The incomparable loftiness of the monk figure—placid and disinterested, having renounced desire—leads many to think of Buddhism as a religion detached from all worldly concerns, especially those of economy. But Buddhism has always addressed a continuum of human flourishing and good, creating what has been referred to as an “economy of salvation.” Metaphors of economy—even of debt—abound in Buddhist texts, and in many ways Buddhism came to be fundamentally shaped by economic conditions and considerations of the era in which it originated.

Depending on material support from moneylenders, the Buddhist establishment from its outset did not seek to hamper the business that made it possible. Devout merchants (setthi) and householders (gahapatis)—controllers of property, moneylenders, often even usurers—were the primary supporters of the early monastic community. Giving material support (amisa dana) to the monkhood thus ranks in Buddhist doctrine as the most effective way for laypeople to generate positive karma, even above following the five moral precepts that define the Buddhist way of life. Out of a concern for its own survival, Buddhism could not condemn the acquisition of wealth, but it could provide principles for its dispensation—namely, giving and generosity (dana). To these ends, the Buddha celebrated wealth creation alongside a call for its redistribution.

The New Market Economy

In order to understand the subtleties of Buddhism’s approach to wealth accumulation, poverty, and debt, we must first have some understanding of the market economy from which it arose. The introduction of the widespread use of coinage to India just a few decades prior to the Buddha’s birth around 500 BCE disrupted existing social orders and also inspired a philosophical renaissance driven by spiritual dropouts like the Buddha, who sought to respond to the new economy.

One of the Buddha’s most poignant accounts of worldly life speaks to the social alienation inherent to economic competition and the accumulation of private property. It remains pertinent to this day:

Seeing people floundering
     like fish in small puddles,
     competing with one another —
               as I saw this,
               fear came into me.
     The world was entirely
               without substance.
     All the directions
                                    were knocked out of line.
     Wanting a haven for myself,
     I saw nothing that wasn’t laid claim to.
     Seeing nothing in the end
     but competition,
     I felt discontent.
              —Sutta Nipata 4.15, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Widespread use of currency led to a flattening of reality that rendered all goods and services commensurable, nourishing a tendency toward abstraction for which we owe much of our philosophical inheritance today—from Pythagoras in Greece, to Confucius in China, to the Buddha in India. The reformulation of economic relations brought about by monetization triggered previously unheard of levels of social mobility, and mobility’s attendant individualism.

The Buddha skillfully encouraged some of the new social values that emerged from these economic changes. For example, he encouraged the individualism that subverted family structures (monks were “home-leavers”). But he also sought to undermine other emerging values associated with psychological states that fuel the acquisition of capital: desire and greed. The Buddha condemned acquisitiveness at the same time he supported capital accumulation, specifically for its potential to create and multiply merit through generosity. In this way, Buddhism advocated a “Middle Way,” the simultaneous negation of the extremes of asceticism and indulgence. Spiritual health and material well-being were, in the words of economist E. F. Schumacher, natural allies.

The Buddha diverged from other religious thinkers in his embrace of the new market economy. Confucians in China and Brahmans in India strongly resisted this economy, denouncing the economic activities of businessmen and merchants as threats to the moral order of society.

Perhaps the Buddha embraced the new market economy in part because it supported his rejection of the Brahmans’ mythical justifications for the stratification of caste. Rather than speaking about caste, the Buddha spoke instead of economic class, the new social order, which was divided into six categories: very wealthy, wealthy, faring well, faring poorly, poor, and destitute. Such disparities are inevitable in a society organized by the market economy. The establishment of the monkhood, which presented a new, radical kind of freedom, enabled its constituents to stand outside caste and, in theory, outside the market economy altogether.

Can Buddhist Teachings Move Us Toward Jubilee?

