The value of money and the power of generosity

May 24, 2019

Whatever skill we learn, we learn it in stages, and spiritual development is no exception. From the Buddhist perspective the developing we’re doing is the healing of our deeply instinctive fractured sense of self. The irony of this “ego” is that we feel that we’re just not enough, that we never have enough.

This gives rise, just naturally, to powerful grasping, attachment, to things out there, utterly convinced that the getting of them will fill me up.

Money, of course, is a powerful symbol of all of this.

Given this, the very first level of practice is to harness this bottomless pit of neediness; to practice not needing much, to be content with what we have. And this is expressed perfectly in the life of Buddhist monks and nuns who renounce material things, or the lay people who make a conscious effort to live simply.

Having achieved some success at this – and the proof of this is the development of genuine contentment – we can go to the next stage of development and realize that there is nothing innately good or bad about money, that it has no power from its own side, that we give it any meaning it has.

When we understand this it’s easy to see that money is merely a tool.

We’re often so extreme in our attitude towards money. We’re either really tight with it, fearful of losing even a penny, thinking that we’re being so sensible in our frugality. Or we’re completely extravagant, thinking that we’re so generous. But both attitudes are neurotic. Money, like any tool, needs to be treated with great respect.

Even if we’re not particularly attached to money, we all much prefer to get it than give it. If we opened two envelopes, one containing a check and one containing a bill, just naturally we’d delight in the check and groan at the bill. No one would question this attitude.

They say that the great bodhisattvas, the spiritually developed beings, would be the exact opposite: that when they give they feel how we do when we receive!

Karmically, our having money, getting a job, being given credit, etc., etc., are the direct result of past generosity and of refraining from stealing. When we understand this, we would treat money with such respect: we would truly appreciate having it and would only want to continue to use it for good, to be generous with it, and even to happily make more of it. And we couldn’t bear not to pay our bills immediately!

Being generous: it sounds easy enough, but actually it’s quite hard. The gut feeling is that if I give away five pounds, I have five pounds less. But understanding that my having anything now is the fruit have my having given in the past, I will only want to continue giving now.

We have to start somewhere, so why not start with the thought? An absurdly obvious way to start being generous is to want to pay our bills, want to pay our taxes. Given that we have to pay them anyway, why be miserable!

Then, before we know it we’ll find ourselves actually wanting to give something with no strings attached: to give to that homeless person, to someone in need, to the stranger in the shop who hasn’t got enough for that coffee (not just to our beloveds, whom we happily give to).

Feeling that we don’t have enough is the problem, and we can change that by practicing feeling content and feeling generous. It’s powerful.

As the Tibetans would have it, “everything exists on the tip of the wish”.

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