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Rev. Linda Simmons
Right Livelihood
August 31, 2014
The Huffington Post has an e-column that I subscribe to called GPS for the Soul. In it,
is an article called “8 Happiness Lessons.” Here they are:
Capture the moment in your memory, not on your iPhone.
Smile or talk to at least one stranger.
It's OK to be upset every now and then.
Listen to your brain as much as your body.
It is possible. In fact, research suggests that persistence and positive thinking pay off
when you're searching for a job.
Speak of thankfulness.
Practice gratitude.
When all else fails, dance it out.
These are of course great suggestions, an interesting variation on the Buddhist 8
fold path.
I love to dance and practice gratitude and give myself permission to be upset every
now and then. Still, as I imaging myself taking these 8 lessons seriously; I realized
that the ability to even imagine taking them seriously is a marker of my privilege.
Not all of us can make ourselves happy by changing our minds by refusing to take
out our iphones. There are so many who live in poverty and day to day violence
without the opportunities for happiness that we can imagine so easily.
I remember last year detailing some of the history of Labor Day and its origins.
In 1894 Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday to quiet labor’s
unionizing behaviors after a failed attempt to break up a railroad strike. It is a day
therefore set aside to appease those who might want more, see that the system is
betraying them, that they have rights too. It is a day made to silence the protestors
who felt they were not being compensated fairly for their labor, labor they did not
necessarily love, but labor that was necessary to support themselves and their
The idea that we can all find our bliss, love what we do, live our dreams and realize
our highest potential through our work is a fairly modern invention.
What kind of work is supposed to fulfill us in these ways?
I turned to a text though not modern has much wisdom to impart, the texts written
about the Buddha’s teaching.
Buddhist teachings talk about right livelihood. Right Livelihood is the fifth of the
eight path factors in the Noble Eightfold Path. The eightfold path includes right view,
right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right
mindfulness, right concentration."
So what is right livelihood according to these Buddhist teachings?
Thich Naht Hahn, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace
activist, writes in his book, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching,
“The sutras usually define Right Livelihood as earning a living without needing to
transgress any of the Five Mindfulness Trainings: not dealing in arms, in slave trade,
the meat trade, the sale or use of alcohol, drugs or poisons, or making prophecies or
telling fortunes.”
Though I love Buddhism, I wonder if these dictates of right livelihood can apply to
us all. Don’t so many of us work with poisons of one nature or another if we are
carpenters, painters, landscapers, dry cleaners to name a few? And working with
intoxicants? What about so much of the service industry that includes bars and
restaurants that sell alcohol? And businesses that work with meat? What if we work
at Stop N Shop or a restaurant or a butcher’s shop?
The eight-fold path has much to teach. How can we not seek to live our lives in
relation to right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right
effort, right mindfulness, right concentration? I have never been less of what I strive
to be while seeking to live into these encouragements toward balance, compassion
and thoughtfulness.
The dictionary meaning of livelihood, formulated long after the Buddha walked this
earth, is Livelihood ORIGIN Old English līflād ‘way of life,’ from līf ‘life’ + lād ‘course’.
A way of life, a course of life. That expanded view of livelihood makes sense to me.
And I imagine it would make sense to the Buddha if he were here today. He would
know that we cannot all chose what we do and if we were to chose, it is not a
popular decision any longer to join a monastery in a monastic culture that would
offer us housing and food. Not choosing some of these things would mean not
working. Surely the Buddha meant for us all to be well. His whole purpose was to
end suffering by teaching compassionate non-attachment.
I am not a Buddhist scholar so I do not know how heretic I am about to become
here, but hey, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, I’m used to being a heretic.
Part of what matters is surely that our work reflects the best of our capacity to live
according to good values.
As far as the notion that fortune telling was not a worthy profession in Buddhism, I
am sure the Buddha was trying to pry people from living lives of superstition so
they could begin to live lives of conscious reflection. Still a worthy goal. But more of
what matters is that we are all reflecting on our way of life, our course of life.
What is your way of your life, the course of your life?
When I lived in Germany for several years in my late 20’s, I needed working papers
to work. No one would hire you without them but you could not get a job unless you
already had them. It was a Catch 22 all the way around. Wendy’s in the
hauptbahnhof, the train station in Frankfurt not far from where I lived, was willing
to bend these rules and hire foreigners without papers.
The pay was abysmal. My job was to cut vegetables for the salad bar in a cutting
station in the basement under the train station. There were no windows. It was a
small and ugly room lit with glaring light.
I was not alone under the train station though. The homeless were there too. At first,
I was frightened by this, by these people crumpled in corners sleeping. Slowly, I
began to greet these folk. Slowly, we began to talk. Slowly, we looked forward to
seeing each other.
