The Art of Lay Life 5: Rejecting Elements

Uposatha Day Essay for the First Quarter Moon (Index to Series)

We began the Art of Lay Life by Selecting Elements, prioritizing our values and obligations with particular attention to their costs alongside their appeal. I have appealed primarily to the reader’s own values in selecting what is most important. I have hopefully, however given you two nudges. The first is to be more deliberate, to examine more carefully the appeals and implications. The second is to begin to simplify, to be even more selective in Selecting Elements. Just a final word for simplicity: When we clutter our lives, we tend to clutters our mind. Also a cluttered life leaves little space for Buddhist practice, just as a cluttered workshop will hamper your ability to tinker together a bird house. Finally, if we think of Buddhist practice as a process of removing problems, that is, eliminating the conditions that bring suffering, and we consider that there are problems associated with ever element we bring into our lives, then getting rid of the clutter takes us a long was along the path of Buddhist practice all by itself. We will return to the theme of simplicity at the final step in the Art of Lay Life.

The second step in the Art of Lay Life is Rejecting Elements, shedding elements whose cost is too great, whose retention is inimical to Buddhist practice, which have no place in a Buddhist life. Here I will rely more on the wisdom of the Buddha, who gave some very clear advice on this. However, like Selecting, Rejecting is your choice and it also may require deliberation and examination before you have confidence in his advice. Also life’s circumstances might mean making compromises as you consider this advice..

Some of the clearest advice comes from Precepts. If there is an element in your life that entails violation of one or more of the standard precepts, it is problematic, especially if it entails habitual violation. The most standard set of precepts are the Pancasila, the Five Precepts:

Not to kill.
Not to take what is not freely given.
Not to misuse sexuality.
Not to tell falsehoods.
Not to consume intoxicants that cause heedlessness.

I give to my students the Eight Lifetime Precepts which includes three additional precepts regarding speech that I find are particularly problematic for Americans:

Not to speak maliciously.
Not to speak harshly.
Not to speak idly.

The Eight Lifetime Precepts also make reference to Right Livelihood, which we will consider in moment.

Now, the precepts are rules of thumb that approximate Virtue. There are two reasons why Buddhists follow the precepts. First, they are very effective in avoiding harm to others as pointers to where people have gotten themselves into trouble repeatedly for untold ages. Second, and more significantly in Buddhist ethics, they aid in the protection and development of the mind, moving it karmically toward and not away from the perfection of character in its three aspects of virtue, serenity and wisdom. These two reasons are closely related, since avoiding harm to others is a large part of virtue. The precepts should be fundamental to any Buddhist practice right from the beginning. However, they themselves often require a development of understanding before they are embraced whole-heartedly. For instance, many Westerners are used to consuming alcohol in moderation as a pleasant cultural habit and think of it as rather harmless. However as your practice deepens and you work with the mind at a very subtle level you begin to realize the important role of this precept in protecting the mind.

Now, the precepts can, all things being equal, be integrated into the the lay life without problem. If a bug annoys you, instead of squishing it put it outside. It your neighbor’s spouse is attractive, don’t try to seduce him or her. If someone expresses an opinion you disagree with in an on-line discussion, don’t flame. Just don’t do it.

However where the precepts present particular difficulties for the Lay Life is when some element of your life requires you to violate a precept over and over again. This is particularly likely in your choice of livelihood. For instance, if you work in a slaughterhouse you may be required to kill cows or chickens ’til, uh, the cows come home. This raises two important questions: If your livelihood requires that you kill, (1) are you really harming others and (2) do you suffer karmic consequences, that is, does it impair the well-being and development of your mind. After all, the killing is your boss’s decision, and if you were not there to act out his orders, wouldn’t someone else be called on to do so instead? Doesn’t this leave you off the hook?

The Buddhist answer is much like the decision of the Nuremberg Trial: You are not off the hook, orders are not just orders, you are the heir of your own deeds . It is a bit hard to argue on the basis of non-harming if the harm is done anyway by your coworker if not you, but it can be clearly observed that you suffer the karmic consequences. You can observe the long-term effects with regard to your own character, how you become desensitized to killing, how your feeling of well-being degrades, even how your sleep is disturbed. Studies of executioners, for example, people whose analogous task it is to carry out the death penalty in American prisons, reveal horrible long-term effects on mental health. Life becomes a living hell by the time they retire, even if they are sincere supporters of the death penalty and feel in their heart that they are providing a necessary public service. In the following interchange the Buddha makes a similar and explicit observation:

Yodhajiva: “Lord, I have heard that it has been passed down by the ancient teaching lineage of warriors that ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle.’ What does the Blessed One have to say about that?”

