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Spiritual livelihood in the western world

KeromeKerome Did I fall in the forest?Europe Veteran

Continuing the theme of work from previous threads, I have been deeply considering right livelihood and the spiritual life over the last few weeks. There are several different angles from which I'd like to examine what it means to be a "working Buddhist" in our modern western world.

First of all, the Right Livelihood angle. The Anguttara Nikaya III.208 asserts that the right livelihood involves not trading in weapons, living beings, meat, alcoholic drink or poison. That's reasonably straightforward, because there are a lot of professions in the western world which do not involve these things.

Second, I came across this quote while researching Right Livelihood:

Right Livelihood is an important aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to make their living in a way that does not cause harm and ideally that is ethically positive. However in the East, where most serious Buddhist practitioners have been monks, this has been given little attention.

Given that almost everyone’s life includes an economic dimension, work and career need to be integrated into life as a Buddhist. Most of us spend the majority of their waking lives at work, so it’s important to assess how our work affects our mind and heart. How can work become meaningful? How can it be a support not a hindrance to spiritual practice — a place to deepen our awareness and kindness?


This is setting a higher bar, not just being harmless in the work we do but in fact trying to support our spiritual practice through the work. There are many jobs that give opportunities to bring new situations into our practice, but I think there will be a division between those where it brings challenges, and those where it supports the practice.

Third, I have been thinking about how to go a step further, how to positively contribute to society while furthering the dharma. This is particularly hard because I'm not sure I'm suited to be a yoga instructor or mindfulness teacher or Buddhist psychotherapist or Buddhist lay prison chaplain, and the pool of jobs where you have an opportunity to talk about the dharma to an interested public is not at all large.

As you get successively more ambitious in how much Buddhism you want to include in your working life, the niches seem to get smaller. In part that is because there just aren't that many Buddhist businesses in Europe, where the percentage of Buddhists is somewhat lower than in the US.

Anyway, I've not yet decided how to proceed... in the short term I may take a job of the first type, while trying to line up something that satisfies the second or even third points.

I would welcome your thoughts...


  • BunksBunks Australia Veteran

    Good on you @Kerome.

    I have thought along similar lines a bit over the last few years.

    But my latest idea is that if I keep working in the (relatively) high paying IT job I have now I cann save more money so retire earlier to spend the rest of my life focusing on my practice for the benefit of all beings.

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran

    Here, it would be really hard to do (short of the limited areas you mentioned like yoga and other such fields) because any religion mention that isn't Christianity is not welcome in most places.

    I worked from when I was 15 until I was 33. What I've learned, in large part due to Buddhism, is that I would rather be poor than go back to the insane rat race that is considered career/work here. Thankfully, my husband loves his job and fully supports me waiting until I find the right fit. I live in a conservative area (but a progressive blue state) in a very small town. So, my options are quite limited as far as finding work where I don't have to "sell my soul" or give up things that are really important to me as far as living my truth (even while not necessarily verbalizing it at work or anything like that). I have found some potential options. Things like working at the local library (which would be a local govt. job) or doing forest service work where I am maintaining trails, giving recommendations to tourists, issuing camping permits, etc. I think I could make that work. Of course, in a small town, everyone wants the govt. jobs because they pay well, unlike most things here. So competition is high. But I have the ability to wait, so I will. I won't accept any less, but I have the luxury of doing so.

    I think what you say @Bunks makes a lot of sense, too. My dad started his job when he was 19. He retired at 49. He is now 65 and doesn't regret anything. That was his plan from the start. He owns everything he has, has no debt, and lives a very full and rich life and is busier than most people I know who work and raise families, lol.

    I do know it makes me sad how many people get ill and die within 1-2 years of quitting their jobs. They literally don't know what to do with themselves without their jobs, which they hated anyways. I don't want to be that person.

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran
    edited July 27

    The Dharma is the Dharma and permeates all walks of life .... Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Sailor, Rich man, Poor man, Beggar man, Thief...

    No matter what kind of work one does, one will be dealing with other people, work colleagues, clients, etc...(possibly non-Buddhists)...Having to deal with the moods, and temperaments of others ..(as well as ones own )

    So for a lay-Buddhist like my self.... My simple approach is......

