Category Archives: zen practice and money

The Big Short, Zen, and Chogyam Trungpa

Big ShortSee these guys? These guys are portraying big money investor types on Wall street in The Big Short, which I just came home from seeing. These are the kind of people who have 50 million dollars to invest, in something. I never got even remotely close to anyone like this, but I was taking on mortgages during that era and I saw the madness on the street level up close.

In 1998 I wrote this poem:

“Middle aged white men with excellent credit, the Mortgage Man and I become kings of the Earth for a while.

Our bald heads shine in the soft Spring sunlit office, and his eyes twinkle as he spins out sheets and sheets of numbers.

My income and debts expand and contract with only a moments thought, and what I’m worth and how much I can afford all depends on how we look at them. Kings of the Earth can borrow enough to do anything !

His friends, the lenders, love me. My credit history shines for them like the Hope Diamond. They will lend me more money than I could ever pay back !!”

And that was what the banks did, they lent money to hundreds of thousands of people who couldn’t afford to repay them, and that’s what led to the Great Recession that almost brought down the world economy, and cost 6 million their homes. But I’m going to highlight a different side to the crisis that the movie ignores.

As mentioned in the movie I could get, and did get, more than one, “no income verification” loans. In other words, all you had to do was tell the lender how much you made and no one checked to see if you were telling the truth ! The Mortgage broker often encouraged me to borrow more and more money during those years, I remember having to say no thanks to huge loans that I couldn’t afford. But you know what saves us from being seduced? Practice.

Chogyam Trungpa tells us that, “Wisdom is seeing and knowing.” In everyday language you could interpret this as, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Because if someone is offering you a deal which is going to screw you over, you can SEE and KNOW that. Now, anyone can become more wise. It’s not a factor of your IQ, or your background, or your education. Trungpa tells us how to become more wise, “The Earthy situation of actual things as they are is the source of wisdom. You can become completely one with smell, with sight, with sound, and your knowledge about them ceases to exist; your knowledge becomes wisdom.”

So, I was wise, I saw, and knew, that this whole thing was a trap, and I could lose my shirt, so I said no. I tapped out my little numbers on my little calculator and knew that I couldn’t make the big payments on these big loans and I said no, many times. You can too. Just say No when a deal seems too good to be true. Be wise. And, if you’re not wise, there is hope. There are things you can do that will help you be more wise. They are hard works, they involve being more present, and Seeing and Knowing.





Good advice from a Tibetan Buddhist Teacher

mr. burns“When we’re stingy we always feel poor because we never have enough. Even when we have billions, if we’re only focused on how much more we can get, how to beat our rivals, we still feel dissatisfied. We lose a few million and we feel deep agony, in spite of our remaining billion. Whereas someone with nothing can be happy with that nothing, if they are preoccupied with how someone else is. Wealth is contentment, the happiness of forgetting about how much you have.” – Robert Thurman

While I don’t know any billionaire landlords, his words are a great reminder for most Americans who have more than we really need, and particularly for us landlords who are probably more wealthy than 95% of the people on this planet – even if all we own is a little one bedroom studio apartment tacked onto the back of our house.


Last Saturday the Blogger gave a talk at the Zen Center of Portland called Practicing with Money.

Practicing with Money

Lately I was thinking about a certain lack of motivation to give a talk, and was realizing that Larry’s talks seem to satisfy the needs of our center, so I haven’t felt like there was a reason for me to get up here and flap my lips. However – a few years ago I suggested that Larry give a talk about money ( he seems to have figured it out pretty well ), and he hasn’t gotten around to it yet, so I thought perhaps I would try that subject on for size.

Perhaps a bit of background will be helpful because maybe you have had similar experiences or you are going through these same issues now.

My adult life began with real resentment and then depression about money and the need to make a living. Through college it wasn’t much of an issue. Although I always had a job, my parents were always backing me up, and I had no real pressure to support myself.  When those not so halcyon days were ended and my friends and I launched into the “REAL WORLD” I watched most of them take any job they could get, turning their backs completely on their dreams and true natures. Instead of that I tried my best to stick with putting my deeper desires first and money second. Consequently I was very poor for years, but I tried to follow my heart and eventually I found Zen practice — and the refining process of practice slowly brought me to a place of greater comfort with money and the ways of “MAKING” it.

BTW during my younger days my guru was Bob Dylan  who once said – “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” 

Also, via the process of finding teachers much more wise than Bob Dylan, I found that I could actually work hard without resenting it, and slowly ended up a small time Real Estate Investor and Landlord.

