In the Dhammapada in the chapter 20 - The Path it says

"I will make this my winter home have another house for the monsoon and dwell in a third for during the summer". Lost in such fancies, one forgets his final destination.

(translation by Eknath Easwaran)

Although it clearly can't have been written with this intent - to me this reads like very pertinent critique of modern consumerism and capitalism. A lot of us find ourselves practicing in societies where this is the prevalent ethos so this feels relevant.

Is there something about modern capitalism that inherently conflicts with Buddhism? Or is it possible to find quotes from texts or established teachers that are more supportive of the kind of capitalism//consumerism that we find ourselves in now?

  • 1
    +1 for source that easily relates to capitalism – Yoda Bytes Apr 25 '15 at 15:46
  • Maybe, capitalism as a theory isn't inherently opposed to Buddhism. Now, there are many problems when we take its practice in account. But I think it's not a problem of capitalism itself, even if we could change economic system or the mode of production, people would create other problems. (Probably this is not the answer you are looking for?) – eric May 2 '15 at 20:24

'Capitalism' is something to do with 'capital', which I think implies,

  • Ability to accumulate millions of dollars in order to build a new factory, a new ship, a new road, a new hospital (and/or one dollar to buy some butter, etc.)
  • Ability to use such 'dollars' to rent labour (i.e. to pay wages)

I don't see that as inherently anti-Buddhist: IMO it can fit into the 'Right Livelihood' category.

A commentary to the Dhammapada Verse 286 which you quoted above says,

"Ananda, do you see that merchant? He is thinking that he would stay here and sell his goods the whole year. He is not aware that he would die here in seven days' time. What should be done should be done today. Who would know that one would die tomorrow? We have no date fixed with the King of Death. For one who is mindful by day or by night, who is not disturbed by moral defilements and is energetic, to live for just one night is a well-spent life."

I think the verse you quoted is not a critique of consumerism: rather it's a critique of believing that life is permanent or predictable, perhaps more especially of 'living in the future' instead of "What should be done should be done today".

By the way, lay-people (monks having no money) are supposed to be generous, aren't they? I think it's not anti-Buddhist to become rich (even as a successful capitalist) and generous.

Maybe capitalism can explain where money comes from, and Buddhism explain how to spend it!

I think that mentioning three houses (in the OP) isn't meant as a metaphor for "too much money" because instead I think that:

  • In India it might be normal to live in different places at different seasons -- even the monks did?
  • For a travelling merchant (who is the subect of the story in that verse), being in different places at different times is also normal
  • The fact of being in different places at different times is, perhaps etymologically, a metaphor or description for time itself -- see this description of 'time' (and/or immediacy) in Buddhism:

    Also (etymologically) the track of scat left by an animal (one week old, two days old, one day old, etc.)

  • 2
    FWIW, capitalism has more to do with controlling and owning the means of production; currency or dollars aren't necessarily needed for a description of capitalism. – Anthony Apr 25 '15 at 16:24
  • I guess I meant that capitalism is a way of organizing or balancing the distribution of goods and labour in an economy. It's meant to be efficient, decentralized, beneficial. A capitalist can (at least in theory) be productive and altruistic. Capitalism and (wasteful, selfish) consumerism are sometimes used as synonyms, but are not necessarily, imo. – ChrisW Apr 25 '15 at 22:21
  • Also the question of who owned the means of production was I think a preoccupation of Marx. Instead I think of it (the 'invisible hand') as organizing the means of production. – ChrisW Apr 25 '15 at 22:24
  • -1 The question specifies 'modern capitalism'. Given the grossly unfair way wealth is distributed today, the hardship faced by millions, and the greed and corruption of politicians and businessmen, I think this desrves more than "it's not bad per se". – user10515 Jan 26 '18 at 13:40
  • @GavinSerra It's easy to point fingers but I don't see the point in complaining (about capitalism) unless there's a better alternative. SFAIK capitalism is relatively "fair" compared to (for example) pre-revolutionary feudalism, colonialist slavery, even communism-as-practised, etc. See also @ruben2020's answer which implies Buddhist approval for a system in which lay people have or control privately-owned (individual and/or family) wealth. And corruption by politicians isn't peculiar to capitalism (I think it it has historically been pandemic to every system of economy and/or government). – ChrisW Jan 26 '18 at 14:22

I agree with @ChrisW. In addition to his answer:

Here is a quote from the Sigalovada Sutta that supports investment in business.

The wise endowed with virtue Shine forth like a burning fire, Gathering wealth as bees do honey And heaping it up like an ant hill. Once wealth is accumulated, Family and household life may follow. By dividing wealth into four parts, True friendships are bound; One part should be enjoyed; Two parts invested in business; And the fourth set aside Against future misfortunes."

The Adiya Sutta discusses the five benefits that can be obtained from wealth.

