As you continuously practice Zen, you might eventually consider that the work you are doing is not conducive to following Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood first requires that you look at your choices for work, and then that you decide if what you are doing to put food on the table is causing harm to anyone or anything else. Then, you should take it one step further and find work that not only is free from harming others but is actually helpful to others. We should live an honorable life, one in which we do service in our communities, large or small. There are certainly occupations that you will avoid if you are practicing Zen. Some of the more obvious occupations to avoid might include:
The creation or sale of weapons
Worker in a slaughterhouse
Dealer in a casino
Choosing a Career
With so many career opportunities available to us, it is often difficult to make the decision about what Right Livelihood is when choosing a career. As a Zen practitioner, you are probably looking for a job that promotes peace and doesn't cause injury to others.
“The most important step in building support for Right Livelihood is giving back more than you get. It's not really a matter of keeping track in some kind of ledger book. It's more a function of the attitude that you adopt in caring for yourself and those around you. If you show an interest in helping and sharing, those around you will start helping you and sharing more with you.”—Claude Whitmyer
It is hard to know if the company you are working for, which might be extremely large, is performing harmful acts in some area, somewhere. Perhaps your company is exploiting workers in a developing country, or perhaps byproducts of your company's manufacturing process are polluting the environment. Sylvia Boorstein addresses this concern in her book, It's Easier Than You Think: “It's hard to know the wholesomeness of all the products of any corporation, corporate mergers being what they are. Who knows what else is being manufactured by my detergent company's subsidiaries? … For me, a complete picture of wholesome Right Livelihood is even larger than the proscriptions that reflect external choices. Wholesome internal choices—healthy attitudes about one's work—also contribute to mental happiness and peace of mind. Everyone's livelihood is an opportunity for self-esteem.”
Ultimately you must decide for yourself if your occupation is one in which you are comfortable. If your attitude at work is good, perhaps what you do doesn't matter as much as how you do it.
As a practicing Buddhist, you are hoping to realize enlightenment by working toward a serene existence throughout the world. Any negative energy you extend, whether at home, on the job, or while shopping at the mall, will take away from your serenity and the serenity of others. It will cause unrest in the environment. When choosing a job, it's important to consider harmlessness and your serenity. Can you practice harmlessness while working in a nuclear weapons plant? Can you clear-cut a forest and maintain serenity for yourself and others? Can you test cosmetics on animals? In order to have Right Livelihood, we must examine everything we do in life, including our occupations, and spend our work time practicing peacefulness and kindness in the world.
There is actually an award for Right Livelihood given every year by the Right Livelihood Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. The award was established in 1980 to honor and support people or organizations who have “performed outstanding work on behalf of our planet and its people.” There are now more than 100 laureates from forty-eight countries around the world.
Zen and the Military Career
According to the Buddha, no war is a just war. There is no reason on earth worthy of picking up arms against another person. There is no justification for striking out at another. To commit any violent act is clearly against the Buddha's teaching and not in the spirit of your Zen practice and training.
Therefore you might ask: What about a career in the military— is that Right Livelihood? Fighting is not living a compassionate and loving life. Fighting, even if in self-defense, has at its goal the harm of another. But sometimes military forces are on peacekeeping missions. Is this then a focus on Right Livelihood? The Buddha lived in a time where Right Livelihood was, perhaps, more easily defined. Today, things seem to fall into a gray area more readily.