In our consumption-addicted society, where we are seeing a boom in extremely high-end real estate (including renovated hi-rise condominiums in Manhattan, and even tonier beachfront trailer camps going for multiple millions of dollars) wealth is considered the opposite of debt. The cohort of billionaires around the globe is predicted to grow exponentially, at the same time that those suffering from extreme poverty is increasing.

Others are sitting on billions of dollars in reserve, which they would ordinarily invest in acquisitions to enhance profits, rather than invest in charitable actions. Tellingly, the solution to American corporations engaging in “inversions” — acquiring small foreign companies to become the new headquarters so that the corporation avoids paying the higher corporate tax in America, which benefits the shareholders by contributing less to the polity — as suggested by the captains of industry engaging in inversions, and their colleagues in Congress, actually yields the same result: “tax reform” (read “lowering the corporate tax”). This also benefits the shareholders, at the expense of everyone else.

Corporate leadership can thus justify self-centered actions based on the altruistic motive of doing it for their shareholders. Individuals can do so for similar reasons, based on the needs of their families, their children, and even distant future generations that will bear their family name. This is all understandable, based on human nature, but comes under skeptical examination in Zen. How much is enough, and when is wealth a form of greed?

The accumulation of wealth is usually considered an enviable goal by most, as long as it comes not too obviously at the expense of others. The trend is toward more complex ways of earning a fortune, wherein it is increasingly difficult to identify any obvious victims of the transactions, also seeming, increasingly, to be less than ethical or honest.

The inspiration for this essay comes partially from the daily news, which, thanks mainly to aggressive investigative reporting, often amounts to a slow reveal of human venality and corruption in all quarters of society, and at all levels of human commerce. Any separation of the profit motive from supposedly altruistic segments of society such as education, health and well-being, and the guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is fast becoming a thing of the past.

The pursuit of happiness, in fact, seems to be morphing into a right to pursue profit by any means necessary. Those who are successful reap rewards. They can afford to buy extended life, through the purchase of expensive care; liberty, in the form of discretion as to the use of their time, and the freedom to travel and live anywhere they choose; happiness, in enjoying the high life, as well as the adulation of the hoi polloi (witness the cult of celebrity and the remnants of its progenitor, the cult of royalty); and education, so-called higher education in particular, has become a luxury item available only to the super rich, or those on scholarship (mostly athletes), or willing to go deeply into debt. Universities themselves are being co-opted as profit-making enterprises on the corporate model, displacing their more altruistic provenance as service organizations to society.

Another inspiration comes from Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo-zuimonki, recommended reading for all today, as he often sounds as if he is writing in today’s context outlined above. Among the many issues that are touched on in this collection of his spoken teachings, taken down by his successor Ejo and compiled by his survivors, Dogen refers to the pursuit of fame and fortune rather frequently, and not only in the context of the monastic lifestyle of his flock. He also touches on this and other aspects of lay life, which makes this collection uniquely relevant to lay people practicing Zen today.

I have actually been accused, to my face, of being after fame and fortune myself, through my efforts at propagating Zen; and, I suppose, in trying to pay my bills through such nefarious activities as exhibiting and selling my art works. Which would be doubly insulting, if I were capable of being insulted, as I am obviously so inept at accumulating a fortune, let alone gaining fame. Needless to say, this person knows next to nothing about the true conditions of my life. And, trained as a scientist, should be more careful to base conclusions upon actual evidence. As even those of us who are not scientists should do.

But I digress, as is my wont. In chapter 6-5 of Zuimonki, Master Dogen cites one of many examples in the text, indicating the danger, and proper place, of wealth in Zen:

In the time of the Buddha, Devadatta [cousin and disciple of Shakyamuni who attempted to take over the Buddhist sangha, also reputed to have attempted Buddha’s assassination] aroused jealousy since he received daily offerings of five hundred carloads of provisions. Wealth was harmful not only to himself, but made other people commit evil deeds. How can sincere people who learn the Way become wealthy? Even if it is an offering made from pure faith, if it accumulates in abundance, you must see it as a debt and want to return it.

The italic emphasis on debt is the translator’s, Shohaku Okumura Roshi; but it struck me as profound, and potential fodder for a protest sign, or a bumper sticker: Wealth = Debt.

Some of today’s 1-per-centers seem to recognize that their wealth — while not inherited, and therefore “earned” — does represent a debt to society, if not exactly unshared profit, as per herr Marx (Karl, not Groucho, that other philosopher of renown). And two of them — namely Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffet — have made a pact to donate half of their net worth, if memory serves, to the betterment of humankind around the globe. They present this as a challenge to the other billionaires in their stratum, those who ostensibly have a social conscience, the modern take on noblesse oblige.

How well that is working out is to be determined, but the whole hierarchy of haves and have-nots begs the question, What can possibly be worth not just millions, but billions of dollars, that an individual can contribute? What does this geometric expansion of wealth have to do with the reality of “earning”? Such expressions as “A day without work is a day without eating” come originally from the record of Zen, not from Plymouth Colony, as our history suggests. What can one person possibly do to earn billions of dollars? The fact is, they do not do anything; they own something. By investing wisely and early in life, they own the rights to collect income generated from the efforts of many others. Or they own real estate and other properties, e.g. industrial conglomerates, that increase in value over time. In the vernacular of economics, owning becomes equivalent to earning.