The accumulation of wealth among urban merchants and moneylenders, scorned by the then dominant Brahmans, was a boon to the sangha, the Buddhist monastic community, which relied on the generosity of the laity for material support as well as the spread of Buddhist ideas along trade routes. This upwardly mobile class found in Buddhism a justification for its economic activities and new lifestyle. By giving to the monks, the laity performed acts of dana, or generosity, a fundamental tenet of Buddhism. Serving as “fields of merit,” the monks provided an opportunity for laypeople to practice generosity, the first “perfection,” and the basis of all other perfections, leading to enlightenment. Importantly, the amount of merit generated by such transactions was determined by the recipient’s level of virtue and not the benefactor’s, forming a holy alliance between the monkhood and the laity that, at least within the performance of dana, condoned the benefactor’s methods of accumulation. This alliance was furthered by the Buddha’s injunction forbidding those with debt from joining the monastic order, by which the indebted would effectively default.

So instead of challenging the accumulation of wealth, Buddhism critiques the social structures that perpetuate poverty and the unwholesome states of mind that contribute to the suffering of self and others. This is admirable enough, but still leaves quite a bit for Buddhist socialists and Buddhists committed to Jubilee to wrestle with.

Buddhism has historically taken a permissive approach to economic relations. It might be the only world religion that does not formally condemn usury. And being wealthy in and of itself has been taken as a sign of good karma. Yet there remains much in the Buddhist canon that can enrich our thoughts on debt and wealth distribution.

The Ina ­Sutta, the Buddha’s “Discourse on Debt,” praises ananasukha, the pleasure of being debtless. Conversely, it also links indebtedness directly to bondage and, ultimately, suffering, the first noble truth of Buddhism:

Poverty is suffering in the world. . . Getting into debt is suffering in the world. . . Interest payment is suffering in the world. . . Being served notice is suffering in the world. . . Being hounded is suffering in the world. . . Bondage is suffering in the world. . . . When a poor, destitute, penniless person, being hounded, does not pay, he is put into bondage. For one who partakes of sensuality [a layperson], bondage is suffering in the world.

Buddhist texts make ample use of metaphors of debt and exchange to confer spiritual advice, both a sign of the times and a winning bet made by the Buddha on the future hegemony of the monetary economy. At the end of the Ina Sutta, the Buddha goes as far as to use freedom from debt as a metaphor for nirvana (liberation from samsara, the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma):

[Knowledge in the total ending of the fetters of becoming] is the highest knowledge
that, the happiness unexcelled.
     at rest,
          is release from debt.

For Jubilee, perhaps the most instructive concept in Buddhist thought is that of karmic debt, for which financial debt is often used as a metaphor, as it is in these final lines. Born as humans, we all have karmic debt, the first one being to our parents, who brought us into this world, raised us, fed us, and guided us. This debt extends to all our benefactors—teachers, friends, and anyone else who has acted with our well-being in mind. But this is not a debt that can be easily repaid. For such an infinite debt, no material compensation is sufficient. In fact, the only way to repay such a debt is to become enlightened ourselves and endow others with the conditions for enlightenment. Thus, according to the Kataññu Sutta, we become debtless:

But, O monks, one who . . . encourages his ignorant parents, settles and establishes them in wisdom—such a one, O monks, does enough for his parents: he repays them and more than repays them for what they have done.

In other words, recognizing our true debts establishes the basis for the discernment of contrived debts, and thus any kind of resistance against them. This old Buddhist idea is freshly relevant in the context of contemporary efforts to build a debt resistance movement. In fact, it sounds surprisingly similar to the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual. “To the financial establishment of the world,” the manual reads, “we have only one thing to say: We owe you nothing.” It continues:

To our friends, our families, our communities, to humanity and to the natural world that makes our lives possible, we owe you everything. Every dollar we take from a subprime mortgage speculator, every dollar we withhold from the collection agency is a tiny piece of our own lives and freedom that we can give back to our communities, to those we love and we respect.

Repaying Our Karmic Debts

In the Buddhist approach to debt, wealth can be accumulated, but only so that it can in turn be given away to those to whom we are truly, karmically indebted. Production and multiplication of merit-creating wealth is thus a noble determination. One who acquires lavish wealth, the Buddha said, should provide for the pleasure and satisfaction of himself, his loved ones, and his associates, and also for priests and contemplatives.

