Is it alright to practice for material gain?
A common criticism I hear of Nichiren Buddhists, and of Soka Gakkai International members in particular, is that we practice Buddhism for material gain, to get stuff. Well, we do, but it’s a good thing. Really.
I was raised a Buddhist and, as such, have a pretty good grasp on the idea of the impermanence of all things. I try to look beneath the surface and identify deeper significance and the connections between things.
But even with this perspective, I still live in human society. I am still a human being, subject to all the potential emotional entanglements and flare-ups that brings. Try as I may to focus on the fact that the jerk who cut me off on the freeway is really a manifestation of my own sense of helplessness about my environment, on a bad day he remains the jerk who cut me off.
The same could be said of desire. I can convince my brain that attachment to desire is bad, but desires still occur to me. So I can spend my energy fighting and trying to ignore those things, or I can do my best to harmonize with these natural tendencies and see the value in them.
I believe one of the reasons Americans are losing touch with a spiritual lifestyle is that religions have, for the most part, lost the ability to help people with the problems of daily life. The average person is no longer willing to accept a philosophy that merely preaches what appear to be coping mechanisms to deal with the fact that he or she can’t pay the rent this month or put food on the table.
But Buddhism does have answers. Good ones. Through challenging ourselves spiritually to summon up the courage to overcome whatever obstacle we face—whether it is something as monumental as defeating cancer or as mundane as obtaining a reliable car to drive to work—we are proving to ourselves that we can impact our lives and the world, that we have spiritual strength.
This is, of course, not as simple as setting goals. But I know my own biggest challenge is supreme laziness. Buddhist philosophy sounds great in theory, but I quite honestly would not have the motivation to practice it and face the accompanying personal growth without the desire to improve my situation in life.
Several years ago, I decided I needed a career change. I was toiling away in the financial services industry, completely uninspired and frustrated. Other areas of my life were in a rut as well. This was my time to be making an impact on the world, I thought, to make a difference.
With the clear goal of getting a new job, I decided to apply myself more than ever to my daily Buddhist practice and study, as well as to support my local SGI community. It was written on a card on my altar and across my brain: New Career. “I’ll really be able to change and grow if I get a new job,” I thought.
This went on for two years, and every day I exerted myself strenuously toward my goal. I finally did get the job. But just as the dream was coming true, I realized something: I was already living the life I wanted. Over those two years, I had developed a great wish and drive for the betterment of those around me and was taking action toward that end. I had great, supportive friends and a burgeoning sense of hope about the world.
In the end, the goal was not the point. It was the very simple, human desire for a better, more fulfilling career that propelled me on a great journey. I discovered determination, tenacity, compassion—all from within my life. In my Buddhist practice, this is the function of desire. Desire is a natural response when we observe our environment lacking in something.
Nichiren wrote, “The wisdom-fire of enlightenment appears by burning the firewood of earthly desires.” The ultimate aim of my own Buddhist practice is an indestructibly confident and happy state of life through which I can help suffering people. Finding a balanced place for desire in that pursuit helps keep me motivated to do the hard, personal work demanded of a Buddhist practitioner.
Jamie Liptan is the managing editor of Living Buddhism, SGI-USA’s monthly journal. He lives in Santa Monica, California.
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