Tales from the Dharma Test Kitchen: Right Livelihood

Every Friday evening at their Santa Monica location, the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society offers the Dharma Test Kitchen – a meditation and discussion dedicated to exploring how we can apply the Dharma to our everyday lives. What works? What doesn’t? This is an informal chronicle of my ventures into Dharma practice.

In last week’s Test Kitchen, we discussed another element of the Eightfold Path to the cessation of sufering: Right, or Wise, Livelihood. Although pretty much what you think it is based on its name, there are nuances worth talking about that aren’t necessarily obvious given today’s economic, bottom-line oriented reality.

The teacher began with the explanation that Wise Livelihood is fundamentally about choosing a profession that doesn’t hurt other people. Referring to other Buddhist teachings, notably the five precepts (no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, no intoxication), he noted that some professions were just no-gos from the get-go when it comes to practicing Wise Livelihood. These wrong livelihoods are :
  1. Weapons manufacturing and dealing
  2. Slave trading, human trafficking, prostitution
  3. The meat trade: butchering, raising cattle for slaughter
  4. Producing/selling alcohol and drugs
  5. Dealing in poison
Of the five, 1, 2, and 5 are relatively non-controversial. (The ethics of prostitution, I think, are still open to debate.) 3 and 4, however, require considerable nuance in today’s world and are certainly the stuff of extensive debate. What struck me about the teacher’s talk, however, was the distinction he made between intentions and actions, with the emphasis that how we do things is less important than the attitude in which we do them. But what if we were to consider different terms, ends (intentions) and means (actions)? The problem arises that distinguishing means from ends, and ultimately privileging ends, leads to the axiom that the ends justify the means and the problem that noble ends have often been used to justify evil means, which presents a huge moral problem. Here’s an example: a stable, reliable social fabric is necessary for a successful civilization. In order to support and sustain meaningful political, economic , and cultural connections, society has to be free from rampant crime, conflict, and the like. So, granting that, was it right for dictatorships like the USSR or Nazi Germany to slaughter their population to achieve their vision of social order and stability? Of course not, and we could also question their conception of social order and stability. Nevertheless, the point is this: a moral analysis ultimately has to account for both means and ends, actions and intentions, taken together. This is especially the case since “ends” / “intentions” are nebulous, metaphysical things, while actions are tangible. In other words, good intentions aren’t enough. We have to pair them with ethical actions and consider the combination of the two.

The teacher did use the word attitude, however, and in all fairness we should recognize a difference between attitude and intention, although they are conceptual kin. An example he used was of the knowledgeable teacher whose bad attitude towards teaching harms students by disengaging them from the educational process. The teacher’s bad attitude is certainly a problem, in the sense that it leads the teacher to using bad methods to teach. It also exemplifies the suffering we create for ourselves and highlights how Wise Livelihood shouldn’t be conceived solely in ethical terms. For one thing, bad teaching isn’t necessarily evil teaching, and the word “harm” might be misapplied. Missing from the discussion is a consideration of satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning. If the teacher doesn’t feel inspired to teach and is unhappy at his job, a bad attitude and suffering is sure to follow – with students suffering alongside by receiving poor instruction. So the question is this: if someone is unhappy at their jobs, even if it is a job that doesn’t cause harm in the ethical sense, can he or she be said to be practicing Wise Livelihood? I would argue that a job that doesn’t hold a positive meaning, doesn’t manifest one’s values, doesn’t integrate with one’s whole person, is not Wise Livelihood. Considering that most of us don’t have jobs that hurt people in clear-cut cases of Wrong Livelihood, it is the misalignment between our jobs and who we are that corrupts our (good) intentions, evokes a bad or indifferent attitude to how we perform our jobs, and in turn denies us of the kindness and compassion that our work, when done with the right intentions, can bring to ourselves and other people.

As I see it, then, Wise Livelihood means:
  1. Not working at job that causes physical or psychological injury.
  2. Doing work that manifests who we are and is thus a satisfying, integrated aspect of our lives that supports us in living well.
  3. Work that serves other people in a way that minimizes their suffering and maximizes kindness and compassion, something that benefits all of us.

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