How is it that I manage to take a fairly straightforward topic and ramble on about it for pages and pages?!? I was pretty convinced that Right livelihood would require half a page and be done. How wrong I was! In this blog post I explore right livelihood in its typical Buddhist format, and then I look at the relationship between affecting change on our lives and dealing with life circumstances as they are, and in particular how this plays out in the world of work. The first part then will cover the Buddhist issues of right livelihood concerning job selection and our contribution to the world through how we make a living. For those of you who've found my take on the world of Buddhism stimulating to some degree, the second part of this blog post will explore the relationship between the self-development field and Buddhist deconstruction of the self.
Let’s get started then
Right livelihood is an extension of right action and right speech. It therefore concerns the way we interact with the world and in this case how we interact with work. In a way this step on the eightfold Path is relatively straightforward. There are two questions that we need to ask ourselves in relationship to the work we do;
Does the way I earn money and make a living contribute to suffering in this world?
Does my work support my practise and provide conditions in which I can actually practise as I need to?
If the answer is yes to the first, your work may fit into one of the following categories. There are the classical definitions found in most traditions for determining wrong livelihood.
1. Selling arms, or dealing in weapons and instruments of death and torture
2. Dealing in slavery including prostitution (I would add slave labour too)
3. Dealing in meat including raising cattle for meat, slaughtering & butchering
4. Selling alcohol, drugs, or poison (does this include tobacco?)
In looking at these definitions of wrong livelihood, it seems that we can make a clear distinction between the first and the last two. Yet, even in exploring the first two there is ambiguity and I can’t help but feel that a decisive split from associating ourselves with these two potential forms of livelihood seems to be an expression of both excessive idealism and naivete. As general guidelines, they are on point, but as is almost always the case, there will be exceptions to the rule.
It is sometimes said that what you do is determined to be good or bad based on your intention. I think this is a problematic approach that potentially leads to a form of excessive permissiveness. So, as per usual, there is a need to find a healthy middle ground in weighting up facts and options by not just examining our intent for taking on the work that we do, but looking at how the company or organisation we are working for is interacting with the wider world and how we contribute to that, both directly and indirectly.
Many forms of work cause immense suffering and they fall outside these categories. Unscrupulous money lenders have led many an individual to suicide and the banking industry has destroyed the lives and future of millions, if not billions, or people globally through greed. Vulture funds which rip the heart out of businesses that provide a livelihood for many for short term profit are another example. People who knowingly manufacture and sell harmful products to children are another.
The basic principles of right work are simple and they mirror general ethical behaviour, which is certainly not limited to Buddhism. Not getting wealthy from the misfortune of others, not actively deceiving and lying are really the basic elements of an ethical approach to work.
On a practise level it becomes increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to the impact our actions make and the recognition that our involvement in wider fields of activity may cause harm. In time a need naturally arises to align our type of work and our behaviour at work with the principles that form the basis of our meditation practise and path.
Weapons & other issues
The manufacture, sell and use of arms is the most likely to contribute either directly or indirectly to suffering globally. Weapons cause death and unimaginable suffering every day in multiple locations around the world. Oppressive regimes use weapons against their citizens on a daily basis and the producing of those weapons and sell of them to dictators and suppressors of human rights is quite clearly highly unethical.
A blanket ban on weapons production is unrealistic though. Nations need to be able to defend themselves from invasion and from attack. When war is justified, the use and production of arms is also justified. In defending yourself, your country, or the weak from tyranny, the use of arms is appropriate when all other means have failed. Of course in an ideal world we may wish to see violence and war eliminated, and yet that world does not exist.
Let’s suppose though that an ethical arms industry could exist; how would it look? For starters it would be vastly smaller than it is now. It would not sell weapons to countries that carry out human rights abuses and to those where torture and indiscriminate murder take place as the US and UK routinely do. It would produce weapons for internal security services that are designed to incapacitate with minimal harm and it would refuse to give space to the production of weapons that can destroy the entire planet like nuclear weapons and atomic bombs. Again, this sounds extremely naive and unrealistic. But, perhaps it's not.
