Taking Right Livelihood to the Next Level
We are deeply interdependent. It’s almost a cliche to say here because it’s a fundamental premise of socially engaged Buddhism. Right Livelihood, the Eightfold Path’s fifth mindfulness training, is one of the clearest areas of practice with regard to interdependence and social justice. Thich Nhat Hanh has expanded the teaching on ethical conduct this way:
Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political, and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not supporting companies that deprive others of their chance to live.
This interpretation is valuable since it helps us see how our “economic, political, and social” choices impact others. In our current social arrangement in the United States and much of the world, money connects every person, for better or for worse. It’s always coming in to you from someone or, as may often seem to be the case, going out to someone else. How that money comes to you can be relatively benign, or filled with suffering for others. With regard to cash, since a single dollar bill can travel “between 30 and 500 miles over nine months,” there’s a pretty good chance that somewhere along the way, George has seen some nasty things (including lots of bacteria).
Not that you’re necessarily always implicated in the nastiness. But it’s not easy to participate in a global capitalist economy without eventually purchasing a product that was made in a sweatshop or somehow involved an exploited labor force.
Being mindful of non-harming income-generating activities, or responsible consumerism, is very important as a individual-level practice. This is not in order to be blameless, which is a play for moral high ground, but to cultivate a stable mind as free as possible from the reverberations of harmful activities.
Yet as an individual mindfulness practice, it can feel like it does little to help us understand and undermine the larger systems and institutions that kill, exploit, poison, maim, and otherwise cause enormous amounts of suffering in the world for the purpose of profit. This is why the personal choices we make have to be part of and accountable to larger social movements agitating for fundamental change. Otherwise, practicing Right Livelihood can simply accommodate the system at large, allowing it to roll onward while we might feel morally righteous about our individual choices.
This is also why, at a certain point, many of us realize that it is impossible for our current economic system to not cause mass suffering. Global corporate capitalism as it is currently structured requires an underclass. It needs to increase profits by underpaying or enslaving workers, whether in your home country or somewhere else. It needs to increase profits by downsizing, outsourcing, or adding new technologies that replace workers. And it has to befriend governments who will protect profits by undermining or ignoring human rights.
So as we are aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed to not only work a benign or beneficial job, to not only make responsible consumer choices. Capitalism as it currently is doesn’t have our best interests at heart. It dehumanizes everyone, even the ones at the top. The violence it causes is not just physical or economic, but psychological as well. Our responsibility as consumers and citizens is to go beyond consumerism and citizenship. We need to imagine ways to live and interconnect that don’t see people as hyper-individuated, economic beings, and work towards replacing our dominant global economic, political, and social realities.