It’s common for those new to Buddhism to ask: “Do Buddhists think wealth and making money are bad?” It’s equally common to answer: “no, wealth itself isn’t bad, it’s just what you do with it.” The Thai scholar-monk Prayudh Payutto (also known as Phra Rajavaramuni and several other names, but this one is the easiest to track him down by) is probably the best-known exponent of this view: in his Buddhist Economics he says “it is not wealth as such that is praised or blamed but the way it is acquired and used.” (61) Others writing on the topic, such as Peter Harvey and Donald Swearer, have said similar things; the topic’s on my mind right now because Justin Whitaker said the same thing in a recent comment here.
There are a number of passages in the suttas that support this interpretation, on which wealth itself is neutral to our well-being (although I suspect that these passages are not always being read in their proper context). But it’s worth pointing out that there’s another view in South Asian Buddhism that takes a significantly more negative view of wealth and its accumulation, one that appears strongly in Śāntideva.
Śāntideva tells us that acquisition (lābha), along with honour (satkāra), is to be avoided because it generates desire (rāga) (Śikṣāsamuccaya, p. 105). Notice the point here: it’s not just that desire and craving for possessions are bad (a Buddhist commonplace), but that the possessions themselves lead one to have that desire. He repeats the theme elsewhere, saying that “one should have fear of acquisition,” and “great gain is among the obstacles to the Mahāyāna”; he has a long passage condemning the dangers of the things kept in one’s home (and the values of what is given away). This is all part of the reason he regularly praises the possessionless life of a monk, and urges us to it. (For references, see the third and fourth chapters of my dissertation.)
Is Śāntideva right? Well, I’m skeptical of his overall negative evaluation of worldly goods, which is why I’m getting married. But at the same time I think there’s a strong psychological truth to what he says. Michael Eysenck has popularized the idea of the hedonic treadmill: we keep pursuing the goods we think will make us happy, only to stay in place or worse. Once we get more wealth, we expect more wealth. So our happiness doesn’t go up when we gain wealth – but it does go down when we lose wealth! The point confronts me every day this year, when I’m teaching on a reduced-teaching fellowship position instead of last year’s full-time visiting assistant professor position. I’m making about the same amount now as I did when I was in grad school, and I didn’t feel particularly poor then. But after two years of living on a professor’s salary, I feel poor all the time now. My past wealth produced a desire for itself. In that respect at least, wealth is not neutral.