David Loy graces us with a book of essays, provocatively titled with a compelling cover design presenting the four big human hang ups: money, sex, war, karma. (Money, War, Sex, Karma: Notes for Buddhist Revolution, 2008, Wisdom Publications). In his essay, “Lack of Money” Loy reminds us that money is a symbol. In an of itself a dollar bill can’t do much for us, unless we use it a signatory of value. The problem is that we look to this symbol to fill some perceived lack within ourselves, our “emptiness.” He cautions that we wind up knowing “the price of everything but the value of nothing.” If we look to money to fill our sense of lack, we’ll be in trouble. If we mistake the symbol for reality, then we’ll really be in trouble. Ironically, we are not too materialistic but not materialistic enough because we are in love with a symbol. “Because we are so preoccupied with the symbolism that we end up devaluing life itself. We are infatuated less with the things that money can buy that with their power and status.” He also sounds a note of caution regarding debt, how it has become the basis for our economy and by doing so, “the social result is a generalized pressure for continuous growthand expansion, because that is the only way to repay the accumulating dept. This constant pressure for growth is indifferent to other social and ecological consequences.” His final warning is to, “Those who use it to become more real end up being used by it, their alienated sense of self clutching a blank check–a promissory note that can never be cashed.”
I think he is dead-on in these observations. Money has become a proxy for worth. And it goes beyond worth to the very sense of our ontological status. “I am because I have a lot of money” (or “I am less than because I don’t have a a lot of money”). Descartes would be rolling over in his grave, “I spend therefore I am.” Of course this leaves us feel rather empty as you probably already know from your latest jag of retail therapy. Hedonic adaptation predicts this. The shiny new car gives us pleasure for a while because it is, well, new and shiny. However our brains adapt and that newness wears off, probably before the new car smell. It’s only a problem if we look to the car to do something for us other than to take us from point A to point B and back again. If we look to the car to make us whole or real, it won’t work. Such pursuits just reinforce our sense of a solid self independent of everything around us — that sense of self that “owns” the car. It also encourages greed because we can never have enough. And, of course, it flies in the face of impermanence because whatever desire we have now will change and whatever things we have now grow old, get sick, and eventually die. Just like you and me!