More from Tony Bernhard’s paper, “Right Livelihood”:
“Today, the de facto means of supporting our lifestyle is abstract in a manner that it wasn’t in the Buddha’s time: generally we don’t grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own homes or gather whatever herbs we might need for our medicinal purposes. Most of us would even be hard-pressed to find much in our personal possession that has not been manufactured by others (mostly others we never know because they are living outside of our worldly of experience) and that has not been purchased with money: we make payments on our residences, buy food at stores and restaurants, and hope to be able to pay insurance companies to provide our medical care.
“We entertain ourselves, accumulate knowledge about what is going on in the world, and even move about the world mostly provisioned by the creations of our global mass culture. Acquiring all these things — the very infrastructure of our lives — normally entails money.
“Yet judging whether a particular occupation is ‘appropriate’ may not be as obvious as we first think: at first blush, right livelihood would seem to translate into, at least, avoiding employment that causes harm. But extricating ourselves from the web of social connections — as with the supermarket manager — might make the actual activity we perform less important than the constellation of intentions we bring to it.
“Right” and “wrong” in this context seem not to be the relevant question. Instead, and more to the point: what is our experience of our form of employment and does it interfere with the opening of our hearts and minds?
“Because we are so inextricably embedded in the interconnected complexity of our contemporary world, even our personal security is dependent on what might, on the face of it, appear to be the unskillful livelihood of others. George Orwell wrote:
we sleep soundly in our beds because harsh men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.
“We ‘purchase’ that security with the tax money that supports our police and other ‘first responders’ including the SWAT teams and military/paramilitary organizations like our national guard [in the USA].
“We aren’t practicing dharma [that is, trying to live with the intention of waking up] in the midst of a jungle full of wild animals as did the Buddha or even as do some of the forest monks still practicing in remote corners of Asia that are largely unaccessed by westerners, and we aren’t normally risking confrontation with road bandits when we travel between towns as did the monastics in the Buddha’s day. Despite the shortcomings of our law enforcement agencies, we in the developed world live our lives in an ambience of relative peace that is absent in much of the rest of the world.” (end of quote)
Tony brings up the irrefutable and irresolvable problem of our inability to definitively identify what is right livelihood and what is wrong livelihood at a practical level. If you are a social worker in the prison system, a chaplain in the Army, an engineer who tries to minimize the suffering of animals headed for slaughter – what then? Our whole lives are embedded in a complex and international web of services provided, and there is very little purity of intention that would cover the whole chain of events that brings us our food, shelter, heating, water, and all the rest.
So, I think Tony correctly proposes that we examine the intentions behind our actions, both with earning a living and with creating a life, day by day. Do the intentions and actions support our becoming kinder and more aware?