(The first two paragraphs are an excerpt from a work in process dealing with engaged Buddhism.) Correct Livelihood is a particularly tough one in our highly interlinked and increasingly complex world, especially for those of us who came relatively late to the Teachings, after we had settled into a career that involved our learned skills and creative powers, and while we were still obliged to fulfill our duties as householders.
The Teachings tell us that Correct Livelihood rejects dealing in living beings, including both the slave trade and prostitution, as well as the raising of animals for slaughter or other misuse, dealing in weapons, in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants. The teachings further identify as wrong livelihood practices that involve trickery or exploitation, including fortune-telling and usury. But what about working as a night clerk at a convenience store to pay one’s way through college? That involves selling beer and cigarettes, charging exploitative prices for things like phone cards, selling lottery tickets, and handling a variety of publications that are full of lies, sexual pandering, and ill will. And just about any employment with a multinational corporation, no matter how benign one’s job duties might seem to be, involves one with an organization that is almost certainly, in one place or another, with one arm or another, dealing out poison, deception, exploitation and environmental degradation. Even a job in academia is on shaky ground with regard to right livelihood, as colleges and universities succumb more and more willingly and completely to operating models based on continuing growth and the blind imperative of profitable revenues.
The Superior Eightfold Path is, in some sense, more central to the Buddha’s teaching than the Four Dominating Facts of Life. When the Buddha presents his “Middle Way”, the way between ambition for material success, which is a dead end, and mortification of the material body, which is also a dead end, he presents it as “exactly this Superior Eightfold Path”. The Four Dominating Facts of Life, after setting Dukkha up as our existential condition, unquenchable desire as the cause of craving, the abandonment of such desire as the cessation of Dukkha, then presents, as the final fact of life, the way (pun intended, by the Buddha) to abandon desire as, again, “exactly this Superior Eightfold Path”.
In other discourses, he identifies the Dhamma with the Path (and reminds us that one who knows the Dhamma knows the Buddha); in the famous story of the one who discovers the path to the Ancient City, whose restoration will lead to a new stage of civilization, the City is identified as the Four Dominating Facts of Life, and the path to the City is, of course, the Superior Eightfold Path. It is certainly, in its radically pragmatic nature, its sophisticated structure, and its virtually universal relevance, the most revolutionary and distinctive of the Buddha’s teachings.