Once upon a time, a monk arrived at the outskirts of a village and settled down under a tree to rest for the night. Early the next morning he was woken up by a man. The man was from the village.
He said to the monk, “Give me the stone.” The man had been told by the village deity in a dream that he would find a monk outside the village who had a stone that would make him extremely wealthy.
“I want that stone,” said the man to the monk. The monk took out a stone from his little bundle of possessions. It was a diamond as big as a fist. “I found it in the forest yesterday. Here, take it. It’s yours,” said the monk. The man was overjoyed as he grabbed the diamond and ran back to his village.
That whole day, the man considered his wealth and made big plans about all the things he would buy and how happy he would be. His imagination ran wild. He was rich. Richer than everyone he knew. And then suddenly he remembered the monk at the edge of the village. The monk had given him the diamond without the slightest hesitation. The man ran back to the monk, fell to his knees and said, “Sir, tell me how I can get the inner wealth and contentment compared to which all external wealth is worthless?”
I don’t know what the monk told the man. Perhaps there’s no answer. Perhaps there’s no way to communicate in words an inner realization of contentment and peace which we desire. Perhaps one has to arrive at the answer by oneself through some process that cannot be, in modern parlance, outsourced. You have to walk the walk. You cannot learn the solution to the problem from others. The best you can do is learn that a solution exists since others before you have found it.
The Buddha is also called the Tathagata. Tatha — thus. Gata — gone. Therefore, thus gone. Someone who has gone this way before.
It’s a proof of the existence of a solution, but not the solution itself. It’s what is called an existence proof. That’s the mirror opposite of proofs that say that no solution to a particular problem exists or can even ever exist. It’s what is called an “impossibility” theorem. Many of them are known. Examples: Godel’s incompleteness theorem, and Turing’s halting problem.
It’s just that we have to somehow come to a realization of what is the solution. But that’s not given to us. Either we get it or we don’t. It is. Tathastu.
I value wealth but as an economist — a profession that’s singularly obsessed with what wealth is — I know that it is just a means to an end. Wealth is not the terminal value. The terminal value is what wealth allows you to achieve. It allows you to go beyond the necessity of needing wealth.
Wealth does not buy you contentment although is does buy you the means that allows you to go beyond it. The illusion that wealth buys you happiness — a huge component of contentment — is a significant part of the story.
I like to refer to a hugely entertaining British TV series called “Bless Me Father” which is about a parish priest and his young curate. In one episode, the young curate asks the old priest, “Father, why do you spend so much time with the rich when you should really be ministering to the poor?”
The old parish priest replies, “The rich need our services more than the poor do. The rich don’t even have the illusion that money is the answer to all their problems.”
Which brings me to the core issue: wealth is only a means and not the end. The end is contentment. But without getting to the intermediate state of having sufficient wealth to realize that wealth is not the answer to all of one’s problems, transcending the fascination with wealth is not possible.
Having sufficient wealth is an unavoidable step to the essential realization that wealth is not what matters. You have to have a great deal of wealth to realize that wealth is not the answer to the most persistent existential questions.
Which is why I as an economist focus on figuring out how everyone can be so wealthy that they can figure out for themselves that wealth does not matter. Wealth is necessary but not sufficient.
The monk in the story certainly did not have much wealth. But he, unlike most of us, realized that wealth doesn’t matter even without having superfluous wealth. We, in contrast, can only realize that wealth does not matter only after we have actually possessed great wealth.
That gives me hope for optimism. I am certain that the world will become fabulously wealthy in a few decades. That will allow humanity to come to that state of contentment that is beyond material wealth, but that stage cannot be attained without the intervening stage of widespread material wealth.
I call that stage of widespread material wealth as superabundance. The good news is that we are at the threshold of superabundance. You may ask, how and when. I was coming to that.