texture of their skin. One is said to be reborn as an animal as a result of past actions that were motivated by ignorance.
The next realm is that of the ghosts—often called "hungry ghosts," the translation of the Chinese term for the denizens of this realm. Their primary form of suffering is indeed hunger and thirst, and they are constantly seeking to fill their bellies. As they do so, they encounter all manner of obstacles. In Buddhist iconography, ghosts are depicted as baleful beings with huge distended bellies and emaciated limbs, not unlike the victims of famine. But beyond this affliction so familiar in human history, the other sufferings of ghosts are more fantastic. Some have knots in their throats, making it impossible for food or drink to pass. For others, who are able to swallow, the food they eat is transformed into sharp weapons and molten lead when it reaches their stomach. Still others find that when they finally come upon a stream of flowing water, it turns into blood and pus as they kneel down to drink. Ghosts live in a world located five hundred leagues beneath the surface of the earth, but they sometimes venture into the human world, where they can be seen by monks with supernormal powers. Indeed, the feeding of ghosts is a special responsibility of Buddhist monks. The Sanskrit term translated as "ghost" is preta, which means "departed" or "deceased," suggesting that they are the spirits of the dead who have not received the proper ritual offerings from their families and thus are doomed to starvation. Buddhist monks and nuns, who also have left family life behind, have a special responsibility to feed the hungry ghosts, who appear often in Buddhist stories. It is said that one is reborn as a ghost as a result of actions motivated by greed in a former life.
In the Buddhist cosmology, the most elaborate of the realms are the most desired—the heavens—and the most feared—the hells. There are eight hot hells and eight cold hells, four neighboring hells, and a number of trifling hells. They are stacked beneath the surface of the earth—the deeper below, the greater the intensity and duration of the suffering. The cold hells are desolate lands of ice where snow is always falling, without a sun or moon, or any source of light and heat. The beings there are naked, and the names of some of the hells describe the shape of the blisters that form on their bodies: for example, "Split Like a Blue Lotus." The hot hells are lands of burning iron where beings undergo various forms of torture during lifetimes that last for millions of years, but not forever. Beings are reborn in hell as a result of actions motivated by hatred. There are said to be five deeds that result in immediate rebirth in the most torturous of the hot hells. The first of the four of these seems particularly heinous, the last less obviously so: killing one's father, killing one's mother, killing an arhat (someone who has achieved liberation and will enter nirvana at death), wounding the Buddha, and causing dissension in the community of monks and nuns.
Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.
The incomparable loftiness of the monk figure—placid and disinterested, having renounced desire—leads many to think of Buddhism as a religion detached from all worldly concerns, especially those of economy. But Buddhism has always addressed a continuum of human flourishing and good, creating what has been referred to as an “economy of salvation.” Metaphors of economy—even of debt—abound in Buddhist texts, and in many ways Buddhism came to be fundamentally shaped by economic conditions and considerations of the era in which it originated.
Depending on material support from moneylenders, the Buddhist establishment from its outset did not seek to hamper the business that made it possible. Devout merchants (setthi) and householders (gahapatis)—controllers of property, moneylenders, often even usurers—were the primary supporters of the early monastic community. Giving material support (amisa dana) to the monkhood thus ranks in Buddhist doctrine as the most effective way for laypeople to generate positive karma, even above following the five moral precepts that define the Buddhist way of life. Out of a concern for its own survival, Buddhism could not condemn the acquisition of wealth, but it could provide principles for its dispensation—namely, giving and generosity (dana). To these ends, the Buddha celebrated wealth creation alongside a call for its redistribution.
The New Market Economy
In order to understand the subtleties of Buddhism’s approach to wealth accumulation, poverty, and debt, we must first have some understanding of the market economy from which it arose. The introduction of the widespread use of coinage to India just a few decades prior to the Buddha’s birth around 500 BCE disrupted existing social orders and also inspired a philosophical renaissance driven by spiritual dropouts like the Buddha, who sought to respond to the new economy.
One of the Buddha’s most poignant accounts of worldly life speaks to the social alienation inherent to economic competition and the accumulation of private property. It remains pertinent to this day:
Seeing people floundering like fish in small puddles, competing with one another — as I saw this, fear came into me. The world was entirely without substance. All the directions were knocked out of line. Wanting a haven for myself, I saw nothing that wasn’t laid claim to. Seeing nothing in the end but competition, I felt discontent. —Sutta Nipata 4.15, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Widespread use of currency led to a flattening of reality that rendered all goods and services commensurable, nourishing a tendency toward abstraction for which we owe much of our philosophical inheritance today—from Pythagoras in Greece, to Confucius in China, to the Buddha in India. The reformulation of economic relations brought about by monetization triggered previously unheard of levels of social mobility, and mobility’s attendant individualism.
