Monday, January 7, 2008

The Fifth Step: Right livelihood

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We all need to “earn a living” in order to survive. Such an odd expression: earn a living as though somehow living is something that we must struggle over. The American Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The genuine irony of that statement is the juxtaposition of “Independence” and such basic human rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing could be more impossible. Independence leads precisely to the opposite of what we aspire to. To be actually independent is to be isolated, alienated and cut off from the very dimensions which would insure the goal.

There is of course a difference from just living and living in fullness. Unfortunately we have made the task of living in fullness extraordinarily difficult by insisting upon independence and thus focusing on ourselves in isolation from our true nature. And this fundamental error has lead to “earning a living” instead of “living in earnest.” Is this just a play on words, or is there something deep within us—something not seen, but felt—which guides us out of self-service to other-service. At a surface level we perceive a self who strives and competes against other selves for what we believe will insure happiness. In such a state of mind it is hard to fathom a livelihood based on selflessness without giving up what we think we need. Rarely does it occur to us that our employment choices create suffering in others.

But competition inevitably leads to winners and losers which produces greed, anger and delusion. An isolated and independent self in competition is insatiable. No amount of physical gain can ever truly satisfy the empty hole within. Greed is the result which leads to anger—anger that the gain doesn’t fulfill and this leads to delusions—that more of the same will produce what a smaller amount did not. These three—greed, anger and delusions—are known as the Three Poisons and they all grow from a common delusion regarding identity.

Beneath the surface level of false identity lies our true nature which is not independent and alienated but rather interdependent and connected. The transcendent nature of Buddha-Nature is indiscriminate and unconditional but is obscured and hidden by ego in the same way that clouds hide the radiance of the sun. A right livelihood which grows from this soil is naturally harmless to others since there is no difference between self and others.

It is, of course, possible to draw up a list of undesirable conditions which would constitute harmful occupations. The list would include such obvious prohibited occupations as those which pollute our environment, promote violence and aggression, cheating and deceiving others and engaging in dishonest practices which damage human dignity and create strife. And all of these conditions if avoided would result in the betterment of our world. However, to practice right livelihood while remaining in a state of ego delusion will not bring about living in earnest. It may result in pride and a sense of becoming a good person, deserving of merit and reward but as Bodhidharma told Emperor Wu, without pure motives—motives not focused on gain and reward—no merit results. Right livelihood, to be “right” must likewise be established on no gain at the expense of others.
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