Sunday, June 5, 2011

Is it just a job or Right Livelihood?

So maybe you’re in a gay club admiring the twinky go-go boy gyrating on the bar and you’re just about to stuff a fiver into the guy’s aussieBums when suddenly your mind is penetrated with a keen thought: Is this Right Livelihood?

OK, so maybe you’re not thinking that. Maybe you’re focused on the likelihood you’ll get a chance to brush your hand against the supreme package and maybe even get a kiss out of it. Forget it, he’s got a boyfriend already. His kiss means nothing.

But what is Right Livelihood? Just some more oppressive rules to restrict us homos into a box of moralistic confinement? I mean sheesh, look what a lot of them try to do to us with the Third Precept!

Susan Elbaum Jootla writes that our serious consideration of what Right Livelihood means and how it applies to us is a natural step to take after one has been meditating for a while. It is so natural, in fact, that it may not be us who begins to take a closer look at this issue, but our own doubts about what we do may begin to bubble up in our minds as we become more aware of how our lives are interconnected with social fabrications that continually bind us in the state of samsara.

“OK, whoa dude! WTF are you talking about? Does this mean my job as a clerk in a sex toy shop doesn’t qualify as this Right Livelihood thing?”

You may laugh my fellow queerlings at my simplistic example, but consider this. Suppose you work for an online company that caters to the gay community that is filled with important information for that community about politics, social issues and self-help? And suppose it is also a site that actively seeks advertiser money from companies that sell sex toys, pornography and glorify, as well as promote, large circuit party activities that play upon the notion of free and easy sex, or takes money from clubs and bars whose primary source of revenue is through the sale of alcohol. All you do is edit content, or maybe you work in the billing department. The lines are blurred now, aren’t they?

It’s probably wise to start at the beginning – what did the Buddha say? And in the Anguttara Nikaya, there is a very short passage in the Book of Fives known as the Vanijja Sutta:

“Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.

“These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in.”

What does this mean? Jootla explains that the activities “prohibited” to lay followers include “those in which the disciple would be directly, on his own responsibility, involved in breaking one or more of the Five Precepts, which are the very basic moral rules for the Buddhist layman.”

That appears simple enough, but Jootla goes on to inject a bit of specific morality into her explanation that may strike one as being absolutist. For example, does this statement go too far?

“Breeding animals for slaughter as meat or for other uses that may be made of the carcasses is not allowed because this obviously implies breaking the First Precept: I shall abstain from killing. Similarly, anyone trying to follow the teachings of the Buddha should avoid hunting and fishing, nor can he be an exterminator of animals.”

And what about it when Jootla says that, “to help others directly in breaking any of (the precepts) is certainly wrong livelihood.”

Well now, what of the earlier example of our modest gay boy who is an accountant with our fictitious website? He’s not directly involved in assisting others in breaking the precepts, but he also knows that if the website is not successful selling ads, and if the advertisers believe that visitors to the site aren’t clicking on those ads for their products or services, then revenue dries up and our modest gay boy might be laid off, and that’s not the good kind of being laid.

In general, we must acknowledge the world we live in and do our best to emulate the practice. Absolutist positions are seldom helpful. We might have been deeply involved in our careers before we began practicing Dhamma. And through our practice, doubts may begin to arise within us regarding our profession and our career path. If we begin to feel troubled about what we do to earn our living and other options are available, then we ought to pursue them. But that isn’t necessarily something that all of us can easily or readily do.

As Jootla writes, “… we have to keep a balanced perspective and not keep running after the perfect work — part of the dukkha of the householder's life is the necessity to function in an immoral society while keeping one's own mind clear.”

To see how confusing this can get, take a look at this collection of Dhamma excerpts regarding Right Livelihood. It includes one from the Samyutta Nikaya regarding the Buddha’s response to a warrior’s questions about the correctness of killing in battle. It would seem that soldiers and even police officers are not off the hook. This, of course, is clouded by some Mahayana teachings that suggest that warriors can “kill with compassion,” but this passage raises serious doubts about such a perspective. Does it mean if you are already a solider or police officer that you should abandon immediately your avocation?

And what of the Buddha’s description of acting as a form of intoxication? What do we take away from that? Richard Gere certainly hasn’t given up acting since becoming a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, and Tina Turner and Herbie Hancock haven’t given up their careers as entertainers since finding Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Buddhism.

To further complicate matters, Ajaan Suwat Suvaco strikes are rather absolutist chord in his explanation of how practicing Right Livelihood is critical to developing Right Concentration”

“As for Right Livelihood, you set your mind on providing for your livelihood exclusively in a right way. You're firm in not making a livelihood in ways that are wrong, not acting in ways that are wrong, not speaking in ways that are corrupt and wrong. You won't make any effort in ways that go off the path, you won't be mindful in ways that lie outside the path. You'll keep being mindful in ways that stay on the path. You make this vow to yourself as a firm determination. This is one level of establishing the mind rightly.”

What Ajaan Suwat Suvaco is saying is correct, but I don’t think he’s saying that one must completely and immediately abandon all forms of Wrong Livelihood with the snap of a finger. Buddhism is not, in my experience, a Big Bang; the Buddha was quite deliberate in describing it as a path. And as a path, as we follow it, we do change, we mature, we gain deeper understanding.

What of you and your career? Are there occasions in your job when you realize that maybe your actions or someone else’s actions in the company don’t quite comport with the practice, even though the action is completely legal and ethical from a business perspective? If you do have those moments of doubt, that is a good thing; it means you have been faithfully practicing. But it doesn’t mean you must immediately quit or look for other work. It does mean, however, you have something to contemplate during your next meditation session.

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  1. I was a criminal defense trial lawyer. A lot of people, Buddhist or not, used to question me about the morality of my job. After all, I was "putting criminals back on the street", at least according to the questioners. By the way, during this time I defended a lot of people that I knew or thought were guilty. I didn't find that the job in any way distracted me from my path, and in some cases, I believe I helped other people find a healthier path. There were many people who I helped get into drug an alcohol rehab, anger management classes, parental training, etc. My job was to make sure that the rights, even of the guilty, were protected, and I felt comfortable doing that.

    What I had more of an issue with is that my boyfriend at the time worked for a company that contracted with the US Department of Defense. He never said exactly what he did because it was classified, but I'm pretty sure he built weapons for a living. In the end, I couldn't see myself being with him because that type of job conflicted too much with my view about right livelihood. -Lola from

  2. Hi Lola, I used to be a newspaper reporter who covered the courts, so I know what you're talking about! And you're right, as a defense attorney your primary job is to assure your client gets a fair trial, fair treatment by the judicial system, and to me that's honorable work, even if you do defend guilty people from time to time (they're not all guilty just because they were arrested).

    Your other point is interesting as well. Can associated with someone who practices Wrong Livelihood be a problem for us? In your case, you got your answer - you were uncomfortable. But it is an interesting point. Thanks for sharing :)