Saturday, 27 February 2010

Spiritual Significance of Right Livelihood

I have often been asked if I have any material on Team Based Right Livelihood, so here is the text of a talk given at a Team Based Right Livelihood day in London in July 1998

Right livelihood in Buddhism
Right livelihood has been part of Buddhism from the very beginning according to the tradition recorded in the Pali. One of the first discourses of the Buddha concerns the Four Noble Truths of which the Eightfold Path is the fourth. And of course right livelihood is one of the stages of the Eightfold Path. Three stages are concerned with ethics - right action, right speech and right livelihood and at first glance it seems peculiar that livelihood should get mentioned separately. After all, the stages of right action and right speech deal with the ethical issues concerned - i e non-violence in respect of people and property. My own view is that the Buddha refers to livelihood separately as a direct challenge and contradiction to the system of caste which was prevalent in India. According to the caste system your livelihood was determined by your birth, each caste had its own professions, but the Buddha is saying, no it is not caste that should determine your livelihood but ethical concerns. This would have been a socially radical step that would have distinguished the Buddha's followers from the followers of other sects.

In other words the element of social transformation is there in Buddhism from the very beginning, and right livelihood as well as being about ethical behaviour which involves self transformation, is also about applying spiritual and ethical criteria to work and is therefore about the transformation of society and has always been concerned with the transformation of society.

We do not have a caste system and careers are chosen on different grounds. However it is not the ethical principles of non-violence, generosity, truthfulness and so on which are uppermost in most people's minds when choosing a career. Their concerns are more likely to be money and, for some, status. So the theme of right livelihood still needs to be emphasised both for reasons of personal ethics and for social reasons.
Sangharakshita has emphasised from the start the social aspect of right livelihood. Out of this emphasis there grew the phenomenon of the team based Right livelihood business. It is possible to practice right livelihood without team-based right livelihood businesses, but the team based right livelihood is a particularly intense and effective form of the practice.

So in the FWBO we have developed our own situations in which we can practise and fully explore the Buddha's teaching of right livelihood. The development of these situations has been a long and at times painful process of learning and experimentation. And there is still plenty to do to make our businesses more total right livelihood situations and then of course, beyond right livelihood is perfect livelihood - the transcendental level of practice.

The development of team-based right livelihood has involved the simultaneous development of all the elements that go to create a work environment and context where people can effectively go for Refuge to the three jewels. The elements I would like to look at more closely are: Ethics, Dana, Work as Practice and Sangha.

The ethical element of team-based right livelihood applies to what kind of business we carry on, it applies to our relationships with our customers and suppliers, and of course to our relationships with each other in teams. The basic principle of Buddhist ethics is non-violence or Metta and that is the basic principle we need to apply to our businesses. They must not cause any violence to people, animals or the natural environment and where possible they should encourage positive emotion towards people, animals and the natural environment.

We also need to be honest and friendly and kind with our customers, suppliers, auditors etc. This is a very important aspect of the practice of team-based right livelihood, exemplifying the Dharma in the world. Sangharakshita has said that we can't always be happy but at least we can be friendly and this is worth bearing in mind. If you are unhappy, you don't have to be grumpy or taciturn with the customers.

And of course we need to observe the principles of non-violence, generosity, kindly speech and so on in relation to our fellow team members. This is extremely important. Sometimes we may be tempted to indulge our negative emotions at the expense of our fellow workers and if we do we need to apologise immediately. But better would be to be so constantly aware of the ethical dimension of our interaction, that we take responsibility for our own unskilful mental states and work on ourselves to change them, with the help of other team members.

So the ethical element of team-based right livelihood runs through every aspect of what we do and is very basic. Sometimes people think of the ethical aspects of team-based right livelihood purely in terms of what we sell and who our suppliers are and so on. But I want to emphasise that it also applies to our interactions with our customers and others and even more importantly to our interaction with fellow team members. Ethical responsibility should work from the centre out so to speak. You need to have a skilful response to yourself first, then to those you are most in contact with and so on just like the stages of the Metta Bhavana. If you practise like this then your principles and values will become firmly based in your character and your ethical response to wider issues will become quite natural.

