Money: The Shine of Gold or the Shine of the Sun?
Dr. Stephen Fulder
Just imagine for a moment, an observer from outer space, an anthropologist looking at most of the human species. He might wonder with surprise how human beings seem to be rushing about all their life. So he might ask:
‘What are they rushing about after, food? shelter?’
‘No. It is after a substance that they call money.’
‘Which they get from where?’
‘From others who have it.’
‘What do they do with that?’
‘They pass it on to others to obtain necessary things’.
‘So when they have those necessary things, do they stop rushing about?’
‘No, They can’t stop so they continue rushing to get more’.
‘What do they do with it then?’
‘They store it’.
‘So those that have stored a lot of it, do they stop running about after it?’
‘No. They often are more busy running after it than others that have less.’
‘And do those that have it stored feel happier than those that have not?’
‘No, generally they are not so happy’.
‘And those that have a lot stored, what do they do with it in the end?’
‘They die and leave it all behind’.
This is a very strange ritual. Do you mean to say that most of the human race is running from birth to death after some stuff that they get from others and give back to others and mostly is not even needed to support their life?’
Money is a medium of exchange and passes between people freely, just like water. On the way it is used to do things, like water is used to drive a water wheel. Since it is associated deeply with getting what we want, it has taken on a hugely important status. People have one single precious life, yet they devote almost all of it to money, despite the fact that it passes by. There is an Indian story about a king who was wandering in the desert. He ran out of water and prayed to the Gods: ‘Gods, I will give you half of my kingdom if you provide me with water’. ‘Fine’, said the Gods, and he found a pool in front of him. Next day he found he could not urinate and was in great distress. ‘Gods’, he said ‘I will give you the other half of my kingdom if you will just unblock my channel and let me urinate. ‘Fine’, said the Gods. ‘We will do it, but you should know that you have given your entire kingdom away for something that just passes in and out.’ So it is with money.
It is an icon. It is worshipped, thought about, dreamed about, and the main subject of communication of all people around the world. The reason is its intimate relationship with human insecurity. Since it seems to make available necessary goods and pleasures, it symbolises all goods and pleasures. The more insecure we are, the more we need to feel constant access to those goods and pleasures. We are nervous, not at ease, under stress, and as most of the society behaves that way it is legitimised by the community and becomes a kind of suffering norm. So how can we be free? Can we really be free and poor? Can we really be free and rich?
The main shift that is needed is to take the special status away from money. Make it less and less interesting, less of an issue. We need to see it as a necessary medium of exchange and no more than that. This will work if it is accompanied by a deep inner journey, a look in the mirror, to uncover and take care of the insecurities themselves which are projected onto money. Or to uncover and take care of the greed that is similarly projected. In that journey to freedom, our obsessions, fears and worries, as they dissolve away, will automatically make us more balanced in relation to money.
We also need to begin to ignore the social pressure to regard everything as purchasable. It is the dominant view that if we had more money we could do more, enjoy more, live more. Actually the opposite is true. Our real joy of life, our real contact with life is in the vast territory of being, not in the small space of having. As our contact with life deepens, we begin to realise that money is less and less relevant to the important aspects of life: our values, our spiritual journey, the meaning invested in our moment by moment experiences. Yes, we will need to buy things now and then, spend money now and then, give money now and then. But the essential things are beyond the consumer marketplace. They cannot be bought and sold. This is well expressed by the story in the Gospels concerning Jesus who answered followers who were concerned about the taxes that they needed to give to the Romans. Jesus pointed out that on the coin was the head of Caesar, and wisely said: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’. The implication is that the coin is his, but the rest of life is yours.
All of us have the potential for expansive, spiritual and non-materialistic lives, and in principle it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor. However it must be said that it is often a little harder for the rich to be free as they have more encouragement to be busy with money than others. But whether we are blessed with more money or less, what matters is the holding on and attachment. If we are blessed with money, one of the best ways to abandon holding is give it away. It is very joyful to give, it brings ease to oneself and joy to others. It is also a primary value or ethic, part of a process of inner purification. If we have no money, we can free ourselves by not constantly wishing for it.
But on a deeper level money is just another form of exchange, or giving and taking, in which all beings participate. In the dharma or teachings of the Buddha, this exchange and giving (dana) is clearly experienced as an operating principle of the universe itself. The sun gives to the tree, the tree gives its leaves to the earth, the earth gives its nutrients to the tree. The whole of existence is one great ecology in which all things give to all other things, and take from all other things, in which everything, all life, is a web of total interrelationships. Nothing is held back. We cannot imagine the tree saying to itself, I want to hold on to my leaves and not let them drop to the earth, I want more of them. We consume and in the end are consumed. Money is an example of this. Its nature is circulation, exchange, flow. It passes from one to another making things happen on the way. But in the end no-one can take it with them and it must be given away whether you like it or not. The dana principle is a life perspective rather than a self-perspective. The insecure human self often does not see this flow of giving and is under the painful illusion that he can hold on, grasp at things, accumulate things. This is a stopping of the flow of life, a kind of death. The Greek myth of King Midas illustrates this. King Midas was obsessed by gold. He prayed to the Gods that all things that he touched should turn to gold. The Gods granted his wish, but of course everything he touched became dead gold, including his own daughters. There is another interpretation of this legend – that King Midas turned everything into sunshine. But for this we need true appreciation for the sunshine that is freely given and cannot be stored.