The term poverty may sometimes be misleading. The familiar Buddhist concepts are rather contentment (santuṭṭhi) or limited desires (appicchatā). Poverty (daliddiya) is in no place praised or encouraged in Buddhism. The Buddha says, “Poverty is a suffering in the world for a layman.” He also says, “Woeful in the world is poverty and debt” (A.III.350, 352). Though monks should be contented and have few wishes, poverty is never encouraged even for the monks.
The possession of wealth by a king or even an average layman is often praised and encouraged in the Pāli Canon. In other words, wealth is something to be amassed or sought after. Among the Buddha’s lay disciples, the better known, the most helpful, and the often praised were mostly wealthy persons such as Anāthapiṇḍika. For the monks, though they are not expected to seek wealth, to be a frequent recipient of offerings can be regarded as a good qualification. Two monks may be equal in other qualifications and virtues, but the one who receives more offerings is praised. Even the Buddha praised a monk who was foremost in receiving offerings: “Chief among my disciples who are obtainers of offerings is Sivali” (A.I.24). However, these remarks must be qualified and further clarified.
The main theme in these texts is that it is not wealth that is praised or blamed, but the way one acquires and uses it. For the monks, as mentioned above, it is not acquisition as such that is blamed, nor poverty that is praised. The things that are blamed are greed for gain, stinginess, attachment to gain, and hoarding of wealth. Acquisition is acceptable if it is helpful in the practice of the Noble Path or if it benefits one’s fellow members of the order. This does not mean that monks are encouraged to own possessions. Insofar as it is allowable by the vinaya, or monastic code, gain is justifiable if the possessions belong to the sangha or the community. But if a monk is rich in personal possessions, it is evidence of his greed and attachment and therefore he cannot be said to conform to Buddhist principles. The right practice is to own nothing except the basic requisites of life. Here the question is not one of being rich or poor, but of having few personal cares, easy mobility, contentment, and few wishes. In particular, as the monk’s life depends on other people for material sustenance, he is supposed to make himself easy to support. With high mobility and almost no personal cares, monks can devote most of their time and energy to their work, whether for their individual perfection or for the social good. Thus, it is contentment and paucity of wishes accompanied by commitment to the development of good and the abandonment of evil that is praised. Even contentment and paucity of wishes are to be qualified, that is, they must be accompanied by effort and diligence, and not by passivity and idleness. In other words, for a monk it can be good to gain many possessions, but not to own or hoard them. It is good rather to gain much and to give it away.
The above conclusions have been drawn from such sayings in the Pāli Canon as:
Monks, possessed of five qualities the way of an elder monk is to the advantage of many folk, for the happiness of many folk, for the good of many folk; it is to the advantage and happiness of devas and men. Of what five?
There is the elder, time-honored and long gone forth; well-known, renowned, with a great following of householders and those gone forth; a receiver of the requisites: the robe, alms, lodging, and medicaments for sickness; who is learned, has a retentive and well-stored mind, and those Dhammas, lovely … are by him fully understood in theory; and he is a right viewer with an unperverted vision. He turns away many folk from what is not the true Dhamma and sets them in the true Dhamma…. (A.III.115)
Four Ariyan lineages; herein, brethren, a monk is content with whatever robes (he may have), commends contentment of this kind, and does not try to gain robes in improper, unsuitable ways. And he is not dismayed if he gains no robe, but when he has gained one, he is not greedy, nor infatuated, nor overwhelmed. Seeing the danger therein and understanding its object he makes use of it. Yet does he not exalt himself because of his contentment with any robes, nor does he disparage others. Whoso, brethren, is skilled herein, not slothful, but mindful and helpful, this monk is one who stands firm in the primeval, ancient Ariyan lineage. Then, again, the monk is content with whatever almsfood … with whatever lodging…. Lastly, brethren, the monk delights in abandoning (evil) and delights in developing (good)…. (D.III.224; A.II.27)