The Buddha skillfully encouraged some of the new social values that emerged from these economic changes. For example, he encouraged the individualism that subverted family structures (monks were “home-leavers”). But he also sought to undermine other emerging values associated with psychological states that fuel the acquisition of capital: desire and greed. The Buddha condemned acquisitiveness at the same time he supported capital accumulation, specifically for its potential to create and multiply merit through generosity. In this way, Buddhism advocated a “Middle Way,” the simultaneous negation of the extremes of asceticism and indulgence. Spiritual health and material well-being were, in the words of economist E. F. Schumacher, natural allies.
The Buddha diverged from other religious thinkers in his embrace of the new market economy. Confucians in China and Brahmans in India strongly resisted this economy, denouncing the economic activities of businessmen and merchants as threats to the moral order of society.
Perhaps the Buddha embraced the new market economy in part because it supported his rejection of the Brahmans’ mythical justifications for the stratification of caste. Rather than speaking about caste, the Buddha spoke instead of economic class, the new social order, which was divided into six categories: very wealthy, wealthy, faring well, faring poorly, poor, and destitute. Such disparities are inevitable in a society organized by the market economy. The establishment of the monkhood, which presented a new, radical kind of freedom, enabled its constituents to stand outside caste and, in theory, outside the market economy altogether.
Can Buddhist Teachings Move Us Toward Jubilee?
The accumulation of wealth among urban merchants and moneylenders, scorned by the then dominant Brahmans, was a boon to the sangha, the Buddhist monastic community, which relied on the generosity of the laity for material support as well as the spread of Buddhist ideas along trade routes. This upwardly mobile class found in Buddhism a justification for its economic activities and new lifestyle. By giving to the monks, the laity performed acts of dana, or generosity, a fundamental tenet of Buddhism. Serving as “fields of merit,” the monks provided an opportunity for laypeople to practice generosity, the first “perfection,” and the basis of all other perfections, leading to enlightenment. Importantly, the amount of merit generated by such transactions was determined by the recipient’s level of virtue and not the benefactor’s, forming a holy alliance between the monkhood and the laity that, at least within the performance of dana, condoned the benefactor’s methods of accumulation. This alliance was furthered by the Buddha’s injunction forbidding those with debt from joining the monastic order, by which the indebted would effectively default.
So instead of challenging the accumulation of wealth, Buddhism critiques the social structures that perpetuate poverty and the unwholesome states of mind that contribute to the suffering of self and others. This is admirable enough, but still leaves quite a bit for Buddhist socialists and Buddhists committed to Jubilee to wrestle with.
Buddhism has historically taken a permissive approach to economic relations. It might be the only world religion that does not formally condemn usury. And being wealthy in and of itself has been taken as a sign of good karma. Yet there remains much in the Buddhist canon that can enrich our thoughts on debt and wealth distribution.
The Ina Sutta, the Buddha’s “Discourse on Debt,” praises ananasukha, the pleasure of being debtless. Conversely, it also links indebtedness directly to bondage and, ultimately, suffering, the first noble truth of Buddhism:
Poverty is suffering in the world. . . Getting into debt is suffering in the world. . . Interest payment is suffering in the world. . . Being served notice is suffering in the world. . . Being hounded is suffering in the world. . . Bondage is suffering in the world. . . . When a poor, destitute, penniless person, being hounded, does not pay, he is put into bondage. For one who partakes of sensuality [a layperson], bondage is suffering in the world.
Buddhist texts make ample use of metaphors of debt and exchange to confer spiritual advice, both a sign of the times and a winning bet made by the Buddha on the future hegemony of the monetary economy. At the end of the Ina Sutta, the Buddha goes as far as to use freedom from debt as a metaphor for nirvana (liberation from samsara, the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma):
[Knowledge in the total ending of the fetters of becoming] is the highest knowledge that, the happiness unexcelled. Sorrowless, dustless, at rest, that is release from debt.
For Jubilee, perhaps the most instructive concept in Buddhist thought is that of karmic debt, for which financial debt is often used as a metaphor, as it is in these final lines. Born as humans, we all have karmic debt, the first one being to our parents, who brought us into this world, raised us, fed us, and guided us. This debt extends to all our benefactors—teachers, friends, and anyone else who has acted with our well-being in mind. But this is not a debt that can be easily repaid. For such an infinite debt, no material compensation is sufficient. In fact, the only way to repay such a debt is to become enlightened ourselves and endow others with the conditions for enlightenment. Thus, according to the Kataññu Sutta, we become debtless:
But, O monks, one who . . . encourages his ignorant parents, settles and establishes them in wisdom—such a one, O monks, does enough for his parents: he repays them and more than repays them for what they have done.
