Dharma Life Skills: Episode 1

Right Livelihood: Working to Create an Enlightened Society

Written by Mitra Kim

Right Livelihood, as a step on the Eightfold Path, is one of the core elements of Buddhism. It is one way we can live our faith. According to Sangharakshita in his book Vision and Transformation, the main criteria for participating in Right Livelihood, is that your work is not violent, not exploitative and is in line with Buddhist ethics (for example, as expressed in the precepts).

Buddhist Ethics, while outlined in several lists throughout many sutras, I believe can be boiled down to one main idea: does something contribute to or derail the journey toward Wisdom and Enlightenment? If something helps a person (and by extension a community) build Wisdom and open their minds to Enlightened perspectives (those that promote love, respect and peace), then it is in alignment with Buddhist Ethics.

That is why one’s livelihood is such an important piece of the journey toward Enlightenment. In order to survive, all of us must engage in activities, on more or less a daily basis, that provide the means to secure the basic necessities of life (food, water, shelter, helathcare, etc). Whether this is through paid labor in the workforce, unpaid labor in support of a household, or other kinds of activities, we can’t survive without finding a means to access these items. Since this type of activity often takes up the bulk of a person’s waking hours, it is difficult to maintain momentum toward Enlightenment without being in a supportive environment during these times.

Despite how integral it is to survival and Buddhist practice, “Right Livelihood” as a concept can be difficult to conceptualize. As a label, it can feel a little nebulous and uncomfortably prescriptive. That is why I like to think of this concept in slightly different terms and interpret it as the following actionable statement instead: “work to create an Enlightened society.” (In this statement “work” can be interpreted both as a verb, meaning to put forth effort, or a noun, meaning one’s job or position.) If we think of this portion of the Eight Fold Path in these terms, it becomes easier to work out how we can put it into practice in our own lives and why it is so important to do so.

When it comes to working to create an Enlightened society, there are three main aspects that I think need to be balanced: the content of the work, the process of the work and the impact of the work. Regarding the first of these— the content – the questions to ask include the following. What is the job’s purpose? What are the main activities one needs to undertake while performing it? Are these tasks inherently violent or exploitative? Do they, by their nature, contradict the ideas of peace and respect for life? For the second aspect – the process – we can think about how one performs the necessary tasks of their work. If the tasks are not inherently counter to Buddhist ethics, are they being performed in a way that is? If they are, can they be done in a way that is more aligned? Regarding third point – the impact – there are two related but unique pieces to consider: the impact on the individual worker and the impact on the wider community (or even the world). When considering the impact on the individual, we can ask the following questions. What kind of person does it turn one into? Does a person steep in behavioral expectations in a workplace that undo the efforts one puts forth during meditation, personal study or Sangha gatherings? Additionally, does the livelihood a person is engaged in allow space for reflection and mediation? Or conversely, does work require too much time or energy and thereby prevent personal development outside of work hours? When considering the impact on the community or world, we can ask other questions. These include the following. How does the work impact the environment? Does it help perpetuate or dismantle unhealthy power dynamics, such as those related to wealth inequality and other systemic oppressions (racism, sexism, etc.)? Basically, does the work encourage people to behave in a way that demonstrates love, respect and peace or does it have the opposite impact?

Asking these questions can be tremendously difficult, as we are often highly invested in ignoring the ways that our livelihoods are not aligned with Buddhist ethics. However, it is also tremendously important to do so, because then we can take steps to bring our livelihoods into alignment with our practice. If we start to think of work as a way to create an Enlightened society, it becomes one of the ways we practice, rather than a means to survival so that we can practice.

Making that shift can seem very daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. If the content of a person’s work is not inherently unsupportive, then the question becomes: how can I change the process or impact of my work? These can be very simple changes, such as deciding to interact with co-workers or the work environment in a different way. It could be deciding to ask different questions in meetings that lead to slightly different project goals. It could be deciding to share knowledge in the form of an article, TED Talk or book that helps shift someone’s perspective in a supportive way. It could even be as simple as asking why things are done in a particular way, that then leads to a better, more supportive way of doing things. In essence, Right Livelihood, framed in this way, becomes a practice of having the time and perspective to transforming one’s own mind and then making a series of small decisions on a daily basis that transforms one’s sphere of influence.

So how does your livelihood help create an Enlightened society? Is there one thing you can do differently to change how you work to be more supportive of our collective journey toward Wisdom and Enlightenment?

Let us know if the comments and if you are in Portland, come talk with us about this topic on Tuesday, May 24th!

Doors open at 6:15 pm and are locked at 6:30 pm, when we begin meditation.  Following meditation we will have a tea & cookie break followed by our first Dharma Life Skills discussion. If you want to come to the discussion portion only, please arrive by 7:15 pm.