Idealism is a problem when it has no connection to reality. To consider ideals is an important and valuable exercise in thought. Wishful thinking is another kettle of fish entirely and believing that we can somehow live without weapons and without war is frankly ignorant of history. It may happen one day, but the past is replete with war in all parts of the world including such sources of immense spiritual wealth such as Tibet, and North America before the arrival of the white man.
Does that mean we cannot pray for it? Of course not; in fact it is important to do so as we align ourselves with a non-aggressive approach to life. But if we are to look at actual potentials and alternatives to the circumstances that are now present, in order to give space to a more ethical society, holding up an image of a reality in which government-sponsored industries don't sell weapons to torturers and dictators does not seem too much to ask.
For most people involvement with the arms industries is unethical employment. For the rare individual that makes weapons for sports shooting on the range, they will find their work inhabits what I would consider a neutral territory.
“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” United Nations: Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Slavery & prostitution
Slavery is the second form of wrong livelihood. The basic behaviour underlying any form of slavery is to treat a human being as an object, devoid of value other than monetary. Modern day slavery is not as rare as you might think. There are multiple forms of modern day slavery taking place all over the world with figures ranging from 12-27 million slaves worldwide. The vast majority are debt slaves. From the shanghaiing of Indian labourers to the Emirates, to forced prostitution of Africans and Eastern Europeans, there are endless horrendous stories of individuals being lied to and tricked into going abroad for phantom jobs and then being forced to work endless hours to pay fictitious debts. The sell of children and young desperate women to predators and pimps is surprisingly commonplace, even in Europe and the US. Migrant workers from Africa into Europe, and from Mexico and many central and southern American countries into the States are forced to work in slave like conditions.
In all of these cases there is a total inability to see the humanity in another individual. It is hard to imagine how inhuman the people have become who can actively and consciously force a fellow human being into slavery. Slavery is an unaddressed global issue that needs more attention.
Prostitution is another form of unethical work. In most cases women (and men) have very little choice about ending up as prostitutes. Many come to it through being enslaved. Others are simply desperate. Some have been sexually abused and carry out this work as a way of self-harming. There are very few prostitutes that take on this job through choice. The illegal nature of prostitution has put it in bed with the illegal drugs trade and organised crime.
Prostitution has always existed it seems, so perhaps legalising it and enforcing regulation on the industry is the wisest step to take in the west and may counter the human trafficking of sex slaves from Eastern Europe and Africa. It would not cancel out the presence of slavery in the world of prostitution, but it would make the whole affair much cleaner here. For some people prostitution is a means for earning enough money to survive. In countries like Denmark it is legal and can provide a very good income. Is it ideal? No, but to rule it out entirely seems to smack of idealism again. We do not live in a Buddhist culture or in an enlightened society, so we must do the best we can with the circumstances we have. Change always starts with realistic and doable steps.
Another form of modern-day slavery is the exploitation of workers. We see many, many stories in newspapers from China and from India about the exceptional conditions in which people are often forced to work for pathetic wages, working very long days with no breaks and no rights. They often have to work in toxic environments and do so in fear of violence or abuse.
Some economists talk about the great shift in the increase of affluence and the growth of the middle-class in China and India as a reason to excuse such conditions, yet we all know that this is no reason for forcing people to work 18 hour days for less than one dollar in horrendous conditions in which they are treated as less than cattle. Perhaps economists find it easier to view all forms of life as monetary units, or machines defined by their production capacity and value?
In these conditions people become like machines. They lose touch with their basic humanity and the opportunity to practise a spiritual path becomes greatly reduced, if not eliminated. When humans are treated in this way they become like animals, running on instinct, mindlessly absorbed in mundane and highly repetitive work.
It is easy to argue that modern-day capitalism is a machine for turning humans into objects and increasingly we see that people are losing their livelihoods as well as their lives in order to keep an exceptionally unjust economic system afloat. This is a form of slavery as far as I'm concerned in which democracy and human rights are being eroded in the name of economic progress for the very few. When an entire economic system has shown itself to be deeply unethical at its core, change needs to emerge. The challenge for the next generations will be to leave behind the old dichotomy of capitalism or communism and find alternatives that give rise to ethical government and the return of ethics to the world of work.
