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Beyond Sustainable Economy: Nonpossession and Simplicity: Ethics and Lifestyle in Buddhism and Thomas Aquino

Published: 18.06.2017



Consumerism and possessiveness have long plagued the human condition, obscuring our best inclinations. From the time of Amos[1]. In this article we will look at Buddhist and Christian theological reflections on the nature of material things, drawing from the Buddha's last words and Thomas Aquinas' discussion of the nature of God. This will be followed with a discussion of attitudes toward possessions found in the rules of Buddhist monasticism and in the writings of the early Quakers. The paper will conclude with a discussion of contemporary styles of acquisitiveness, and some reflections on the difficulties inherent in over-attachment to materiality.

Buddhist and Christian Theologies of Things

On his deathbed, the Buddha spoke to his disciple Ananda about the transient nature of things. As Ananda wept at the prospect of losing his great teacher, the Buddha began his last discourse, which includes the following observations:

Enough, Ananda, do not grieve, nor weep. Have I not already told you, Ananda, that it is in the very nature of all things near and dear to us that we must divide ourselves from them, leave them, sever ourselves from them? How is it possible, Ananda, that whatever has been born, has come into being, is organized and perishable, should not perish? That condition is not possible.... All the constituents of being are transitory; work out your salvation with diligence.[2]

This passage accentuates the Buddhist teaching of impermanence (anitya). It also offers a powerful statement regarding the ultimate status and nature of material goods.

In the Christian tradition as articulated by Thomas Aquinas, a different though parallel approach to things can be found. In addressing matters of ultimate concern, Aquinas writes at length about the simplicity of God. He states that "we cannot know what God is, but only what he is not."[3] Thomas makes clear that God is not and never can be a 'thing.' Thus, all things must be eliminated. God stands alone, unsupported, in pure simplicity (simplicitas). Only from the firm basis of God's simplicity and ineffability can subsequent attributes be discussed. He uses seven arguments to establish the ultimate nature of God as simplicity. Three will be summarized below, pertaining to the body, form and matter, and the problems presented by composite things.

Thomas argues that God cannot be a body in three ways. First, a body cannot change something without itself being changed; God cannot be changed, thus God is not a body. Second, in bodies there is a potential for further division; God cannot be divided, hence God is not a body. Third, no body can be the most excellent of things. God, as the most excellent, is not a body.

In terms of form and matter, Thomas again presents three arguments. Form and matter have potential for change; God does not change. Form and matter may participate in degrees of goodness; God precedes goodness. Matter arises from causes; God is the first cause and thus does not require matter.[4] Hence, God does not in any way depend upon form or matter.

The last argument regarding the simplicity of God that we will consider here entails a discussion of composite things. Thomas poses the question, "is there any way in which God is composite or is [God] altogether simple?"[5] Two counter-arguments are presented. The first is that the things which derive from God are not simple, therefore God cannot be simple. The second is that compound things are more perfect than simple things, therefore God, as highest perfection, must be highly complex. To defeat these arguments, Aquinas, having noted that St. Augustine observed that God is the most truly simple thing there is, asserts "everything composite is subsequent to its components and dependent on them, whilst God, as we have seen, is the first of all beings... Everything composite is caused, for essentially diverse element will not combine unless made to do so by a cause. God, however, is not caused... but is the first cause."[6]

Though the Buddha would not name the ultimate reality, he too argued on his deathbed that all constructed phenomena are temporary. Sounding quite similar to the Buddhist arguments found in the Questions of King Milinda, Thomas states that "no part of a man is a man, and no part of a foot is a foot."[7] Nagasena posed the problem that a chariot cannot be found in the wheels, or spokes, or any part of the chariot, using this argument to prove that a lasting self or essence in things cannot be posited. St. Thomas uses his argument to prove that God is not composite, once more asserting the simplicity and transcendence of God.

In his closing statement regarding the nature of God's simpleness, Thomas states that God cannot enter into composition with other things. Because God is the first cause, the "source of activity" and not component, God remains pure and untainted by any component things. God does not mix with the things of the world.[8]

Lifestyle and Ethics

Given these parallel premises regarding the non-composite nature of ultimate concern in Buddhism and Christianity, I want now to turn to a discussion of the possession of things, and the approach to things advocated within the Buddhism and Christian tradition. As we have seen, all things are comprised of parts. In the Christian tradition, all things are derivative in nature. In the Buddhist tradition, all things are empty of an inherent, independent nature or existence. Both traditions advocate moving beyond concern for things in their particularity. By seeing the dependent nature of constructed phenomena, one comes closer to the telos (Greek: goal, purpose) of religious practice. In Buddhism this results in an enlightened view; in Christianity this brings one closer to God.

In order to enact this vision, both traditions developed an abstemious ethics, designed to move one away from obsession with constructed things. Here I will cite from the Buddhist vinaya or rules of monastic discipline. In a separate article on The Simple Life within the Quaker Tradition[9] I will discuss the ideal of the simple life within Quaker tradition.

The ten precepts of Buddhism provide the outline for the lifestyle expected of Buddhist monks:

  • Abstinence from destroying life;
  • Abstinence from theft;
  • Abstinence from fornication and all uncleanness
  • Abstinence from lying;
  • Abstinence from fermented liquor, spirits, and strong drink...;
  • Abstinence from eating at forbidden times;
  • Abstinence from dancing, singing, and shows;
  • Abstinence from adorning and beautifying the person by use of garlands, perfumes, and unguents;
  • Abstinence from using a high or a large couch or seat;
  • Abstinence from receiving gold and silver.[10]

These ten, well known throughout all schools of Buddhism, provide the foundation and frame for the detailed and complex rules to be observed by monks in their daily life. Five of these pertain to things from which one should abstain: theft, liquor, cosmetics, furniture, and money. As Conze has noted, "A monk possessed almost no private property at all. He was allowed to have his robes, an alms bowl, a needle, a rosary, a razor with which to shave the head every fortnight, and a filter which served to remove little animals from his drinking water."[11] During the early period, the robes consisted of rags culled from rubbish heaps; later annual presentations of robes to the monks by the lay community became part of the tradition, particularly in Southeast Asia.[12] Monks were allowed to own no more than three robes. If his alms bowl is broken and patched in less than five places, it may not be replaced.[13] This life of minimal possessions reflects the Buddhist philosophy of lessening desire in order to reduce suffering. By owning less items, the Buddhist monk is less encumbered.


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Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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  1. Anitya
  2. Body
  3. Buddha
  4. Buddhism
  5. Christianity
  6. Consumerism
  7. Discipline
  8. Sanskrit
  9. Vinaya
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