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Are my finances at odds with my Buddhist practice?

Sean Feit Oakes, Gendo Lucy Xiao, and Lama Liz Monson on balancing Buddhist practice and the financial realities of life.

By Sean Feit Oakes

Gendo Lucy Xiao, Elizabeth Monson
Photo by Micheile Henderson.

Question: I’m not a renunciate, and I don’t think I should have to be. But I also can’t shake the feeling that the financial aspect of my lay life — the 401(k), the tuition payments (for me and my kids), the mortgage — is at odds with my Buddhist practice, that the two don’t fit. How can I hold both?

Sean Feit Oakes: First, to really understand what’s happening, get close to the feeling. This is the task the Buddha gave for the first noble truth: “dissatisfaction is to be understood.” Start with naming it: “doubt,” “wanting,” or whatever label feels like it gets to the heart of the emotion. Getting close to the feeling might reveal a story or view that is unconsciously held. If so, spell it out—“My obligations prevent me from deepening on the path,” or “Wealth is incompatible with liberation.” Whatever comes, feel any suffering or stress that’s there with compassion and understanding. Views like these are mostly learned from culture and are persistent, but they start to change when seen clearly.

The main way to “hold both” will be to not succumb to the view that these two parts of your life are at odds, and to not amplify hindrances like doubt. In other words, don’t worry about it. But that’s not easy, because we’re immersed in systems—both wholesome (family, community) and unwholesome (consumerism, individualism)—that depend on our participation.

For sincere lay practitioners, the teachings on generosity, letting go, and simplicity can seem at odds with the complex financial obligations of contemporary life, mainly because we’re responsible for the well-being of others. You may personally feel like you could radically downsize and simplify your life, but as in all budgeting, the question is, what can you cut? Your kids’ tuition? Debt payments? These are in service of your family, as is retirement if you’re partnered.

The Buddha never told lay people to renounce wealth—that’s what monastic life is for. The foundational “letting go” practice for a layperson is giving (dana), not renunciation (nekkhamma). Laypeople are instructed to take care of the family and community around them, with a special obligation to support monastics and to practice nonattachment to wealth while tending it wisely. Giving can open the door to the boundless love and compassion of brahmavihara practice, cultivate nonattachment, and ultimately support insight into the nature of the self as deeply interdependent and inseparable from the ecosystem it participates in.

The task embedded in the second noble truth is that grasping is to be given up. Material renunciation supports nongrasping, but the task is inner, not outer. Grasping isn’t about how much we have so much as how we feel about it. When the heart isn’t grasping, it’s satisfied, whether we’re monastics or laypeople, whether we manage a lot of resources or very few.

Blessings in your practice.

Gendo Lucy Xiao: To start, I’d like to suggest that we do an exercise and ask some questions about practice that matter to us. For example: what is the heart of Buddhist practice? How do I manifest it in my life? What are my intentions and aspirations? Am I aware of my body, speech, and mind in my everyday activities? What helps to foster this awareness? What does it mean to renunciate?

Perhaps you have other questions, and that’s great. For me, the heart of Buddhist practice is to live fully moment after moment, to realize our life is intrinsically connected with everything and everyone in the world, and to develop kindness toward ourselves and others—in other words, to wake up. We may take on different roles and responsibilities, and we may encounter different kinds of challenges in life, but the heart of practice is the same. The activities we engage in offer us opportunities to learn and practice awareness and kindness, and to awaken.

If our thoughts and actions are aligned with our intention for practice, then there is nothing wrong with taking care of the needs of ourselves and our family, including paying the bills and getting the shopping done. However, if we don’t have clarity about practice and our intention, and if we are not aware of our thoughts, feelings, and actions that stem from excessive selfish desires and habit patterns, it can lead to confusion and suffering.

Sometimes to renunciate means to dedicate one’s life to practicing the dharma in monastic forms. Sometimes it means to give oneself completely over to serving others. And sometimes it means to let go of one’s habitual ways of thinking and self-centeredness and stay open to life’s continuous unfolding. The challenges and obstacles that appear in life’s unfolding can then become subjects of inquiry and opportunities to learn and grow.

When we feel stuck or conflicted about something, it’s often helpful to step back and take a look at the big picture, the picture that is wider and deeper than the issue itself. Let’s say I have conflicts about practice and my everyday life, in which I have a great deal of responsibilities toward both work and family. I may ask, what’s happening now? What are the things that are most important in my life? What kind of practice would be helpful to adapt into my daily activities given that I don’t have much time for formal practice? If some pieces in this picture don’t fit together so well, is it possible to move them around?

The important thing is to allow the inquiries to come from our heart, to let them loosen up our fixed notions and open us to practice and life itself. I hope you’ll have a great exploration.

Lama Liz Monson: I notice that we sometimes feel a split between our “spiritual” practice and our ordinary lives and activities. We like the idea that practice could result in transcendence to a rarified, pure realm where we no longer need be concerned with the nitty-gritty details of life. While it might seem on the surface that making money doesn’t align with spiritual life, we live in a world where financial security is integral to survival and flourishing. For most of us in today’s world, not spending time and energy on financial pursuits isn’t really an option.

It wasn’t always this way. Early Asian Buddhist societies operated on a merit-making model in which lay practitioners supported monastics in exchange for their practice, teachings, and ritual support. It was thought that laypeople had little opportunity to develop themselves spiritually; by supporting monks and nuns, they could accumulate a stock of merit large enough (ideally) to allow them future lifetimes as monastics. Even now, the practices of merit-making in Asian Buddhist societies are a robust dimension of daily practice for many people.

These days, we recognize that anyone can be a practitioner and utilize the teachings and practices of the Buddhist path to awaken into the fullness of their innate being. What is key to a successful practice is the relationship we develop to the different parts of our lives—including our need to create a sustainable financial situation.

Can money-making itself become a dharma practice that will liberate us? That is up to us. The Buddhist path is not a journey away from the parts of our lives that we struggle with; it is a process of gently turning toward, and engaging with, the whole picture. If we separate out certain aspects of our lives as antithetical to our spiritual endeavors, always imagining the existence of a more spiritual way of being, then we continue to engage in the habits of grasping and aversion that cause our suffering.

Buddhism teaches that freedom is found right here, right now, in every seemingly mundane experience and every difficult emotion. Freedom cannot be found someplace that we are not. When we learn to take the present moment as the working ground for our practice, we discover how all dimensions of our lives hold the keys to our freedom.

Whether we are monastics or lay practitioners, we can only wake up to how things really are, in and through the everyday complexities and responsibilities that make up our days. Right here, right now, freedom continuously unfolds. It is only our biases about what that freedom should look like that keep us seeking elsewhere.

Sean Feit Oakes

Sean Feit Oakes

Sean Feit Oakes, PhD explores the integration of Buddhist philosophy and practice, trauma resolution, and social justice. He teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and online. 
Gendo Lucy Xiao

Gendo Lucy Xiao

Gendo Lucy Xiao is a priest at San Francisco Zen Center as well as a doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine
Elizabeth Monson

Elizabeth Monson

Lama Liz Monson, PhD, is the Spiritual Co-Director of Natural Dharma Fellowship. She has practiced and taught Tibetan Buddhism for over thirty years. Liz is the author of More Than a Madman: The Divine Words of Drukpa Kunley and Tales of a Mad Yogi: The Life and Wild Wisdom of Drukpa Kunley.