Now I'd like to move on to the Dana element of team-based right livelihood. A big part of the original reason for setting up our businesses was to generate funds for the Centre. Because we don't have a large pool of ethnic Buddhists willing to support the full-timers and because we don't even want to encourage that split between full-timer and nominal Buddhist or monk and lay, it is essential that we can generate income for our Centre through our businesses.

However this is not the only reason why Dana is a major element of team-based right livelihood. There is also the fact that from a spiritual perspective it is necessary to develop the altruistic dimension of practice all the time and, in every area of our lives, because eventually as we progress and gain greater insight there is really no other dimension. All spiritual practice leads to compassion and generosity is the beginnings of compassion. By practising generosity we are exercising the muscles of compassion and by giving away money generated by your business you're going beyond any tendency to narrow down into self interest and are moving towards compassionate activity.

So this is how we usually speak of the Dana element of team-based right livelihood, in terms of giving away part of the profits to support the Centre. But there is also the whole area of give what you can take what you need. To give what you can is to operate in the spirit of generosity. Sometimes especially when people are new to team-based right livelihood, they tend to see themselves as employees who must assert their rights, which in the case of team-based right livelihood means their needs. So they're very keen that their financial needs are known and satisfied. This is as one would expect. It takes time to identify with the business as your business and to be able to give freely and generously of yourself without thinking of reward, it also takes time to form friendships and while our emotional needs are not met we tend to experience greater financial or material needs. So people sometimes think in terms of their financial needs being met as a reward for their hard work. But this is not how it works at all. There is no financial reward for labour in our businesses, there is no financial reward for taking responsibility. The principle is generosity not exchange. You need to practise team-based right livelihood in the spirit of giving what you can to the project, to your workmates, to the customers - this is the spirit of generosity. And it is this spirit that takes us beyond egotism, beyond self-centredness and prepares us for an insight into reality. If you work with the attitude that your needs are the main thing and you must remind the rest of the team and even fight for your needs to be met, you will find team-based right livelihood an unpleasant experience which never really rewards your efforts. If you work with an attitude of generosity and developing trust, then team-based right livelihood will be a very satisfying and inspiring experience. A basic principle in Buddhism is that of Going Forth. Going Forth means giving up attachment to and dependence on everything except the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is something that usually happens gradually. Joining a team based right livelihood business is a form of Going Forth because the principle of generosity and living a simple life is so much at the heart of it. Non-attachment or Going Forth is another way of talking about generosity. So the Dana element of team-based right livelihood can be seen in terms of the whole team generating profits and giving away some of those profits and it can also be seen in terms of each individual having an attitude of generosity towards the whole project and towards the rest of the team ; it's a case of mutual generosity - a better phrase perhaps than the Marxist 'give what you can, take what you need'.

Work as practice
The next element of team-based right livelihood we can look at is work as practice. So what do we mean by work as practice? Well what I mean is using the actual task in front of you as a method for spiritual development, i.e. development beyond your current sense of personal limitation and beyond self-centredness and also development of greater awareness.

So obviously with any work or task we can practise Mindfulness. To practice Mindfulness is to be fully engaged, fully with yourself and with the task in hand. Just as in meditation you need to have broad awareness and focus, so also with the task. As Sangharakshita put it "if your work is not your meditation then you meditation is not your meditation". Also as with meditation, when we work we can experience mental hindrances - anxiety, resentment, pride, impatience and so on and we need to endeavour to transform these hindrances as we work, so that we can work from mental states of goodwill and good humour. In some of the businesses people take on personal precepts and make an effort to work on their particular hindrance with the help of the rest of the team. I think this is an excellent practice. Another aspect of work as practice is taking responsibility and contributing rather than complaining and going along with this is allowing others to take responsibility.

