By Daniel Scharpenburg
I work at a government agency.
I essentially proofread documents for a living. I’m pretty good at what I do and I make enough to support my family. When people find out what my day job is, sometimes they ask me, “How can such an Awakened and mindful person work there?”
People are often surprised.
My reply when people ask this kind of question is, “Would you prefer it be full of only un-awakened people? Only people who are sad and un-mindful?”
I’ll tell you a story that I relate to:
P’ang Yun is a beloved figure in the history of Chinese Buddhism.
He was a government bureaucrat in China in the 700s, but he was also a very devoted Zen Buddhist. He didn’t walk the path of a full time monk, but he a had a little temple that he built on his property. And he spent a lot of time studying with a famous monk named Sekito.
He had two kids and he actually practiced the Dharma with them.
He is one of those historical figures that reminds us that you don’t have to run away to live in a monastery, away from the world, in order to be a devoted Buddhist. He lived in the world, not apart from it.
His story means a lot to me. I can relate to it, not only because I am a government worker, but also because I have two kids. And they do practice the Dharma with me.
In Buddhism we talk about Right Livelihood. It’s a value that’s considered important. We should support our lives in ways that minimize our harm to others. When the Buddha spelled out that teaching, he said we shouldn’t be assassins or be involved in the slave trade (he was way ahead of his time).
But, beyond things that are obviously harmful to others, where do we draw the line? What is Right Livelihood?
I could list things that I think aren’t Right Livelihood, but I don’t think I want to do that. The truth is that in many situations things are complicated. But if you find yourself in a situation in your job in which you have to become corrupt, that obviously seems like something to walk away from.
I’m a public servant and most of the time a life of service is considered a good thing.
Some people seem to think that you have to have be a yoga instructor, teacher or massage therapist to be engaged in Right Livelihood. I think that’s a narrow way of looking at things.
But, let’s unpack what Right Livelihood really means.
In the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha said this: “And what is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This is called right livelihood.”
But that doesn’t really explain things well, does it? The phrase is actually Samma Ajivo.
It’s usually translated as Right Livelihood, but of course, since it is a translation we might add some context in our minds that wouldn’t be accurate in the original language. So it’s worth thinking about a little.
It’s sometimes translated as Right Means but I’m not sure that’s really better.
The Buddha encouraged people to make their living in ways that don’t cause harm. Right Livelihood is about what we do to support ourselves and our families. It’s not about how we live our lives (Right Action covers that pretty well) but it is about how we survive.
It’s hard for us to engage in our Buddhist practice if we’re busy thinking about the bad things we did at work all day. We should, as Buddhists, be trying to make the world a better place, or at the very least not make it worse.
But, it’s clear that in the modern world things are complicated.
There are still some easy ones. Obviously someone who is in the slave trade isn’t following Right Livelihood. I can certainly say, “Don’t commit fraud.” and things like that. We all know what corruption is and how it works.
But things can get really hard if we start really thinking about it. Things are complicated and there aren’t enough jobs (and people often forget that these are suggestions and not commandments).
A friend of mine works in tech support and he thinks his company isn’t really doing any good in the world. But, the thing is he gets paid a lot and he has a family to support. He asked me what he can do to really make his job fit Right Livelihood.
I told him something simple he can do at work. Something we all can do.
Bring a good attitude every day. Spread positivity among all of your co-workers (and anyone else you interact with). If you do that, you are making the world a better place.
I want to suggest we change the way we think about Right Livelihood. I want to call it Aware Livelihood.
Aware Livelihood means that regardless of our job we should be aware of the implications and consequences of what we do. We should think about the changes we can make in our workplace to make it better for everyone and to spread positive thoughts and feelings.
Even if you are in a workplace surrounded by people who are sad and negative all the time, you can still do something. Be the change. Be positive. Fill yourself with joy.
That is Right Livelihood.
Just pay attention to what’s going on and do your best to minimize harm.
Editor: Dana Gornall