And what does it mean to maintain one’s livelihood in tune?
[Not too loose, not too tight]
(from AN 8.54, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
Whether you are going to an office from 9 am to 5 pm, raising children at home, caring for an elderly relative, driving a bus, managing your stock portfolio, studying, teaching, or working in a shop or factory, you are working. Because most of us spend a significant portion of our lives working for a living, it’s important to avoid thinking of work as “not my real life”. All our actions have consequences, no matter where they take place. Part of setting your life upright is to reflect on whether your time at work has wholesome or unwholesome results.
Right and wrong livelihood
In the context of the Buddha’s teachings, a fine line may separate “right” livelihood from “wrong” livelihood. Right livelihood is respectable, honorable and, most of all, harmless. Two people could be in the same position but if one performs the work honestly and in good faith and the other dishonestly, only the first is practicing right livelihood. The question of whether work is wholesome or unwholesome is not only intrinsic to the job itself, but is determined by all the outcomes, both for the worker and for everyone else affected.
Is the end product wholesome?
In your work, what is the product or service being delivered? Regardless of your role in producing it, you are contributing to some effect in the world. Whether you are the janitor, the chief executive, the truck driver, the receptionist or the creative director, you are working together towards the same goal. The product or service, the result of your work, can be evaluated as beneficial or not, to yourself and others. Because I love books and think of them as good to have in the world, I worked for three different publishing firms in my early work life. People who care for others are clearly providing a beneficial service. People who sell illegal drugs are not. What is the end product of your work? Is the end product supported by your effort, on balance, wholesome?
Is your work environment wholesome?
Is the place where you perform your work safe? Are you surrounded by people who are mostly trying to do the right thing? There will always be a mix of positive and negative personalities around you. What’s the ratio in your workplace? Is it so negative that any positive conversation is quashed? Or is it generally uplifting? Is there a sense that everyone is constantly overworked? Think about all the factors, human and material, that make up your workplace. When you arrive, are you glad to be there? Are those around you glad you’re there?
Does your work include aspects that seem unethical to you?
In the course of your work, are you sometimes asked to do things you consider unethical? Remember that unethical is not the same as unpleasant. Firing someone is an unpleasant task, but it’s not intrinsically harmful. I’ve been fired, and although it was painful, it was best for all concerned.
Are you sometimes expected to break one of the five precepts described in previous posts: killing, stealing, lying, engaging in sexual misconduct, or taking intoxicants that lead to heedlessness? Do you break them on your own, with no one else asking you to?
If you find that you are spending a lot of your work day doing something other than the work you’re being paid for, is that stealing time? Are you taking something you shouldn’t? When your work day is over, do you feel you have provided an honest day’s work for a fair reward?
The precept most commonly abused in the workplace is truthfulness. I have heard of a secretary who quit her job because she couldn’t bear lying to cover for her boss. There is sometimes pressure to exaggerate good news in reporting results. It can be difficult to discern whether a line has been crossed or not, but it is important to stay attuned to your personal ethics and to know if they are being compromised by your work, or by how you do it. Or, if you feel your work situation is wholesome and what it brings out in you is wholesome, you may take satisfaction and even joy from your work.
How does your current work affect you?
There are any number of causes that can make your livelihood wholesome or not. A good general indicator is whether it feels wholesome to you or not. Moral discomfort can be harder to handle than physical fatigue. However, there is a limit with physical demands, too. Even if the work you do is beneficial and rewarding, it may not be wholesome for you if a four-hour daily commute is required, or if you are ruining your health.
Stay aware of what’s happening around you. Do the people seem positive about their work? Is something unreasonable being asked of you? Is one factor of the work environment skewed enough to make your work day a generally negative experience? Nurses and teachers sometimes leave their professions because, even though they know the service they offer is necessary and wholesome, the time and energy demands seem excessive to them. If, on balance, you feel that your life is being negatively affected by your work, first consider whether you can influence the situation toward a positive direction. If not, then it’s probably time to move on to something that suits you better.
A case of wrong livelihood
I once applied for a job with a publishing firm. Oddly, the advertisement didn’t describe what sorts of publications were involved. When I arrived for the interview, I understood why. It was a publisher of books and magazines for “soldiers of fortune”. Their list included titles like “How to make your own bombs” and “Bounty hunting for fun and profit”. I declined to be considered for the position; I couldn’t visualize myself pretending innocence while generating and promoting materials that were appealing to the worst in people.
That’s just one example of wrong livelihood. According to the Buddha the five [types of business] to be refrained from are:
1. selling weapons,
2. selling human beings [slavery],
3. selling animals to be killed for food, or the flesh of animals that one has killed oneself,
4. selling intoxicants,
5. selling poison.
