- The Possibility of a Postcolonial Buddhist Ethic of Wealth
Orientalist images of Buddhism portray all Buddhist traditions as world-renouncing, austere, and ascetic: think of the pictures of saffron-clothed monks with bowls walking down a tree-lined street in Thailand, Sri Lanka, or Burma, eyes slightly downcast, heads shaven, bare feet. The quintessential definition of this image is the tenth precept: jātarūpa-rajata-paṭiggahaṇā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi, “I undertake the precept to refrain from accepting gold and silver.”1 This precept, familiar to almost anyone who knows a bit about Buddhism, symbolizes our attitudes toward Buddhism as a religious tradition that rejects the messiness of money, jobs, and certainly wealth. Rejecting the daily grind of grubbing for actual money in favor of a disembodied and spiritual enlightenment is one of the most appealing stereotypes of Buddhism for many of us; our responsibility, however, is to realize that this image captures only a part of a much larger, longer, and more complex series of stories and histories.
In the following pages, I sketch out the parameters for an approach to a Buddhist ethics of wealth. I make no claim that there is a singular Buddhist ethic on wealth and poverty, only that there are some assumptions that we need to discard and new avenues we might wish to explore.2 The image that rests at the center of this paper is the orientalist model of the monk who rejects money. Much of the early scholarship in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that sought to describe and understand “Buddhism” constructed a religion that was dominated by “world renouncing” monks who embodied the true vision of Gautama Buddha—most often represented by the Dhammacakkapavatāna-sutta (Talk on Turning the Wheel of Dhamma). According to this model, how do we know what the Buddha taught? By reading the texts.3 In this portrait of Buddhism, the text reigns supreme. “True” Buddhism is the Buddhism of the Pāli canon, and monks are the evidence of the truth of the Buddha’s teaching. The dominant economic model that emerged from these constructions of Buddhism is rooted in exchange, the exchange between monks and the laity through the ritual mechanism of dāna. Dāna (Pāli: giving) consists of an order of monks who vow to live without handling money, and in so doing, are reliant upon lay Buddhists who receive merit for supporting monks. I trust that this model is familiar to all of [End Page 139] us, since it rests at the core of nearly every portrait of Buddhism constructed in the past one hundred years.
I offer three contexts for the tenth precept and the world-renouncing monk who refuses to handle “gold and silver” in the following pages: Buddhist challenges to capitalism, the model of dāna or the exchange between laity and monks and nuns, and the relationship between nuns and money. In each section, I sketch out the location of the tenth precept and draw attention to scholarship that offers us a reassessment of the orientalist notion that monks reject money. What makes this argument “postcolonial” is that I suggest that we rigorously reassess the usefulness of the legacy of that colonial image in our thinking about Buddhism and wealth, and wrestle with the ironies that accompany the tenth precept in Buddhism today.
Monks, Marx, and Money
Some of the most compelling calls for economic justice of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are rooted in the image of a monk who refuses to handle money and who gives up owning more than he needs. Put briefly, the tenth precept ripples throughout the movements for economic reform that emerged in post-independent India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and modern Thailand. The symbolism of the world-renouncing monk who follows the tenth precept is refracted throughout Buddhist Marxist analyses of economic disparities and offers us our first vantage point from which to examine the parameters of a Buddhist ethic of wealth.
The orientalist reading of monks as a representation of an ideology that rejects money and private ownership has given rise to a number of syntheses of Marxism, socialism, and...