Like all of us I have a long history of dealing with money. Some of my earliest memories relate to it, like my Uncle giving me a quarter every time he came over to visit. But perhaps my earliest money memory is from when I was about 5 or 6 years old and I lost 2 dollars. This was a long long time ago and an incredible amount back then. I was inconsolable. Even then I knew that I wanted to have money and not lose it.

Do you too have a memory of losing money at some time in your life ?

As you remember it is there a physical sensation that accompanies the memory ? While the money loosing event may have happened one or five or fifteen years ago, it is not happening now. However, what IS happening right now is the physical “hangover,” you might say. ( I have this too, right now ) It may be some pain/regret/thinking or some anger/pain/thinking.

Is there a constricted and tight feeling in the chest or the face ? Can we experience it for a little bit, letting it be there without trying to change it ?

Can we also notice that we are forming a picture of it ? Picturing it as chest, or as jaw, causes a separation. Picturing it as having a shape separates from it.

If we locate and name it intellectually with pictures or thought – we freeze and maintain it.

If we can just look and see – This sensation is not in our chests because chest is just a thought, let the sensation be everywhere – it’s in the air we breathe and the people around us and the walls of this room and in the person that swindled us or took advantage of us, what we think of as us – and what we think of as OUR sensations are not separate from anything.

And it’s not an IT but It has it’s roots in our parents attitudes about money and their parent’s parents attitude. It’s made up of hormones and nerves and flowing blood and oxygen and bone and these things have no volition of their own. They’re just responding to an empty thought/belief coming from who knows where. So this money/thought/belief causes a lot of suffering and that’s why it’s so good to see it clearly and let it float free. Just like all the thought/beliefs we can liberate through practice.

So – We drop the picture and thoughts we make and “come closer” to the sensations, and the sensations can be experienced, “emptily”….. and the  more subtle sensations that we picture as being “around” the hard sensations are also emptily empty.

Back to Money…..  As I mentioned earlier Bob Dylan said that, “ Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” I vehemently agreed with Bob when I was 22, but at this time, I hope that he and I have both realized that he was wrong.  My first teacher Joko Beck said that there was nothing wrong with money or even that it had any intrinsic value. What she said was important was how we affected the world by our use of it – WHAT WE DO WITH IT.

So we all know that it’s important to acquire it, retain it, and also spread it around, with as much wisdom and compassion that we can muster.

And – while there seems to be no reason to not have money and acquire wealth and enjoy our lives in that way, it’s obvious problems arise when our pursuit of it, or our distribution of it, creates suffering.

Once, Joko used the example that being a Bartender was not exactly beneficial and would be an example of a job that created suffering, and of course, any income produced by the making of war or the harming of the environment would be tantamount, to suicide.

So, how do we make money ? We try to find a way that doesn’t harm anything. It’s good to follow your heart, but depending on where you are in life you may need to clarify your heart/mind through practice first – in order to identify a true calling not based on the self-centered dream. I think when we try to make money based purely on our desire to have more money, we will be lead in the wrong direction. Some of our cultures deepest Attitudes towards money points to this – more about that later.

Honesty about what it means to us to make a living and how we think and feel about making a living is valuable as clarifying means. As mentioned earlier – the idea that I had to make money used to depress me to no end, and it sometimes still feels heavy, but I’ve come to see that it supplies us with a worthy challenge.

Because It’s hard to say for sure that a life without this challenge is better, isn’t it ?

We can all see that a life of  total leisure can be very disturbing. Look at the madness that happens with young actors or musicians who suddenly have great wealth. Sometimes they go crazy and never seem to recover, but the ones who keep working even though they don’t need the money anymore seem to do better. Isn’t that interesting ?

Even though people like Merle Streep have more money than they could possibly spend, they continue working and making movies, What does that say about human nature ?  Perhaps that we need challenges to grow and live a satisfying life.

I think people like Merle Streep have learned that just doing what pleases you most every day is a really boring way to live, and they have transformed the challenge of making a living into perhaps  more personal challenge like improving their art.

I think another issue pointed out for us by the Hollywood stars that go crazy is that unless you have a lot of maturity, it may be better to have enough money, but not too much. Like the guitar strings that should be neither too tight or too loose, it may be best to have just the right amount of money that you need to enjoy your life, not too much and not too little.

We have all heard the phrase, “Money is the root of all evil” and many of us were raised to believe that.