Another very important aspect of work as practice is reflection. Every day as we work we have a great many experiences both internal and external, some more significant than others, and we need to develop the habit of reflecting on our experience. Initially we will reflect on our experience after the event - for instance we could spend some time each night before we go to sleep, bringing to mind events of the day and reflecting on their meaning. You may have had an argument with someone and been upset and now in a quieter moment you can try to see the deeper significance of that, generalising out from the specific to gain some understanding of the meaning of quarrels and even perhaps looking into what conditions give rise to such situations and perhaps relating it to the Buddha's words in the Dhammapada, "people forget that their lives will soon end. For those who remember, quarrels soon come to an end". So you can reflect in this way on all sorts of events and mental states and gradually you will become able to reflect as the event is actually happening, so that your experience more and more takes place in the larger context of the Dharma. This sort of reflection makes team-based right livelihood an insight practice.

So these are some aspects of work as practices - mindfulness, working on mental hindrances, taking responsibility and reflecting on our experience.

Now we can look at the Sangha element of team-based right livelihood. Personally, I give most importance to this element because it is so fundamental and also because it has within it the potential for unveiling reality to us. So I would say that the primary purpose of team-based right livelihood is to build Sangha - in other words to create the conditions in which we can develop friendship. This cannot of course be divorced from the other elements of team-based right livelihood, you cannot cultivate spiritual friendships without a spirit of generosity, a willingness to transform yourself and the motivation of a common spiritual aspiration. Working together in a team gives us the opportunity to get to know each other very fully. You can live with someone for years without encountering them fully, but in the work situation, where we are so dependent on each other and co-operation is essential, there is no hiding from each other.

So team work provides the ideal conditions for developing friendships. The first thing that becomes obvious in a team situation is how different we all are and then we become aware of how those differences can be allowed to be a hindrance to co-operation and friendship or how they can become the very means of co-operation. Each of us carries within our own hearts and minds conflicts and contradictions, elements that are not integrated into our overall purpose and tendencies which we are unaware of as yet. A team is similar and the task of Sangha building has to include firstly, rejoicing in merits, secondly, awareness of difficulties, thirdly ,conscious effort to change and fourthly, constantly bearing in mind the spiritual context. If we miss out on any of these four we will have problems. For instance, I have seen situations where there is a greater awareness of the difficulties and even efforts to change but the spiritual context is somewhat forgotten, which means a loss of perspective occurs or the ethical dimension of relationships is forgotten. Or you can have a situation where everyone is so focused on spiritual attainment and being good Buddhists that they avoid looking at the conflicts and contradictions, the messy bits.

Rejoicing in merits or positive feedback or praising what is praiseworthy, in short telling people that we appreciate their qualities and their actions is an extremely important aspect of Sangha. It creates the right atmosphere for all other communication and it is beneficial to both giver and receiver. Rejoicing in merits is a verbal form of generosity. It benefits the person who is praised or appreciated because feeling appreciated is a basic emotional need and it benefits the person doing the rejoicing because any generous act, whether of body, speech or mind, raises our state of consciousness.

As Dhardo Rimpoche put it, if you can't think of what to do, do something for somebody else. The solution to many of our mental or emotional difficulties lies in generosity, because the practice of generosity is expansive. So rejoicing in merits is beneficial to everyone. We can rejoice in someone by telling him or her what we appreciate or we can rejoice by telling others. The first is kindly speech, the second is harmonising speech and both are essential to Sangha building.

