Saturday, July 28, 2012


Regarding profession, Buddha taught that, if you'd rather get a job than become a wandering monk, you should choose a career that does not compromise basic values like compassion and doing no harm. This he called "right livelihood." (The five careers that Buddha advised against were weapons manufacturing, human trafficking, butchery, drug dealing, and selling poisons.)

I'd like to consider how these principles apply to modern society, since things are a little different nowadays. From birth, we're entangled in a complex economic and political web that didn't exist 2500 years ago; the simple acts of buying food, clothes, tools, or fuel and paying taxes affect people near and far without our knowledge. To earn a living, we put effort into this system. To get an education, we become deeply entangled in this social web. All of these actions have some outcome somewhere, an outcome shaped by many people, and we may not know whether this outcome jives with our values. We don't see the ultimate effects of our actions, but the interconnected economy can propagate them around the world.

And there really is no physical escape from this entanglement. Unlike Buddha's disciples, we don't have the ability to choose between becoming a wandering monk or getting a job. Americans don't have a rich tradition of supporting Buddhist monks as they wander from town to town, nor do we have vast expanses of temperate wilderness in which one can build a hut and live off the land. The reality is that we live in a busy, populous society that has developed or fenced off most of the habitable land and resources. Yes, there are many, many people out there successfully living a romantically simple life, but it requires some degree of interaction with this complex society, either through owning property and paying taxes or through the use of publicly managed lands. So we're kind of forced to engage with society, whether we think we should or shouldn't, and so we are partially responsible for the effects of our society. No matter what we've done to make ourselves feel blameless, by virtue of living in America we have each contributed to a small share of the injustice and environmental degradation that result from the activities of the American economy and government. I think this is a very, very important fact to consider when interpreting the Buddha's teachings on right livelihood.

To illustrate the magnitude of this entanglement, think of the banking system. No matter what you do, anytime you earn, save, or spend money, you are somehow contributing to the activity of the banks, empowering them to drive up inflation, finance wars, and invest in operations that destroy forests and exploit the world's poorest people. Even if you tried to circumvent the banks by stuffing cash or gold into your mattress, you'd end up supporting them because they print our money and control the gold. This inescapably sours our best attempts to do no harm through our livelihood.

Off the grid electrically, but ethically?
If you went off the grid entirely, you might be in the clear on paper, but you're not truly blameless. Here's why: if you're thoughtful and caring enough to give up everything just to reduce the harm your actions can potentially cause the world, then you're capable of benefiting the world in some constructive, creative fashion. However, you can't benefit anyone if you're hiding out, avoiding the pitfalls of our system--no one is going to seek the services of an untrained recluse in this world. So in the modern world, there is a moral opportunity cost to going off the grid, and this complicates everything. You can't benefit the world by denying it your abilities. You have to be in it, even though that means getting your hands a little dirty. This fundamentally changes the context of the Buddha's teachings.

We have two choices: ignore the reality of this entanglement, or make use of it. To ignore it means deluding ourselves into thinking we can successfully run away. On that path, all we can do is numb ourselves to the enormity of the suffering caused by the American lifestyle and become indifferent as we cling to the ideals of Buddhist practice in simpler times. Conversely, to make use of this reality means rethinking the basics. Maybe, in the history of Buddhism, this century is not the century for monastic isolation. Maybe this is the century to accept that we can't be perfect, we can't be blameless, and we can't avoid controversy, but we can take the opportunities given to us by this social system and turn them into opportunities for helping others. For some people, that means following the traditional path of a Zen monk, but for many others, I suspect that it means figuring out a way to integrate the cultivation of compassion and inner peace with the everyday struggle of going to school, building a career, and maybe even raising a family.

In the end, I don't think it matters what you do, only how sincerely you do it.

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