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Modern Koans – Why Right Livelihood?

By Andrew Furst @a_furst

The Eightfold Path Series

This is the one of several posts I will be offering titled the Eightfold Path Series. As I've reflected on my experience, I've come to see the Path as both the practice and the fruition. As we inch closer to realization of our true nature, we discover that the wisdom, ethics, and mindfulness prescribed by the Buddha are the most natural expression of our being.

John Daido Loori Roshi's book Invoking Reality was transformational for me. In it Roshi turns the path on it's head in a way that uncovers it's challenge to us. The path and the precepts are not rules and regulations that lead to punishment by the karmic cosmos, but a way for us to see our true selves by looking through the prism of these personal dimensions. I see the path  and the precepts as questions, not rules.  Let's explore them.

Why Right Livelihood?

O ye who believe! Devour not usury, doubling and quadrupling (the sum lent). Observe your duty to Allah, that ye may be successful.

— Quran 3:130

Many religious texts offer detailed advice about our career choices.  The Buddhist Sutras describe five types of businesses not to be undertaken

  1. Business in weapons
  2. Business in human beings
  3. Business in meat
  4. Business in intoxicants
  5. Business in poison

The Bible and the Qu’ran have slightly different career guidance. The quotes displayed throughout the article are examples. While most of these recommendations are good advice, are they the best and most comprehensive advice? And are they relevant to the times?

For instance, consider being a soldier. Buddhism could be seen as a little vague on this. The precepts guide us to abstain from killing and the right livelihood prescription tells us that we should not trade in weapons. But does the precept to affirm life imply we shouldn’t be soldiers? Not all soldiers kill. Some do, but only indirectly. What is the right answer?

Do not practice divination or seek omens
Leviticus 19:26

The Bible can also be seen as a little vague on this. There is the commandment to not kill. Yet God and the armies of the Israelites smite their way through the centuries. St Augustine made an argument for just war.

My feeling is that religious livelihood doctrine is not entirely prescriptive. Don’t get me wrong, applying them as rules to live by wouldn’t be the worst thing you could do.  But I think a deeper dive gives us an opportunity for a richer experience. Right livelihood is an invitation for the religious practitioner to apply their precepts and principles to the present moment.  In the case of livelihood, we can cultivate as we earn a living.

Can one be a soldier and keep the precepts and right livelihood? Probably.
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So let’s push the envelope on right livelihood. Consider the armed forces. Can one be a soldier and keep the precepts and right livelihood?  Probably.  Consider a medic or a chaplain. It gets fuzzy quickly with these edge cases. Welcome to Buddhism!


Many Buddhist ideas can be puzzling when you think them through.  Consider oneness. What does it mean to be one with the universe?  One might expect to share a significant amount of experience with anything that is inseparable from us.  If I’m one with you, shouldn’t I feel your pain and likewise?  If someone hits me, do you feel it?  No. We have to develop a nuanced understanding of oneness which has practical limits. MIndfulness is how we get at the nuance.

If I'm one with the universe, shouldn't I feel your pain and likewise?
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As we fiddle around with the idea of who we are, there is the question of where one individual begins and everything else ends. There is some fuzziness when we look at the boundary. It tells us there are limits to our connections and that there is some context involved. The boundaries are porous, but they do exist.

Physically we exchange energy and nutrients from our environment. We use sunlight to create vitamin D,  We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.  But it’s also true that our nervous systems are distinct from those of the people around us. We have no mechanism to directly detect the sensations and mental activity of others,

On another level we have language and the ability to read the emotions of others through body language, voice tone, eye contact, etc. We have close connections to family, friends, and partners. We’re also deeply dependent on a very large network of people who we have no direct connection.  We’re reliant upon the stability of the ecosystem, the sun, and the relatively safe harbor our corner of the galaxy provides.

So in what context do we view right livelihood?

Let’s go back to the case of an Army Medic. In one sense it seems contrary to the intention of the eightfold path to seek employment in the armed forces.  But there is no doubt in my mind that being a medic is an important way to serve others. So do we have to get more granular with the rules?  Can we derive more guidance with a more detailed exegesis of the sutras?  Maybe, but I don’t think that is where the Buddha was going with this.

Ethical Work is complicated because:

Much of who we are is related to our profession – We spend much of our lives at work.  A good amount of our identity is in our profession.  We find pleasure when we do something we like.  Buddhism is about a fully integrated life. If we only choose to live mindfully when we’re off the clock, we’re missing the point. By acknowledging the need for ethical work the Buddha is reminding us that there is no part of our life where we won’t benefit from mindlessness.

If we only choose to live mindfully when we're off the clock, we're missing the point.
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It’s not about choosing and forgetting – The eightfold path is not a checklist.  We don’t stop suffering once we choose a noble profession.  We must live it out fully, by making mistakes and recovering, over and over again. We don’t get it right and call it a day.  The alarm clock will go off another day and we have to do it again, and again, and again.

We don't stop suffering once we choose a noble profession.
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It’s in context to suffering – Everything that the Buddha taught us was about decreasing our suffering by waking up to greed, hatred, and confusion.  It’s about being mindful of the choices we make every day.  It’s about recognizing our propensity to think small and the dissatisfaction that follows. Having an ethical profession doesn’t prevent you from being selfish, but it can put you in more situations where you can make good choices and sow the seeds of an enriching satisfying life.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Modern Koans is an ongoing series that recognizes that good questions are often more important then their answers.

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. ― G.K. Chesterton

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The post Modern Koans – Why Right Livelihood? written by Andrew Furst appeared on Andrew Furst.

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