I had never known that this comes from the Bible, from the book of Timothy, and we have shortened it to a convenient sound bite which changes it’s meaning substantially – the actual quote via the King James version is, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

According to something called the New Living Translation it goes like this – “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” So what the Bible is actually saying is that not money, but the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.  That makes a lot more sense doesn’t it,  ? if you love money more than people or yourself, or the earth, then you will “pierce yourself with many sorrows.”

The love of money causes us to harm OURSELVES !

BTW I find it interesting to note that the classic 70s hit song “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays comes directly from this bible quote :

“For the love of money – ( it’s the same first five words )
People will steal from their mother –
For the love of money – People will rob their own brother”

On the other hand, if we desire to be of service to ALL humans/people/plants/animals/earth/the stars and more, or life itself, in all our interactions, I think we can provide nicely for ourselves since we also are life itself.

One way I try to practice this in my livelihood as a Landlord is to try to manifest Compassion extending in all directions, because If compassion extends in ALL directions we can take care of ourselves and our loved ones and everyone and everything we encounter at the same time.

Often people are only compassionate to themselves and their families and things go haywire – They end up typical landlords screwing their tenants every chance they get in the misguided attempt to be safe.

Now – on another hand – if one grew up in the 60s, or was raised by altruistic parents, or if I consider myself a Good Buddhist – I might make the mistake of only pointing compassion in the direction of my tenants – forgetting all about my daughter, my cat and the owners and staff of Chase Bank who loaned me $250,000 !!

I’ve seen this mistake in people who started businesses but were too involved in wanting to be a different kind of business person. They were too involved in their self image and their desire to be good and to be seen as good. They wanted SO BADLY to be good people – that they built beautiful enterprises based on unsustainably cheap prices, and within a few years they were out of business. As my son at college was just reporting to us recently, when speaking about farming practices – “Sustainable farming also means being able to stay in business !”

 I believe the concept of extending Compassion in all directions, 360 degrees plus up and down – can apply to anyone’s dealings with money or business, or working life. It’s valuable to be compassionate towards your boss or your employees, but not so much that you are harming yourself !

My favorite simple illustration of the problems caused by extending compassion unilaterally is when someone unnecessarily stops their car on a busy street to let a person cross. How many times have you almost rear-ended someone like that ? Their compassionate attention is doing what ??

It’s going towards the front but not the back !

We have all seen our friends struggle with the wars that money can cause between wives and husbands, parents and children and between friends. SO – Another aspect of money I would like to discuss today is the meticulous care we can give to honest and positive monetary dealings with friends, family and even institutions.

 I can’t say how our relationships with our family persists over time. But, I do have a very strong feeling and experience that these people with whom we share DNA stay close to us on into the future beyond this life – and if we wish to enjoy life into the distant future the care of these relationships is paramount that. And -perhaps the Paramitas of Generosity, Patience, Truthfulness and Loving Kindness are most pertinent at times of familial and financial stress – we can let these qualities consume all involved -including ourselves.

With Attention we can even enjoy paying our bills on the computer or writing a check – at that moment we’re taking care of these people, or these companies and their employees, there can be no thought that they are “out to get me”.

Remembering the precepts, or if your prefer, The Christian Commandments, also help us deal with money in a more intelligent way. Have you noticed that your friends who have been divorced take a huge financial hit from it ? It seems that Two horses pulling together can plow a much bigger field than two each going their own way.  How does this connect to the precepts ?  How many marriages end because of the misuse of sexuality and our allegiance to the self-centered dream ?

This phrase reminded me of the Pledge of Allegiance and our personal version of it – maybe it goes something like this —-

“I pledge allegiance, to the Dream, of a separate and independent self, and to the delusion for which it stands, one fantasy, without truth – with suffering and misery for all.”

But we can notice our tendency to live this way and let it all just float away.

So we have the opportunity to use some simple practice principles in our relationships with money. Among other things they might be :

1 ) Attention to the physical sensations that accompany our money beliefs and thinking. Knowing – even if it just something we tell ourselves – that these are empty.

2 ) Finding our way to  Right Livelihood and Motivation, if we haven’t already, through the shining light of our attention.

3 ) Practicing generosity and patience with those we care about, as well as strangers and businesses, when it comes to money.

And Finally –

4 ) Remembering that compassion wants to flow everywhere – not just to ourselves and not just to others – but to all of us and to all of them !!!

Even thought there is only us !!

Thank You