Being Poor On Purpose
I am going to try and write this blog post like I am not a privileged white person from an upper-middle class background (which I am) talking about how renouncing wealth is super noble and great and everyone should do it and be just like me. Because I recognize that some people are just trying to get by, trying to pay the bills, whereas I’ve had the great privilege of being able to choose whether or not I participate in the job market at all. Some people might not wanna hear me talk about this, but since simplicity and renunciation are such huge parts of Buddhist philosophy and practice, I feel the need to try anyway.
When I reflect on the history of Buddhism, it seems to me that the most famous Buddhist masters have been Asian men from wealthy backgrounds who chose to give up their socioeconomic status in order to pursue truth. To my reckoning, the history of Buddhism is primarily a history of formerly wealthy Asian men, and we’ve inherited that legacy, for better or for worse. As more and more women make an effort to exhume women’s stories and include them in the accepted history of Buddhism, the picture is diversifying a bit. Still, it’s hard to ignore that most of the heavy-hitters throughout history were rich, educated Asian men.
The historical Buddha is the best example. Before he was the Buddha he was Prince Siddhartha, and he was the heir to a kingdom in India. He grew up with all of his needs being met. His father made an effort to give him all of the best and most beautiful women, clothes, and food, and tried to shelter him from the sad and ugly parts of human existence. But since suffering is inevitable, no amount of beautiful, comfortable things could keep Prince Siddhartha from feeling unsatisfied and from reckoning with old age, sickness, and death. After riding through the city and seeing sick, aging people and corpses, he was shocked out of his complacency and realized his wealth was not going to help him avoid death. I suppose you could argue that Siddhartha’s material comfort contributed to him deciding to renounce his wealth and his kingdom to live in poverty and practice meditation. The parable of the Buddha’s life is useful because he’s all of us. We all rely on material comfort to provide a quick fix for our existential problems, and doubt the inevitability of sickness, old age and death until it’s staring us in the face.
Dogen Zenji’s story is similar. He came from an aristocratic family, and received the best education possible at the time. Dogen’s exact familial lineage is debatable, though most historians agree he was the descendant of Emperor Murakami, and his writing reveals a high level of education and literary skill. Like the historical Buddha, the course of Dogen’s life changed when his mother died at the age of eight and he was forced to confront the reality of old age, sickness and death. It’s said that when he watched the smoke raise from her burning body, he resolved to become a monk in order to try to understand the “great matter of life and death.” At that point, he too gave up his status to live in poverty.
Later in his life, Dogen wrote, “Being poor is being intimate with the way.” I love the parts in Shobogenzo Gyoji where Dogen goes on these long, extended rants/ pep talks about how “if we don’t have enough rice, we’ll make rice gruel, and if we don’t have enough rice for gruel, we’ll make rice water, and if we don’t have rice water we’ll just drink tea. Because we have all this beautiful nature and mountains around us, and like, there are monkeys swinging from the trees, so what more do you guys want?! This is a Zen monastery, not a freakin IHOP!” Well, it’s more poetic when he says it.
For Dogen, being poor is a necessary component to practicing seriously. He says, “To learn the Way, just be poor.” This isn’t because being poor is more noble, ethical or socially responsible, but because it’s easier to concentrate on meditation if you’re not worrying about how to make and keep your wealth. For this reason, since the Buddha’s time, sanghas have relied on lay supporters— lay people who believed it was worthwhile for monks to spend all of their time practicing and meditating, and who were willing to give money to support that.
I spent about four years not thinking about money, not making it, just depending on my sangha for support and practicing. Now I’m out, fending for myself, and I have to think about how I’m going to feed myself and pay for school. And I’ve been incredibly lucky. I received a big grant from the Khyentse Foundation, an awesome organization who gives money to Buddhists from all sects, all over the world, and I also receive some donations through this site. It’s both humbling, encouraging, and terrifying to receive money from strangers who think that what I’m doing is worthwhile.
I made more money this year than I ever have in my life. It’s not much; I’m right below the poverty line, which was $11,720 in 2013 according to the U.S Census Bureau. But even being at the poverty line feels like I have too much money. Going from having literally no money to being at the poverty line is a huge change. “Poverty” by American standard is still pretty damn comfortable. I can do things like choose whether or not I have pancakes, oatmeal or rice for breakfast. I can buy clothes. For me, that’s a whole lot of choice that I didn’t have before. From the time I’ve spent in rural India, it’s clear to me that lots of people in the world would love to be living in “poverty” according to American standards.
And I don’t know that I trust myself with money. This last week, when I found out I received another scholarship for school, my first reaction was to check the website to see when I could apply for the scholarship again next year. As in: this money is great, but how can I get even more money out of this (for the record, my second reaction was to start crying from happiness and gratitude, so I’m not entirely soulless and greedy)? The truth is, I don’t know what is “enough” money. I’m not sure that any of us in the Western world do. Which is why I tend to want to err on the side of having less.
I remember having a conversation with my teacher about this once. It went like this:
Me: Do you think I should get a job?
My teacher: Not necessary. Monks don’t need money.
Me: Ugh, yes we do. We have to pay the electricity bill.
My teacher: Well, we need a little money.
Most of my conversations with Zen teachers fall into this pattern. Sometimes the roles are reversed, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve narrowed down the teacher/student dynamic to an equation that goes like this:
Teacher/ student: Relative!
Student/ teacher: Okay, middle way…
So what is “a little” money, and what is enough? I’m not sure. I feel really grateful and happy for the things I have right now. I’m worried I have too much, and I’m also worried I don’t have enough. It’s a weird place to be in. This is all a long, roundabout way of saying that I encourage you to donate to me using the button on the side of this website, but please don’t donate too much, because then I might buy a smart phone. And that would be the end of everything.