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  • Dharma Talk by Joden Bob Rose : Right Livelihood

Dharma Talk by Joden Bob Rose : Right Livelihood

  • Thursday, August 24, 2023
  • 8:00 PM
  • Bellingham Unitarian Church

Joden Bob Rose explores Right Livelihood as part of our 2023 exploration of the Noble Eightfold Path.

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Talk Notes


“An unsurpassed and penetrating and perfect Dharma……..”

Right Livelihood (or the Ethics of Earning a Living, or alternatively Conscious Livelihood)

Begin by acknowledging Scott Allen’s presentation two weeks ago and his openness to address the dilemma of integrating RL in context of military service.  I listened to his talk after I had begun preparation for “my ”assignment” that I had penned in months ago.  So, there may be a few items repeated but hopefully I will cover some new ground and remind us all of how central this concept of RL is for maintaining the integrity of our lives of continuing practice in this chaotic, changing world. 

I’ll open with a few initial reflections, followed by a brief overview of what the Buddha offers as teaching on RL, and conclude with some reflections on how my personal story (or at least my imagination of that story) provides some examples of what can be considered Right Livelihood.  Then, we will have a few minutes to reflect on this intersection of our practice and our day-to-day lives.

In Pali, this element is called “Samma ajivo,” commonly translated as RL.  Digging a little deeper, it’s clear this term means more than a job to make money to put a roof over our heads, buy food, have clothes and secure medicine.  In Pali, the prefix samma means “complete, perfected,” rather than “right” with all the connotations of orthodox correctness.  Samma ajiva might better be translated more like “livelihood fully understood and rightly conducted with all the tensions of our lives.”   

TNH reminds us in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the text Desiree so beautifully guided us through,  that : “ It is not possible to practice one element of The Nobile Eight Fold Path without practicing all 7 others elements.  This is the nature of inter-being, and it is true for all of the teachings offered by the Buddha.”

He continues: “to practice Right livelihood you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion.  The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others… Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.”

In this perspective, another way to view RL is to live in ways that contribute to harmony and well being in nature and society; in our relationships with each other and with the entire web of life. 

A group of us have been studying the precepts and I have been reminded how the 3 Pure precepts essentially offer us a high level perspective on practicing Right Livelihood in our lives: Do Good; Avoid causing harm; and Help Others.    It really comes down to making our best effort, despite difficulties, moment by moment, breath by breath, to fully embody these guideposts.

As we consider Right Livelihood tonight, I’d like for you to reflect on a few lines from the Metta Sutta about RL in the context of how we live our lives in our current social context.  We chant: “This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise”:

  • “let one be strenuous, upright and sincere; without pride, easily contented and joyous”

  • “Let one not be submerged by the things of the world”

  • “Let on not take on the burden of riches”

  • “Let one sense be controlled”

  • “Let one be wise but not puffed up and let one not desire great possessions even for one’s family.” 

We will investigate this further.  These lines are a good reminder that it’s not only a matter of how we earn our “living” but also a matter of what we do and what is affected by our securing those resources; then what we do with those resources, and  how we use them to present ourselves within our larger community of family, sangha and Mother Earth Sangha), because of our ability to access material wealth. 

The Eightfold Path elements are not so much prescriptions for behavior as qualities, a framework present in the mind of a person on the enlightening path, committed to ending suffering for all beings. One classic  way to see the structure of these 8 inter-articulated path elements is to view them as a threefold training in ethics, concentration and wisdom:

  • Ethics - (avoidance of non virtuous deeds):  right speech, right action, right livelihood

  • Concentration - (control of the mind): right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration

  •  Wisdom -(development of insight into the nature of reality)    Right view, Right Intention

What the Buddha taught about Right and Wrong Livelihood for the mainly rural society he lived was prohibitory in that he said laypeople shouldn’t engage 5 specific types of business:

  • Dealing in weapons

  • Trade in human beings (slavery and prostitution; some translations include animals)

  • Meat production and butchery (as a trade, not as a necessity of individual survival)

  • Business in  intoxicants

  • Business in poison

  • When pressed by senior monks, he also cautioned against becoming a soldier (“because the mind is already seized, debased and misdirected by the thought ‘may these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’)

  • He also cautioned against a career in acting (“those who are bound by bonds of passion will focus with even more passion on things inspiring aversion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival.”)

