5. Right Livelihood
The trickiest step on the path in the modern world is Right Livelihood. Our interdependence has become such that the days of making a living either in a purely “good” way or a “bad” way are long gone, if they ever really existed. I consider myself a conscientious guy, but aside from the question of whether I am part of the systematic dumbing down of the world – I have worked on some pretty inane things over the years – I have also helped line the pockets of corporations that exploit laborers, give money to political causes I find morally repugnant, and widen the gap between rich and poor with little apology.
Yes, I am complicit in this. I would be a fool to think otherwise. Just as my tax dollars go to fight wars I don’t believe in and bail out bankers who defrauded pensioners, we are all involved with everything now. Does this mean I am a murderer and a swindler? Few would consider me such, but I am under no illusion, I am part of that system, and I willingly pay into it.
Right Livelihood is the only step on the Path that speaks directly to the point of this exercise. And as much as I try to make my living in a “good” way, working on projects I believe have some artistic merit and can tell stories to make us think and feel, I know it is impossible to earn a clean dollar. Even if I spent my life doing nothing but free plays about the life of the Buddha, I would be doing so within a system that is ethically fraught with trouble. Would we have to get sponsorship from a corrupt bank in order to pay for the space and the lights? If not a bank, then perhaps a private donor? And where did he or she get the money? And so on, and so on…
But I do have choice, and my responsibility is to make the best choice in any given situation, the one that I believe works towards ends I find worthy and morally defensible. If somebody asked me to work in a film that extolled the virtues of racism, I would refuse. The same goes for doing a campaign for cigarettes. My livelihood is inexorably intertwined with these very things, in one way or another, but the degree of my involvement matters.
As an example, I was recently considered to be the voice for an alcoholic product. I wanted the job, it would have paid a lot and freed me of immediate financial worry. But it did occur to me that alcohol, while legal and consumed by yours truly, can be at the root of a lot of people’s troubles. Should I encourage the public to knock a few back rather than keep a sober eye on life? Is that “wrong?” It’s hard to say. But my mind was made up to accept the job if offered, and nobody would have blinked at my doing the work, I’m sure.
Hmm… this one is going to be an ongoing investigation, I can tell. These are tricky waters to navigate…
Anyway, tomorrow we look at Right Effort.
I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the Path itself, and point out its elegance. It started with the abstract, what do we think, what do we intend to do with ourselves, then moved into conduct, capping that section with a kind of “put your money where your mouth is” step, and will eventually end with a trinity of steps meant to strengthen the mind. It’s a thing of beauty, it really is.