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Right Livelihood

To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva),
you have to find a way to earn your living without
transgressing your ideals of love and compassion.
The way you support yourself can be an
expression of your deepest self, or it can be a
source of suffering for you and others.

The sutras usually define Right Livelihood as
earning a living without needing to transgress any
of the Five Mindfulness Trainings: not dealing in
arms, in the slave trade, the meat trade, the sale of
alcohol, drugs, or poisons; or making prophecies or
telling fortunes. Monks and nuns must be careful
not to make unreasonable demands on the laity for
the four requisites of medicine, food, clothes, and
lodging, and not to live with material requisites in
excess of immediate needs. Bringing awareness to
every moment, we try to have a vocation that is
beneficial to humans, animals, plants, and the
earth, or at least minimally harmful. We live in a
society in which jobs are sometimes hard to find,
but if it happens that our work involves harming
life, we should try to find another job. Our
vocation can nourish our understanding and
compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to
the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn
our living. So many modern industries are harmful
to humans and nature, even food production.
Chemical pesticides and fertilizers can cause a lot
of harm to the environment. Practicing Right
Livelihood is difficult for farmers. If they do not
use chemicals, it may be difficult for them to
compete commercially. This is just one example.
When you practice your profession or trade,
observe the Five Mindfulness Trainings. A job that
involves killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying,
or selling drugs or alcohol is not Right Livelihood.
If your company pollutes the rivers or the air,
working there is not Right Livelihood. Making
weapons or profiting from others' superstitions is
also not Right Livelihood. People have
superstitions, such as believing that their fate is
sealed in the stars or in the palms of their hands.
No one can be sure what will occur in the future.
By practicing mindfulness, we can change the
destiny astrologers have predicted for us.
Moreover, prophecies can be self-fulfilling.

Composing or performing works of art can also
be livelihood. A composer, writer, painter, or
performer has an effect on the collective
consciousness. Any work of art is, to a large
extent, a product of the collective consciousness.
Therefore, the individual artist needs to practice
mindfulness so that his or her work of art helps
those who touch it practice right attention. A
young man wanted to learn how to draw lotus
flowers, so he went to a master to apprentice with
him. The master took him to a lotus pond and
invited him to sit there. The young man saw
flowers bloom when the sun was high, and he
watched them return into buds when night fell. The
next morning, he did the same. When one lotus
flower wilted and its petals fell into the water, he
just looked at the stalk, the stamen, and the rest of
the flower, and then moved on to another lotus. He
did that for ten days. On the eleventh day, the
master asked him, "Are you ready?" and he
replied, "I will try." The master gave him a brush,
and although the young man's style was childlike,
the lotus he drew was beautiful. He had become
the lotus, and the painting came forth from him.
You could see his naïvetée concerning technique,
but deep beauty was there.

Right Livelihood is not just a 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 things, I
see that the butcher is not the only person
responsible for killing animals. We may think the
butcher's livelihood is wrong and ours is right, but
if we didn't eat meat, he would not have to kill.
Right Livelihood is a collective matter. The
livelihood of each person affects everyone else.
The butcher's children might benefit from my
teaching, while my children, because they eat meat,
share some responsibility for the butcher's
livelihood. Suppose a farmer who sells his cattle as
meat wants to receive the Five Mindfulness
Trainings. He wants to know if he can, in light of
the first training to protect life. He feels that he
gives his cattle the best conditions for their wellbeing.
He even operates his own slaughterhouse, so
that there is no unnecessary cruelty inflicted on the
animals when he puts an end to their lives. He
inherited his farm from his father, and he has a
family to support. This is a dilemma. What should
he do? His intentions are good, but he has inherited
his farm and his habit energies from his ancestors.
Every time a cow is slaughtered, it leaves an
impression on his consciousness, which will come
back to him in dreams, during meditation, or at the
moment of death. It is Right Livelihood to look
after his cows so well while they are alive. He has
the wish to be kind to his cows, and he also wants
the security of regular income for himself and his
family.

He should continue to look deeply and practice
mindfulness with his local Sangha. As his insight
deepens, the way out of the situation where he
finds himself killing to make a living will present
itself.