In the Digha Nikaya sutra, the Buddha extensively lays out prohibitions for monks (and by inference, for seriously practicing laypeople); a seemingly endless list ranging from scheming, to persuading, to belittling others,  to pursuing gain with additional gain (speculative profiteering), and a whole array of fortune telling ventures such as : palmistry, reading tea leaves, interpreting falling stars, reading omens and signs on bones, frayed cloth, or grains of rice gnawed by mice (I’m not making this up!), snake charming, etc., etc. One way to see this array is that they are all means to “forecast,” to somehow predict or assure oneself of the future.  Surely a futile task and contrary to addressing what is present in this moment.    But I guess monks needed to find some additional revenue to meet personal needs not provided by their monastery.  A topic for another day. 

Reflecting on the Metta Sutta language, with respect to Right Livelihood, the Buddha said that there is nothing wrong with making money and looking after one’s family in a modest fashion, but we must know how to make a living in a way that does not cause harm to others or ourselves. So, for example, we do not engage in an occupation that involves cruelty to animals or human beings, or one that obliges us to use deception or inflict physical or mental pain on others. If these things are involved, then we should reject that form of livelihood.

In the Anuttara Sutra, the Buddha reflects on the Middle Way when he tells disciple Vyagghapajja, “a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses but not his expenses in excess of his income. He uses the image of a goldsmith holding up a balance scale,  who knows how much it has tilted or dipped down to know the right balance point.  Each of us is that goldsmith, monitoring our behavior, knowing when we are “tilting” toward imbalance and, hopefully,  self-correcting to keep our lives properly in bounds. 

Beyond a balancing of income and expense for the necessities of life is the question one’s attitude toward consumption and how we view what we need versus our “wants. ”  This is a deep systemic dilemma we face everyday in the context of global, exploitive, market driven, hyper consumer-based capitalism, perfected right here in America.  One of the Buddha’s teachings is to let go of our acquisitive tendencies which thereby weakens our temptations to engage in wrong livelihood in order to secure more than we need for reasonable comfort in our lives.  That is, to develop a disposition of contentment and acceptance of what we are given as adequate and satisfactory. Or, as Bodhidharma counsels in his Outline of Practice: “Accept conditions” and “Want nothing.” One consequence of this shift is to place less of a burden on the great earth that sustains us, by “not taking up the burden of riches” and having ours senses “controlled.”  Taking a moment to reflect each time our mind signals a “want” in the face of endless temptations (many of which require a financial response) is a critical exercise in understanding what we truly need to meet our basic requirements of living as conscious lay people in this increasingly complex technology driven  21st century. And, as we liberate ourselves from selfishness and unmindful entanglement with this “broken world,” we become less selfish, more compassionate and that much more capable of generosity, holding on to nothing.  

In the same Anuttara sutra, the Master reflects that “One tries to abandon wrong livelihood and enter into right livelihood; this is Right Effort.  One is mindful to abandon wrong livelihood and enter and remain in right livelihood.  This is right mindfulness.  Thus these three qualities- right view, right effort and right mindfulness- run and circle around right livelihood.   

