Home » Features » How Right Is Your Livelihood?

Instead of engaging in a livelihood
that links directly or indirectly to harming others,
why not engage in a livelihood
that links directly or indirectly to helping others?

Stonepeace

At the end of one of my Dharma classes, a student asked an interesting question for my opinion. He works in the accounting department of a company that supplies vegetarian feed – for poultry animals bred for slaughter. He understands that the Buddha clearly discouraged five specific forms of livelihood, which harm sentient beings – those that involve weapons (for killing), human beings (slavery), meat (includes raising animals for slaughter, butchery, sale), poisons (for killing and animal experimentation), intoxicants (addictive and destructive substances, e.g. alcohol and drugs). The practice of avoiding these occupations constitute Right Livelihood on the Noble Eightfold Path. What he wasn’t so clear of is whether his job is closely related ‘enough’ to the wrong livelihoods involving living beings and meat to be considered unskilful as well. Apparently, he had asked another teacher the same question, and was assured that his job is distant enough to be considered blameless. Of course, this is arguable, as we shall see…

Having heard his query, I offered an alternative take for his deeper reflection. I replied that the fact that he is seeking a second opinion means he is obviously not comfortable with his ‘association’ with the slaughter of animals, that he has yet to make peace with it. This is not be a bad thing as he is listening to his heart, to his conscience, to his wish to be less associated, if at all, to the support of harming sentient beings. Surely, the Buddha would prefer us to be as far away from unskilful livelihoods as possible. Granted that an accountant only does accounting; and not the promoting, ordering or distributing of food for fattening animals who will meet the butcher’s knife, this is nevertheless support for the industry. If this is totally blameless, one should also be able to say without any hesitation that being a criminal gang’s accountant is alright too? Of course, this is not so. To the extent that one is aware that one is doing the sums for ‘crimes’ against sentient beings, one is a morally culpable criminal too. In fact, this is also chargeable in the eyes of human law. However, as imperfect human law is not always congruent with natural karmic law, that considered legal is not definitely moral, while the law of karma has long arms, that can stretch beyond this life in manifesting its effects.

What is stopping him from switching company? It pays well, with good bonuses too. But, ‘So what?’, I asked, because all the money in the world can never buy the peace of mind that he seeks. Working in a less wholesome job to earn more for charitable donations is also mostly self-defeating and self-cancelling, mixing deluded greed with defiled generosity. In the worst-case scenario, he might have yet to resolve his guilt and regrets over his work when on the deathbed. Would it be too late? Not a single cent earned can be brought to the next life; only karma is carried over, and the quality of the last thought creates death-proximate karma that propels one to a corresponding realm of existence. The stakes are way too high and it isn’t worth taking any risk. If he already has qualms now, they are likely to compound over the years, subtly, even if not obviously. As the moment of death is uncertain, it can arrive abruptly, which makes switching to a peaceable job all the more urgent. Someone else might fill the post, but we all have the power to vote for kinder vocations – to shape a better world!

Although the letter of the Buddha’s teachings
might not say nay to a moral issue directly,
we should use our wisdom to discern
if the spirit of the Dharma says so indirectly.

– Stonepeace

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6 Responses to “How Right Is Your Livelihood?”

  1. annie May 11, 2012

    Hi ShiAn, what if it’s a drug(medical) research/manufacturing company? Animal testing is part of the clinical trials.

  2. Colin May 11, 2012

    Unfortunately, I cannot agree with Shi’An. Firstly we are all lay people and need to work to survive and there are not that many jobs that do not harm sentient beings. A vegetarian friend once told me that she does not eat seaweed as the fishes swim among the seaweed. Moderation is the key!

  3. consciencespeaking May 11, 2012

    ‘Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.’

    – The Buddha (Vanijja Sutta)

    Businesses involving animal-testing fall in the category of business in poison(ing sentient beings). There are alternatives to animal-testing. If we wouldn’t want anyone to hold us captive and torture and kill us with potentially dangerous drugs, why should we do that to any other sentient being?

    ‘Comparing oneself to others in such terms as “Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I,” he should neither kill nor cause others to kill.’

    — The Buddha (Sutta Nipata 705)

    ‘I have love for the footless,
    for the bipeds too I have love;
    I have love for those with four feet,
    for the many-footed I have love.’

    – The Buddha(Anguttara Nikaya II, 72)

    Laypeople need to work to survive, but laypeople are not forced to work in jobs that will harm sentient beings. If ‘moderation’ is the key, does it mean it is okay to work such that half of the time, there are sentient beings harmed? Does that mean it is alright to engage in ‘business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison’ half of the time? Of course not.

    ‘Surely, the Buddha would prefer us to be as far away from unskilful livelihoods as possible.’

    Distancing as much as possible is the key, according to the Buddha’s guidelines and one’s own conscience. No one can force anyone to follow the Buddha’s guidelines or even listen to one’s conscience.

    ‘we all have the power to vote for kinder vocations – to shape a better world!’

  4. Tenzin May 14, 2012

    What about paying tax when you know that the biggest allocation of our budget goes to Mindef? With GST etc we pay tax even when you are not working and indirectly engage ourself in weaponry.
    Hence to really live a harmless life, renunciation is about the closet option we have. So long as we are in samsara, our very existence will deprive another being of its space and even life itself. What we can do I guess is to do the greatest good possible while minimising the negative impact we make in our daily life. As life here is inherently imperfect let’s do what we can not to be borne again in the 6 realms.

  5. alien May 25, 2012

    On paying tax that also goes to weapons in the context of Sg, it’s for defence and not offence right?

  6. There are so many thing wrong with my job as a special education teacher…it’s no wonder I do not crawl away into a hole…but I can justify staying in my crooked politically driven position…bc I would not want somebody crooked in my place corrupting the innocent souls who are helpless against the system…some terrible jobs have those justifications…it’s all in perception…& in the moment…perception is constantly changing so that there are moments when it all falls into place & things line up when they always have seemed so out of line…

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