Though I was working in a place that sold meat and was surely not very kind to its
workers or the environment, in some small way, the course of my life was deepened
under the haupbahnhof, my heart was widened, my mind enriched.
I left this job after 6 months and got my working papers and began working for a
highend tourist company writing copy for German destination brochures. I was paid
well. Most people working at Wendy’s did not leave, could not leave, had not other
options, may be working their still.
We do not all chose with the same freedom.
We cannot all work at what we love, we cannot create our own realities with the
same level of freedom. So much still determines us and our level of freedom: race,
class, neighborhood, education, gender, sexual orientation. Not all of us can follow
our bliss equally.
The late Steve Jobs of Apple wrote,
“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your
lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly
satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work
is to love what you do.”
Though I admire Jobs, I know he was not talking to millions of workers around the
world, including in this country, who barely survive each day on what they earn,
who live in conditions from which they cannot chose to do great work by loving
what they do.
Miya Tokumitsu in her article In the Name of Love writes about how the motto, Do
What You Love, DWYL, keeps us focused on ourselves and individual happiness
while keeping us from naming our obligation to other workers, those who cannot do
what they love, like the millions of workers in 3rd world countries working for Apple
making substandard pay so that others who work for Apple in this country can love
what they do.
Tokumitsu writes, “Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is
lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive,
unintellectual, undistinguished).”
We do not all chose equally; we cannot all change our lives by living into the 8 fold
GPS of the Soul path.
As I wrote this sermon, I could not help but think about Ferguson and the
persecution of the African American community there. And though I know that we
all contribute to what our lives consist of, we do not contribute equally. Some lives
are over-determined by poverty and violence and racism. We could even say that
the lives of those police officers gunning down young black men for stealing things
that do not add up to more than 5 dollars are over-determined by the racism their
lives and environments did not ask them to question.
How has the way I live my life, the course of my life, contributed to a world in which
the color of your skin can determine whether you live or die? Am I aware enough?
What am I doing with the knowledge that grave injustices are being done in my
name, in all of our names?
I do not know how to respond to what is happening in Ferguson. The other night I
could not sleep seeing that clips of violence I have watched about Ferguson in my
head. I slept finally when I made this promise: I promise to devote the way of my
life, my right livelihood, to hearing people more carefully when they speak their
needs, to keeping them whole in my mind and heart even when I am tired and I do
not understand what they are saying or what they need with ease, to not taking out
the judgments that make someone not worthy of compassionate response.
Judgments like you are not rational, thoughtful, right or any of the words we use to
close us off and keep us from needing to be present.
I promised all that I know how to make promises to: myself, my family, all of you,
the world that I touch, the world that touches me, whatever else there may be that is
not us, that is bigger than we are, whether that is human possibility, love, mystery,
I promised, I spoke into the night, that I will live life more carefully, that I will plot
the course of my life more intentionally, that I will notice when I turn away silently
or loudly and I will try to turn toward again.
And then I slept.
Labor day was created to silence the protest of those who felt they did not have
enough in a system that had enough. I think it our theological duty to not be
silenced. It is our theological duty to stand with those who are fighting for justice,
for their human rights to be heard; to stand with those who are easy targets of a
system that benefits those already privileged and as I say this I know I am one of
those privileged.
This theological duty belongs to all of us who come to a church, meeting house,
synagogue, ashram, gurdwara, temple…all people of faith have always agreed on
only this- our faith calls us to protect the rights of those whose rights are not easily
protected by the systems we live in.
We might labor for justice and peace and the fruits of this labor might not produce
radiant flowers that win us the compliments of many, but we will know that we have
lived well, that our way of life is fruitful. And whether the emperor, whomever or
whatever that emperor is to you, sees our work our not, we will see it, we will know
we have walked the path of integrity.
How do we respond in a way that matters, that makes a difference, that begins to
bring compassion and justice into the system when justice is a right to a livelihood
that can sustain health, a home, a family, a retirement?
It is time to make promises to each other and the world. It is time to promise to
ourselves and each other as people who live and walk here together and as
Unitarian Universalist that we will not easily put each other in boxes, that we will
stay in the game long enough to see each other’s humanity, that we will respond to
humanity before we respond to judgment, that we will take this precious freedom to
chose that we have and we will chose compassion.
And I do not just mean the compassion of empathy to imagine what it is like to be a
black in a racist neighborhood, but the opportunities for compassion that we
stumble over every day, right here in this meeting house, in the supermarket, on the
streets, in our living rooms, with our partners and children and friends, in the
privacy of our own minds.
Let’s not take the Labor Day bait of appeasement. Let’s redefine Labor Day as the
day we labor together for peace, for equity, for justice. Let’s rise up my friends, right
here and now and promise to see humanity before we make the judgments and to
offer our hands and hearts to one another.
Happy Labor Day!