Monday, January 7, 2013

Right Livelihood

We have to be a part of something larger than ourselves, because our dreams are often bigger than our lifetimes. --Rosalie Bertell, Right Livelihood fellow

Much has been written about right livelihood, and not just by Buddhists. In Sweden there is an annual award for those who have worked for social justice or to help preserve the environment. Here is a link to their website. A quote from the site:

The idea of 'right livelihood' is an ancient one. It embodies the principle that each person should follow an honest occupation, which fully respects other people and the natural world. It means being responsible for the consequences of our actions and taking only a fair share of the earth's resources.
In every generation, there are groups of people and individuals around the globe who valiantly uphold these principles of right livelihood. They should be the stars in our human cosmos; instead their work often entails personal sacrifice, being opposed by powerful forces around them. The Right Livelihood Award exists to honour and support such people.
It's appalling to imagine how many people are engaged in wrong livelihood according to the above definition. For most folks, paying the rent and getting food on the table must be their number one priority. The rightness or wrongness of what they do must come second to the necessity for food and shelter. I'm not talking here about the greedy industrialist who makes a fortune at the expense of those who work for him, or ruthless people in positions of power who don't give a damn about the environment or other people. I'm talking about most people, living out their lives, doing the best they can with what they've been given and with their own talent or lack thereof. I don't judge them. Do you?

I'm struck by the idea that right livelihood entails personal sacrifice and personal risk. In other words, in many ways, right livelihood is not healthy for the person involved in the work. These people believe fiercely in what they do. They have to be brave and absolutely certain that taking on the sacrifice and risk is a necessary part of furthering their dreams for the world. They are a part of something bigger than their personal lives which must be extremely satisfying. But, is it OK to work oneself to death for a great cause? Is it OK for the persons killing themselves? How about their families? Is it good for them?

I admire these people tremendously, please do not misunderstand. Still, I wonder about the standard of sacrifice and risk in right livelihood. Are all the rest of us, we who will never be recognized in Sweden, those of us who are not Buddhist, are we wrong to work for safety and comfort for ourselves and our families? Is doing harm to oneself a part of right livelihood?

How about all the earnest people working (for instance) for not-for-profits, who spend their days sitting at a desk in front of a computer, ruining their health so as to do good in the world? Even if those people believe that what they're doing is for the betterment of others, is it OK for them to sacrifice their health and well being in that pursuit?

Buddhist descriptions of right livelihood are somewhat more gentle than the above. Do no harm is a basic measure of Buddhist right livelihood. It is also nearly impossible in most professions. Even as a massage therapist, I use massage cremes and oils that were manufactured in factories and are packaged in plastic containers. I bet the people who produce my lovely massage creme don't make a decent wage. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

After each session, I must wash the sheets, face rest cover and pillow case, and though I use environmentally friendly, non scented laundry detergent, I use a LOT of water washing all those sheets. I go to great lengths to make sure the massage studio is clean, which entails a lot of vacuuming, for example. Where was my vacuum cleaner manufactured? How about the HEPA filters I use in it? When I discard an old vacuum bag, it ends up in a landfill somewhere. I book appointments on my iphone. Nearly everyone understands how horrible the conditions are in Chinese factories where iphones are produced.

You see, even a livelihood as harmless, as "right," as mine does harm. It seems almost universally inevitable.

Everything is relative. I remain unconvinced that there is any such thing as right livelihood. If everyone did the best we could, while taking care of ourselves and our families, wouldn't that be good enough? You tell me.

If your work is making you sick or unavailable to your family and friends, I wonder if you might reconsider your priorities. Would you? Will you?

Be well, first and foremost. Life is short. It is not all about the cause, whatever that cause is. Believe me.


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