The fifth spoke on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path is also the last one in the Moral Virtues (or Sila) group — Right Livelihood. Together with Right Speech and Right Action, these form the backbone of how our understanding of the principles of Buddhism translate into practice through the rest of our lives. For most of us, especially the lay Buddhists who won’t be joining a monastery, Right Livelihood means abstaining from taking work that harms people through cheating or fraud, killing, etc. It can be interpreted as, well, not making money through wrong actions. But it can also mean a lot more than that.
Let’s tackle the job thing first. We live in a country where it’s absolutely necessary to have a job in order to survive. We can’t easily do odd jobs as they come to us, or rely on the goodwill of our community; we must choose a profession and spend significant time with it in order to make enough money to maintain a certain lifestyle. And a lot of the time, those jobs require us to do things that might run into trouble with a strict interpretation of Right Livelihood.
For example, I work for a company that specializes in digital marketing, providing platforms for companies to reach people through email, text and digital advertising. A lot of our customers have very questionable business practices, and there are one or two of them that I am in direct moral and political opposition to. However, the nature of my job means I can’t necessarily discriminate between the customers who don’t violate my principles and the ones that do; whenever I’m in contact with them, I must treat them all the same. Even if I believe that by helping them, I am in fact helping someone hurt someone else.
It feels like most of us are put into positions like that with our work. It’s very difficult to be politically or morally conscious without realizing that there are a number of different ways we all contribute to a system that succeeds, even thrives, on practices that harm other people. In order to step out of that system, we would need to spend a disproportionate amount of time reviewing each company we do business with, what their business practices are, and what (if any) alternatives there may be. In order to be certain that our lives don’t contribute to the harming of another living being, I think we’d have to remove ourselves from a capitalist system almost entirely.
So what do we do about that? I honestly don’t know. I think, in some way, we have to make peace with the fact that there are certain moral compromises we all make in order to participate in society. At least, we must recognize all the ways in which our lifestyles are problematic. I’ve lived in poverty and near-poverty right into my late-20s. I’ve had to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers more times than I can count. Only recently have I been in a position where I feel like I have “enough”. And now that I’ve spent some time here in the middle class, I’m beginning to realize all the ways I’ve allowed myself to indulge to excess.
I eat too much food, buy too many things and give in to impulses too often. It’s very difficult for me to save money because I’ve always thought that the moment I have it I’ll need to spend it on something sooner or later. The idea of holding back is kind of foreign to me; being able to purchase something purely for my own comfort is a novelty that hasn’t worn off yet.
Then again, does it ever get old? I think we just get used to a certain level of comfort, then get very reluctant to make sacrifices in order to serve some different purpose — whether that’s being prudent with our finances or satisfying a personal moral obligation. I know that I’ve fallen into the trap of clinging to my lifestyle more than once; I know how bad being poor sucks from experience, and I’m reluctant to put myself in that position again.
That brings me to another interpretation of Right Livelihood. For many, it means to make a living from begging — but not accepting everything and not possessing more than is strictly necessary. That could mean maintaining a minimalist home — one plate, one knife, one fork. That could mean holding on to the things you have as long as they work, not chasing after the latest and greatest version of something. That could mean being more mindful of your impulses, and living comfortably but not excessively. I think the ultimate interpretation you choose is the one that your conscience will bear, and that’s different for everyone.
So what does that mean for me? I suppose it means making sure that my lifestyle minimizes the harm it brings to other people. And that means buying less, being content with what I have, and doing whatever I can to address the ways in which harm is unavoidable. That means doing my best to combat climate change and environmental degradation; counteracting the ways in which I may be helping to further the aims of people who wish to perpetuate consumer culture, mindless bigotry or the insidious way advertisers are trying to make it easier and more effective to sell you things; and hopefully, trying to pursue a life in which I can make a living without feeling like I have to compromise my morality.
What I would really love is to be able to live closer to nature, tell stories and be dedicated towards helping people to be better. It may be a long time before I get to do that, and I accept that possibility. I think now it would be best to try and align my lifestyle closer to the one I want, where moderation is a habit painstakingly cultivated and my priorities are straight. I’m not sure that’s the case now, so it will take some doing to get it there.