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Please begin with an informative title:

Welcome back!  We're going to hit the next piece of the eightfold path today, one that I've been quite tempted to write about out-of-sequence.  But first, let's watch these ants at work, carrying fertilizer back to their underground farm at their home in Costa Rica.

More work under the fold...

Intro

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Background — Navigation

We've got some new readers here, so I figure I'd take a moment to get people oriented.  Today we're going to chat about "Right Livelihood", a spoke of the eightfold path.  The Eightfold Path is the set of Buddhist Teachings that present a way of approaching life, approaching how we deal with the world we find ourselves in right here and now.  A path that, if applied skillfully, can eliminate suffering.

We've got some new readers here, so if you want to "catch up", here are links to the earlier diaries on parts of the eightfold path:

  1. Coral — Right View
  2. Gorilla — Right Intention
  3. Words — Right Speech
  4. Building — Right Action

As for me, I am a lay Zen Buddhist practitioner with a mostly Soto Zen practice and no credentials.  I speak of Buddhist teachings partially to help me get them straight in my own head as I try to travel down the eightfold path, and partially to offer my Buddhist perspective to non-Buddhists.  I hope that exploring each other's perspectives will help us all figure out where we're coming from, and make it easier to work together.  I do not present the truth, the official teachings of any lineage, or the views of all Buddhists, though I do try to point out places where other schools of Buddhism seem to come at things from a different direction.  Everything I say here might turn out to be incorrect, but it's how I see things right here, right now.

Background — Where I'm Coming From

I wanted especially to get to this one for two reasons, one personal: I hate my current job, and this topic lets me gripe about it while hopefully being interesting and informative, rather than just bitter and annoying.Street sweeper  For newer readers, I currently work in a convenience store for a local privately held chain, generally night shift, especially weekends, oftentimes training new hires (including Manager Trainees, as they struggle to reach an even worse job than the one I have).  None of that is why I hate my job, though I'd prefer to have time off at the same time my friends do.

The other reason I wanted to get to this is that, while I find most Buddhist teachings to be timeless, the teachings I've heard so far on Right Livelihood have always seemed to me to be ... incomplete.  The sutras I've read, even the sutras I've skimmed looking for extra material on this chat, don't go into much depth on this spoke of the wheel of Dharma.  It's there, they mention how important it is, but I can't find the in depth dialogs that I find on other important Buddhist principals.

And given how much of the American Buddhist community is lay practitioners, people not taking the path of right livelihood as a monk or nun, it seems even more important today than it was back then.  So let's chat about it in more depth, see what we can come up with.

Dharma Chat — Right Livelihood in the Sutras

One reason I might not be able to find anything is I was looking in the wrong place.  Many of Siddhartha's teachings have been lost to history, and many of those that haven't been lost have yet to been translated to English, most of those that made it to English have been unread by me.  I will not pretend to have done an exhaustive search.

But the reason might have been simply that Siddhartha often toned down the Dharma Talks he gave to the lay practitioners, considering them an extra step, probably an extra lifetime, away from enlightenment.  Some lay practitioners pleasantly surprised him, but for the bulk of them, his teachings focused more on "Here's how to keep from causing extra trouble for everyone", on how to minimize the karmic debt we create while we're trying to get our act together.  So the teaching on right livelihood that comes up again and again is negative, "don't do this [it will lead to suffering]", it's also one of the shortest Sutras I know of, so I'll quote it in its entirety:

"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."
  — Vanijja Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

That's it, don't be an arms dealer, don't sell slaves, don't sell meat, booze or toxins.  Even when I take broader interpretations of those words, I don't get much farther: business in human beings probably also includes prostitution and pimping, and I do wonder what Siddhartha would have thought of our modern "Temporary Employment Agencies".

It doesn't take a fully enlightened being to teach us that these jobs are associated with a lot of suffering.  Yet I look in my own life, and the lives of those around me, and I see a huge amount of suffering associated with the workplace, with our livelihoods, and not all of it ties back to even the broadest reading of that sutra, so if I want a deeper understanding, I see that I'll have to work at it, hopefully with your help here.

Dharma Chat — Personalizing It

I work in a convenience store, and one of the products we sell is beer, an intoxicant (my current job fails to be right livelihood in many ways).  Much of the beer I sell is used in moderation by responsible adults (we are very strict about ID checks in my chain, especially in my home shop, which is two doors down from a high school).  Some of my coworkers and managers surely rationalize to themselves "I'm selling this product for the adults who use it properly; even those I sell to who abuse it are adults, I have no say over what they do with their own money and body".