Buddha: “When a warrior strives and exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down and slay him while he is thus striving and exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle.”
SN 42.3

This explains why Right Livelihood is important enough to occupy a whole step on the Noble Eightfold Path. The standard recommendation of Right Livelihood is as follows:

A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison. – AN5.177

Notice that here three of the five wrong livelihoods have to do with killing. We could say that both a warrior (soldier) or an executioner deals in weapons. A slaughterhouse employee or a butcher deals in meat. A pesticide salesman or manufacturer deals in poison. Business in human beings refers to the slave or prostitution trade (think of Robert de Niro in The Mission for a good psychological profile). It should be observed that in general enabling or encouraging someone else to break a precept is regarded in Buddhism as a slightly lesser version of personally breaking the precept. So, providing intoxicants or poisons to others indirectly violates the precept against consuming intoxicants that create heedlessness or killing respectively. Business in weapons can similarly include arms dealing or forging of swords, also presumably writing software for missile guidance systems.

This list is not complete, of course. Elsewhere the Buddha states:

And what, monks, is wrong mode of livelihood? Trickery, cajolery, insinuating, dissembling, rapacity for gain upon gain.

This would characterize much of modern business practice and involves habitual wrong speech and taking what is not given. The important thing is to know your mind, become intimate with your mind, understand its moods and leanings and its responses to various influences. How does your mind feel at the end of the day? For instance, in a recent documentary on the health insurance industry in America a woman was interviewed whose job is was to assess applications for private policies in terms of existing conditions and she would frequently have to inform people that they do not qualify, that they, who are most in need of insurance, are uninsurable. She was visibly upset, almost in tears, when she reported this, the she added, “When someone comes in, I don’t want to be friendly, I don’t want to know them, I try just to look at their application.” Now imagine how that will bend her character over five, ten, fifteen, twenty years! Her livelihood does not fall under any of the above, yet it plainly is taking a karmic toll on her. That is what makes it Wrong Livelihood.

For the reader, I think it is important to look frankly at your livelihood. Maybe you are off the hook, but in this day and age Right Livelihood is probably the exception. I used to write software sometimes under Defense Department contracts, including for a project in missile guidance. It ended up being a major factor in why I now do what I do. In complex modern times you have many more reasons for Ejecting certain Elements from the lay life, such as extremely high levels of workplace stress, or mindless zoning out in front of the T.V. (sometimes the two go together). Next week I want to try to wind the Buddha’s concerns forward to the Twenty-First Century.

4 Responses to “The Art of Lay Life 5: Rejecting Elements”

  1. Kim Mosley Says:

    Another element of “Right Livelihood” is how well we are using our resources. If we are capable of doing brain surgery and instead sweep the sidewalks, well… is that ok?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      Not necessarily. If your skills are in playing poker that does not make being a card shark right livelihood for you. However,there are two dimensions along which this has some validity.

      The first will be discussed as step three in the Art of Lay Life, Balancing Elements. The idea, which is clearly endorsed by the Buddha, is for each element you have selected for inclusion, e.g., livelihood, family, be really competent at it. This, as I will describe, is a matter of turning that element into a part of Buddhist practice by wrapping it in devotion, making it selfless and brilliant. This can be done with sweeping sidewalks as well as brain surgery (I do a lot of sweeping here, but no brain surgery), but a particular talent may give you a certain boost.

      The other If you have a particular talent that can benefit others, as brain surgery does, then by all means putting that talent to use for that purpose is to be praised. In fact that is an even higher standard of virtue than what I have described as underlying Right Livelihood.

      Buddhist ethics is summed up as, “Avoid all evil, do good, purify the mind.” Avoid all evil is to be harmless, and is generally what the Precepts aim at, and is generally the level at which Right Livelihood is described, as I am doing here. Purify the mind is the ongoing project of the perfection of character, including virtue and a mental quality, and it is also an important consideration in Right Livelihood, particularly protecting the mind from regression.

      The middle one, doing good, is not so often mentioned with regard to Right Livelihood. It is a natural product of kindness and compassion, which are pure qualities of mind. Doing good involves becoming an agent of benefit in the world, helping the needy. It is what gives rise to the bodhisattva ideal, so often mentioned in Mahayana. To be a bodhisattva you should indeed ask, What am I really good at? Then do it.


  2. roni Says:

    Dear Bhikkhu Cintitta,

    Isn’t this essay the 5th one in the series? I would like to link it to our forum, just like the previous ones.




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