BG 115: The Buddha Didn’t Have a Credit Card

Episode Description:

Insight Meditation teacher, Diana Winston, joins us to discuss an extremely relevant topic: Buddhism & Money. We explore whether or not spirituality and money are incompatible (as they are often seen) and if not how they might go together.

Diana shares with us some of the original, though not so well known, teachings that the historical Buddha gave on money. She also discusses why both Buddhist teachers and practitioners should work with money and become familiar with it, and recounts her own journey with spiritual practice and money and how she has been able to bring the two together.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vince Horn. I’m here today with a special guest. She has previously been on the show and so we’re really grateful to have her back: this is Diana Winston. Thank you, Diana, for joining us.

Diana: I’m happy to be here.

Vince: And Diana is the director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center; and, she’s also a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, so she teaches meditation there. So we’re glad to have her back, and today we wanted to discuss a topic that is of interest to her which is Buddhism and money. And, often times, these two areas seem somewhat incompatible: that seems to be the general feeling about them But, obviously, that would be too simple – that they are simply incompatible – so we wanted to talk a little bit today about how do Buddhism and money or spirituality and money interface; how do they intersect; what do the economics of Dharma look like in terms of both being a practitioner, being a teacher, Dharmic institutions, being consumers, living in a market economy, also being producers, entrepreneurs, all these kind of interesting roles that we take on, both as spiritual beings and also beings that live in relationship to other beings and have to find a way to interact and live together. So, this is a really fascinating topic and I think I’ll just kick it off by asking you, Diana, just a general question about why these two areas are often seen as incompatible, what do you think that’s about?

Diana: There’s no reason, really, that Buddhism and money should be incompatible, but, I think what you see is a lot of people approaching it in that way. And this has been my observation, having been in Buddhist circles for 20 years and especially in the Vipassana scene – I can’t speak so much for some of the other Buddhist traditions – but what I’ve seen is a kind of removal from the area of money and economics because it’s seen as something that is kind of not related to our practice.

And what’s so interesting about it is that we are dealing with money all the time. We’re dealing with money every day: probably a day doesn’t go by – maybe one day a week – where you don’t actually have contact with money. So you would think that money would be a really important topic for our teachers to talk about, for there to be teachings about, for it to be really in the consciousness of people in the Buddhist communities, but what I see instead is some kind of separation from it.

And I think there are a lot of reasons for it. I think that there’s some kind of historical separation, that money is considered, it’s considered sort of dirty. Like, there’s certain topics in Buddhism that are considered not, not clean, and I’m just using this word a little bit loosely, but money, sexuality, women – in sort of like the ancient Buddhist teachings, money, sexuality, women – those are kind of the main ones. And these are the things that we’re not supposed to pay attention to, that are considered impure or not virtuous. And this is coming out of this monastic tradition which actually does need to in some ways separate from those things in any of these realms that have to do with worldly life. And so when you see Theravadin Buddhism now in the United States it’s still separated even though the majority of the practitioners are, they are lay people. They’re not monks or nuns. And so it’s like we’ve inherited this judgmental attitude towards money and there’s a sense that the holiest way to be is to be completely pure and separate from money like a monk or nun would live. So I think this poses some big problems.

Vince: Interesting. What are some of those problems, as you’ve seen it?

Diana: Well, as I was saying, we’re all in contact with money all the time. And if nobody’s giving teachings about it, if it’s considered as separate from the spiritual realm, then it’s gonna be kind of like the wild wild west out there in terms of how people relate to money. So my sense is that if we can bring money into the fold and have it discussed in a way that’s really practical and helpful, then I think it can make a big impact on the communities in general. One of the things about money is it’s scary to people, it’s confusing to people, I mean, just witness what’s going on in this country right now: people are in chaos around money with the massive amounts of foreclosures and people in debt, the credit card debt, You know the Buddha basically – I don’t know if you know this – but the Buddha had said that our earnings needed to be in excess of our spending the Buddha actually said that and we can talk a little bit about what are some of the early teachings that the Buddha gave about money because they are quite interesting; but, they are pretty marginalized and you don’t hear, you don’t go to a meditation retreat and hear what they Buddha taught about money, of course not, because you are meditating, it’s not really that relevant. The only thing you hear is at the end of the retreat when people ask for dana. So basically, the only relationship to money is in the context of generosity, which is a beautiful teaching, but it’s also problematic if that’s the only way that its being taught. Because we are missing this huge aspect of our lives that we are dealing with every single day that is an area that, as I was saying, is a source of humonguous amounts of suffering.