One customer bikes to the shop.  He never appears intoxicated, but the ID he presents says "Conditional License" on it, which in NY means he has at least one conviction arising from drinking and driving (drinking and biking is also illegal, arguably even more dangerous, but not as tightly enforced).  Every night he buys an 18-pack of beer, every night.  After a few weeks of this I find that every morning he buys a 12-pack of beer.  Almost three gallons of beer each day.  Every time I sell him his beer (and I do sell him his beer), I am actively contributing to the suffering caused by his beer consumption.  I sell him his beer because I'm not yet ready for the suffering that leaving my job would cause today.

Same with the cigarettes for the gentleman who buys two packs a day by taking out his old pack and pointing at it,Bud Light1 because cigarettes have destroyed his throat to the point where talking is painful, and nobody can make out what he says easily anyway.  Same with the scratch-off tickets for the widow who keeps buying until she's digging coins out from under her car seats to get just one more dollar scratch-off.  I try to gently suggest healthier courses of action for each of them, but when push comes to shove I sell them what they seek, because my livelihood, my "family shop" convenience store, depends on business from people like these to survive, to employ people like me.

Even those responsible adults, some of the money they spend on their beer that they use with mindful moderation, a portion of each dollar goes to produce and distribute imagery like in the ad to the left here, imagery designed to convince young adults and teenagers, that beer is fun and sexy, encouraging some of them them to get hooked, to grow into a 30-can per day habit, or worse.  Thus every beer they buy "responsibly", every beer I sell legally, contributes to underage drinking, alcoholism, and alcohol-related fatalities.

This is what Buddhists like me mean when we say that selling intoxicants leads to suffering.  Similar stories could be put together for each of the others.

Dharma Chat — Unfolding Right Livelihood

But let's move beyond those simplistic "don't do this" statements, because right livelihood, avoiding work-related suffering, is more than me quitting my job of selling booze to drunkards.

Let's start by unfolding "livelihood" first, what is a livelihood.  Certainly, for those of us with jobs, working at our jobs is our livelihood.  In Buddhism, however, asking for alms is also livelihood, panhandling, busking, begging for change, is not only livelihood, but often "Right Livelihood".  It's how Buddhist monks and nuns traditionally stayed fed, walking through town in the morning, asking for alms and offering chants and prayers.

Similarly, a conservative politician might look at "welfare mothers" and declare them unproductive, deny they have any livelihood at all.  On the other hand, a Buddhist would look at them and see the work they put into their families, into their community, and into making sure the bureaucracy continues to ensure they have food and shelter covered for themselves and their kids, and call that their livelihood (how skillfully such people engage in those pursuits, of course, varies).

So livelihood is clearly important, without it we starve and die, many of us spend more than half of our waking hours on our livelihoods (especially if you factor in things like commuting, planning our work day, preparing our clothes and our bodies for work).  So how do we do it "right"?

As before, I'll fall back on the same heuristic I've used earlier: minimize the creation of suffering, maximize enlightenment.  That's suffering for yourself, for your coworkers, for your customers, for your neighbors downstream from your job, for the world as a whole; the same goes for enlightenment.

So when your employer casually leaves workplace hazards without giving you a way of addressing them, when a hospital forces new doctors to work 36 hour shifts merely because it's traditional, when a trucking company fines drivers for being slowed by traffic, it's causing suffering.  When the job pays less than survival wages, when it keeps employees from talking to each other about working conditions, when it spews pollutants that destroys our soil, our water, our air, it's causing suffering.  When the job becomes more important than the people impacted by the job, that, to me, is unskillful livelihood, not right livelihood.

When our job lets us help others, feed others, house others, teach others, connect people to each other; when our job lets us explore the world around us and offer solutions to help it suck less tomorrow, then our job is encouraging enlightenment.  Minimize suffering, encourage enlightenment, right livelihood...

I'd like to go farther, but I'm running out of both time and steam here, so hopefully we can take this a step or two beyond in conversations in the comments.

How about you?  How is work treating you?  How are you treating your work?  Any other questions, concerns, comments, curmudgeons?

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Street Prophets on Wed May 25, 2011 at 04:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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