Wise Livelihood

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In the Buddha’s day, the role each person played in the marketplace — their occupation and where they put their money — was easy to gauge. Today our local employer and our local market both draw from and perhaps cater to complex and often hidden international market, and we provide each other with an amazing array of services unheard of 2500 years ago.

But we each have a moral compass within us, that when ignored causes a feeling of being off-kilter. This moral compass guides us quite admirably when we slow down and pay attention to it. It lets us know when we are causing pain by the way we make our living and by how we invest and spend our money, for example.

A fellow Toastmaster named Olga gave a speech last week that moved me, especially when she said that she had previously pursued a career that made her feel ‘I lost my North’. Fortunately she heeded her inner moral compass, and changed careers. She is now working in the public sector for the good of the community. She is not a Buddhist as far as I know, but that moral compass lives in her without ever having learned about Wise Livelihood. And it lives in each of us.

So the Buddha was not the source of all wisdom. That universal wisdom is accessible to each of us if we quiet down and pay attention. And that’s what the Buddha advised, and that’s what we continue to practice through meditation. But the Buddha also provided a wonderful and comprehensive structure for us to look at what otherwise might feel like a morass of moral complexity: The Eightfold Path. Wise Livelihood is one of those eight, and the final one we will explore.

Remember our Cooking Pot Analogy. 
Wise Livelihood, like Wise Speech and Wise Action arises naturally like steam out of the pot full of Wise Mindfulness, stirred by the spoon of Wise Concentration (practices such as meditation). The cooking pot itself is Wise View, wherein we see the dharma, the true nature of things such as the nature of impermanence and our inherent interconnection with all life (no separate self) and how we cause suffering. But the steam only arises if the flame under the pot is constant, sparked by the match of Wise Intention (to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation and to be compassionate with ourselves and all beings). The flame won’t be constant and the pot won’t stand without the logs burning under it being well laid and balanced, and that is Wise Effort — neither striving doggedly nor lazing and procrastinating.

When we find that our actions, words or livelihood do not seem very wise at all, we can look at our intention, our effort, our view, our degree of mindfulness, our meditation practice, to see why the wise ‘steam’ isn’t rising. It’s a very useful tool.

So here we are at Wise Livelihood. Since our sangha is mostly retired, or wisely employed, we will focus more on this investment/spending aspect of Wise Livelihood. (The Buddha’s list of unskillful career moves is at the end of this post.) Wise Livelihood is the overall impact of our engagement in the marketplace, not just what we do for a living. Why? Because money has the power to create jobs in one area or take them away in another, so the way we invest or spend affects the ways in which others make their living. We are not only concerned with our individual happiness, but with the happiness of all beings. This doesn’t mean we proselytize or tell others how to live or make their living, but it does mean that we try not to create unwise jobs through our marketplace demands.

Do you know your impact on the marketplace? Where your money is invested? Who is producing the goods you are buying? Under what conditions?

Bargain hunting is a valued activity by most of us who have had challenges in making ends meet. It is considered a high virtue, and sometimes a sport. But if we make purchases based solely on price, we may negatively impact people to whom, if we met in person, we would practice kindness. We rarely know for certain the answers to all the wise questions we might ask, but so often we don’t even try to find out if this garment we wear so intimately next to our skin was made by someone who suffered from unhealthy working conditions or whose pay was so minimal that they couldn’t feed themselves and their families. When we think through the choice, that bargain doesn’t seem like such a bargain anymore, does it?

We’re not going to throw out what we have, but we might set an intention to make more informed choices the next time we are shopping.

Of course, it’s not just our clothing but the food we eat, the vehicles we drive, the energy we purchase to heat our homes, as well as a myriad of other choices we make when we pull out our wallet and interact in the massive and intricate web of the marketplace. How are our choices affecting the planet and its inhabitants?

To live out our paired intentions of awareness and kindness we need to look at the policies and behavior of not just the makers of the products but the sellers of the products. When we shop at a store that pays such low wages that it’s employees are eligible for government food stamps, we are giving tacit approval of those policies. Is this wise?

If we buy produce that has been sprayed, we may be concerned for our own health, but have we given any thought to the workers in the fields who have their hands and faces exposed to this toxicity for so many hours per week? And what about the wild creatures and the earth itself, the water that runs off from a polluted field and pollutes the water, that 1% of the earth’s water that is fresh? Lots to consider. Buying organic becomes a way to send metta to all beings, not just a way to stay healthy in our own bodies.

If we invest in companies, or in funds that invest in companies, do we simply look at the numbers? Or can we look a little closer and see what we are giving tacit approval to by our investment. Clearly, a mutual fund that invests in companies that potentially cause harm is not a fund a Wise Livelihood investor wants to fund. To invest wisely, we look at the impact of putting funds and therefore power into the hands of people who are not aligned with our intentions. Through the practice of mindfulness we are becoming increasingly mindful that all beings are deserving of respect, kindness and compassion; that all beings are interconnected, all part of the same web of processes. Our consciousness rests in the sensations of this body at this time, but it is not in isolation. It is in interaction always, in every decision, every movement, every purchase and every investment.

Perhaps you have felt badly about buying or investing in something. These bad feelings are clues that your decision is out of alignment with your deepest intentions and understanding of the nature of things. When this happens, when we notice it, it is an opportunity to slow down, notice, look more closely at what is really going on here. But so often we don’t bother. We just feel bad. We just create suffering for ourselves as we continue to create suffering for others.

All of this may run counter to all we have ever learned about being smart in the marketplace. But in the process of buying and selling, sometimes it’s our ease and happiness that gets sold.

As you might expect, we had a lively discussion in class about Wise Livelihood, especially around the difficulty of obtaining accurate information to make informed choices. As an example, one of the students in class had recently been to El Salvador where she said she was allowed into an area called a free zone, where manufacturers, employing Salvadorans, created goods that they labeled ‘Made in the USA’.

This is not an entirely new scheme. In the 1950’s ‘Made in the USA’ could mean the product was made in a town in Japan with the name of Usa! So it is indeed very challenging to do the right thing when our labels contain insufficient and, as in this case, erroneous information.

Yet we do what we can to live in a way that doesn’t cause our inner moral compass to lose its north. That’s going to be different for each of us. But in this process of coming to understand how we fall into the morass of misery, it’s quite useful to acknowledge that sometimes it’s how we blind ourselves to our powerful impact on the world in all kinds of ways, big and small.

Powerful? Yes! Remember the power of the choice by many people around the world to divest from South African stocks, and the role that played in ending Apartheid? We are powerful! Make these choices count, and let us ‘find our North.’

End Note (excerpted from Access to Insight’s extensive text and commentary on Buddhist teachings. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html#ch4)

“The Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood which bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants (AN 5:177). He further names several dishonest means of gaining wealth which fall under wrong livelihood: practicing deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, and usury (MN 117). Obviously any occupation that requires violation of right speech and right action is a wrong form of livelihood, but other occupations, such as selling weapons or intoxicants, may not violate those factors and yet be wrong because of their consequences for others.”

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