Master Dogen’s point — that especially in the business of propagating buddha-dharma, the accumulation of wealth can be problematic, and highly inappropriate in light of the explicit vow of spiritual poverty taken by monks, implicit for lay practitioners  — surely applies to less lofty endeavors as well. As I understand it, spiritual poverty means that the wealth one accumulates, even the smallest personal possession, really does not belong to the person. This is one dimension of true renunciation, which is considered a prerequisite to spiritual awakening, and further clarification of the buddha-dharma. It is rendered obvious by the simple fact that nothing we “own” belongs to us after death.

The determinant phrase in Master Dogen’s statement would be “in abundance.” Accumulation can range from saving for a rainy day to struggling to find space to safely store the treasure. Or acquiring multiple homes, or ever-larger Mcmansions, to store an ever-greater collection of possessions, and choices as to where to spend the seasons.

So wealth is a relative term, depending upon the demands of one’s situation. If one is responsible for a large family, or a large monastic community, the financial requirement is much larger than for a single person who has no one else to support. All things being equal, the latter would find it easier to accumulate wealth. And then there is the dream of retirement. No one wants to be dependent upon others, especially financially.

In monastic practice, the monks and nuns are mutually dependent, and dependent upon others. They share in the fortune — or misfortune — of the community, living on provisions laid up in the larder of the monastery, and engaging in a business model based on the begging bowl and the kindness of strangers.

Whereas we, as lay practitioners, have households to keep up, automobiles to maintain, children to feed (and send to university without taking on a lifetime of debt). We typically have precious little community to rely on for sharing the responsibilities and joys of daily life, outside of immediate family and friends.

The Zen community, or sangha, to some degree can provide support, in the sense of a sanctuary, a place to practice meditation, without the incessant distractions, interruptions and demands of daily life. The presence of others dealing with similar situations at home and at work is also supportive in the psychological sense, in that their efforts in meditation, and in candidly sharing their experience, inspire us to continue, in spite of a lack of obvious results. And to feel that we are not alone, and therefore not crazy, in our pursuit of this practice and its goal, which Matsuoka Roshi would often describe as “round and rolling, slippery and slick.” Just when you think you have got a hold of it, as we say in the South, it slips out of your grasp, like a bar of wet soap.

In this process, we accumulate a kind of wealth, a wealth of experience in dealing with our “monkey mind” on the cushion, especially during longer retreats (J. zazenkai). In dialogs concerning everyday life and how Zen can help, we also gain a wealth of information, workable attitude adjustments that help us return to the expressway, to the office, and to our homes, fortified with motor-muscle-memory of the posture, breath and attention techniques of meditation (J. zazen) developed from the sheer repetition of zazen.

The wealth that we accumulate in this practice is also a kind of debt that needs to be acquitted, traditionally expressed as “repaying our debt to Buddha.” Most of today’s Zen practitioners find themselves in a similar situation to the communities of old in the countries of origin. That is, they have households to maintain, both members of the couple are holding down jobs, dealing with the daily commute, and so on. So the most obvious way that most can support the center, or repay their debt, is through financial and in-kind contributions. Most cannot afford to abandon household and family, quit their jobs and retire to a monastery, or devote their lives in some sense to full-time practice.

This is the nature of lay practice, which has always been highly admired and praised in the history of Zen. Such outstanding examples as Vimilakirti and Layman Pang, referred to and quoted extensively, testify to this fact. So, in spite of the effusive praise given to “home-leaving” in Master Dogen’s writing, as well as in practice path ceremonies, there should be no confusion as to our ability to lead a Zen life in the midst of ordinary life.

Master Dogen was careful to differentiate between the attitudes and expectations of the monastic and lay lifestyles, though they share some traits in common; and suggests the futility of greed (from 6-3):

Students of the Way, you should not be greedy for food and clothing. Everyone has an allotted share of food and life. Though you might seek after more than your share, you will never be able to obtain it. Moreover, for us students of the Buddha-Way, there are offerings from donors. The food obtained from begging will not be exhausted. There will also be provisions belonging to the monastery. There are not the products of personal work. Fruits and berries, food gained from begging, and offerings from faithful believers are the three kinds of pure food. Food obtained from the four kinds of occupation, farming, commerce, soldiering, and craftmaking is all impure. This is not food permissible for monks.

So, partially owing to the fact that monastic practice is dependent upon the support of the laity, monks and nuns are held to a higher standard. But lay practice is the future of Zen in the West, and each of us needs to work out how Zen will become manifest in our lives. We can begin my recognizing the immense wealth embodied in this wish-fulfilling jewel (S. mani) that we have found hidden in our robes (everyday clothing is also the robe). Then, in every moment of every day, we can begin to develop an attitude of gratitude, repaying our debt moment-by-moment, until it eventually is repaid in full, with interest. The interesting thing about it is that this practice pays us back in greater measure than it takes from us. As Matsuoka Roshi would often say, “What else can you do that gives you your whole life back?”