Right livelihood: what would Buddha do (at work)?

Something I think about every once in a while is what Buddha would be like if he lived in the 21st century. A lot has changed since Buddha originally came to our plane, most notably the dwindling of strongly-held religious belief and the sidelining of religious communities like abbeys and temples. While religious orders used to play an important role in their communities, like healing and counseling, our world has become increasingly professionalized, and most of us would be hard-pressed to even name a religious order active in our communities. What does that mean for our spirituality, and most importantly, for our everyday lives?

In most of the well-known Buddhist scripture, we follow the lives of monks and nuns, rather than everyday working people. Buddha is surrounded by a loyal group of thinkers who have devoted their lives to spiritual inquiry, and who, through deep conversations, help to crystallize the teachings of the Buddha.

But Buddha didn’t just preach to the ‘professional’ sangha. Throughout the entire canon, Buddha counsels kings, teachers, businessmen, and families about how to create a meaningful life out in the world, rather than within the cloisters. One of the recurring themes within these scriptures is that one doesn’t have to drop out of society and put on the robe in order to be a Buddhist. Rather, Buddha tells us that we should consider how¬†we personally can do the best good for the world using our own unique talents and strengths.

In one story, a king asks to be ordained, wanting to surrender his kingdom and all of its riches, but Buddha discourages him. Essentially, the Buddha tells him that he can do better for the world by ruling humanely, keeping a compassionate heart, and using his vast riches for the betterment of his kingdom. In other stories, businessmen offer to give up their fortunes to follow the Buddha, but again Buddha denies them. He says that money isn’t an evil, but a resource that can be used to help others. Unlike in Christianity, where we’re told that money is evil and that no rich man can go to heaven, Buddha states that your state in life determines how you can best serve others, and that as long as you’re using your talents and resources for good, you have no reason to be ashamed of being rich, or intelligent, or beautiful, or anything else. You should only be ashamed of these things if you squander them or hurt others with your privileges.

I’m at a point in my life where I’m finally starting to seriously consider what I want to do with my life. I’m getting my Master’s Degree in International Relations this May, and I’ve recently decided that I would like to go to law school. I have always had a fierce passion for justice and for standing up for what is right. Many years ago, my mom actually said I would make a great lawyer, and, in the labyrinthine twists of life, I have returned to this idea. I’m a little late in deciding this, so I will have a little over a year until I can be accepted into most law schools. I’m trying to figure out how I can best use this year to help others, and so now I’m looking into where I could work to both get good experience and to be a guiding light. Right now my plan is to take a job at one of the local hospitals, where each day I can assist others in improving their health.

As I read more about law school, I find that most people who become lawyers have decided from a young age that this is what they want to do. This has made me nervous that I’m not really meant to go to law school, but for most of my life, I didn’t even think I’d live past 20. I wouldn’t have been able to decide on a good profession when I was younger because I was focused on surviving, not on planning for the future. Now that I’m in a stable place, I can finally look toward the future and decide where my talents would be used best.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do something meaningful that improves the world. The long, circuitous route I’ve taken to this decision means I have unique talents and experiences to bring to the law profession, and that I’ve had enough training to recognize my strongest skills. With my passion for research, writing, and debate, I know I would do a great job at defending the innocent and prosecuting the guilty. The fact that I am a Buddhist, and such believe in justice and helping others, means I will be conscientious about how my practice truly impacts the world. There is a misconception that lawyers are just in it for the money, or that they don’t care who is truly responsible as long as they win the case, is something I hope I can prove wrong.

So, back to my question – what profession would the Buddha follow if he had been incarnated now? In reality, it honestly doesn’t matter what the Buddha, the corporeal being, would be doing today in the 21st century. Rather, we should look at who is bringing Buddha to the 21st century through their livelihoods. Buddha could be so many things today: a lawyer fighting for justice, a doctor saving lives, a counselor helping others be their best selves, an artist teaching lessons through his work, or even a barista brightening peoples’ days through a good latte.

I hope I can help to bring Buddhism to my practice, wherever I end up, and improve peoples’ lives each day.

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