After rejoicing in merits we come to acknowledging difficulties. Building Sangha can be difficult, to be generous can be difficult, but these things are the essence of team-based right livelihood and they are also the reward of team-based right livelihood. If we apply ourselves courageously we can experience the happiness, joy and ease of Sangha, of deeply satisfying friendship based on mutual trust and respect. This is the reward of team work in this context. The reason why it is difficult for us to co-operate, to be generous and to trust is because we are spiritually ignorant, we do not see clearly. We cannot see ourselves or others as we really are. The tendency of our minds is to fix ourselves and to fix others with a static identity, personality and habits and this fixed view has consequences for us individually and for our relationships. You could say, that usually when we look at someone what we see is a fiction, a fiction of our own making. The more of a true individual we become the less fictional other people become, because we are less fixed and we have less need to fix them.

Three Fetters

In traditional terms then, our problem and therefore the problem of team-based right livelihood, is that we are still under the domination of the first three Fetters. So we need to undertake as a team to work at breaking through these Fetters or at least weakening them. The first three Fetters are self-view, doubt and reliance on rites and rituals as ends in themselves or as Sangharakshita puts it - habit, vagueness, and superficiality. So how can we use the work situation to breakdown these fetters and hindrances?

Self-view or habit or personality view manifests as an experience of personal limitation, often accompanied by fear or anxiety. It also manifests as difficulties in communication and as a reluctance to take responsibility for one's own mental states or for the project you are involved in.

I mentioned earlier that in some teams each individual takes on a precept, in consultation with the rest of the team, and this seems to be a good way to work on these issues. Broadly speaking we could say that people fall into two types - those who emphasise the need for harmony and those who emphasise the need for autonomy. These types have different work to do on themselves, different limitations to overcome and therefore different kinds of precept to take on. Of course there are different degrees of these tendencies and as we work to go beyond our basic tendency we gradually become more truly individual. Those who emphasise the need for autonomy fear that their sense of individuality could be swamped by the group and that they will lose their freedom of choice. As a result, sometimes they cut off from human relationships and maintain an unreasonable independence. This means that they are so busy defending this independence and self-sufficiency that they don't really connect with others and don't really come into contact with others. So those who emphasise the need for autonomy need to take on precepts that bring them into contact with others, even precepts that make them dependent on others to some degree, they need to work on developing trust. Those who emphasise the need for harmony, on the other hand, may want to belong to a group because that is seen as bringing security and a sense of identity. So they are more likely to get totally absorbed in the group to the extent of denying aspects of themselves which don't seem to conform to group norms. They tend to feel that they have no power and it is up to others, the authorities, to sort out problems and tell them what to do. So those with this tendency may need to work on taking responsibility for themselves and making their voice heard. They need to risk disapproval and they need to ask questions of themselves such as, why am I doing this? What should I do now? Do I believe what I am saying or doing? Most of us will probably recognise some elements of these tendencies in ourselves or our team-mates.

What we are aiming at his individuality which is based on confidence in ourselves and goodwill towards ourselves. Lack of confidence and self hatred affect our relationships with others and leave us distrustful and suspicious, because basically we are distrustful of ourselves.

So in working with the fetter of self-view we need to strive for self knowledge and be prepared to acknowledge our weaknesses and our strengths, our personality tendencies and our aspirations and then by bringing this self knowledge into relationship with our friends we start to go beyond the limitations imposed by our conditioning and enter into spiritual friendship.

We can gain self knowledge in the work situation by noticing our responses, to the work, to our team-mates, to the customers and reflecting on these responses, reflecting on what they tell us about ourselves. If we were irritable, for instance, we can try to probe ourselves for the real underlying causes - what is it about me that causes me to get irritable when such and such happens? Am I anxious? Do I feel unloved? Why? How can I take responsibility here? What initiative can I take to become more positive? And so on. Insight is born of such reflections. If you're satisfied with saying that I am irritable because he or she did such-and-such then you are satisfied with a state of ignorance, from the perspective of Going for Refuge.

