Right Livelihood and the Art of Living

Right Livelihood and the Art of Living

Discussion date: Thu, Mar 22, 2012 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

The Buddha taught that the way of awareness involves cultivating an ethical life as well as a meditation practice. One of the Buddha’s ethical recommendations that many of us wrestle with is “right livelihood.” This is the idea that we should earn our living in a righteous way. That is, we should make our money legally, peacefully and ideally in ways that promote compassion, understanding and awareness. There are a number of parts to this. First is the issue of what we actually do for a living—our job, occupation or career. Here the instruction is to make our money in ways that reduce or avoid greater harm in the world. We should not, for example, sell weapons, prostitute ourselves or others, or deceive people into buying things. A second part involves how we engage in our work—the kind of attitude, mindset or attention we bring to our jobs. Here the suggestion is to be mindful when working and treat others not as means to our ends but as full human beings deserving our attention and care.

Another dimension involves doing we what truly love and finding ways for that passion to make the world a better place. The theologian Frederick Buehler once defined a vocation as the point where “our deep gladness meets the world’s greatest need.” That is, our calling involves joining self and service. Right livelihood, ideally, then, includes not just an ethically upright job done mindfully but a vocation that enables each of us to express our unique gifts in life-affirming ways.

Thich Nhat Hanh goes even further (or, really, deeper). He reminds us that right livelihood is not simply about what we do for a living but about the art of living itself. Whether we have paid jobs or not, all of us work actively in the world: washing our clothes, cultivating gardens, or advocating for social change. Our labor is not only an occupation but the sculpting of our lives. In this sense, all of us are more than our particular professions and even vocations. Right livelihood, then, involves cultivating a loving, compassionate, joyful and generous life.

This Thursday, after our meditation period, we’ll reflect on the meaning of right livelihood. How do we see our “work” in the world? Does it enhance peace, justice and equanimity for others? How do I bring mindfulness to my employment? What are the joys and frustrations of pursuing my vocation? What is the relationship between my job or daily pursuits and the wider arc of my life?

Excerpts from an article on Right Livelihood by Thich Nhat Hanh are below.

Warm wishes,

Paul Wapner

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From "The Art of Living" by Thich Nhat Hanh.

In Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: Explorations in Right Livelihood.

(Parallax Press, 1994)

The way we earn our living can be a source of peace, joy, and reconciliation, or it can cause a lot of suffering. When we know how to be peace, our work can be a wonderful means for us to express our deepest self, the foundation of our being. Our work will take place one way or another, but it is the being that is essential. First of all, we must go back to ourselves and make peace with our anger, fear, jealousy, and mistrust. When we do this, we are able to realize real peace and joy, and the work we do will be of great help to ourselves and the world. . . .

The way we live our daily lives, whether we are mindful or not, has everything to do with peace. Bringing our awareness to every moment, we try to have a vocation that helps us realize our ideal of compassion. We try our best to have a job that is beneficial to humans, animals, plants, and the Earth, or at least minimally harmful. We live in a society where jobs are hard to find, but if it happens that our work entails harming life, we should try our best to find another job. Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or it can erode them. We should try not to drown in forgetfulness. So many modem industries are harmful to humans and nature, even the production of food. The chemical poisons used by most modem farms do a lot of harm to the environment. Practicing right livelihood is difficult for farmers. If they do not use chemical pesticides, it may be difficult for them to compete commercially, so not many farmers practice organic farming.This is just one example.

Right livelihood has ceased to be a purely personal matter. It is our collective karma. Suppose I am a schoolteacher and I believe that nurturing love and understanding in children is a beautiful occupation. I would object if someone were to ask me to stop teaching and become, for example, a butcher. But when I meditate on the interrelatedness of all things, I can see that the butcher is not the only person responsible for killing animals. He does his work for all of us who eat meat. We are co-responsible for his act of killing. We may think the butcher’s livelihood is wrong and ours is right, but if we didn’t eat meat, he wouldn’t have to kill, or he would kill less. Right livelihood is a collective matter. The livelihood of each person affects us all, and vice versa. The butcher’s children may benefit from my teaching, while my children, because they eat meat, share some responsibility for the butcher’s livelihood.

Any look at right livelihood entails more than just examining the situation in which we earn our paycheck. Our whole life and our whole society are intimately involved. Everything we do contributes to our effort to practice right livelihood, and we can never succeed one hundred percent. But we can resolve to go in the direction of compassion, in the direction of reducing the suffering. And we can resolve to work for a society in which there is more right livelihood and less wrong livelihood.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Mar 22, 2012


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