We do the best we can to work with the circumstances we are living in. Systems change and systems can be changed and here we are in a time where change is inevitable and change is needed. We really must start to appreciate that if we don't participate in the creation of change towards a desirable direction for the many and not the few, those few will lead us down a path towards further and further eroding of the democratic values that were established in the 19th and 20th centuries here in the west. Impermanence rules and those that understand the timing of change and the direction of change will always have the advantage.
I would encourage any of you who are becoming more aware to find a way to contribute to fighting against collective suffering in whatever way you feel inspired to do so. It is inexcusable to do nothing. Start small and invest in an area that you care about. My personal choice is human rights, so I support Amnesty and online activism fighting to free political prisoners and shout down regimes. The successes are often small, but real lives are changed dramatically by the care of those who were born into free countries like our own. Lots of small contributions do add up.
The meat trade causes immense suffering to animals both through their treatment from farmers seeking to maximise profits and the general practises that are part of mass farming culture. Animals are reared in conditions of genuine cruelty and often slaughtered in ways that prolong their pain and suffering in order to cut costs.
I cannot argue in favour of a blanket ban on dealing in meat. I still haven’t made my mind up about meat and the killing of animals. It is right that animals should be raised and slaughtered humanely though. It is right that our relationship to animals in general be radically changed in order to afford them greater respect and care. This could entail vegetarianism, but I am still on the fence on this issue and don’t wish to be a hypocrite.
If you are involved in farming then an ethical approach would be to minimise the suffering of your animals to the absolute minimum. As in all trades, we need individuals who are in touch with their basic humanity and awake enough to be able to contribute to better, less harmful ways of working. This is as true for the meat trade as it is for any other.
Alcohol and friends
Actively stimulating alcohol consumption and encouraging a culture of mindless drinking is unethical. For a practitioner being involved in the culture of pubs and bars long-term is probably unwise, but it’s not a given. It all depends on whether you are actively involved in causing harm, or not, and whether the environment supports the evolving change that occurs in a dedicated practise. Working in aggressive environments can involve us being part of a culture that supports harmful behaviour and this can impact our practise. If you’re Drukpa Kunley, it’s probably not an issue, but most of us don’t have his level of freedom and insight!
In most Buddhist circles alcohol and drugs are seen as negatively impacting our clarity, disturbing our emotional balance and leading to unethical behaviour. They cloud the mind and judgement and therefore are counter to the mental goals sought in meditation and practise. This is an important consideration to take in mind and certainly any form of indulgence is liable to have negative consequences. I am not particularly fond of rigid moral stances though and alcohol has its moments. It has a social role in many societies that is far from unethical.
As for drugs, well, in Buddhism they are a no-no, but hallucinogens have their benefits, especially if they are consumed in the right context. For example, Ayahuascaand Peyote are termed medicine plants and have cultural and spiritual value to the people who live in the areas where they grow. They act as conduits for spiritual experiences and healing. Magical mushrooms are native to most parts of Europe and many an individual throughout history has gained powerful visions and insights through a journey down the yellow brick road. I personally have an appreciation for the role of psychedelics in part through my many years involved with shamanism. However, it must be stressed that they are not recreational drugs in these contexts. They provide healing, catharsis; stimulate change and powerful insight into the human condition.
As for other drugs, it is a multi-faceted topic that requires serious, educated reasoning. Most hard drugs are genuinely bad for you and stimulate addiction, escapism and in some cases extreme indulgence in highly destructive sensory pleasure. From a practise perspective they have to be avoided.
Some drugs could theoretically be made legal to avoid the additional harm caused by associated criminality. I find it very difficult to justify making hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine legal though as they have such serious consequences for the body and mental health of those who consume them. They are addictive and offer pretty much nothing in the way of insight, or healing. They are damaging both to the individual and society and so should in my opinion remain illegal. Dealing in them is unethical employment.