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How’s That Working for You? The Practice of Right Livelihood

Our livelihood, the work we choose and the way we do it, can be healing and transformative – for ourselves, for the people we work with, for our society, and for our planet.

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Rice farmer carrying harvest on his shoulder

My first company, Brush Dance, originated 30 years ago (that’s hard to fathom!) as an environmental products mail-order catalog. Our first product was wrapping paper made from recycled paper. We were one of the first companies in the United States to produce wrapping paper that was made from more than 50% recycled paper, including 10% postconsumer waste. Our first designs were created when I proposed the idea of making environmentally friendly wrapping paper to Mayumi Oda, an internationally known artist. Mayumi loved the idea and appeared at my home a few days later with several extraordinary designs.

The first time that wrapping paper was delivered to the company I gained insight into some of the complexities regarding right livelihood. At this time Brush Dance was operating from my house, as it did for the first three years of its history. A truck pulled up to my home, and we unloaded thirty boxes of wrapping paper. My heart sank. I looked at this paper and thought, “Is this really right livelihood? Do people really need wrapping paper? It certainly doesn’t seem like a necessity.” Even though the paper was made from recycled paper, trees were still being used to make it. The truck that delivered it was burning oil to bring it to us. I actually thought that the world might be better off without it at all. At that moment I realized just how complicated this issue of right livelihood can be.

The classic definition of right livelihood in Buddhism is work that does not include dealing in arms, slave trade, the meat industry, the arms industry, or in predicting the future. From the perspective of our complex, interconnected lives if we eat meat or dairy products we are connected to the meat industry. If we pay taxes to a government that makes weapons, we have a relationship with the arms industry. If we look closely, nearly every American spends a good portion of their work time working for the government. Now, I am not proposing that everyone stop drinking milk and stop paying taxes. My point is for us to simply be aware and to understand the complexity of our lives. My hope is that paying attention will foster humility, insight, and action.

It is through our actions, and through the way that we respond to events and situations, that we can change the world. Our livelihood, the work we choose and the way we do it, can be healing and transformative – for ourselves, for the people we work with, for our society, and for our planet. We can choose to work for positive change by responding to what is needed, or we can act in a way that continues to do harm. Business may be the most powerful and influential force on our planet.

It can be easy to judge ourselves and others with regard to right livelihood. We talk on phones that are made in faraway lands, in factories and by people who would be nearly impossible to trace. Our cars use oil that comes from many parts of the world. Our food is often the source of tremendous suffering, causing erosion and degrading of the environment, usually far removed from our daily experience.

On a more personal level, it is possible to work for an arms manufacturer and be of tremendous benefit to the people around you. And it is possible to work for a hospice or homeless shelter and cause harm or stress through your actions and habits. Right livelihood is the practice of questioning, uncovering, not settling for what is easy or on the surface. A great question to ask is: 

Is my work, or the way I thinkspeak, and act at work benefiting others, or is it causing harm?

At the base of Zen practice is what are referred to as the Three Pure Precepts and these essentially provide the roadmap on how to practice right livelihood:

Do good.

Avoid doing harm.

Help others

Right livelihood is making the effort to do good, while avoiding doing harm. It’s about helping others in the kind of work we do, in the results and effects of our work, in the conditions of our workplace, and in how we interact with our colleagues. It is important to recognize that this effort, this practice, can be complex, difficult, and at times even impossible. But when we recognize that we have no choice but to make our best effort, moment after moment, we embody this powerful practice.

To explore:

What about your work is right livelihood?

What about your work is not right livelihood?

What changes can you make to move your work further toward right livelihood?

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