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Conscious labour and supreme blessings

To be well caring of mother, of father, to look after spouse and children, to engage in a harmless occupation, this is a blessing supreme.

This line is from a discourse with the Buddha known as the Mangala Sutta. The Buddha is approached in a grove and is asked about the “blessings supreme.” He lists 38 (included below) including not associating with fools, abstaining from intoxicants, looking after your family, and other common sense responsibilities that one has to choose to be blessed.

In the above quote, “to engage in a harmless occupation” really stands out to me. Although the Buddha might be referring to soldiery or banditry, two occupations that he was surrounded with on his journey around northeastern India, I have a different reading.

In recent years I have thought long and hard about what work I do. Most recently I spent two and a half years in adtech. Trying to come up with ways to make people click more online ads might be joked away as a “harmless occupation”, but as I became immersed in the business I began to become uneasy about all the negative externalities of adtech: loss of privacy, financialization, content commoditization, botnets and clickfraud. The sheer amount of money in that vertical attracts many entrepreneurs, but the amount of waste is astounding. I only half-joke that the person who actually figures out “The Attribution Problem” (ie. which click lead to which purchase: what digital marketing was supposed to solve for us, but hasn’t by a long shot) would win a Nobel Prize and simultaneously destroy about 80% of the digital advertising space. Ensuring that consumers get what they want in an efficient manner is a bedtime story advertisers tell themselves, and is lost amongst the harmful noise.

So, I left.

To find a “harmless occupation” is difficult in our hyper-capitalistic society for two reasons: 1) so many jobs out there do cause harm, when thought about deep enough; and 2) not everyone has the choice to switch to a harmless career, even if they want to.

As an example of the second: many people are stuck in work they cannot afford to leave due to the benefits package or salary that they need for their dependants. There are many, many examples of this, especially in the US.

As an example of the first: I left adtech and went into education publishing. Helping kids sounds positive right? But dealing with the US education system including for-profit charter schools, business can get pretty harmful pretty quickly (just listen to this podcast on Betsy DeVos or read Audrey Watters’s work to see what I mean). I have had numerous conversations with Critical Theory professors who teach at expensive universities about the ethics of “selling” education. It is a very stimulating conversation, and a little depressing.

In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein highlights the Green Jobs Movement, pointing out that jobs don’t necessarily have to be in the environment sector to be considered “green”. She gives the examples of teaching and healthcare, and implores policymakers to shift government funds from supporting extractive businesses (eg. natural resources like oil pipelines, but also bailing out banks) to retraining people for well-paying jobs that do not harm the environment.

Like being a conscious consumer, we can also act as conscious labour, helping society and the environment, and gaining a supreme blessing along the way.

Great Discourse on Blessings

Adapted from MANGALA SUTTA, translated by Gunaratana Mahathera

At one time the Exalted One was living in Jeta Grove. A certain deity of astounding beauty approached the Exalted One and said: Many deities and humans have pondered on blessings. Tell me the blessings supreme.
The Buddha replied:

To associate not with the foolish, to be with the wise, to honor the worthy ones this is a blessing supreme.

To reside in a suitable location, to have good past deeds done, to set oneself in the right direction this is a blessing supreme.

To be well spoken, highly trained, well educated, skilled in handicraft, and highly disciplined, this is a blessing supreme.

To be well caring of mother, of father, to look after spouse and children, to engage in a harmless occupation, this is a blessing supreme.

Outstanding behavior, blameless action, open hands to all relatives and selfless giving, this is a blessing supreme.

To cease and abstain from evil, to avoid intoxicants, to be diligent in virtuous practices, this is a blessing supreme.

To be reverent and humble, content and grateful, to hear the Dharma at the right time, this is a blessing supreme.

To be patient and obedient, to visit with spiritual people, to discuss the Dharma at the right time, this is a blessing supreme.

To live austerely and purely, to see the noble truths, and to realize nirvana, this is the blessing supreme.

A mind unshaken when touched by the worldly states, sorrowless, stainless, and secure, this is the blessing supreme.

Those who have fulfilled all these are everywhere invincible; they find well-being everywhere, theirs is the blessing supreme.