The following is adapted from a talk on Right Livelihood
given at a Sharpham colloquium in March 1998
When it comes to Right Livelihood, it’s good to have the freedom to do what you really feel is Right, to keep the Right Livelihood spirit in whatever way that that spirit manifests in you. And I say that from experience, because while probably most jobs don’t come into the distinct category of wrong livelihood as listed in the Buddhist texts—dealing in arms, slaughtering animals, and so forth—some do, and I happened to get a job many years ago which, for me, actually came dangerously close to falling into that awful category, though I was unaware of it to begin with.
In 1978 I took a job at a university awarding small grants to departments for research work. It was pleasant work and I enjoyed it, but I noticed an application one day for funds to purchase forty dogs for forty students to conduct the exact same experiment. When I read the details, it made me feel quite ill. Then I came across another application for a grant to buy animals for experiments in the Psychology Department, the details of which to me sounded horrific. As it turned out the application for the forty dogs was rejected because the entire assessment Board felt the way I did about it—which I was relieved about—but I began to feel uneasy about the job in general, even though my part in it was very small and I played no part in actually awarding grants. But I did love working at the university and I thought, ‘Well, you know, I’m not personally involved in the decision making, so maybe …?’ —but deep down I felt something niggling, something wrong.
And then I went to a Buddhist gathering somewhere and told a friend about my dilemma. ‘I can’t stand it,’ I said, ‘but what can you do when it’s your job?’ She said, ‘You don’t have to do it!’
She was right, of course, I didn’t have to do it, and I knew I didn’t have to do it but had wavered because I liked working at the university. That quick response from that friend, however, was like a slap in the face, and I made up my mind there and then that I would leave the job. Immediately I felt better. When I told my boss, and I made it clear to him why I couldn’t carry on, he admitted that he too found it distasteful handing out money for animal experiments. As it happened I was able to move into another section of the university very soon afterwards and, in fact, lost nothing at all by my decision to do what felt Right.
The contrast for me between what felt Wrong and what felt Right was stark. I felt it then and I’ve felt it many times since. It’s part of my practice, you might say, and I’ve vowed, more than once, not to cross that line again—it’s a feeling I’m sure that most people are familiar with.
I am lucky enough now to be able to make my own decisions and to involve myself only in those things which I feel okay about. I have my own business with my partner, Richard. We publish Buddhist books and a magazine, sell other people’s books, and put on a couple of residential events a year. This business (Buddhist Publishing Group, or BPG) came about first as a hobby and then evolved into a full-time occupation.
I want to make four basic points from my own experience of what might be termed a Right Livelihood business:
1. You must be prepared to walk away from gifts or the promise of gifts.
2. The mark of doing something which you really feel Right about, I have found, is that it brings a lot of energy, as opposed to lack of energy when you don’t feel right about it.
3. Keeping a business Right, takes courage, the courage of one’s convictions. It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeking profit and security first, and putting one’s original motivations second.
4. The need to make a decision, knowing that that decision may turn out badly, and being prepared to turn around and go in another direction.
Our motivation in beginning BPG was to involve ourselves in spreading the dharma. We were inspired to do it from the point of view of the dharma alone, and not from the point of view of owning our own business—though the thought of being independent was very appealing.
Prepared to walk away from gifts
In 1983 we began to put together and print booklets which we gave to schoolchildren, initially, and then to Buddhist groups and organisations that requested them. We produced these booklets on some antiquated and very unprofessional equipment. We knew absolutely nothing about the print trade or the publishing world, and it took many years to acquire the basic skills. But we loved it. It was exciting. It was marvellous choosing small texts and putting them out into the world for others to read—such a privilege.
Even though at that stage this was not our livelihood, it felt really Right to be doing it, and in some respects seemed like the reward for the full-time day jobs we were both engaged in. I enjoyed my day job, but it was no match for the spare time dharma work in the evenings and at weekends. I didn’t think it possible, at least not then, that I would ever be fully self-employed, and regarded my ordinary job as the means to earning enough to both live on and spread the dharma.
Then people started offering contributions for the free booklets, with which we bought printing equipment and materials to print more. We were filled with gratitude for people’s generosity which we hadn’t quite expected! However, one donor started asking us to do some work for him—work which had nothing to do with Buddhism or spirituality. For a while we went along with it—after all, he was being generous!—and we did the work. But slowly we began to feel uneasy about the continuing demands (some of the jobs were not that small) and felt as though we were under some kind of obligation. We spent an entire weekend once trying to complete one of these tasks. At the end of it, exhausted, we asked ourselves where we were going with all this: were we going to grin and bear it for the financial gain, or should we just say ‘no more!’ and jeopardise the gifts, and the friendship? Finally, we said we couldn’t take on any more jobs, and tried to explain why. It was difficult saying it.
The message was taken quite well at the time, we thought, and the gifts continued for a while, but then gradually petered out, and before long stopped altogether. We didn’t feel the loss of this ‘help’, though, then or at any other time, just a sense of relief at not having to do someone else’s bidding. Actually, they’re not giving something; they’re buying something.
That decision to risk a gift has stood as a benchmark for us ever since.
We have, of course, come into contact with some incredibly generous and kind people who have helped us enormously, but they are of a very different ilk. So that’s one important point I wish to emphasise from my experiences in what might be termed a Right Livelihood business: if you want to stay with your original goal or purpose, you must be prepared not to be bought off by gifts or the promise of gifts. When you take a stand like that, it can look as though you’re being ungrateful, and you might feel ungrateful, but basically you are reserving the right to act freely. So it takes courage.
Doing something Right brings a lot of energy
In 1985 Richard was able to give up his job and work full time for BPG. (He had become proficient at printing and design work.) It wasn’t much of a business, but it was so very gratifying and I still had my secure job at the university which brought in enough for us to live on (our living costs being minimal). So that business became our whole life. I would come home from work and start working again. We worked all the time. But it didn’t feel like work because it gave us a lot of energy and nourishment; we loved it.
This is the second point I wish to make: doing something you feel is absolutely Right can give you a lot of energy. That ingredient, I believe, is the crucial point of any Right Livelihood business. Is there any energy in you and is there any energy in the business? Has it become flat and mundane, jaded? I’m not talking about the normal ups and downs of everyday life, but the overall feeling about what one is doing. If it becomes mechanical, you can become cynical and begin to feel that it’s just a job, and you wouldn’t be doing it if it were not for the money! And that lack of inspiration or trust in what you are doing, I believe, will take something out of you; the spirituality will disappear out of it; it will become just another business.
Profit and security: Right Livelihood business takes courage sometimes.
In 1989 we were invited to live in a Buddhist community. I immediately gave up my full-time, secure job, and we decided to embark on a new kind of life. We took the business with us. By then BPG had grown a bit, and living costs as community members was low, so we decided to take a chance. We were extremely fortunate—it worked out.
Some years later, in 1993, we left the community and then had to face an economic challenge. For the first time, we needed to make real money. The cost of living suddenly rose for us. It was a big test. Somehow, though, we pulled through—we scraped a living—something which had been unimaginable years earlier when we first started with one little free booklet.
BPG is a way of life for us now, but it’s also a business in which we earn a living. Profit plays a part, but thoughts of profit can distort one’s original motivation, so you have to tread carefully. Do you start thinking more about money than the dharma? Do you start selling books you don’t want to because they are popular? Do you diversify in order to expand the business? link up with other organisations for security? start competing with other businesses by trying to capture their business? take adverts for your magazine from groups you regard as dubious? Profit and security, when you work for yourself, can easily take precedence over your most basic values. So this is the third point: keeping a Right Livelihood business Right takes courage sometimes, the courage of your convictions. We have found ourselves in difficult financial situations and there have been some lean times, but we’ve managed to pull through. Both of us made that conscious choice. I had about thirty years of security—of working for other people and knowing I was going to get a decent salary and a pension at the end of it—but now I negotiate a path which requires trust.
So, although I would definitely say we are a Right Livelihood business, just because we are a Buddhist publisher does not make it so. Buddhism, or any non-harming activity, can be just as Wrong as any other, depending on the motivation. One has to be very conscious of making clear choices about what to become involved in and what to leave alone. Out of fear—fear of going under—one can so easily choose what is profitable over what is Right. Books don’t go on our list just to make us a percentage profit. If we feel the book is not good, we won’t sell it, even though it may be a money-spinner. The same with advertisements in our magazine. We have turned down adverts from organisations we wouldn’t recommend to beginner Buddhists, and that can be an expensive decision to make.
I’m not saying we don’t make mistakes or that our judgements are infallible; I’m very aware of my fallibility. And we don’t have a list of do’s and don’ts. We are constantly criss-crossing our decisions. We change; our opinions change. You learn a little more about yourself as you go, and about other people, other groups, and so on. Keeping Right Livelihood ‘Right’ is, I have found, an on-going process; it’s not just getting the Right job or the job Right—full stop!
Need in a business to make decisions
Some time ago I made a conscious decision to be guided by a sense of the situation ‘at the time’, knowing I may well be mistaken, and frequently find I am. The way I look at it, if I am constantly afraid of making mistakes, I wouldn’t be able to function at all. I don’t mind being wrong. And when a wrong decision comes to light, then I try to change it, or practise equanimity whilst suffering the consequences—hard! It’s obvious we can’t always know the ins and outs of everything before we embark on a project, even though we may think we do. Sometimes I wonder whether I ever know what’s going on. I have, on many occasion, found myself involved in things I’ve later very much regretted.
Some years ago, a man asked me to help him finish a book he was writing. I resisted for a while because I had many other things to do, but he was very persuasive and I wanted to help him because I thought he was a good teacher. Now, he was a drinker, and I knew it, but he was quite well respected in the Buddhist world, so I agreed to do what I could for him by way of editing and so forth. Well, it turned out he had a very serious drink problem. Naturally, his work reflected this, and he showed signs of being rather muddle-headed. So, I began to ask myself: ‘If his mind is unclear and his dharma “off”, then what is my role?’ I began to wonder whether I wasn’t acting more like an accomplice than a good Samaritan. What should I do? I had to weigh the balance between my commitment to help him finish his book, and my conscience in supporting something I was beginning to doubt. After a good deal of thought, I decided to complete my task, fulfil it as best I could, and then withdraw. And that is what I did. As it turned out, he continued to work on his book with someone else after my departure, and eventually got it published. Was it foolish of me to take him on in the first place? Well, I’ve been more careful since.
I am conscious of the fact that working for myself is a privileged position in which I have the opportunity of making choices—and that I value greatly. I make those choices, always knowing I may be wrong. But I just see that as being the way it is. I don’t mind being wrong, and I think that is important, otherwise there will always be a sense of hesitation and doubt and disappointment when things don’t work out. So the fourth point I wish to make is: the need in a Right Livelihood business to reverse one’s decisions when necessary—rather than grimly sticking to bad ones—even though those decisions might be time-consuming and costly, because there is an element of personal growth in that as well.
So what differentiates a Right Livelihood business from any other? It has to be the dharma element, a basic code of practice within oneself. It isn’t a question of just saying, ‘Oh, we’re a Buddhist publisher so we’re a Right Livelihood business!’ whilst at the same time tolerating a few deceptions to customers here and there, following trends irrespective of what they are, increasing prices unnecessarily, and so on. That cannot be Right Livelihood in the Buddhist sense. Indeed, that sounds more like business as usual. The point, in Buddhism, of course, is to go by what feels Right for you, deep down inside. In the end, I believe that is the final indicator.
From a talk on Right Livelihood given at a Sharpham Colloquium, Totnes.
Friday 6 March to Sunday 8 March 1998
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