In this context, I’d like to offer a short tale of Right Livelihood not necessarily leading to an integrated life.  My stepdaughter’s single, childless aunt recently passed away.  She was a highly paid state attorney specializing in white collar crime prosecutions, basically pursuing cheaters and thieves.  We would consider that RL, wouldn’t we?  Well, it turns out she used her high income to buy things, not just to be comfortable but to establish some kind of protective fortress.  In short, it turns out she was a hoarder.  Upon her passing, the house was literally packed with everything from household waste, uneaten food and boxes upon boxes, literally to the ceiling, of mostly un-opened, high priced, name brand clothing, kitchen appliances, knick nacks and other goods.  Often there were multiple examples of the same things.  A house full in Montesano, an apartment in Olympia and two off-site storage containers, all jammed full.  She was found, deceased, in a barely accessible chair in her living room.  Truly a sad and horrific ending to what seemed to be a successful life.  But no, deep delusion were obviously at play. A brand new, unopened Dyson vacuum cleaner had recently arrived, to begin, finally, cleaning all of this up? 

Here we have right livelihood not just “submerged by the things of the world” but, literally being drowned by them; disconnected from concepts of moderation and self-care, coupled with extravagant material indulgence, mindless acquisition with no actual utilization or ostensible purpose.  A cautionary tale, indeed, about an unbalanced approach to living out one’s life.  

Part of our charge from Nomon Tim for these summer presentations was to tell our personal stories and how they interacted with and were inter-penetrated by the Noble 8 Fold Path.  So, now a personal story about finding Right Livelihood, or more properly, right livelihoods.  It’s easy to become attached to the idea of a vocation, a single choice life “career” and get caught, over time, by an old dream that doesn’t necessarily yield the happiness of being able to be respond to what arises.  And hard to trust how you feel as you mature, try out different endeavors, and begin to find, or at least try your darndest to find, your personal “sweet spot.”  One of the great good fortunes of my life has been the succession of Right Livelihood doors that each opened to unexpected opportunities to build community and do my part in protecting some special places in our region, on this suffering planet earth. 

In my case, from any early age, the apparent “goal” was to be a doctor.  Growing up in south Florida, my best friend’s dad was an oral surgeon and a researcher.  When the Soviets launched Sputnik in late 1957, there was a cry to accelerate science study, so my friend Michael, 3 other students and I began, that summer, a series of research internships, which we each pursued for the next 5 years, until HS graduation.   Then off to pre-med studies at Tufts University where, after a year of cruising by on advanced high school classes, I hit the wall with organic chemistry (a function of 8 am Saturday morning lectures after some serious Friday night partying).  I also realized I really didn’t like my fellow pre-meds and couldn’t imagine 2 more years with them, followed by 6+ years of medical school. Shifting to a major in English distressed my parents mightily but there was no going back. In fact, my mom, a vocational business school teacher, had me take an aptitude test.  The result: “You can do anything you want; you just have to decide what.”

That BA followed by a pro forma Masters degree (and connections to some of the major poets of that time) landed me an instructor’s job in a small Massachusetts state college.  There I had the thrill of being the young “radical” professor and introducing rural kids (more than half of whom had never been to Boston 40 miles away) to Gary Snyder, Native American poetry and the disruptive political ideas that were then hyper charging the country.  A first-ever trip to California and Washington that summer of 1969 blew the doors off that first “right livelihood” endeavor. Offered a job to build houses on Whidbey Island for the following year, I tendered my resignation, taught one more year and headed west where I discovered the joys of carpentry, out-door labor, and living in my body in ways academia and lab work never provided.  Two years of building beach houses, followed by 4 years of apprenticing and working as a commercial wooden boat builder in Vancouver made me certain I had found a way to put a roof over my head, feed my young family and continue a specialized trade with mythic roots and real life and death outcomes.  I had found “it.”  Or so I thought.

