Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Right Livelihood" versus "Right Living"

What is "right livelihood"? When first exposed to the teachings of the Buddha and the dharma of the Eightfold Path, I was under the assumption that "right livelihood" referred solely to the means by which one made one's living. For example, working as a hangman or in a slaughterhouse, or working as a pimp or pornographer, would be "wrong livelihood" as a result of the harm that such occupations causes to other beings as well as to the state of one's own being. Now, however, I wonder if "right livelihood" does not extend far beyond the mere way one earns a living, but rather extends to the totality of how one lives.

In the face of pollution, global warming and a man-made environmental crisis that has resulted in a thousand-fold multiplication of the rate at which whole species become extinct does not the whole impact of how one lives become relevant? If one commutes 100 kilometres a day just to work, does this not speak to whether one has right livelihood? If one eats food that is imported from countries thousands of kilometers away does this not impact others and constitute an unwise way of living? Certainly, these and so many other examples of daily activities that are essential to maintaining our "standard of living" in the West (and increasingly in the East) must impact whether or not we are living wisely.

There is, of course the traditional dharma strictures on "right action" which consists of avoiding killing, stealing, lying, sexual improprieties and ingestion of intoxicants, but are there not many gray areas that are very much a part of our day-to-day existence that fall outside of these traditional strictures? Perhaps, therefore, it is more relevant in the increasingly interrelated lives we live today to talk of "right living" instead of merely "right livelihood."

Living simply in harmony with one's local environment, it would seem, is the key to "right living." Taking public transport rather than one's own vehicle, or walking or bicycling rather than taking public transit, it would seem, is one factor to promote harmony and balance. Living in a small space, rather than a large house is another. Eating locally and organically would be a third of many wise strategies one might uses to maximize a truly wise way of living. Reducing, reusing and recycling the materials one uses is an obvious fourth. Yet, how differently we in the West typically live.

This is not a wholesale rejection of our modern, technological way of life. As Robert Pirsig observed in his classic work, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:"
" . . . (F)light from and hatred of technology is self-defeating. The Buddha, the Godhead resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a (motorcycle) transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha - which is to demean oneself."
When facing the existential crisis that would impel me forward on a spiritual quest for meaning in my life - a path that would open me to the dharma teachings of Buddhism, Taoism and the Advaita Vedanta, along with other spiritual traditions - I was sure of only one thing: unvoiced, I nonetheless I sensed that I wanted to "walk gently through the world and leave only shallow footprints." Yet, how difficult it is, I have found, to live up to that ideal.

When even the traditional strictures on "right action" and "right livelihood" prove difficult to live up to in this fast-paced, fast-lived, fast-food culture, making a vow to strive for radical "right living" is indeed challenging. Nevertheless, the necessity of a radical change in lifestyle if we are to survive the current existential problems we face makes such an individual (and eventually collective) intention seem inevitable.

No comments:

Post a Comment