I began Brush Dance in 1989 as an environmental products mail-order catalog. Our first product was wrapping paper made from recycled paper. We were one of the first companies in the United States to produce wrapping paper that was made from more than 50 percent recycled paper, including 10 percent post-consumer waste. I remember being very excited about receiving my first shipment of inventory. For me, it was a monumental event. After living in Great Neck, Long Island for four years and attending New York University business school in New York City, I moved out to California where I was operating Brush Dance out of my house. As the truck pulled up to my home and we unloaded thirty boxes of wrapping paper, my heart sank. I looked at this paper and thought, "Is this really right livelihood? Do people really need wrapping paper? It certainly doesn't seem like a necessity." I thought that the world might be better off without it at all. Even though the paper was made from recycled paper, trees were still being used to make it. The truck that delivered it was burning oil to bring it to us. At that moment, I realized just how complicated this issue of "right livelihood" can be.
Right livelihood is one of eight central practices taught 2,500 years ago in India by the Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha. The Buddha observed that it is the human condition to grasp at what appears to bring safety and pleasure and to push away what appears to bring discomfort and vulnerability. As we mature, we develop habits and strategies that lead us away from fully realizing the preciousness and sacredness of our lives.
These eight practices are as relevant now as they were 2,500 years ago - right view, right thinking, right mindfulness, right speech, right action, right diligence, right concentration and right livelihood. These are practices for anyone who wants to live a peaceful and satisfying life.These practices are a way to develop a genuine, responsive and compassionate life, so that we can fully be ourselves and have the ability to effectively help others.
The classic definition of right livelihood in Buddhism is work that does not include dealing in arms, slave trade, the meat industry, the arms industry, or in predicting the future. From the perspective of our complex, interconnected lives, if we eat meat or dairy products, we are connected to the meat industry. If we pay taxes to a government that makes weapons, we have a relationship with the arms industry. If we look closely, nearly every American spends a good portion of their work time working for the government. I am not proposing that everyone stop drinking milk and stop paying taxes. My point is for us to be aware and to understand the complexity of our lives. My hope is that paying attention will foster humility, insight and right action.
Three simple criteria, when applied to our work, may help cut through some of this complexity. In Buddhism, these are called the Three Pure Precepts: 1. Do good. 2. Avoid doing harm. 3. Help others. What really is the basic intention and mission of a particular business? Where is the line between helping others and self-interest? In what ways does a business make an offer of what it believes to be a necessary product or service and in what way does a business intentionally manipulate people?
Right Livelihood can be applied to three separate areas of our work: 1. Our individual lives - in what way does our work align with our own skills, gifts and needs? Is the work we are doing satisfying and fulfilling? Do these activities bring us joy? 2. The effect we have on others - does the work we do help others and not cause harm? In what ways do our speech and actions help or hinder others? 3. The effect we have on the environment - does the work we do help the environment and not cause harm? Does the business we are in create health and sustainability?
Right livelihood, like all of the eight practices mentioned, is a life-long, ongoing practice. The point is pay attention to our lives, to go deeper, to ask difficult questions and to make difficult, skillful choices. These practices are intended to help us see more clearly, to break habits that do not really serve us and to live our lives in genuine peace and freedom. As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki was fond of saying - "You are perfect just as you are, and you can use a little improvement."
Marc Lesser is a Zen priest and founder and former CEO of Brush Dance. He is author of "Z.B.A: Zen of Business Administration" (2005; New World Library) and is president of ZBA Associates, a coaching and consulting company, www.zbaassociates.com.