August 12, 2011

How we are rich.

Photo: Wonderlane

What is genuine richness?

At a time when there is so much talk about debt, and the economies of so many nations seem to be crashing while other nations watch nervously, like hungry ghosts, it is valuable to consider what genuine richness is from a Buddhist point of view.

Can there be the experience of richness even if one is relatively un-moneyed?

Trungpa Rinpoche said in his book Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

“When there is harmony, then there is also fundamental wealth.

Although at that point you might be penniless, there is no problem, you are suddenly eternally rich.”

Rinpoche is pointing to the fact that genuine richness is all about being resourceful, having a feeling of well-being and having appreciation for the world.

Walking the talk.

Rinpoche put this to the test many times in his life. First, he was forced to give up his station and motherland along with everything familiar to him—culture, language and family—to lead hundreds of Tibetan refugees for nine months over the highest and coldest mountains on earth in an attempt to escape the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

The few who made it to India then had to come to terms with an entirely foreign culture. Trungpa Rinpoche arrived there as a 19-year-old refugee, and quickly set about learning Hindi, English and everything he could about the modern world. Being resourceful and bright, he magnetized a few people who could help him, and in a few years, he had a Spalding Scholarship to Oxford.

Photo: Manuel Martin Vincente

Still, arriving in England as a lonely monk and treated as an exotic, endangered species—“a Tibetan”—life was challenging. Sometimes he would go to the museum and sit, looking at a Lohan statue, just for some meditative company and contact with the wisdom of his native culture.

He continued to learn about Western culture and how to translate the essence of the buddhadharma to the West. Meanwhile, he fell in love with ikebana, becoming skilled in that contemplative art form

When he decided to take off his robes, giving up his vows, it was so as not to appear so exotic any longer. And when he married 16-year-old Diana Pibus in Scotland, he shocked both British society and the Tibetan world at once. Then, he and his young wife arrived in Montreal, nearly penniless, and awaited for clearance to enter the United States, where Rinpoche began his famed mission of planting the Shambhala buddhadharma in the West.

Radiating confidence and good cheer, along with great vision, genuine richness came to Trungpa Rinpoche.  As he also says in the Shambhala book:

The basic practice is learning to project the goodness that exists in your being, so that a sense of genuine goodness shines out.

In other words, we all are innately good and worthy, and can radiate and extend whatever gentleness and fearlessness we have to everyone we encounter. Rinpoche’s life exemplifies doing just that.

But Rinpoche also cautioned,

“If you want to solve the world’s problems, you have to put your own household, your own individual life, in order first. […] If you do not start at home, then you have no hope of helping the world […] Your contribution to this world will be further chaos.”

Just as with meditation, Rinpoche instructed his students to work on themselves first before trying to be of benefit to others.

Often we can benefit others more by showing than by telling. If we exemplify upliftedness, it tends to have more effect than merely talking about it.

Rinpoche’s non-dual approach.

Photo: Sean MacEntee

While encouraging the gradual path—starting with ourselves, doing our own homework first—Rinpoche maintained a non-dual approach. He didn’t see situations as good versus bad, clear versus confused, sane versus neurotic, or rich versus poor. He had the king’s view, the biggest view, and saw how every experience could be used as fuel or fertilizer, and was, therefore, of value. As he said, the path “involves developing an attitude of richness and generosity. Confusion and pain are viewed as sources of inspiration, a rich resource.”

Loss and confusion are challenging motivating factors that can actually trigger our generosity, develop our patience, and inspire our exertion if we are willing to stay open. Even mishaps and misadventures—our own or others’—can be valuable if they help us to wake up and rise to the occasion.

At the very least, pain can be irritatingly wakeful if we, as meditators, are motivated to stop what we are doing, to stop creating further confusion and pain. In meditation everything is workable, perhaps because it offers such a complete full stop. But also because, post-meditation, we so often have insight into how we can use everything that occurs in our lives to wake us up.