Everything we do contributes to our effort to
practice Right Livelihood. It is more than just the
way we earn our paycheck. We cannot succeed at
having a Right Livelihood one hundred percent, but
we can resolve to go in the direction of compassion
and reducing suffering. And we can resolve to help
create a society in which there is more Right
Livelihood and less wrong livelihood.
Millions of people, for example, make their
living in the arms industry, helping directly or
indirectly to manufacture conventional and nuclear
weapons. The U.S., Russia, France, Britain, China,
and Germany are the primary suppliers of these
weapons. Weapons are then sold to Third World
countries, where the people do not need guns; they
need food. To manufacture or sell weapons is not
Right Livelihood, but the responsibility for this
situation lies with all of us — politicians,
economists, and consumers. We have not yet
organized a compelling national debate on this
problem. We have to discuss this further, and we
have to keep creating new jobs so that no one has
to live on the profits from weapons' manufacture.
If you are able to work in a profession that helps
realize your ideal of compassion, be grateful. And
please try to help create proper jobs for others by
living mindfully, simply, and sanely. Use all of
your energy to try to improve the situation.

To practice Right Livelihood means to practice
Right Mindfulness. Every time the telephone rings,
hear it as a bell of mindfulness. Stop what you are
doing, breathe in and out consciously, and then
proceed to the telephone. The way you answer the
phone will embody Right Livelihood. We need to
discuss among ourselves how to practice
mindfulness in the workplace, how to practice
Right Livelihood. Do we breathe when we hear the
telephone ringing and before we pick up the phone
to make a call? Do we smile while we take care of
others? Do we walk mindfully from meeting to
meeting? Do we practice Right Speech? Do we
practice deep and total relaxation after hours of
hard work? Do we live in ways that encourage
everyone to be peaceful and happy and to have a
job that is in the direction of peace and happiness?
These are very practical and important questions.
To work in a way that encourages this kind of
thinking and acting, in a way that encourages our
ideal of compassion, is to practice Right
Livelihood.

If someone has a profession that causes living
beings to suffer and oppresses others, it will infect
their own consciousness, just as when we pollute
the air that we ourselves have to breathe. Many
people get rich by means of wrong livelihood.
Then they go to their temple or church and make
donations. These donations come from feelings of
fear and guilt rather than the wish to bring
happiness to others and relieve others of suffering.
When a temple or church receives large donations,
those responsible for receiving the funds must
understand this; they should do their best to help
the donor transform by showing him or her a way
out of that wrong livelihood. Such persons need,
more than anything, the teachings of the Buddha.
As we study and practice the Noble Eightfold
Path, we see that each element of the path is
contained within all the other seven elements. We
also see that each element of the path contains the
Noble Truths of suffering, the making of suffering,
and the ending of suffering.

Practicing the First Noble Truth, we recognize
our suffering and call it by its name — depression,
anxiety, fear, or insecurity. Then we look directly
into that suffering to discover its basis, and that is
practicing the Second Noble Truth. These two
practices contain the first two elements of the
Noble Eightfold Path, namely, Right View and
Right Thinking. All of us have a tendency to run
away from suffering, but now with the practice of
the Noble Eightfold Path we have the courage to
face our suffering directly. We use Right
Mindfulness and Right Concentration to look
courageously at our suffering. The looking deeply
that shows us clearly the basis of our suffering is
Right View. Right View will not show one reason
for our suffering, but layers upon layers of causes
and conditions: seeds we have inherited from our
parents, grandparents, and ancestors; seeds in us
that have been watered by our friends and the
economic and political situations of our country;
and so many other causes and conditions.

Now the time has come to do something to
lessen our suffering. Once we know what is feeding
our suffering, we find a way to cease ingesting that
nutriment, whether it is edible food, the food of
sense-impression, the food we receive from our
intentions, or the food from our consciousness. We
do this by practicing Right Speech, Right Action,
and Right Livelihood, remembering that Right
Speech is also listening deeply. To practice these
three aspects, we take the Mindfulness Trainings
as our guide. Practicing according to the
Mindfulness Trainings, we see that when we
speak, act, or earn our living, we do it with Right
Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness lets us know
when we say something that is not Right Speech or
do something that is not Right Action. Once Right
Mindfulness is practiced along with Right
Diligence, Right Concentration will follow easily
and give rise to insight or Right View. In fact, it is
not possible to practice one element of the Noble
Eightfold Path without practicing all seven other
elements. This is the nature of interbeing, and it is
true for all of the teachings offered by the Buddha.

From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh
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