The Dighajanu Sutta discusses how to maintain one's livelihood in tune:

"And what does it mean to maintain one's livelihood in tune? There is the case where a lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], 'Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income.' Just as when a weigher or his apprentice, when holding the scales, knows, 'It has tipped down so much or has tipped up so much,' in the same way, the lay person, knowing the income and outflow of his wealth, maintains a livelihood in tune, neither a spendthrift nor a penny-pincher, [thinking], 'Thus will my income exceed my outflow, and my outflow will not exceed my income.'

"These are the four drains on one's store of wealth: debauchery in sex; debauchery in drink; debauchery in gambling; and evil friendship, evil companionship, evil camaraderie. Just as if there were a great reservoir with four inlets and four drains, and a man were to close the inlets and open the drains, and the sky were not to pour down proper showers, the depletion of that great reservoir could be expected, not its increase.


Considering your quote, I would say your question is primarily about consumerism, in which case your initial interpretation is obviously correct: a way of life focused on the acquisition of material wealth and the consumption of sense-pleasures by the illusory "individual self" is obviously opposed to the Buddhist way of thinking, which rather aims to discard such attachments.

But since you decided to expand the actual question to "modern capitalism", I will refer to that as well:

Firstly, in its essence, capitalism (modern or not) promotes the individualization of capital ownership and usage/decision-making, based on the idea of "individuals" that can satisfy their desires better in separation than having to subject themselves (and their capital) to the desires of "others". It's an obviously ego-based worldview, clearly opposed to the Buddhist direction, which more closely resembles (doctrinal!) communism, where all capital is to be owned by everyone together and is to be put to use for the benefit of all, as it would be if administered by people who have realized the "ego" is illusory and that there is exactly zero difference between "my" interests and the interests of "others".

Secondly, modern capitalism is strongly intertwined with the idea of the free market (or competitive market), where individual capital owners compete against eachother to get as much as possible of the money the public is willing to spend on products and services. This is even more obviously an egotistical type of system, one that not only reinforces the illusory and detrimental notion of separate individual interests, it even explicitly pits these interests against eachother, maintaining an environment of unending competition/conflict, which is pretty much guaranteed to continually generate suffering in all those on the losing side of the conflict (and if we look at today's statistics on income inequality we can see that it's actually the greater part of humanity that's on the losing side at this time).

So I'd say modern capitalism is without a doubt opposed to Buddhist thinking because it's a fundamentally individualist and conflict-based system, and furthermore because of how tightly it's coupled with consumerism and the advertising/marketing machine that's keeping so many trapped in the sense-desire gratification cycle and implicitly in dogmatic ego-belief and in the cycle of suffering.

Since my interpretation was challenged in the comments I will add some supporting reference, and since Marxist thought didn't exist in the time of the suttas of course I will have to use more modern sources, in this case an article from the Access to Insight library:

The writings of some Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Burma and elsewhere offer interesting examples of attempts to relate Buddhism to nationalism and Marxism (not to be confused with communism). Earlier in the century Anagarika Dharmapala stressed the social teaching of the Buddha and its value in liberating people from materialistic preoccupations. U Nu, the eminent Burmese Buddhist statesman, argued that socialism follows naturally from the ethical and social teachings of the Buddha, and another Burmese leader, U Ba Swe, held that Marxism is relative truth, Buddhism absolute truth. This theme has been explored more recently in Trevor Ling's book "Buddha, Marx and God," (2nd ed., Macmillan, London 1979) and Michal Edwarde's "In the Blowing out of a Flame" (Allen & Unwin 1976). Both are stimulating and controversial books. E.F. Schumacher's celebrated book "Small is Beautiful" (Blond & Briggs, London 1973) has introduced what he terms "Buddhist economics" and its urgent relevance to the modern world to many thousand of non-Buddhists.

-- Buddhism and Social Action - An Exploration, by Ken Jones

To this I would only add that the author seems to be making the same distinction I emphasized above when I said "doctrinal Communism" by calling the doctrine Marxism instead, to distinguish it from all the historical complications and deviations of (nominally) Communist practice.

  • I don't see why you say that the Buddhist direction resembles doctrinal communism. Buddhism condemns "talking what's not given" and there's advice to laypeople in the suttas (famously here) about the proper use of (private and/or family) wealth. – ChrisW Jan 20 '18 at 17:51
  • If we go into this based on such vague expressions as "taking what's not given" the discussion will never end, as both the Left and the Right can argue that the opposing side supports "theft" of some kind. I based my judgement rather on principles closer to the core of Buddhism, in this case what the attitude is toward the "individual ego". In this respect I find that (original) Communism opposes the anti-social excesses and abuses typically borne of strong belief in the "individual ego" while Capitalism champions the interests of the "individual ego" and seeks to strengthen it without limit. – Don Joe Jan 20 '18 at 18:32

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