Lama Atisha, the revered lama of the Gelugpa tradition, came across an old man, dying of starvation in Bodghaya. Lama Atisha offered his own flesh, cut from his body, to save the old man. But the old man said, “How can I eat a monk’s flesh?” Lama Atisha felt helpless in the face of this suffering. In Lama Atisha’s moment of despair—unable to help the dying man—Chenrezeig, the Compassionate One, appeared to Atisha and said, “I will manifest as Jambhala, the Buddha of wealth, to help suffering beings. I shall alleviate their poverty so they will not be distracted from practicing the good heart.” This is just one version of the timeless story of Jambhala, a “wealth deity,” a profoundly simple story that illustrates why wealth is not necessarily the root of all evils.
I recently received White Mahakala initiation from Archaya Zasep Tulku Rinpoche at Gaden Choling Mahayana Buddhist Meditation Centre. Rinpoche spoke to us about wealth deity practice, allaying some of my own reservations. One of the great perfections of practice is generosity—helping all sentient beings—and Rinpoche made it clear that we should consider wealth as a means to help others.
Although we think of Buddhism as non-materialistic, “a lack of money is an obstacle” to practice, Jonathan Ciliberto wrote in a review of “A Shower of Jewels: Deities of Wealth” in Buddhist Art News. Poverty itself, can make practice difficult. It is difficult enough to find birth in the precious human realm, our opportunity to practice the Dharma, without adding to suffering with the burden of poverty.
In the east, wealth practice is not frowned upon as it might be in western cultures, Rinpoche explained at the White Mahakala practice at Gaden Choling, and he pointed out that many traditions have similar practices, including Daoism and Hinduism.
White Mahakala himself is an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the Compassionate One. “How wonderful it is that Shakyamuni Buddha, gave us all these practices to help us,” said Rinpoche, mentioning Medicine Buddha practice for health, Manjusri for wisdom, and White Tara for long life.
The best explanation I’ve seen, from a western perspective, was from Rhi Thurman in his book Worlds of Transformation: “These deities of prosperity are… benevolent, and are helpful to spiritual people by supporting the educational purpose of life in the Buddhist perspective.” (p. 228, 232).
Why practice for wealth?
Simply put, if we are living in poverty ourselves, it is difficult to help others. If every day is a battle for survival, how can we stop to help others survive? If we can’t think beyond the next mortgage payment and the kid’s university tuition, how are we to focus on compassionate giving? How much more help is it to have enough wealth to allow us to be unselfish to as many sentient beings as possible? Rinpoche gave many examples and pointed out that the Bill Gates foundation helps many.
My take on this is that the purpose of practicing White Mahakala, or Jhambala, or any wealth deity is fundamentally to provide the means to help others, and secondarily to remove obstacles to our own practice. If we can’t afford to take time off for retreat, or we’re so worried about our bills that we put off our daily practice, we will find practice blocked. If we’re so poor we have nothing to give to others, how can we practice generosity? If we can’t even help ourselves, how can we selflessly help others?
Many Buddhists might point to monks who renounce the world to defend the notion that poverty is a merit to practice. Yet, in countries with robust Sanghas of monks, these communities rely on the charity of others who have means to give. Of course, the giving is a practice, but how much more beneficial is it to help as many beings as possible?
Ultimately, wealth practice supports dharma practice generally, helps dharma centres, and removes obstacles that arise when we do not have enough time, money or other resources.
One of the attendees at the White Mahakala practice asked if there were any dangers to this wealth practice. Rinpoche answered, with his typical beaming smile, “There is no danger if the motivation is pure.”