This is the expression of a mentality of richness, rather than defeat.

The Seven Riches

Rinpoche then said that it is possible to go further in attaining genuine richness by developing “The Seven Riches of a Universal Monarch.”  These qualities were originally known as Aryan or noble riches and were first used by the rulers of ancient India. The order in which the seven are presented varies, but here is the version taken from the traditional Long Mandala Offering liturgy:

  • The precious wheel
  • The precious gem
  • The precious queen
  • The precious minister
  • The precious elephant
  • The precious horse
  • The precious general

In ancient times these were possessions. In the buddhadharma, however, these symbols of wealth were translated into virtuous offerings. So when we offer a mandala, we visualize offering these and everything of value to the enlightened ones for the benefit of all beings. The enlightened ones do not need these offerings, but are delighted by our generosity. In visualizing our giving, we enrich ourselves by giving up the giver: our ego.  As a matter of fact, whatever comes up in practice is given. In general it is ego that is stingy; it blocks our resourcefulness and innate richness. It is ego that is self-conscious.

The specific riches that we visualize offering do more than facilitate our post-meditation generosity. They also serve as symbolic reminders of uplifted qualities.

The wheel

Photo: Naveen Jamal

Traditionally, a ruler of ancient India would demonstrate his unquestioned rule by wielding an ornamental golden wheel. This idea was translated into the buddhadharma as “turning the wheel of dharma.” Buddha is said to have done this three times: first at Sarnath, teaching the Four Noble Truths on suffering; second at Vulture Peak Mountain, teaching the Heart Sutra, which emphasizes emptiness; and finally teaching on Buddha Nature as the essence of all sentient beings. Since then great dharma teachers are called Chakravartins, “turners of the wheel of dharma,” and, before a dharma-teaching, students ask the teacher to “please turn the wheel of dharma.” The wheel reminds dharma practitioners to be dharmic and to guide their households and lives in a hospitable, compassionate and enlightened way.

The gem

Photo: the justified sinner

The precious gem is the wish-fulfilling jewel; it symbolizes the ability to be open and to let go, rather than to cling in a self-satisfied or miserly manner. The wish-fulfilling jewel is the mind of generosity that does not expect anything in return. One can give food, clothes, and wealth. One can offer shelter and freedom from fear. Or one can offer dharma, which is nourishment and health for the mind and heart. The wish-fulfiling jewel is not necessarily about the power to acquire. It’s not like Alladin’s lamp. It’s more about realizing that we already have everything we need to practice. We have our body, breath, and mind, and so we are innately rich.

The queen

The queen, or spouse, represents decency. Ideally, a spouse encourages one to enjoy the shared life. Rinpoche often said that through starting a family, all the paramitas can be practiced. The experience of unconditional love for one’s children can be a launching pad for feelings of generosity, patience, honesty, sincerity and kindness towards everyone we encounter.

But Rinpoche also said that not everyone must marry; sharing and being open can also be developed within one’s circle of friends.

The minister

The minister is anyone who provides council or advice. This could be an honest friend, a meditation instructor—anyone who acts as a mirror, and who is not afraid to call you out on your errors and encourage your progress.

The elephant

The elephant symbolizes steady, unhurried discipline, unswayed by deception or confusion. Discipline keeps us on track, so that we are not easily sidetracked.

The horse

Photo: Kevin Zollman

The horse symbolizes willingness to go forward and to work with situations as they arise. We do not try to escape in cowardice, but rather we lean into tough situations, knowing that the only real way to deal with them is to go through them. We do not give up on ourselves or on others; we ride the horse, rather than letting situations ride us.

The general

The final virtue is symbolized as the precious general. This is someone like a protector, who fearlessly cares for you.


If we realize our innate goodness and worth through meditation, then we can manifest this realization through virtuous actions, post-meditation—especially with these seven noble riches as reminders.

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