(AN 5.177, from the Craft of the Heart, Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo)
In each case listed above, the activity requires the worker to break one of the five precepts. Today, unambiguous wrong livelihood would still include slavery and dealing in arms, prostitution, butchery, intoxicants (legal or illegal), and poisons. It must also include any activity that requires deception.
Long ago, someone I know worked for a rivet factory that received defective, customer-rejected rivets and then repackaged them and sold them as new. A similar deception would be putting the hard sell on stocks in order to pump up the price. Misrepresentation, stealing, and any form of lying are indicators of wrong livelihood.
The grey zone
Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether or not a job is consistent with right livelihood. Perhaps you are providing a beneficial service, but the work environment is abusive to the workers. Sometimes in a government position, the worker may be unable to do the job well because of bureaucratic limitations, or arbitrary changes in the goals of the organization. Or perhaps you are involved with producing something that can be used for both harmless and harmful purposes.
It is possible to be too scrupulous. If there is one rotten executive in a basically good company, you could try to work for a different executive within the same company. Also, if the people you work with seem unpleasant to you, that doesn’t necessarily mean they or their activities are unethical. Try to perceive the actions separately from the personalities.
Assess your situation
Start a thorough consideration of the harmful and harmless aspects of your work. The reflection itself could prove helpful, whether you decide you need to make a change or not. The change could be towards a different career direction or something as simple as changing your daily work habits.
After you take an inventory of the different elements of your work and workplace — what’s wholesome and what’s not – you might not be sure whether, on balance, your livelihood is upright or not. If this is the case, talk with a trusted friend about your thoughts on work. Hold the question in your mind and come back to it over a period of days or weeks. Eventually, the picture will become clearer.
You may decide that your current livelihood is wholesome enough, but that you want to make a change for other reasons. You may decide that you want to try something completely different. You could also continue the work you’ve been doing, but change it in some way – the hours, which organization you work for, or how you do your work. It may be that you can correct your own attitude and convert wrong livelihood to right! Remember that the actions and words you can control are your own.
And if you are in a relatively ethical work environment, remember to be grateful for that good fortune.
Timing your changes
If you do decide that you need to make a change in your work situation, make the change in a considered fashion. While finding and keeping work that is wholesome is important, it is also important not to unnecessarily disrupt the lives of your co-workers and family. Do your thinking in cooperation with others you trust. Work out alternative plans and research them. Make your transition harmless.
A topic related to right livelihood is balanced livelihood. This contemplation has to do with balancing income and expenditures and enjoying the fruits of one’s labor responsibly.
What is balanced livelihood?
“Herein, Vyagghapajja, a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.
Just as the goldsmith, or an apprentice of his, knows, on holding up a balance, that by so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up; even so a householder, knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.” (AN 8.54 from Everyman’s Ethics, 4 discourses, adapted by Narada Thera, BPS)
The principle of balanced livelihood seems obvious enough, but a shocking number of people have lost the connection between household income and outflow. Seeing one’s neighbor buy a new car or other conspicuous item can unhinge a person’s restraint. It is easy to get into trouble by satisfying immediate desires and not thinking about the future. The temptation is strong in most cultures to borrow for luxury items. How can a person hold back? Remember the idea of balanced livelihood. Remember that it’s in your power to control your actions and make them beneficial.
Another issue closely related to balanced livelihood is being careful with what one has; having an attitude of conservation.
What is the accomplishment of watchfulness?
“Herein, Vyagghapajja, whatsoever wealth a householder is in possession of, obtained by dint of effort, collected by strength of arm, by the sweat of his brow, justly acquired by right means — such he husbands well by guarding and watching so that kings would not seize it, thieves would not steal it, fire would not burn it, water would not carry it away, nor ill-disposed heirs remove it. This is the accomplishment of watchfulness.” (AN8.54 from Everyman’s Ethics, 4 discourses, adapted by Narada Thera, BPS)
Having things can be a burden. If you own a home, you have to protect it from fire and theft, insure it, tend to the exterior (garden, yard, pathways), maintain the interior, pay the utilities, and more. And yet, if you do all this, you are in a position to enjoy the money you earn in a secure and comfortable home, and even to offer hospitality and gifts to others. This is a privilege not everyone has, and we can take a wholesome joy in it.
Livelihood in tune
All of the above factors go into “tuning” your livelihood. As with any tuning, you want to arrive at the state where it’s not too sharp and not too flat; not too tight and not too loose. If these things are in tune — the type of work you do, doing it wholeheartedly and with ethical awareness, balancing your income and needs, and keeping your balance with respect to generosity and conserving your wealth – then you are practicing right livelihood.