Right Livelihood: Moral Dilemma, Impossible Dream or Mindful Choice?

While I’ve only been an active dharma practitioner since 1999, everyday I’ve had countless opportunities to view my working life and its varied results through the lens of interdependence. At first, it was quite disorienting to be in the middle of a random business transaction and suddenly see my client’s point of view. This unexpected empathy made me feel more open, more vulnerable and yet empowered with new knowledge. Gradually I began to enjoy ever more subtle shifts in perspective that improved the depth and quality of my interactions with both clients and co-workers. Not that everything I experienced was always sweetness and light, but I became much more flexible and spontaneous.

Having been conditioned like most Americans to prioritize profit and “winning” above all else, it took quite some time on the cushion to dismantle certain reactive behavioral patterns. Meditation and devotional mantras helped me to supplant aggressive cynicism with cautious optimism. But as automated defenses started to fall apart, I started to recognize how many of those behavioral routines were rooted in unexamined fear. My fear of loss, of poverty, of being abused or taken advantage of were partly inherited from my depression-era parents and partly learned from childhood bullies who made ego-clinging and greed seem like the key to survival in the world. Having the psychological roots of my negative behvavior revealed to me in this way, made me want to live and work and play without being driven by fear.

So how do we, as practitioners, bring our emerging compassion and mindfulness to jobs that seem to require us to become agents of abuse or oppression? Is it possible or even desirable to bring positive change to negative environments? I’ve always lacked the killer instinct necessary to thrive in the corporate world, which often rewards cheating or running roughshod over the competition so long as its done in the service of the company or, more specifically, the boss. I’ve always had a keen sense of right and wrong and, while I was clever enough to rationalize minor infringements of the Golden Rule, those infringements always haunted me.

Working in the “soft” industries of journalism and record companies, I discovered that direct violations of the Golden Rule often came in subtle packages. Striving to do no harm in those environments often required a lot of fancy tap-dancing. Do you warn ambitious young musicians about the bad clauses in their standard contract? Do you withhold factual information or leave out a certain quote from an interview to avoid making the subject of a generally positive story appear excessively stupid or mean? Do you return every unsolicited phone call as a point of honor and tell the absolute truth even when you know the truth will hurt? I have had to make all the above choices and more over the years. And, in each case, I found contemplation of the laws of cause and effect and the links of interdependent origination helped me make the right situational choice.

What my Dzogchen practice, along with selective use of mind-training tools from both Buddhist and Hindu Tantric traditions, teaches me is how to turn every job or task into an opportunity to practice Right Livelihood. The Tibetan traditions I study in particular stress working with existing conditions or circumstances. This doesn’t mean making excuses for bad policy or bad situations, but finding the flexibility or gaps in those situations that allow an employee to mindfully engage in turning his company’s resources towards the greater good. This means using all of one’s intelligence and training to manifest positive changes. The corporate executive who uses administrative or shareholder meetings to propose viable alternatives to pollution is practicing Right Livelihood. The army general who uses his knowledge of the arts and costs of war to campaign against deeper military involvement, or to negotiate a cease fire is practicing Right Livelihood. Total divestment from systems and people and companies that do not serve the Dharma is an effective protest. But due the complex web of interdependent origination, there is no guarantee that extreme, absolute, and sudden withdrawals always work for the greater good.

In this human realm, almost everything we can see and touch is an “aggregate.” This means that our material world is mixed, blending together purity and impurity as tightly as warp and weft. Even we humans are a mix of elements with different, often indistinguishable properties. This is why we must apply wisdom, compassion and skillful means to our blended world.

As our teachers warn, Samsara and Nirvana are inextricably woven together, which is why it can be hard for we humans to see that they are essentially “not different.” Thus does the constructed concept of Right Livelihood also fall into the simultaneous categories of “relative” and “absolute” truth that both Dzogchen and Mahamudra tell us comprise all the most esoteric teachings.

That is why I think we should probably refrain from extreme solutions like declaring entire categories of labor as unfit for Buddhist hands. That sort of thinking can only lead to more delusional caste systems. As we practice more and see our human potentiality more clearly, we increase the likelihood that the insights we gain will evolve new ideas on how to transform unwholesome human industries from within. Like all social tools, swift radical change and mandatory restrictions also have optimal moments of deployment. But, more often than not, steady incremental change, guided and promoted by the most globally comprehensive information, is the most effective and sustainable strategy when the goal is to benefit all beings.

Published in: The ID Project, 2007