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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Livelihood

Fifth Step on the Path

    Work... "The prerogative of intelligence, the only means to manhood, and the measure of civilization. Savages do not work."

            -- Calvin Coolidge

There is an incredible amount of drivel circulated in Buddhist literature regarding the kinds of occupations which are fit for Buddhists.

According to these texts, Buddhists may not, for example, earn their living directly or indirectly by doing anything that involves the harming of living beings. At first glance this seems clear and reasonable. "Well," the young Buddhist says, "I must scratch from my list of possible career goals becoming a Mafia hit man. Fair enough."

But such texts as Walpola Rahula's "What The Buddha Taught" continue stating that Buddhists may also not be found, "living through a profession that brings harm to others, such as trading in arms and lethal weapons, intoxicating drinks, poisons, killing animals, cheating, etc."

The career-searching Buddhist immediately adds, "I will never work in an abattoir dispatching cattle to that great pasture in the sky." Then he begins to wonder to what degree he is prohibited from supporting the meat industry. Well, he reasons, trading in weapons is not in and of itself killing or even violent. It is merely supportive of violence by supplying the materiel of death. But to what degree is he enjoined from participating in the killing of animals? May he be the man who delivers the cow to the slaughterhouse? May he be the cowboy who raises the cow to be slaughtered? May he sell hamburgers? Shoes? Any leather article? May he sell gelatin? May he work at the A & P or own shares in any supermarket chain? May he be a fisherman? May he be a waiter who delivers pastrami sandwiches to a table? Also, while he pretty well understands that he must not support the Mafia in any way and he rather doubts that he could apply for the office of State Executioner, he wonders about the rest of criminal justice system. Can he be a court reporter in a court that sentences people to death? Can he aspire to be a cop?

He continues to mull the issue. Obviously a Buddhist cannot be a bartender or a cocktail waitress, he decides, or even work for a distillery or a brewery. But may he be the man who builds the cocktail lounge or cleans it? May he be the farmer who sells his grain to the brewer?

May a Buddhist work for a pest control company? May he set rat traps or exterminate termites and roaches? Clearly not! May he swat a mosquito? No way! (I was once admonished by a nun in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan for swatting a mosquito.) May he be a physician who administers medicines which poison thousands of innocent intestinal worms that happen to be living in a child's abdomen? May he work for a pharmaceutical company that makes the medicine?

He knows in his heart that he cannot be a pimp or a drug pusher but he knew that before he converted to Buddhism.

And he cannot earn his living through "cheating." (Uh, Oh. That lets out used cars, aluminum siding, politics and TV evangelism.) The more he thinks about it, the shorter his list gets.

And so he and the rest of us are all left wondering just what does Right Livelihood mean?

Most religious commentators avoid answering such questions. And nobody can query a book.

What is necessary, here, is common sense. Religious professionals who earn their living from the donations of working members of their congregations can afford to be angelically employed. Having no family responsibilities to anchor them to earthly reality, they can afford to float above such defilements. (And while we are on the subject, it is shocking to see how easily The Pure accept 'dirty' money. A whore can go from the crib to the pew and if her trick receipt is put in the collection box, it is welcomed. This, of course, is true of any religion. None is fussy about a donation's provenance.)

Therefore, the solution we apply to the problem of Right Livelihood is simple: A Buddhist may earn his living in any way that is honest and legal. He may sell guns... but not to someone he reasonably suspects is insane or who intends to use the gun for a criminal purpose. He may be a vegetarian and a cowboy... a shoemaker, a butcher, a soldier, a bartender, and, lest there be any doubt, he may even be the man who throws the switch on someone legally condemned to die. If he doesn't approve of capital punishment, he doesn't have to take the job.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 15: Right Livelihood, Page 1 of 2