Then a story in the local Anacortes paper about nearby Heart Lake threatened by condominium development embroiled me as an advocate for preservation.  Meanwhile, I was fully devoted to my work repairing salmon fishing boats for Puget Sound and Alaska, not quite recognizing my facilitating role in accelerating the near elimination of our benchmark ecosystem linchpin whole also using prime 2 inch thick edge grained old growth Douglas fir to plank the hulls.  Down on the floats one rainy February, putting a new flying bridge on an Alaska-bound fishboat, cold and tired, the question arose: ”Do you want to be doing this 20 years from now.?    Then, a few months later, a state parks planner, watching me chair a meeting for the future city of Anacortes forest lands, said, “I have a lot of interns come through my shop.  You’re good at this.  You should go back to school and do this professionally.” 

A summer fishing for salmon around  Kodiak Island aboard a 42’ boat I had helped rebuild, financed my way back to UW grad school.  I loved the fishing life but an internship with DNR the next summer began a 12 year period of large scale, state-wide forest land conservation, including protecting many acres of old growth forest ecosystems in Skagit, Whatcom, and San Juan counties. The NRCA system, for which I researched, drafted and lobbied the bill now encompasses some 125,000 acres (200 square miles).  Over the past 24 years, the state has appropriated over $750 million to permanently protect these heritage lands. The southern end of Lummi Island, 90% of Cypress Islands and the Lake Louise section of the Stimson Preserve are some local examples of these now protected areas. 

Sadly, as the land commissioner’s 12-year term was ending, my mom passed away, just as I was about to go to work for The Nature Conservancy.  Instead, my then wife, a family doc and brilliant horticulturalist, and I purchased a small 4-acre farm east of La Conner where she grew native bulbs.  I developed a specialty vegetable farm supplying restaurants and the Anacortes farmers’ market.  Classic right livelihood: hard work, low pay, growing beautiful organic vegetables with views of Mount Baker and Mount Erie.  Then a leading local farmer asked if I would serve on the board of the small non-profit farmland organization Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland. The director soon took a job with Cascadian Farms, and I stepped in on a one-day-a-week contract.  12 years later, working more than full time with a staff of 3,  I retired after spearheading the effort to create a purchase of development rights program that now permanently protects more than 14,000 acres of some of the best farmland in the world and also sparking the $8 million effort to rebuild the WSU research facility and protect the surrounding farmland.  

Various consulting jobs followed, including working with a Skagit farmers group making the best pickles and sauerkraut ever.  One thing led to another and 10 years ago, I began working on a project for a local saw mill that manufactures musical instrument-quality wood. They partnered with a major guitar maker to ensure the long term stability and supply of koa, a beautiful and unique wood to the islands.  We have had great success and are now using harvest revenues to rebuild the native forest through fencing to eliminate destructive cattle, sheep and pig degradation and fostering regeneration of the complex understory species that will help rebuild and restore forest ecosystem rather than simply creating new monoculture plantations.

Each of these jobs/ vocations/ opportunities interconnected me to the world in complex ways.  It was impossible to separate that work from the inherent “impurities’ we live within.  But I rarely found myself questioning the basic goodness of what I was doing. Sure, there were difficult days: legislative failures, unsuccessful negotiations, problematic employees, working on the docks in the rain or in the field on a hot summer day.  But, in retrospect, the overall outcomes, whether beautiful basil for the farmers market, a well fit plank on a boat hull, or passing a local ordinance to protect farmland, I can all view as Right Livelihood.  Impossible to say how causes and conditions all brought this to pass but my current practice tells me that by “dumb luck,” intuition and some appropriate choices in response to conditions made this all possible.  For which I feel most blessed and fortunate.

In my readings to prepare this talk, I found an appropriate closing quotation from a core Vipassana teacher, S.N. Goenka:

“If the intention is to play a useful role in society in order to support oneself and to help others, then the work one does is right livelihood.”  

So I Leave you with a question to ponder: “Is your work or the way you think, speak, and act at work benefitting others or causing harm?

Let’s Break Out into groups of 4 and take a few minutes to ponder these questions: 

  • What about your current work embodies RL?

  • What about your current work is NOT RL?

  • What changes could you make to bring you work life closer to RL?

  • What’s getting in the way?


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