Money and the Middle Way

When I was 5, I soaked a bucketful of pennies in blue starch. It
was that kindergarten kind of starch, a magical substance. Before I
went to bed, I poured the pennies under my pillow. The plan was
this: While I dreamed on top of them, God would take them for the
poor in heaven.

In the morning, it was a moment or two before I remembered that
a miraculous absence lay in wait for me under my pillow. I lifted
the pillow up from the bed — but it wouldn’t lift. I pulled until
the pillowcase ripped, the pillow came away in my hands, and then I
saw it: a greenish foam of copper pennies congealed in
sour-smelling glue.

I was stunned. The starch, which was to be the medium of
transformation, had instead become the medium of a ghastly stasis
in my bed. The shiny pennies, which I had been gathering and
admiring for weeks, had turned on me. Fortunately, my mother was
understanding. She didn’t scold me for the ruined sheet and
pillowcase, or for the mattress that had to be washed and dragged
into the sun. She explained that there were no poor people in
heaven and that God had no need of money.

From that morning on, there was a gulf for me between money and
God. I had made a valiant attempt to become intimate with money. I
had slept one whole night with it in my bed — and I’d been
betrayed. I had mixed it with my soul’s aspiration, in the form of
the magic blue starch, but the coins had revealed their gross
material nature. Money had fallen out of grace.

When I went to church and heard ‘It is harder for a rich man to
enter the gates of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of
a needle,’ I believed. I had seen for myself that money was a dirty
thing. Throughout my childhood, those smelly coins mingled with
images of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneylenders, Saint
Francis preaching to the birds in his brown robe and sandals, frail
Bernadette of Lourdes bent under her load of sticks. As a teenager
in the ’60s, I easily grafted these images of Christian poverty to
the bare feet, the paisley clothes, the yurt, the homemade yogurt
thickening in the sun, the plastic bags hung out to dry, the
backpack and hitched ride that were the modest emblems of my
generation’s giant plans to save the planet. Then, discovering
Buddhism at 18, I was drawn to yet another powerful tradition of
simplicity: the monk and his bowl, the moon in his hut, the raked
rock garden, the twirling of a single flower that expressed release
from the suffering of desire.

Some years ago, at a friend’s behest, I filled out a
questionnaire: ‘What’s Your Money Personality?’ I came out with the
highest possible rating for the ‘Spiritual Poverty’ type. When I
read the definition of this type, I recognized myself — along with
most of my friends. For us there was a link between being poor and
feeling blessed.

At 29, I married a man I met at the Zen Center in Rochester, New
York. Eliot was a mime who could sit on air, talk on a nonexistent
telephone, and swim without water. He lived down the street from
me, in a sort of Zen rooming house where he occupied a brown room
so unadorned that once I told him it looked like the room of a
blind person. The only decoration was a huge yellow moon that hung
from the ceiling, a vinyl moon that he had stitched himself.

After we married, he moved into my house, contributing his
yellow moon, his tattered clothes, and the rusted red wagon he’d
had since childhood. We set our zafus alongside each other and
merged our two extravagant mountains of books on Buddhism. We rose
before dawn to go to the Zen Center. We saved our money to attend
retreats. He performed for schoolchildren; I worked as a nanny.

Austere? Yes — but it had its own abundance. Along with our
comrades, we felt extremely lucky to be devoting ourselves to the
Great Matter: suffering and liberation. This was both a necessity
and a luxury to us — and there were other gifts, too. In the
shared intensity of Zen practice, deep friendships flourished; in
the interstices of strict discipline, wild laughter bloomed. When
we weren’t sitting in the zendo or working at our menial jobs, we
confessed our great Zen gaffes, concocted lavish vegetarian feasts,
and engaged in a constant potlatch-swapping of clothes, household
goods, and services: one massage in exchange for two loads of fine
compost, three homeopathic tinctures, four loaves of fresh-baked
bread.

And now? Eliot and I are no longer married, but we live close to
each other in Northern California, and our teenage daughter moves
easily back and forth between our homes. He rents a crooked little
house that looks like a glorified chicken coop. I live in a solid
little house that I managed to buy last year, having taken my first
‘real job’ as a full-time college professor a few months shy of
turning 50. Though many of our friends from various Buddhist
communities did eventually move into professional careers, an equal
number remain economically marginal; they drive ancient cars, still
shop at thrift stores, have bad teeth and no holdings.

Is it any wonder that most of my close friends and I completely
missed the great bull market of the late 20th century? I’ve found
it strange to see those other baby boomers — the ones who tended
their money — suddenly discovering spirituality. I marvel at the
explosion of books on meditation, the mainstreaming of yoga, the
Zen coffee mugs and calendars and dummies’ guides to enlightenment.
‘Have you just discovered your mortality now?’ I sometimes feel
like shouting in the bookstore, as I head straight for the shelf
marked ‘Personal Finance.’

I have no regrets about the course we took. There’s a phrase in
Zen about ‘the fish that can be caught with a straight hook’ — and
I still feel incredibly lucky to have swum in that school of fish.
We didn’t wait to be yanked by the barbed hook of wrinkled faces
and creaking joints; we poured the freshness of our youth into the
quest to find out where do we come from and where are we
going?
Sometimes, however, when I think of the lack of concern
that my companions and I had for money, it does seem a kind of
hubris to me, a blindness to a particular kind of karma, to certain
laws of cause and effect. I have come to a belated admiration for
people who have truly made their way in the world, to an
appreciation of the discipline it took.

Recently I even tried an experiment. I put a small handful of
coins under my zafu, the same red and purple zafu I’ve had since I
was 18. Then I sat on it. It felt weird, as though I might get
bucked off at any moment, but I gritted my teeth and continued. I
knew that I just had to sit with the weirdness, with the feeling
that I was somehow desecrating the seat of meditation — but it was
hard. When my timer dinged, I lifted the cushion up, and there were
the coins. Neither gloriously absent nor disgustingly present, they
were just sitting there, as inherently blameless as anything else
in the universe: a bird, a rock, a blade of grass. I gathered them
up and put them back in my wallet — the red wallet that a friend
bought me recently to attract prosperity — and it struck me that
perhaps I was beginning, just beginning, to walk the Middle
Way.

Reprinted from the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle
(Summer 2004). Subscriptions: $24 (4 issues) from 92 Vandam
St., New York, NY 10013;
www.tricycle.com.

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