In other words, recognizing our true debts establishes the basis for the discernment of contrived debts, and thus any kind of resistance against them. This old Buddhist idea is freshly relevant in the context of contemporary efforts to build a debt resistance movement. In fact, it sounds surprisingly similar to the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual. “To the financial establishment of the world,” the manual reads, “we have only one thing to say: We owe you nothing.” It continues:
To our friends, our families, our communities, to humanity and to the natural world that makes our lives possible, we owe you everything. Every dollar we take from a subprime mortgage speculator, every dollar we withhold from the collection agency is a tiny piece of our own lives and freedom that we can give back to our communities, to those we love and we respect.
Repaying Our Karmic Debts
In the Buddhist approach to debt, wealth can be accumulated, but only so that it can in turn be given away to those to whom we are truly, karmically indebted. Production and multiplication of merit-creating wealth is thus a noble determination. One who acquires lavish wealth, the Buddha said, should provide for the pleasure and satisfaction of himself, his loved ones, and his associates, and also for priests and contemplatives.
Buddhist monasteries for a long time accomplished a kind of redistribution of wealth, supporting mendicants who owned nothing. They also invested in local economies, providing an alternative to local moneylenders. In later years, however, some monasteries (such as in Medieval China) started making high-interest loans and meddling with debtors’ contracts. A Burmese proverb characterizes Buddhist economic excess succinctly: “The pagoda is finished and the country is ruined.”
As greed—the motor of capital accumulation and, in Buddhism, one of the three “poisons” that binds beings to the wheel of samsara—became institutionalized in the new social order, the Buddha edged out a place in society where greed’s opposite, generosity, could flourish.
While the production and multiplication of wealth creates conditions for merit in the form of virtuous giving, greed annihilates merit. The Buddha said that even if one could transform one single mountain into two mountains of solid gold, it would still not provide complete and lasting satisfaction of a single person’s wants. Such is the unlimited nature of desire. From the Buddhist view, then, capital accumulation does not find its end in capital accumulation, but in its transmutation into merit through generosity. “To have much wealth and ample gold and food, but to enjoy one’s luxuries alone is a cause of one’s downfall,” the Buddha says in the Parabhava Sutta. Wealth is not the enemy of spiritual development; it has an enormous potential to create merit—but not principally from lending, but giving.
For this reason, even to live modestly while retaining great wealth is sinful. In the Aputtaka Sutta, the Buddha speaks of a moneylender who “ate broken rice and pickle brine” and wore only “hempen cloth,” riding around in a “dilapidated little cart.” Many lives ago, the moneylender had given alms to a contemplative, leading the moneylender to be reborn seven times with great fortune. But in his subsequent lives the moneylender failed to create virtue with his fortunes, passing up many opportunities to generate merit through generosity. For this reason, after the merit generated for seven lifetimes ran out, the moneylender found himself in one of the hell realms.
The Evil of Endless Accumulation
Today’s ultra-wealthy commit this same evil of endless accumulation without redistribution. Moneylending through the financial establishment, effectively indebting others in order to create profits, does not create merit but destroys it. Such a system of debt has helped concentrate 40 percent of the nation’s wealth in the hands of 1 percent of its population, while the bottom 60 percent owns just 2.3 percent of the nation’s wealth. Debt today encourages the upward distribution of wealth, whereas the Buddha seems to have advocated its downward distribution.
In the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, the Buddha makes clear that charity, and philanthropy especially, is never enough. Giving advice to a king, he says, “Whosoever in your kingdom is poor, to him let wealth be given.” When a king comes to power and neglects this duty, he is faced with social deterioration that can be reversed neither through recourse to charity nor through justice (i.e., brutal punishments): “Thus from goods not being bestowed on the destitute, poverty, stealing, violence, murder, lying, evil-speaking, and immorality grew rife.”
Considering that Buddhist texts tend to concentrate unrelentingly on defilements of the mind as the roots of suffering, this passage is remarkable in that it focuses instead on social and economic injustice as a foundational cause. Here, the ignorance, desire, and hatred of the people—the three poisons—are traced directly back to the failure of the state rather than to their own individual moral failings. When the king attempts to correct social strife by dispensing charity, this produces only more negative results, clearly demonstrating that charity cannot stand in for economic justice. Perhaps most importantly, the Buddha places the responsibility for the material well-being of the poor on the government. There exists no other power capable of enacting any progressive economic policy, including debt forgiveness.
This gets to the problem at the heart of the massive proliferation of personal debt in the United States: the country’s long-term disinvestment in public goods such as higher education, health care, and housing. If wealth, of which there is no shortage, is not shared with the poor in such forms, inequality becomes exacerbated in the form of debt, which increases the burden of poverty in the form of interest.
Vital to Buddhist doctrine is the conviction that all people, regardless of social position, are capable of becoming enlightened, of becoming buddhas. Poverty and the stress it entails, however, can be real barriers to spiritual development. The Buddha recognized that becoming free of worries about our material welfare enables us to develop our potentials. If release from karmic debt is the goal of Buddhist thought and practice, then release from economic debt is its precondition.