Buddhist monasteries for a long time accomplished a kind of redistribution of wealth, supporting mendicants who owned nothing. They also invested in local economies, providing an alternative to local moneylenders. In later years, however, some monasteries (such as in Medieval China) started making high-interest loans and meddling with debtors’ contracts. A Burmese proverb characterizes Buddhist economic excess succinctly: “The pagoda is finished and the country is ruined.”

As greed—the motor of capital accumulation and, in Buddhism, one of the three “poisons” that binds beings to the wheel of samsara—became institutionalized in the new social order, the Buddha edged out a place in society where greed’s opposite, generosity, could flourish.

While the production and multiplication of wealth creates conditions for merit in the form of virtuous giving, greed annihilates merit. The Buddha said that even if one could transform one single mountain into two mountains of solid gold, it would still not provide complete and lasting satisfaction of a single person’s wants. Such is the unlimited nature of desire. From the Buddhist view, then, capital accumulation does not find its end in capital accumulation, but in its transmutation into merit through generosity. “To have much wealth and ample gold and food, but to enjoy one’s luxuries alone is a cause of one’s downfall,” the Buddha says in the Parabhava Sutta. Wealth is not the enemy of spiritual development; it has an enormous potential to create merit—but not principally from lending, but giving.

For this reason, even to live modestly while retaining great wealth is sinful. In the Aputtaka Sutta, the Buddha speaks of a moneylender who “ate broken rice and pickle brine” and wore only “hempen cloth,” riding around in a “dilapidated little cart.” Many lives ago, the moneylender had given alms to a contemplative, leading the moneylender to be reborn seven times with great fortune. But in his subsequent lives the moneylender failed to create virtue with his fortunes, passing up many opportunities to generate merit through generosity. For this reason, after the merit generated for seven lifetimes ran out, the moneylender found himself in one of the hell realms.

The Evil of Endless Accumulation

Today’s ultra-wealthy commit this same evil of endless accumulation without redistribution. Moneylending through the financial establishment, effectively indebting others in order to create profits, does not create merit but destroys it. Such a system of debt has helped concentrate 40 percent of the nation’s wealth in the hands of 1 percent of its population, while the bottom 60 percent owns just 2.3 percent of the nation’s wealth. Debt today encourages the upward distribution of wealth, whereas the Buddha seems to have advocated its downward distribution.

In the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, the Buddha makes clear that charity, and philanthropy especially, is never enough. Giving advice to a king, he says, “Whosoever in your kingdom is poor, to him let wealth be given.” When a king comes to power and neglects this duty, he is faced with social deterioration that can be reversed neither through recourse to charity nor through justice (i.e., brutal punishments): “Thus from goods not being bestowed on the destitute, poverty, stealing, violence, murder, lying, evil-speaking, and immorality grew rife.”

Considering that Buddhist texts tend to concentrate unrelentingly on defilements of the mind as the roots of suffering, this passage is remarkable in that it focuses instead on social and economic injustice as a foundational cause. Here, the ignorance, desire, and hatred of the people—the three poisons—are traced directly back to the failure of the state rather than to their own individual moral failings. When the king attempts to correct social strife by dispensing charity, this produces only more negative results, clearly demonstrating that charity cannot stand in for economic justice. Perhaps most importantly, the Buddha places the responsibility for the material well-being of the poor on the government. There exists no other power capable of enacting any progressive economic policy, including debt forgiveness.

This gets to the problem at the heart of the massive proliferation of personal debt in the United States: the country’s long-term disinvestment in public goods such as higher education, health care, and housing. If wealth, of which there is no shortage, is not shared with the poor in such forms, inequality becomes exacerbated in the form of debt, which increases the burden of poverty in the form of interest.

Vital to Buddhist doctrine is the conviction that all people, regardless of social position, are capable of becoming enlightened, of becoming buddhas. Poverty and the stress it entails, however, can be real barriers to spiritual development. The Buddha recognized that becoming free of worries about our material welfare enables us to develop our potentials. If release from karmic debt is the goal of Buddhist thought and practice, then release from economic debt is its precondition.

“Buddhism and Debt” in Tikkun, Volume 30, no. 1, p. 35. © 2015, Tikkun Magazine. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyrightholder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press.


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