The next Fetter is doubt or as Sangharakshita puts it vagueness. In terms of team-based right livelihood this is forgetting why you are there. It is very important to work at maintaining a bigger perspective, a higher perspective - relating your work to going for Refuge, seeing the mythic context of your work. Different teams try to do this by having rituals at the beginning and end of each day, having study groups, retreats and so on. This is excellent and works well. As well as this each individual needs to make their own connection between the day-to-day, hour to hour work and their spiritual aspirations. I mentioned mindfulness and reflection earlier in this respect. Also you can chant a mantra silently or repeat some verses which inspire you or just have a phrase or sentence to turn over in your mind. For instance when you're irritable you could say to yourself, all things are impermanent, and allow your mind to dwell on the connection between that and your irritability. Anyway the main point is to find as many ways as possible to connect your work situation with the vision of the Dharma.

The third fetter is reliance on rites and rituals as ends in themselves or superficiality. Putting yourself in a community and a team-based right livelihood situation does not ensure spiritual progress. To use Sangharakshita's phrase from the talk on community living, 'it's an opportunity not an achievement'.

So we need to be on our guard against complacency. You can have all the right conditions and still not go for Refuge. Going for Refuge involves making an effort to transform yourself. Team-based right livelihood provides an opportunity for you to do this because you are in close contact with others who also want to transform themselves. If you are in team-based right livelihood because of the money or time off or because you can't cope with the world and are looking for security, you will probably find it unsatisfactory and it certainly won't help you much to make spiritual progress. Spiritual progress comes about as a result of a conscious effort to progress spiritually, and there is no other valid reason for working in team-based right livelihood except the aspiration to spiritual development. Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels is the beginning, middle and end of team-based right livelihood. The kind of work, the profits, the routines, the difficulties are all related to Going for Refuge or should be.

Leadership and management
There is one other issue I'd like to look at before closing, even though I've probably covered it indirectly already. That is the issue of leadership and management. Some people have the notion that working in a team means that everyone is equal and everyone should have a voice in every decision. In an ideal world this might be true, but our world and our teams are far from ideal. We have a wide range of abilities, and people are also at different stages of spiritual development. This means in effect that some people will be better than others at fulfilling different tasks. One person may be good at serving customers, another at dealing with suppliers etc. But some will have a broader spread of qualities and abilities and will quite naturally take a lead. Leadership is important because it provides spiritual direction and vision and leadership of this kind should be taken by the more spiritually experienced. Effective going for Refuge needs to be at heart of our businesses. This is the essential ingredient for a successful team based right livelihood. There can only be leadership where someone is prepared to take a lead and where others are willing to co-operate. For example, I am the leader of this mandala to the extent that I am willing to fulfill that role and to the extent that others are willing to co-operate. If either my willingness or the co-operation of others were missing it wouldn't work. So I think it is useful to acknowledge the leadership in our businesses, remembering as I said that leadership is a matter of effective Going for Refuge.

Management is a different thing and is concerned with the efficient running of the business. It is best I feel if the leadership and management are combined in one person but this may not always be possible. When it's not possible then it is of the utmost importance that there is harmony between whoever has the managerial overview and whoever is spiritual leader. And the spiritual dimension has to be taken into account in all managerial decisions. The spiritual always takes precedence.

Most difficulties in team-based right livelihood are to do with communication. Difficulties in communication are an opportunity for spiritual growth. They are an opportunity for confession, apology, forgiveness and generosity.

Team-based right livelihood is a spiritual practice. You can attain insight into the nature of reality through you're wholehearted engagement with your team and work and through reflecting on your responses to that engagement.

We are seeking to transcend egotism, to go beyond self-centredness, to overcome personal limitations and to dissolve wrong views. By working with others who are similarly striving we have a precious opportunity to transform ourselves and to create ideal conditions for living a spiritual life. We can go beyond conformity and individualism to individuality. Individuality begins with making the decision to change and it is carried forward by the practices of metta and mindfulness. In team-based right livelihood these manifest particularly as generosity, co-operation and reflection. If we understand this we will have understood the spiritual significance of team-based right livelihood and if we practice generosity, co-operation and reflection we will experience for ourselves the spiritual significance of team-based right livelihood.

No comments: