“…Regrettably, social responsibility has been framed negatively in Buddhism so far. In setting forth ‘right livelihood,’ for example, the Buddha was explicit about wrong livelihood, such as butchering, bartending, manufacturing arms, guarding prisoners, and pimping. Yet the pursuit of such harmful occupations is surely just the most basic kind of transgression. It seems to me that the Western Buddhist might be asking what is right livelihood after all? What is ‘right lifestyle?’ What is the great endeavor that fulfills our bodhisattva vows — not just in the monastery but in daily life?
“Turning back to our sources, we find the bodhisattva Kuan-yin offering answers. By her very name, Kuan-yin hears the sounds of the world — the sounds of suffering, and sounds of joy as well. She hears the announcements of birds and children, of thunder and ocean, and is formed by them. In one of her representations she has a thousand arms, and each hand holds an instrument of work: a hammer, a trowel, a pen, a cooking utensil, a vajra. She has allowed the world to cultivate her character, and also has mustered herself to develop the skills to make her character effective. She is the archetype of right livelihood: one who uses the tools of the workaday world to nurture all beings and turn the Wheel of the Dharma.”
Excerpted from “Right Livelihood for the Western Buddhist” by Robert Aitken, in Mindfulness and Meaningful Work — Explorations in Right Livelihood, Claude Whitmyer, Ed. Parallax Press, 1994.