Vince: What else did the Buddha teach about money? Do you recall any other of his teachings on it?

Diana: Yeah, there’s a lot. Probably the most classic one that he taught is from a sutta called the Dighajanu Sutta in which he talks about the conditions of welfare. He was asked by a householder – so let me just preface this by saying that so many of the teachings that we have inherited as Vipassana practitioners in the West are teachings that went to the monks so we don’t hear a lot of these householder teachings and they’re small; they’re a small amount in relation to the rest of the canon – but, in this particular sutta, he’s asked what conditions lead to a householder’s happiness, and the Buddha answers: persistent effort, and that means not being lazy. In other words whatever work you do don’t be lazy, whether it’s, and of course he uses a lot of agrarian examples, like where you’re rearing cattle or farming or trading and so forth And then he says the second one is watchfulness; and, what he means by watchfulness is actually being careful about your property so that kings would not seize it, thieves would not steal it, and fire would not burn it. So you actually need to kind of protect your property. And then the third one he says is good friendship, and the fourth is – this is the one I was just talking about – balanced livelihood. He says knowing his income and expenses he leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income. In other words, I don’t think the Buddha would have wanted people to have credit cards…

Vince: [Laughs] Yeah. Right.

Diana: [Laughs] …if you interpret it in this way. And then he goes on to say there’s things that can destroy your wealth which include debauchery, drunkenness, gambling and friendship and intimacy with evil-doers; so you know, that’s kind of self-evident. And then of course, generally, as these suttas do, it goes on to talk about ways that we can have spiritual progress so that what also contributes to his happiness, his faith and virtue…

Vince: Right.

Diana: … and then of course, charity is really, really important. One should be open-handed, delighting in generosity, attending to the needy, things like that. So that’s one of the classic suttas about what he says. And then there are other things where he talks about the importance of caring for your family and making sure that you provide for your children and also provide for your slaves, he does say [laughs], servants and assistants, with pleasure and satisfaction, warding off calamities. There’s a lot about maintaining one’s property and so forth in order to be able to provide and to be able to give generously. And that’s some of the main teachings.

Vince: Interesting. And, just listening to that, I’m thinking, on the one hand, wow, this seems like really good, common sense advice, and then on the other hand, I’m thinking, wow, it sounds like those kinds of teachings also need to be comtemporary-ized? [Laughter]

Diana: Exactly

Vince: They need to be made contemporary. So, do you think that’s part of what a Dharma teacher would need to do in order to present these teachings? How does that translate, do you think?

Diana: Yeah, I think it’s really important that we translate these and that we update them …

Vince: Right.

Diana: … and make them more modern. I don’t know if it’s the responsibility of Dharma teachers to do that. Some Dharma teachers are really focused on what happens in intensive retreat …

Vince: Sure, sure.

Diana:… and in that case these teachings aren’t so relevant. For teachers, like myself, and others who are out working with people who are kind of in day to day life, I think it’s really important that we talk about this, that we think about what makes sense in light of this consumer culture, in light of being a Buddhist in contemporary times. How do we, I mean, we can take the Buddhist teachings, we can update them, we can take the principles, we can update them: there are many ways of working with it, and I think it would be great. Stephanie Kaza edited a book called “Hooked! Buddhist Voices on Consumerism.” {{1}} It’s really good; I recommend it.

Vince: Nice. I found it interesting that you said certain teachers are mostly focused on what happens during intensive practice, intensive retreats. Taking the three trainings as a model – ethics, concentration and insight – it seems like the financial piece has mostly to do with the ethical domain, how we interact with others in the world and stuff. Insight meditation teachers, I guess, when I go to retreat anyway, I think “Oh, these people have expertise” they seem to be ethical people but they also have a lot of expertise in these particular areas related to meditative training and so, it is interesting, the question of, “who should be teaching about money?” Because I suspect even among really good Buddhist teachers that are fairly ethical people, doesn’t mean that they know much more about money than the next person? Does that make sense?

