The Personal Economy Of Right Livelihood
For contemporary western lay practitioners of the Buddha’s way, Right Livelihood (samma ājīva) is hardly the most compelling factor on the Eightfold Path. For us, livelihood is most often simply equated with our job, with what we do for a living, how we make our money. In the midst of our practice, we might pause for a quick mental check to confirm that we aren’t supporting ourselves through any particularly egregious line of work, but we then move right along to consider the demands of the other seven factors of the Eightfold Path.
Perhaps we give such short shrift to Right Livelihood because the Buddha himself gave it relatively little elaboration, expressing it most directly in the following formulation:
These five trades, O monks, should not be taken up by a lay follower: trading in weapons, trading in living beings, trading in meat, trading in intoxicants, trading in poisons. [AN 5:177]
Perhaps the reason the Buddha devoted so little attention to this path factor is that it is the only one with almost no application for the monastics with whom he primarily lived and for whom the parameters of lifestyle are mostly detailed in the vinaya (the collection of rules for monastics).
Looking deeply into the conditions of our livelihood, though, might prove to be an especially rich resource for those of us with lay practices. Initial difficulty might arise because the Buddha’s formulations don’t translate easily into our modern life.
The Buddha’s simple formulation above, for example, is such that in our contemporary environment it would make the manager of a supermarket run for cover—or at least for the nearest employment office: poisons, intoxicants, meat, chemicals that can be fashioned into explosives and—if you consider the occasional oyster or live lobster at the fish counter—even living beings are all among the stuff on the store’s shelves.
The complexity of today’s large organizations also leaves it problematic whether or not a file clerk in a small, domestic office of a multi-national conglomerate that does some defense contracting might somehow be ‘tainted’ by the unwholesome activities of the corporation itself, or even whether someone who knowingly does business with or patronizes a subsidiary of such a conglomerate might be equally compromised.
In any case, sustaining our lives is not simply about the job we do, whether we are a peace officer, an army chaplain or, like Temple Grandin, an animal scientist contracting with the meat packing industry out of a commitment to provide the animals with the most humane slaughter possible.
At bottom, Right Livelihood is about providing the material support for our human life—our livelihood. There may be many reasons for sustaining our lives, spanning everything from simply maintaining our families to amassing a fortune and including just trying to stay ahead of the eventual end of life itself. But in the context of the Eightfold Path, livelihood is about sustaining life for the purpose of the realization of the end of suffering, for attaining freedom from dukkha, for practicing the way of the Buddha.
So the question for lay practitioners—how will we provide our livelihood?—includes such queries as: what exactly do we mean by livelihood? In our actual lives, the way we live arises in co-dependence with the way we provide for our living.
What does it take to sustain and live a wholesome life in contemporary society? And how will we answer that question as a practical matter with our actual lifestyle, i.e. the things we do in the course of our daily lives?
The four requisites for monastics (food, clothing, shelter, medicine) can only be a starting point for lay practitioners: monastics don’t make the choices regarding how or what kind of food, clothing, shelter or medicine they will receive as do lay practitioners. As lay practitioners, we exercise preference in selecting our food: so what food do we choose? the higher-priced spread? the economy version? or might we abandon a spread altogether?
Whereas monastics receive as sustenance whatever is offered in their begging bowls and through their monasteries, lay practitioners ‘receive’ their livelihood in accord with their own, personal efforts, resources and preferences, whatever manner of living that might be.
As a practical matter, this distinguishes in our day-to-day lives at least two intimately inter-related domains: the means by which we come by the resources that sustain our lives, and the manner of living that we fashion from those resources. Our own involvement in constructing a personal lifestyle and the methods by which that lifestyle is supported, put right livelihood, along with the other two sīla factors of the Eightfold Path—right speech and right action—squarely in the wake of right intention and uncompromisingly in the midst of the karmic stream.
Balancing our means of support with the lifestyle we are fashioning constitutes a broad, personal economy that each of us is constantly creating with our actions. The way we live not only reflects our understandings about what we are doing in this life, but also reveals the intentions that flow from such understandings.
Today, the de facto means of supporting our lifestyle is abstract in a manner that it wasn’t in the Buddha’s time: generally we don’t grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own homes or gather whatever herbs we might need for our medicinal purposes. Most of us would even be hard-pressed to find much in our personal possession that has not been manufactured by others (mostly others we never know because they are living outside of our worldly of experience) and that has not been purchased with money: we make payments on our residences, buy food at stores and restaurants, and hope to be able to pay insurance companies to provide our medical care.
We entertain ourselves, accumulate knowledge about what is going on in the world, and even move about the world mostly provisioned by the creations of our global mass culture. Acquiring all these things—the very infrastructure of our lives—normally entails money.
The financial resources enabling us to assemble our livelihood today takes some form of income—an abstract measure which can be satisfied in an uncountable number of ways. We then assemble/consume the elements of a lifestyle which we configure in accord with our own distinctly personal circumstance.
Even the most casual consideration of the matter of right livelihood tells us that—at a minimum—our means of providing income should not, itself, interfere with the process of freeing ourselves from suffering. Income obtained through a means that disrupts our ability to “pursue the wholesome, avoid the unwholesome and cultivate the mind” would clearly not support our evolution on the path in an efficient manner.
Yet judging whether a particular occupation is itself appropriate may not be as obvious as we might think: at first blush, right livelihood would seem to translate into, at least, avoiding employment that causes harm. But extricating ourselves from the web of social connections—as with the supermarket manager—might make the actual activity we perform less important than the constellation of intentions we bring to it.
