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?
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.