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Lavish Buddhism?

This month of May will see many people from all over the world celebrating Buddha Day to commemorate Shakyamuni Buddha. After 2 years of silence due to covid-19, there are various celebrations this year. Buddhism has been around for 2565 years! Hopefully, it will continue to exist for many more years to come.

If you look at news coverage or YouTube, you might marvel at the grandeur of some celebrations. Then you might find yourselves asking, “How did a frugal and austere Buddha create such a lavish religion, with its huge monastery and numerous giant statues?”

You are right in asking that question. However, it is important to know that Buddha did not ask anything from anyone. In another word, all donations from the lay community are voluntary and self-motivated. Also, Buddha and His monks did not and cannot accept a monetary donation. Except for a few monastic requisites such as clothes and alms bowl, they are supposed to give away any extra items. All other luxurious items are to be rejected.

So where did all these lavishnesses come from?

From the devotion of human beings of course. People just cannot stop themselves from worshipping. We do not only worship gods (imaginary or real), we worship Harry Potter, Korean pop stars, movie stars, singers, writers, and even mountains and trees. So, we shouldn’t be surprised by people spending money worshipping Buddha. At least, Buddha taught us how to be good people?

My favorite story of lavishness in Buddhism relates to Anathapindika who offered a park to Buddha. It cost about 180,000,000 and that probably refers to the pieces of gold required to cover the entire park! Anathapindika was like the Elon Musk of ancient India and when he enquired the park owner (a prince) for a price; that prince jokingly said “It cost the number of gold pieces needed to cover the ground of the park.”

Was it pride or religious fervor? Anyway, Anathapindika rose to the challenge and paid that price. 180,000,000! Then more money was spent to build a massive monastery to house the monks and nuns. Shocking huh?

Buddha accepted Anathapindika’s offering of land and monastery.

On another occasion, when Buddha received a very precious piece of cloth gifted by a King, he had it cut into strips and then redistributed the strips of cloth to all His monks.

Do you think there were any differences in Buddha’s behavior? Actually no.

Both monastery and cloth were redistributed and used by the community of monks and nuns, men and women who were determined to follow Buddha’s spiritual path. Moreover, Buddha was not involved in Anathapindika’s real estate transactions.

There were many such cases of grand offerings made by kings and wealthy men or women. But when Buddha passed into parinirvana, He only had his clothes and begging bowl to His name.

From this short narration, it is pretty clear that those ancient people believed Buddha’s teachings would bring positive changes to the world. They knew that Dharma is priceless and they were willing to donate a fortune to help Buddha spread his message. However, it is important to note that Buddha did not keep anything for himself or his biological family.

The last grand offering occurred at Buddha’s funeral. A rich laywoman gifted her jewel-studded sari to cover Buddha’s body. I am pretty sure Buddha would have rejected that offering but,,,,, Unfortunately, I do not have details of what happened after that. Maybe some senior disciples would have it put to better use. It was rumoured that the cost of that sari could have bought an entire town!

Is lavishness in Buddhism good?

Fast forward to today. We still see massive temples, monasteries, and giant Buddhist statues all over the world. Some of these were initially built for full occupation but subsequently under-utilised, when the number of users dwindle. Thus, we wonder if it is lavishness.

If we approach this question with reference to the aforesaid introduction, then there is probably the following conclusion:

  1. Buddha did not engage with money and economy, and He also forbade his monks and nuns from doing so.
  2. Buddha did not dictate how his lay followers should spend their money

I guess that is the Buddhist’s middle path. So how we choose to spend our money is our business.

Then the next question that comes to mind is, “Can the money be better spent on helping the poor or needy?” Can the laypeople spend with wisdom?

Personally, I am tempted to play judge and say that the money spent on lavish renovation of temples, celebrations, rituals, etc could have been better used for feeding the poor or providing underprivileged kids with education? But who am I to judge? This is because social situations differ from place to place.

Monastic community as a centre for wealth redistribution?

In reality, many great masters had been doing that. Just like what Buddha did. These great practitioners do not keep anything for themselves and give back to society. For example, excess food offerings are redistributed to the poor. Various Chinese Monasteries provide free meals on a daily basis. In that manner, excess funds received in a temple are used for feeding the poor and the homeless. Some temples donate excess funds to charity and some provide free education to marginalised kids.

On the other hand, we also have people who believe that building giant statues are equally important. Again, who are we to judge? Perhaps those beautiful statues had rescued many depressed people on the verge of self-harm or encouraged numerous people in their darkest moments? Art can be uplifting too. Sometimes, help can be spiritual and not just physical.

Although I am prone to critique lavishness, I think it is wiser not to be overly judgemental about others. At the end of the day, we are responsible for deciding how we want to spend our money.

I think the worthiness of a donation, lies in its motive. When we decide to donate 1,000 dollars for building a giant statue rather than an orphanage, what exactly is the motive in our minds? I think that will determine the kind of karma that we receive in the end.

May all be well and happy.

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