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Money, generosity and global well-being

Ajahn Amaro of the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, UK, provides a fascinating insight into Buddhist ideas about money, practical ways to share wealth and his optimistic outlook for global well-being

FaithInvest: How do Buddhists think about wealth?

People often assume there must be a lot of stigma around wealth acquisition in the Buddhist tradition. Yet the Buddha never vilified the concept of money – he realised it is a form of potency and that people who have it should put it to good use. Buddhism guides us on how to use money properly, so it benefits other beings as well as ourselves.

Ajahn Amaro

Buddhist ideas about wealth stem from the concept of Right Livelihood within our eight-fold path, which is the bedrock of our religious teaching. Right Livelihood includes non-violence and honesty but certainly doesn’t preclude investment. As a result, Buddhists might be bankers or big business owners as well as farmers and teachers.

Generosity is also one of the central practices of Buddhism and is seen as the primal way in which we seek to align our minds and hearts with what is noble, harmonious and fulfilling. As a Buddhist it is fundamental to share what we have, money or otherwise, and to care for others. For example, if a little girl in a Thai village was given a biscuit her first thought would be how she could share it with her friends in the community.

FaithInvest: How do Buddhists apply these teachings and practices to their business and financial life?

There is not really a separation for Buddhists between their business and personal life – it is not God ‘over there’ and Mammon ‘over here’. People are keen to see how good Buddhist values can support their businesses. Big corporations such as banks or oil companies like Chevron in Thailand have a staff group who gather regularly to meditate and to listen to and discuss Buddhist teachings, and I have been invited to speak to industrialist tycoons at companies like Ford and Phaetra Securities on how capitalism can be compatible with Buddhist principles.

I believe that if we can persuade those in positions of power to better integrate values around human and environmental wellbeing then these can trickle down and have a positive effect on millions of people.

People often assume there must be a lot of stigma around wealth acquisition in the Buddhist tradition. Yet the Buddha never vilified the concept of money – he realised it is a form of potency and that people who have it should put it to good use.

FaithInvest: Do the Buddhist teachings say anything specific about the way you should, or shouldn’t, use money?

There is nothing specific about areas in which we shouldn’t be involved, apart from weapons, slavery, intoxicants and anything that directly involves the destruction of life. Naturally, things like ‘fraud’, ‘burglary’ and sexual exploitation’ are included in the Five Precepts, the basic moral code, as inappropriate actions.

An important guiding principle of Buddhist economics is a focus on the wellbeing of humans and nature, something that was recently echoed in the UN report ‘Making peace with nature’, which shows how measures like GDP don’t account for environmental destruction. In classical economics $10 spent on whisky is valued in the same way as $10 spent on food for a family, but in Buddhist economics the latter is worth radically more.

Of course, in Bhutan there is the famous concept of Gross National Happiness, which originated in accordance with Buddhist teachings. It’s interesting that G7 and G8 members now refer to the Bhutanese policy and even bring Bhutanese leaders into meetings to inform them about their principles. At the moment this is only having a small impact, but this should grow as people realize the value of looking at the broader environmental and humanitarian impacts of their policies.

FaithInvest: How do Buddhist organisations invest – or share their wealth – in practice?

This is very individual, but Buddhists often give their money to local projects that are close to their heart.

The monastic community in which I live relies on donations. Our board of directors have a strict policy not to invest in the stock market because we have to be responsible for people’s donations and the level of risk is too high.

In today’s economic environment of high inflation, and very low interest from banks, we feel the best use of our donations is to turn them into much needed building improvements as fast as we can. That way the value of the donations is not excessively eroded.

Often the people who donate to us specify how they want their money to be spent – and we go with what is important to the donor. This might be supporting the nuns, providing vegetables, or building anything from sewers to a shrine. Of course, if someone wanted to give us money to build a golden hut, we would say thanks – but no thanks! We are not obligated to receive something that counteracts our ethics.

FaithInvest: Can you give some examples of other Buddhist-organisation funded projects?

There are couple of monks in Thailand who are heads of monasteries with more money than they can possibly put to good use themselves and so they fund schools, hospitals and women’s refugees, ensuring it goes into the wider community with clear humanitarian goals.

As environmental awareness increases, monasteries in Thailand are also supporting forestry projects, for example by reforesting paddy fields. Thailand has been massively deforested within the last hundred years and a lot of tree planting is needed.

Environmental awareness in general is on the increase in Thailand – in Bangkok all the tuk tuks are now strictly monitored for exhaust standards and the air quality has vastly improved. A lot of the kids are red hot on environmental issues, like plastic waste, and are trying to inform the older generation about the changes they need to make, but old habits die hard so there is plenty of work to do.

Talking of the younger generation, a lot of Buddhist people see the essential value of investing in ‘human capital’, principally by supporting education and schools, many of which support environmental thinking. In contrast to the diminishing attention span of the information age, I feel we have to think in generational terms, and many Buddhists schools offer a value-based education, based around how to be a good human being, rather than just passing exams.

I hope this means we will end up with junior managers in companies like Monsanto or Barclays with strong environmental awareness and the fearlessness to go after the changes we need.

FaithInvest: Do Buddhist organisations ever invest in the stock market or in funds?

We do sometimes invest in banks and other investment organisations, but in the past, it has been hard to find ones that align with our values and offer a low level of risk as well as good returns. I am one of the 12 shareholders of the English Sangha Trust and, together with the EST Board, have looked at ethical investment in quite some detail in the past. At the time we were impressed by the ethics and humanity of both Rathbone Greenbank and Triodos, the latter with whom we eventually invested some funds.

FaithInvest: Do you think reports like the UN’s Making peace with nature show we are moving more towards a Buddhist model of wealth and wellbeing?

We are moving towards a more pragmatic and connected global culture. In the 50s and 60s the world ran on the promise of idealisms – communist or capitalist in the main part. But in the 1970s, with those idealisms failing to bring happiness, and with rising rates of depression and suicide in many western countries (despite extraordinary degrees of financial and political security) people began to realize that GDP and physical security are not enough. Some essential element of our value system is absent.

We now have the beginnings of a movement towards what is missing; a stronger emphasis on values like generosity and unselfishness and greater realization of our relational existence.

FaithInvest: What are your thoughts about the future, in terms of wealth for humanity and the planet?

I am not a prophet but I often observe that things create their opposites. I do believe the world is becoming a more peaceful place. Even though there is terrible racial strife and disparity, no one is able to invade another country now without a major global response. Global connectivity means we are getting more informed about each other – at a click of a mouse I can find out what is going on in Somalia or Uttar Pradesh. The sense of a global community is growing.

Of course, this breaking down of barriers also creates backlash; “I’m a Texan not an American”, and so on, but overall there is an overwhelming tide of connectedness.

I am a perennial optimist. Human goodness and our capacity to work towards mutual benefit is the biggest resource we have and, while there are some challenging, gnarly spots, we have an immense potential to work together for the wellbeing of nature and humanity.


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