Paul Andersen: Right livelihood with a Buddhist touch
“If we are embarking on a spiritual path, we need to live our lives ethically, ensuring that we do as little harm as possible. If we don’t, our practice will be undermined by the practical consequences of harmful acts, but also through the internal agitation of remorse and denial.”
Right livelihood, explains writer-teacher Krishnan Venkatesh, is a Buddhist ethic that strives to honestly and consciously assess the impacts of our work and leisure. If they are destructive, he warns, they will burden the soul.
You probably won’t find “burdened soul” on Facebook or Twitter posts, and it’s not trending on Instagram. Yet the burdened soul speaks to an undercurrent of discontent in a narcissistic world of selfies and fractious social media that helps fill prescriptions for Prozac.
Personal responsibility has become a bothersome inconvenience. It’s far easier in the short term to wear blinders to the social and environmental impacts of our collective choices than it is to live the examined life.
Ignoring the conscious decisions that define our collective wellbeing, Venkatesh says, causes us to muddle along, ignorant of the soulful burdens we unconsciously create. When such willful ignorance is amplified through mass industrial society, the accumulated debts are overwhelming.
Climate change is a form of indebtedness. It pushes costs onto the future, to other generations, to other peoples. Overpopulation, habitat destruction and species extinctions are global debts for someone else to pay.
Optimists assume that blind faith in technology and a mythic belief in the Earth’s infinite resources will forgive those debts. Such thinking may offer comfort, but it’s a flawed rationale for ignoring the moral imperative of right livelihood.
In a culture like ours, based on material markers, it’s easy to abandon obligations to future generations and to ignore the responsibilities of citizenship and stewardship. Market domination demands obeisance to the god of consumerism, which showers the world with the confetti of currency and the promise of luxurious material comforts.
Indebtedness defines the way most of us live and do business, even though debt is a prison for many and a ball and chain for most. Debt is the lever of capital over labor, which is how human lives are consumed.
The $50,000 pickup truck is a reward for surrendering a decade of earnings to a machine. A home mortgage raises the stakes higher and longer still. Living beyond one’s means is encouraged by a culture that artfully cultivates material desire and an innate sense of entitlement through the mind warp of commercial advertising.
Instant gratification has yet to become an amendment to the Bill of Rights, an omission the Trump administration will no doubt strive to rectify. Why save money now when financial bondage can shackle you to a lifetime of easy credit and escalating interest rates?
For most consumers, debt secures the accepted hallmarks of wealth, like the latest cellphone or a wall-sized TV. In exchange for stuff, debt enslaves the debtor to multiple masters — the bank, the car dealership, the mortgage company, and to the greatest masters of all, the credit card companies.
It’s one thing to bring on one’s own slavish indebtedness, where the debtor pays the consequences, one paycheck at a time. But it’s another to indenture future generations to the deferred costs of gross material appetites that devalue the biosphere, on which life depends.
Right livelihood is a way of measuring those costs by honestly assessing the results of our labors and lifestyles. Right livelihood, Venkatesh says, provides internal guidelines that can steer us away from acts that annul spiritual growth.
Meanwhile, the prevailing commercial culture laughs off spirituality, ignores responsibility and makes it convenient to deny all the costs. By mortgaging the planet and leveraging debt against that which sustains life, we condemn our burdened souls to internal turmoil.
“In our messy and entangled world,” Venkatesh states, “it is impossible to separate what we do for a living from the larger system that makes living possible.”
Choosing, morally and ethically, what we do for a living is the start of a critical consciousness that can, according to Venkatesh, lift us from material slavery and free the burdened soul.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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