    Do the least harm possible ....and this is accomplished in any job by being mindful of one's actions and their consequences....

    However in the long run....When it comes to future long term Buddhist goals, if you want a reasonably "safe bet" @Kerome, (regarding work environment) then I would suggest you live a monastic life style by becoming a Buddhist monk....Thus have I heard...It's a thoughtfaultless occupation ...( and with great potential for job satisfaction )

  • BunksBunks Australia Veteran

    If you're articulate and game enough, another thing you could possibly look into is teaching the Dhamma online or at meditation centres?

    There are lay people out there making a (fairly modest I'd expect) living this way.

  • dhammachickdhammachick crazy Aussie BUJU Sydney, Australia Veteran

    @Bunks said:
    But my latest idea is that if I keep working in the (relatively) high paying IT job I have now I cann save more money so retire earlier to spend the rest of my life focusing on my practice for the benefit of all beings.

    Aaah you've been snagged into that too? 😉😉

  • seeker242seeker242 Zen Florida, USA Veteran

    Practicing your job with loving kindness can turn any job into a "Buddhist job", as long as it's not unethical of course.

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran

    In many situations, yes, I completely agree. But there are jobs, even benign, simple jobs, where the workplace has policies that makes it very difficult to maintain Buddhist practice. You can always be kind, and you should. But sometimes even that is looked down on in corporate worlds. I've worked in call centers before (one for an awful 3 months of selling stuff, the other was receiving tech support calls) and "You are too nice, it makes you spend too much time on the phone and your stats suffer" was heard more than once. Some of the best workers because of their kindness were pushed out the door because they spent too much time on the phone and were too nice when they should have been more assertive in getting off the phone and onto the next call. I was a supervisor in the tech support call center, and one of my employees was actually a Buddhist and I was required to 'coach' him constantly about his stats not being up to par because he spent too much time with the person he was with. So, indeed he kept to his kindness. But eventually he was pushed out of his job.

  • I am a programmer working for for-profit companies. I have struggled a great deal trying to reconcile spirituality and work. That at times brought intense psychological suffering. My view of this has evolved quite a bit.

    At first I really felt guilty for not being in a "helping profession" which would seem to be more "spiritual". I remember agonizing over how much debt it would put me in if I switched to something like healthcare or education. As I don't have large savings or well off family that seemed like a torturous path. Also, researching these more noble sounding professions I was dismayed at how corporate-like aspects are present in them as well, at least here in America.

    What really helped me find some peace with myself was Mahayana emphasis on being helpful to all beings combined with Zen direction of "just like this" being the Truth. Little by little it dawned on me that unless an occupation was obviously harmful (slaughterhouse, pornography, some types of Law etc ;) ) it can be integrated into spiritual practice. As long as I interact with other people, I can bring my Zen into those interactions and hopefully be of service.

    I do understand that as a tech worker I am fortunate to be exempt from some types of inhumanity found in lower wage, less skilled occupations. I do have difficulty picturing myself being anything other than miserable in a Walmart or a call center...So as long as the hours are reasonable (40-45 hours a week) and I am mostly allowed to focus on my actual work (as opposed to meetings, reports and such corporate bs), I think I can find that balance between earning money and Buddhist practice.

  • KeromeKerome Did I fall in the forest? Europe Veteran

    I'm finding this a recurrent theme at the moment, there are some opportunities to either re-engage with the work I used to do (IT/programming) or to go and do something more long term in caring for people. While I still enjoy the technical challenge, my heart is more in working with people, so it's a difficult choice. Short term money vs long term heartfulness.

    But I haven't yet found a really spiritually meaningful way of spending time while gainfully employed, it's quite a difficult question. A lot of the non-IT job opportunities that are open to me are things like 'business consultant' where you are doing presenting and looking for win-win business cases, which also doesn't feel so spiritual.

  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    @Kerome said:
    I would welcome your thoughts...

    Perhaps you would like to buy them? o:) Come to think of it, I could not give them away. :3

    At least you have not become a conscript ...

    Choices are a luxury.

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