Does greed truly pay off?

…there is no torrent like greed
– Dhammapada 251

As I may have already stated, I try to avoid the popular media like the televised news on a daily basis. Yesterday however I turned on the television and was appalled by what I saw. There, behind the head of the news-reader it was in fat, bold lettering: “Greed does pay off.” As a Buddhist, this immediately caught my attention. I instantly felt a form of compassion for those who would fall for such an ignorant statement.

The news item stated that new research had been carried out about the relationship between personal characteristics and the amount of salary or income in working life. The item explained that greedy people earn more money and that greed is thus rewarded in modern-day western society. People in the financial and banking sector, as well as sales-managers thrive on a greedy lifestyle, the article explained. Could that really be true? I already know that economic life in Netherlands is based on a management-culture, in which economic wealth and prestige are often praised, a sure way to suffering and depression in my experience, but I would never have imagined that greed could be praised so openly in this society!

As a scientist, I have been taught to think sceptical and I started reading and Googling right away. The research was undertaken by Nyenrode Bussiness University and Intermediair Magazine. A national salary survey was carried out among 100.000 people, looking into their salary, working conditions and personality traits like openness, need to perform, altruism and division of power. I ran into the first responding articles, claiming that “Bankers agree that they are in fact greedy.” However, I pretty soon ran into a very recent article claiming the exact opposite: “Greed does not give rise to a higher salary” (in Dutch).  This article does however state that bankers and people in the financial and sales sector, as well as estate agents, are more likely to be driven by greed than their colleagues in education, the care industry or civil services. According to another article, Nyenrode psychology professor Jaap van Muijen states that “If it is used productively, greed can drive economic growth and renewal. But if greed is left unchecked, it can lead to destructive behaviour.”

As competitive beings, being greedy comes naturally to us. Competition is the main force guiding life forward for all organisms. We all want the best living conditions for our offspring, that’s a natural fact. But competition leads to conflict. Conflict leads to suffering. Living without a certain degree of greed is not possible. Frank Sonnenberg wrote a good article on his blog about the many faces of greed. Buddhism teaches us that there is always a middle way between two extremes and that the middle way is the best way to choose. There is also a middle way between extreme greed and extreme generosity. ‘Moderation’ is a good choice of words here.

One of the main principles of Buddhism is the 4 Noble Truths.
The first noble truth states that there is suffering in the world, called Dukhha. This kind of suffering manifested itself to me when I noticed that I was unhappy with the world and my perception of the things around me for example. That kind of suffering, this discontent with your world as it is, is Dukhha.
Now, the second noble truth states that the cause of suffering is desire. Desire of the senses and the desire of existence. Greed is one of the strongest forms of desire.
The third noble truth states that there is a solution for suffering: awakening and seeing the truth (seeing the things how they are, without pre-fixed concepts).
The last noble truth provides us with the way of ending all suffering: the noble eightfold path.

The opposite of seeing the truth is being ignorant. Deliberately and intentionally maintained ignorance is the main cause of suffering. It is easier to be ignorant, to be attached to the ideas you have, to cling to the notion of the self and to let others think for you, it is easy to be greedy. Greed is recognised as one of the main roots of desire and thus suffering, it is an extreme form of attachment to material possession and mental dominance. Wealth, prestige, fame and fortune all come forth from the concept of greediness.

Think of greed as a drug. We want something badly, let’s say a better job or a fancier I-phone. We crave for it. We yearn for it. We start to pursue it and eventually we reachour goal. We are content with the thing we gained, like that I-phone. We use it, show it off and fell happy. But as Buddhism teaches us: Everything is perishable, everything will eventually wear down and break, even the mountains if you wait for it long enough. The I-phone will break or after a while you grow weary of it. A newer, more flashy phone with more options will be released and sales-managers and marketeers will play on your greed with advertisements and social pressure. Pretty soon, you want that newest version of the phone. You crave. You want more. You suffer.

Jealousy and greed are two sides of the same coin. Just think of it. How many times do you think: “What if I….”, or “Had I only had the money…” Admit it, you are always looking for better things in life. A better job, a better television, a better computer or game console, a better car, more money. We always want more and modern society, modern economy thrives on that idea. We live in a society in which prestige, wealth and competition are praised. But this competitive life will lead to conflict and this conflict will eventually lead to suffering, because of our attachment to material and psychological gain.

Eventually your life is perishable as well and the only real certainty you have in life is knowing that one day you will die. When you die, you can take nothing with you, you will have to leave all your material possessions behind. Other than the experiences and memories in your head: the mind. Your mind is your only true possession. So take good care of your mind, train it well and avoid all forms of suffering wherever possible in order to enjoy your life. Charlotte Kasl explain in her book ‘if the Buddha got stuck’: “The goal of life is not to gain achievements or success. It’s about touching, feeling and seeing. It’s about consciously being mindful of every moment in the present.” Buddhist scholar Shantideva said:

Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy,
And whatever suffering there is in this world
All comes from desiring myself to be happy”

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso of the Kadampa Buddhist tradition wrote about the Advice from Atisha’s Heart in his ‘New Mediatation Handbook”: “Avoid all greed. Words of praise and fame deceive us, blow them away [like a foul wind].”

Buddhism teaches us the art of detachment, letting go of unnecessary ignorant ideas, like greed. This way, we will avoid suffering from these ideas.Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche (you may know him from the 1993 film Little Buddha in which he played Kenpo Tenzin) explained attachment in a beautiful way: If you hold a precious coin, you hold it firmly in your fist, afraid to lose it. You cling onto it, focusing all your energy on holding that coin and protecting it. That is attachment. Now, turn your hand around with the palm facing upward and open your fingers. The coin will still be there, it will not go anywhere, but now you are relaxing your hand. You are still holding the coin, but the feeling of attachment is gone, you are at peace.

With these examples of Buddhist wisdom it should become clear that greed is not good and greed does not gain anything. Greed and jealousy reflect the suffering of extreme attachment and they are an indication of low self-confidence, looking for acknowledgement in perishable ideas like fame and wealth. Moderation and compassion, the middle way, will bring you true wealthand happiness. Content yourself with the life you have, not with the things you don’t have. Material property does not brin true happiness. What makes you happy is that which is already given, like the air you breathe, the new hours of the day that lie before you when you get up, the sun shining, the freedom you have to be where you are!

I could go on for hours and write many more pages on this subject but I’m afraid things will spiral out of control and I will lose your attention. So I’m going to leave it at this for now. As the Buddha said:

Let us live happily then, free from greed among the greedy! among men who are greedy let us dwell free from greed!”

– Dhammapada 199


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