Diana: Yeah, well, it’s interesting. Let me say a couple things. One is, yes, I agree with you: the precepts are a great starting place for helping us think about money, although they are pretty complicated. I’d like to to talk about them in a moment, but let me say this. I do know that I’ve met a lot of Buddhists who are really – alright, maybe not a lot – but I’ve met Buddhists who practice the precepts, yet when it comes to money, it’s a place that they kind of fudge.

For instance, people who will be pretty honest about their financial dealings; but, they kind of fudge things when it comes to the IRS. Now, this is really common. Is it because these teachings don’t seem applicable in that realm? Or they haven’t thought about it? Or, my guess, is more like there is a lot of fear around money and that’s what’s driving people rather than being committed to rigorous honesty around it.

The other thing is, so you’re asking a question about what is – people who teach meditation – what is their relationship to money, and I think that’s a great question.

Vince: Yeah, yeah

Diana: I just want to add one thing. People who meditate, when they come to practice on retreat, there’s often a huge amount of suffering going on because of money situations. We might have a very strong and deep spiritual practice, but if our money life isn’t together, and we’re practicing, that may be what comes up when you’re meditating. So it’s just another argument for handling and dealing and relating with our money, because it impacts our retreat practice.

Now going back to what you were saying about the teachers. I have opinions and I think there are different developmental lines that people have. I think that there are some teachers that have such profound realizations and may not have certain areas of development. Some people might argue that that’s not okay; I think that’s just the way things are and I learn from teachers with all levels of understanding. So, I wouldn’t say every teacher needs to get their money stuff together, but I would say that (a) it could be a source of suffering for them, that if they did sort [it] out, it would be really helpful and I know that’s the case for me; and (b) money can be a doorway into wisdom, so I think it’s a great path to explore so I think there is something beautiful, wonderful, about it.

Diana: So, one of the reasons that it might be useful for teachers to explore their relationship to money is because when we are acting unconsciously around money it sometimes comes up in really funny ways, it sometimes manifests in really ways, and that, when I think about that, I think about just the way Buddhism has manifested in the West. And when you think about the kind of story of, alright, when Buddhism left India and went to these different cultures it took on the flavors of the cultures that it entered so when it went to China it took on aspects of Taoism and Confucianism and so forth. So when it came to the United States it took on consumerism…

Vince: Right, right.

Diana: … and so we see Buddha alarm clocks, and in the last couple years there’s been more Buddhist tchotchkes around than I have seen in the last 20 years. It’s just wild how much people love Buddhist merchandise. On some level it’s inescapable, like this is a culture that has a devotion to consumerism in some way and so of course Buddhism is going to take on some of these qualities. But it’s important as a Dharma teacher to ask yourself how much of that do I want to promote and support and how much do I want to, what do I want to teach people about consumerism. Should Buddhist teachers be teaching people to live more simply? Should they be teaching people to – if they are going to be investors, for instance – to invest only in socially responsible investment plans? Should they be teaching people to donate; but, not just donate to the monastery, but donate in all sorts of ways Because, as the Buddha was saying, charity is a big virtue for him. But usually when you go to a meditation retreat you are taught about donation, but it’s donate to us. I guess my point is just that there are so many teachings that we can be given that can counteract consumerism but it would involve a Dharma teacher prioritizing that, valuing it, and thinking that’s important. And there’s actually many, many teachers out there that teach in that way and make the kind of larger social, political connections.

Vince: Do you think that Buddhist teachers, that the model of being a recognized source of wisdom in terms of ethics, in terms of meditative training, do you think that is a model that is transferable to the West? Are there other people that are more saintly in those areas that we should be looking to, or is there something unique about the meditative training that teachers have done, or that practitioners do that can transfer over to this realm of money and ethics?