Working with the meat packing industry to provide animals with the most humane slaughter possible certainly seems to qualify for consideration as a compassionate activity. Would hunting be wrong for an Eskimo, or for someone with no alternative means of support? Do the environmental consequences of coal or copper mining make working for a company that does strip mining ‘wrong’ livelihood even if you live in Harlan County, Kentucky or Morenci, Arizona and have no other employment options?
“Right” and “wrong” in this context seem not to be the relevant issue. Instead, and more to the point: how do we experience our own form of employment, and does it interfere with the opening of our hearts and minds?
Because we are so inextricably embedded in the interconnected complexity of our contemporary world, even our personal security is dependent on what might, on the face of it, appear to be the unskillful livelihood of others. George Orwell wrote:
“We sleep soundly in our beds because harsh men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.”
We outsource that security, paying for it with tax money that supports our police and other first responders, including the SWAT teams and military/paramilitary organizations like our national guard. We cannot extract ourselves from the economic world we all share.
We aren’t practicing dharma in the midst of a jungle full of wild animals as did the Buddha or even as do some of the forest monks still practicing in remote corners of Asia that are largely not visited by westerners, and we aren’t normally risking confrontation with road bandits when we travel between towns as did the monastics in the Buddha’s day. Despite the many shortcomings of our law enforcement agencies, we in the developed world live our lives in an ambiance of relative peace that is absent in much of the rest of the world.
Is it inconceivable that someone might decide that his or her gift to the people among whom he or she lives is to serve as a peace officer or in the military? Could such service—at least during some phases of one’s practice—flow from a genuine intention ‘to protect and serve’; and might it not be seen—in some light at least—as right livelihood? In the Bhagavad Gita (an important text in the Indian tradition outside of Buddhism), Krishna’s advice to Arjuna didn’t include retreating to a monastery; instead, he encouraged the young archer to adjust his view of the activity upon which he was about to embark.
The constraints on the means by which we obtain the income for supporting our life would seem to be, primarily, that they don’t disrupt our efforts along the path of realization. At a minimum, our job should not compel us (in itself and against our own, separate, personal choice) to perform any of the ten unwholesome acts*, and it should not so burden us with duties that we are unable to devote the time and attention we want and need for practice.
“Unburdened with duties and frugal in our ways” would be the prescription from the Mettā Sutta. Frugality in fitting together the various elements of our lives would put less stress on our need to assemble unneeded elements for our livelihood. But though frugality is most certainly contextual, it is altogether too easy to rationalize/justify—or judge/condemn—almost any consumption pattern or standard of living we might find ourselves (or others) living, from the most lavish to the least presumptuous.
Whether we have a choice about what jobs we can have, where we choose to live and what kind of housing we use all depends on what we see as available to us and what we think we need. Our perceived wealth is relative to the standards we measure it by, and that exists in our state of mind.
For us, whatever ‘medicine’ we might need is almost beyond the comprehension of even the more highly skilled doctors and analysts from the HMOs and medicare. And what of the multitude of obscure service standards and pharmaceutical formularies that govern health care delivery? Does the lifestyle we assemble require the heroic—and expensive—resources frequently utilized by modern medical facilities at the end of life?
Successfully navigating the dimensions of right livelihood lies in maintaining an intention to address what we provide for ourselves as well as how we provide it…all in the context our practice of the dharma.
What we actually ‘need’ to sustain our lives for purposes of practice may be difficult to specify, but we can explore what happens when we focus our attention on many of the elements upon which we base our present lifestyles.
Do we need a car? a credit card? specialized skills and the education/training by which they are developed? If we easily respond ‘no,’ then how do we regard actually having such amenities ourselves? Do we ‘need’ access to the news and other forms of mass cultural phenomena to practice the path in our contemporary society? Do we need to understand what those around us are thinking about, worried about, angry about, wishing for? Does knowing the details of the suffering of others a continent away generate anger or compassion in us?
Many people survive quite well without television or other forms of mass entertainment, but does it somehow taint our progress along the path of awakening to live with them? They are not necessary on retreat and if we managed somehow to live our daily lives as we do on retreat, we could live with sufficiency, free of all that we left behind. Some of us do that, ordaining and living the monastic life, free from the complexities of right livelihood in today’s lay life.
But as lay practitioners, we aren’t separate from the marketplace, from the electronic media and its content and from the physical and political infrastructure that composes our world in these times. When, as news anchor Peter Jennings once somewhat wryly observed, “objectivity means different things to different people,” setting any external, objective standards for right livelihood would be counterproductive; making efforts at meeting whatever standard we might set comes close to merely observing rites and rituals.
Right livelihood is an expression of an intention which itself arises from our understanding. What we need and how we provide for it is a matter for our own contemplation. How do we understand our lives and how we are living?
We often wonder how to bring the dharma ‘into our lives,’ somehow humanizing, softening, making our existing lives more harmonious in accord with our understanding of the dharma. Perhaps Right Livelihood is a process, not of bringing the dharma into our lives, but rather evolving our lives towards the dharma.
It is said that upon experiencing full awakening, a lay practitioner cannot maintain a lay lifestyle for more than the briefest time. Thus, the question about our livelihood might most profitably be, simply: how’s it going? And then look to the possibilities of adjusting our lifestyle accordingly to accommodate the deepest insight, wisdom, understanding we have.
Addressing the element of Right Livelihood is a challenge to our clear seeing and understanding. It encompasses almost all that we do including the style of spiritual practice to which we devote ourselves. As such, it would seem to call for more than the cursory attention we generally give it.
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*For the ten unwholesome/wholesome acts, see, for example, the Saleyyaka Sutta, MN 41.
Tony Bernhard is one of Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leaders. He sits on the board of the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies and on the Spirit Rock Program Committee. A long-time student at BCBS, he hosts sitting groups in Davis, CA, and teaches regularly throughout the San Francisco Bay Area