A few days ago, I stopped by a fruit cart on my way home. As I parked my car by the sidewalk, I noticed a man begging. He was sitting on the pavement, obviously in some distress. His tattered clothes had dried paint on them. As I returned to my car, he came to me and asked for alms. I asked him why he was begging. He said that he was a building painter and fell while working, got injured and was unable to work. He added that he was trying to reach the contractor for help but in vain and had yet to eat all day. I was unsure of his story, but he certainly could have been better. I gave him five rupees. I wondered if I should have given him more money as I drove away.
A few weeks ago, I stopped by the cart of a peanut seller near M G Road. I asked him if he grossed at least Rs.1000 in a day. If he had 100 customers buying roasted peanuts worth Rs.10 each, he would make the sum. He carried out his trade in a busy intersection. He looked up at the sky and said, ‘god willing’ or something to that effect.
Renowned economist E. F. Schumacher started his path-breaking essay Buddhist Economics (1966) with this line: “Right Livelihood is one of the requirements of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. It is clear, therefore, that there must be such a thing as Buddhist economics.” It was one of the essays in his acclaimed book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) — at the intersection of economics, ethics, and environmental awareness.
“For the modern economist, this is very difficult to understand. He is used to measuring the standard of living by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is better off than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum well-being with the minimum consumption,” he wrote.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brainpickings, opens her essay on Schumacher’s books with these words. “Much has been said about the difference between money and wealth and how we, as individuals, can make more of the latter, but the divergence between the two is arguably even more important on the larger scale of nations and the global economy. What does it really mean to create wealth for people — for humanity — as opposed to money for governments and corporations?” As more and more money gets concentrated among fewer people, the Right Livelihood is a concept we need to understand and practice. However, the first four practices of the Noble eightfold path are right view, right resolve, right speech, and right conduct. When our governments and corporations are not practising these, how do we expect to see the fifth, Right Livelihood?
I have illustrated the point by the short stories of four people I have met throughout my work.