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Right Livelihood

By Thich Nhat Hanh The Eleventh of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings: Right Livelihood

Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political, and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not supporting companies that deprive others of their chance to live.

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Right Livelihood is an element of the Noble Eightfold Path. It urges us to practice a profession that harms neither humans nor nature, physically or morally. Practicing mindfulness at work helps us discover whether our livelihood is right or not. We live in a society where jobs are hard to find and it is difficult to practice Right Livelihood. Still, if it happens that our work entails harming life, we should try our best to find another job. We should not drown in forgetfulness. Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or it can erode them. Our work has much to do with our practice of the Way.

Many modern industries, including food manufacturing, are harmful to humans and nature. Most current farming practices are far from Right Livelihood. The chemical poisons used by modern farmers harm the environment. Practicing Right Livelihood has become a difficult task for farmers. If they do not use chemical pesticides, it may be hard to compete commercially. Not many farmers have the courage to practice organic farming. Right Livelihood has ceased to be a purely personal matter. It is our collective karma.

Suppose I am a school teacher and I believe that nurturing love and understanding in children is a beautiful occupation, an example of Right Livelihood. I would object if someone asked me to stop teaching and become, for example, a butcher. However, if I meditate on the interrelatedness of all things, I will see that the butcher is not solely responsible for killing animals. He kills them for all of us who buy pieces of raw meat, cleanly wrapped and displayed at our local supermarket. The act of killing is a collective one. In forgetfulness, we may separate ourselves from the butcher, thinking his livelihood is wrong, while ours is right. However, if we didn’t eat meat, the butcher wouldn’t kill or would kill less. This is why Right Livelihood is a collective matter. The livelihood of each person affects all of us, and vice versa. The butcher’s children may benefit from my teaching, while my children, because they eat meat, share some responsibility for the butcher’s livelihood of killing.

Millions of people make a living off the arms industry, manufacturing “conventional” and nuclear weapons. These so-called conventional weapons are sold to Third World countries, most of them underdeveloped. People in these countries need food, not guns, tanks, or bombs. The United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom are the primary suppliers of these weapons. Manufacturing and selling weapons is certainly not Right Livelihood, but the responsibility for this situation does not lie solely with the workers in the arms industry. All of us—politicians, economists, and consumers—share the responsibility for the death and destruction caused by these weapons. We do not see clearly enough, we do not speak out, and we do not organize enough national debates on this huge problem. If we could discuss these issues globally, solutions could be found. New jobs must be created so that we do not have to live on the profits of weapons manufacturing.

If we are able to work in a profession that helps us realize our ideal of compassion, we should be very grateful. Every day, we should help create proper jobs for ourselves and others by living correctly—simply and sanely. To awaken ourselves and others and to help ourselves and others are the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. Individual karma cannot be separated from collective karma. If you have the opportunity, please use your energy to improve both. This is the realization of the first of the Four Great Vows:

Countless beings I vow to save. Ceaseless afflictions I vow to end. Limitless Dharma doors I vow to open. I vow to realize the highest path of awakening.

Reprinted from Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism (Third Edition), Parallax Press, 1998.

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Mindfulness Garden

By Candace Henshaw-Osias mb63-Mindfulness1

As a child, I was known as the “Barefoot Contessa.” You could always find me outside in the grass, climbing a tree or playing hopscotch, but always barefoot. I hated shoes! I loved the feel of the cool, wet grass, the warm cement, the Earth below my feet. The Earth and I shared a connection that persists even today.

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One of my fondest memories of childhood was working side by side with my father in the family garden: planting, weeding, and harvesting the vegetables. My most important job was “bug detective”—hunting down the green cutworms that could devour a large portion of a tomato plant overnight.

A Sangha Garden 

For many years, I lived without a garden. My property is mostly shade and not conducive to growing vegetables. So you can imagine my delight when the last remaining farm in my county was bought by the county government as protected space and given to Cornell Cooperative Extension as a demonstration and community garden. I immediately put in an application and was awarded a 5’ x 20’ plot for organic gardening.

I announced to my Sangha during Dharma sharing that I planned to start a garden and asked if anyone would like to join me in this venture. Two of my Sangha sisters eagerly became co-gardeners with me in our Sangha garden.

We planted the garden, looked at our work, and smiled—knowing soon we would have beautiful organic homegrown produce, planted with mindfulness and love. We placed a laminated sign at the front of the garden, sharing that this was a mindfulness garden and offering an explanation of mindfulness, including one of Thay’s calligraphies: “I am in love with Mother Earth.” We also stapled gathas about gardening to the wood edgings around the exterior of the garden.

Calamity hit when both of my Sangha sisters were struck with serious illnesses and could not work in the garden. The task of maintaining the garden was left to me. At the same time, I became unemployed and was devastated.

For almost the entire month of July, I became a hermit, rarely leaving the confines of my home. I meditated and did chores but hardly left my property except to run needed errands and tend the garden. Every morning I left the house with two old spackle pails, one filled with the necessary tools and supplies and the other empty. I walked to the garden in meditation.

As I worked in the garden, I repeated the gathas and breathed in mindfulness. My hands worked the soil, trimmed the plants, tied up drooping limbs to support the heavy fruit, and watered the garden. I took off my shoes to walk in the dirt and grass, which made me smile and remember my childhood. I had become that “Barefoot Contessa” again and I was happy.

The garden flourished under my caring hands and produced an abundance of beautiful vegetables that I shared with my friends, who were too ill to work there. I visited them and shared stories about the garden and the vegetables that were starting to come into season. When the garden started to produce more vegetables than we could eat, I canned tomatoes, made pickles, froze pesto, and shared them with others.

Through the community garden, I also made new friends. We shared ideas on how to control pests and cure plant diseases. We showed our gardens to one another and celebrated the food we had grown. Curious about the sayings posted around my garden, the other gardeners asked questions and I shared my practice and explained how my gardening in itself was a practice in mindfulness. This was something they all related to, and they realized how working in their gardens was a form of meditation.

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I began to understand that, as I cared for the “Sangha Garden,” I was healing myself and my friends. I had planted seeds within me, and now, new fruit had begun to sprout. I realized that while I was in the garden, I was truly happy—happier that I had been that entire year. I was no longer a hermit; the garden I was tending had also tended to me. I was healed.

I give thanks to Mother Earth and dedicate this story to her.

mb63-Mindfulness4Wife, mother, and grandmother,  Candace Henshaw-Osias, Awareness Path of the Heart, is an educator involved in the mindfulness in education movement. She is a member of the Green Island Sangha in Mahasset, New York, and a pre-aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. She wrote this story during an arts retreat at Blue Cliff  Monastery.

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