Furthermore, brethren, he is content with whatever necessaries, whether it be robes, alms, lodging, medicines, and provision against sickness. Furthermore, brethren, he is continually stirring up effort to eliminate bad qualities, making dogged and vigorous progress in good things, never throwing off the burden. (D.III.266, 290; A.V.23)
The monk is content with a robe sufficient to protect the body, with almsfood enough for his belly’s need. Wherever he may go he just takes these with him. Just as, for instance, a bird upon the wing, wherever he may fly, just flies with the load of his wings. (E.g., A.II.209)
Monks, this holy life is not lived to cheat or cajole people. It is not for getting gain, profit, or notoriety. It is not concerned with a flood of gossip nor with the idea of “let folk know me as so-and-so.” Nay, monks, this holy life is lived for the sake of self-restraint, of abandoning (evil), of dispassionateness, of the cessation of suffering. (A.II.24)
Monks, these four qualities are according to the true Dhamma. What four? Regard for the true Dhamma, not for wrath; regard for the true Dhamma, not for hypocrisy; regard for the true Dhamma, not for gain; regard for the true Dhamma, not for honors. (A.II.47, 84)
Harsh, monks, is gain, honor, and fame, severe and rough, being a stumbling block to the attainment of the supreme safety (of Nibbāna). Therefore, monks, let you train yourselves: we shall let go the arisen gain, honor, and fame, and the arisen gain, honor, and fame will not stand overwhelming our minds….
For one whether being honored or not whose collected mind does not waver, him the wise call a worthy man. (S.II.232)
One is the road that leads to wealth, another the road that leads to Nibbāna. If the Bhikkhu, the disciple of the Buddha, has learnt this, he will not yearn for honor, he will foster solitude. (Dh.75)
Wealth destroys the foolish, though not those who search for the Goal. (Dh. 355)
For the laity, as mentioned earlier, there is no instance in which poverty is encouraged. On the contrary, many Pāli passages exhort lay people to seek and amass wealth in a rightful way. Among the advantages or good results of good karma, one is to be wealthy.9 What is blamed as evil in connection with wealth is to earn it in a dishonest and unlawful way. Worthy of blame also is the one who, having earned wealth, becomes enslaved through clinging and attachment to it and incurs suffering because of it. No less evil and blameworthy than the unlawful earning of wealth is to accumulate riches and, out of stinginess, not to spend them for the benefit and well-being of oneself, one’s dependents, and other people. Again, it is also evil if one squanders wealth foolishly or indulgently or uses it to cause suffering to other people:
And what, Ujjaya, is achievement of diligence? Herein, by whatsoever activity a clansman make his living, whether by the plough, by trading or by cattle-herding, by archery or in royal service, or by any of the crafts—he is deft and tireless; gifted with an inquiring turn of mind into ways and means, he is able to arrange and carry out his job. This is called achievement of diligence. (A.IV.285)
And what is the bliss of wealth? Herein, housefather, a clansman by means of wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by strength of arm, won by sweat, lawful and lawfully gotten, both enjoys his wealth and does good deeds therewith. (A.II.68)
Herein, housefather, with the wealth acquired by energetic striving … and lawfully gotten, the Ariyan disciple makes himself happy and cheerful, he rightly contrives happiness, and makes his mother and father, his children and wife, his servants and workmen, his friends and comrades cheerful and happy, he rightly contrives happiness. This, housefather, is the first opportunity seized by him, turned to merit and fittingly made use of. (A.II.67; cf. A.III.45)
Monks, if people knew, as I know, the ripening of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess stand obsessing the heart. Even if it were their last bit, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it, if there were anyone to receive it. (It.18)
Like waters fresh lying in savage region
Where none can drink, running to waste and barren,
Such is the wealth gained by a man of base mind.
On self he spends nothing, nor aught he gives.
The wise, the strong-minded, who has won riches,
He useth them, thereby fulfills his duties.His troop of kin fostering, noble-hearted, blameless, at death faring to heav’nly mansion. (S.1.90)
The misers do not go to heaven; fools do not praise liberality. (Dh.177)