Diana: My experience is that the Buddhist approach to money is kind of limited, in the sense that I haven’t seen a great body of work around it. There are some books that have been written some teachers that are into it but mostly its pretty limited. So I think that we have to look outside the Buddhist tradition because we’re not going to find the answers in it. I think one can do a lot of work to translate just like we were talking about earlier like taking that sutra that I read …

Vince: Yeah

Diana: … and updating it. The one thing I will say is that Buddhist practitioners cultivate a fearlessness to go into the areas of where they are suffering. And if they are suffering around money, they can take that fearlessness and go in and bring in the knowledge of not-self, and not-me and do the work around it. So I would say a Buddhist practitioner is a great candidate for really exploring money if they are drawn to that because of the level of suffering, and because of the tools that they may already have around it.

Vince: I’m wondering, to kind of close up, if you could share a little of your history as a practitioner with money.

Diana: Sure. I got into the Dharma in my early twenties and I was really into practicing and didn’t have any interest in money. And it was interesting because I was in college in the eighties and all of my friends were going off right out of school and either going off to graduate programs and getting big money jobs, doctors, lawyers, computer people, you know, that was the time Ronald Reagan was president, right. And I went off and I traveled around Asia and I practiced and I didn’t have anything to do with money for about 15 years. And you know I would make money. I’d waitress, I’d work in non-profits for nothing and I found ways to make money to survive but I wasn’t interested in it.

And not only was I not interested in it, I hated money. I thought money was horrible because I was so wed to this Buddhist ideology of money is impure, it’s not spiritual, it’s not virtuous; if I were to be, like, really holy, I would abandon everything I would renounce the world. And I also had very strong political views about this too. I thought that I was angry at capitalism for the polarizations of the rich and the poor and the huge inequities in the system so I was really, really opposed to money. But mostly the truth was I was really, really scared of money, and really also very unconfident, very scared that I had no capacity to make money or understand money.

And so, about five years ago, I was starting to be a teacher, and I left the non-profit where I had been working and I was suddenly going “oh my God, how am I going to make money?” I had no idea what I going to do. I mean I was living on dana, but dana was so irregular and uncertain. And I had this really interesting moment where I was reading a book about money – because I started to begin to educate myself – and there was this story in it where a woman had gone to India. She writes about this, where she had gone to India to meet the son of a great philanthropist who had funded Ghandi’s movement. And I read this and I did one of those, literally, cartoon double takes, you know, where your head goes boing-boing in two directions? I was like “what?!” And I thought, “Ghandi’s movement was funded? Are you kidding me?!” To me it just was outlandish. To me this was the height of all my spiritual and political views, completely symbolized by Ghandi’s movement, and I had no idea that money was involved. But, of course money was involved! When I began to think about it, how did they get a million people to go on a salt march? What did they do? Where did they get those trains that people were in? There was tons of money. And there’s a famous saying that only then began to make sense to me which was “it took millions of rubies to keep Ghandi in poverty.”

And so when I saw that I realized how locked in, how much identification I had around these views about money that were really not so healthy for me, and that were preventing me from exploring money, and getting more understanding and more freedom around money. And so that started me on, really, a several year, many year, up until now, journey about exploring my relationship to money. And what you find out of course that money is not about money. Money is about security and power and influence and love and it’s about all sorts of things. So it’s a doorway into understanding these things. So I spent a number of years, through psychological work, and spiritual work, and practical work of really learning to live in the word in a whole new way, where I cared about money, where I put attention into money, where I thought about it. My life was transformed and I’m so glad I did it. I can’t even tell you, there’s so much relief because it’s not scary, it’s not a black hole of “I can’t make money, I don’t know what I’ll do in the world,” which is how I felt in the beginning. Now there is a confidence, and a joy, and there’s a sense that money is so deeply connected to my spiritual path instead of it being something that I needed to disconnect from because it scared me.

[[1]]Transcribers note: actual name of the book is “Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume”[[1]]


Diana Winston

Diana Winston is the Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center. She is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council and founder of the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) Program and the former associate director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. She has practiced vipassana since 1989, including a year as a Buddhist nun in Burma and is the author of Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens. She has been teaching meditation to youth and adults nationally for many years. Her latest book is Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness (with Susan L. Smalley PhD). Website: