The Four Noble Truths Part 3
The next spoke in the wheel of the noble eight fold path is right livelihood. The main question to ask ourselves here is whether or not the way we earn our living is causing ourselves and or others to suffer. The Buddha taught that a person should not earn their livelihood by selling meat, alcohol or weapons. There may have been some other ones, I can’t remember right now, but we can get the general idea from these examples. It is clear that the Buddha is asking us not to directly cause suffering through our work as well as not to provide the means for other people to cause suffering.
This brings up the issue of karma again. The law of karma is that we reap what we sew. Positive actions bring positive results and negative actions bring negative results. If we get angry at someone that anger is releasing toxins in our body and so even in the act we are suffering. Then, according to the law of karma, we have planted a seed of anger that will come back to us sooner or later. By acting on aversion we are also reinforcing the experience of being a separate self. So for all these reasons, not to mention that negative actions create a negative society, the Buddha is asking us not to generate negative karma.
We all need food clothes and shelter and some basic comforts and so we need a source of income. Depending our background, talents, the economy, and where we live we will have a range of choices to make in regards to our livelihood. So this teaching is asking us to try and choose in the direction of wisdom and compassion and not in the direction of craving and aversion. In other words, if you have the choice between two jobs and one pays a little better but the other one is more positive karma you should take the more positive one if you can afford it. You may have to simplify your life a little but your overall happiness and well being will be greater and you will move towards enlightenment more easily. You will also be helping to create a better world. If you have to take the less positive but better paying job then you you just have to be patient and stay open for a way to simplify your life and or change jobs. If you receive money from investments then you should do your best not to invest in companies that exploit their workers, waste natural resources, or pollute the environment.
So this is a question of priorities. If your goal is spiritual growth and enlightenment then you won’t care so much if you are not driving the fanciest car or wearing the most expensive clothes. The Buddha said that we should not be caught in money, sex, power and fame, too much fancy food, and too much sleep. It is not that any of these things are negative in and of themselves but if our life is about attaining these things and thinking our happiness will come from them then we are going to suffer. If money or fame comes along as a byproduct of our being interested in our work and generating positive karma then O.K. but we should not be fooled into thinking that they are worth pursuing as and end in and of themselves.
I think in America our society has a spiritual vacuum that has been filled with materialism. People don’t have faith in the spiritual path and so they look for comfort in sense pleasures. I think this is largely due to Christianity no longer providing a living spiritual path. By this I mean people not having access to genuine living saints whose presence and touch and inspire people and point out to them what the true purpose of life is. I think another factor is the environmental crisis and the sense that the earth is deteriorating so young people don’t have future that they can look forward to. The then is a pessimism and just looking to get high one way or another.
I think the spiritual vacuum and the environmental crisis are related. If people had faith in the spiritual path then they would not look for happiness through material consumption which is a big cause of the environmental crisis. Our jobs and our society would be based around spiritual development instead of material consumption. I think to a certain degree this was the case in Europe in the middle ages when unprecedented numbers of people became monastics and totally focused on spiritual growth. I think this fell apart however when science and art developed and the church could not adapt and keep up. Instead of a living spiritual tradition we were left with an empty form of rules for rules sake.
When I was in college I went to a Zen monastery near my school for a weekend retreat and the abbot talked to us about the precepts or ethical guidelines in Buddhism. He said that to follow the precepts perfectly is to be enlightened and to be enlightened is to follow the precepts perfectly. What he meant was that the behavior recommended by the precepts are a natural expression of the awakened mind and that someone who is enlightened would just follow them spontaneously without effort. I think this is very important to keep in mind. By following these behavior guidelines we can reduce the craving and aversion us and generate more awareness and equanimity. This will help our meditation grow deeper. Deeper meditation will help us become more aware of what behavior in our lives is causing us to suffer and we can modify our behavior even more. So there is a relationship between our actions and our meditation practice. They should support each other. If you only meditated and didn’t follow these guidelines you would not make much progress. If you only followed the guidelines but didn’t meditate you may not understand as much why you are following the guidelines.
In the next blog I will talk about the last three spokes of the eight fold path.