The fifth “fold” of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold path is Right Livelihood.
The Right Livelihood Award Foundation announced the three recipients of its 2017 prize today in Stockholm: Ethiopian lawyer Yetnebersh Nigussie, Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova and Indian attorney Colin Gonsalves were honoured for their work “offering visionary and exemplary solutions to the root causes of global problems.” US attorney Robert Bilott received an honorary mention.
Yetnebersh Nigussie was five when she went blind. Her family initially struggled to come to terms with her disability. They took her to traditional healers and used holy water treatments because a disabled child was viewed as “God’s” way of punishing the parents for some misdemeanour .
She describes being thus “cursed” by her blindness as an opportunity as it helped her to escape from the early child marriage which is widely exercised in the Ethiopian district where Yetnebersh was born.
But through sheer determination and the help of family members she managed to go to school and excelled. Yetnerbersh is now one of the most influential global disability activists from Africa promoting gender and disability inclusion. She works as a senior advocacy office for the disability and development organisation Light for the World.
The Right Livelihood Award is an international award to “honour and support those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.” The prize was established in 1980 by German-Swedish philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull, and is presented annually in early December. An international jury, invited by the five regular Right Livelihood Award board members, decides the awards in such fields as environmental protection, human rights, sustainable development, health, education, and peace. The prize money is shared among the winners, usually numbering four, and is €200,000. Very often one of the four laureates receives an honorary award, which means that the other three share the prize money.
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote,
“To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.”
… Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.”
Our global economy complicates the precaution to do no harm to others. For example, you may work in a department store that sells merchandise made with exploited labour. Or, perhaps there is merchandise that was made in a way that harms the environment. Even if your particular job doesn’t require harmful or unethical action, perhaps you are doing business with someone who does. Some things you cannot know, of course, but are you still responsible somehow?
Ming Zhen Shakya argues that any work that is honest and legal can be “Right Livelihood.” However, if we remember that all beings are interconnected, we realise that trying to separate ourselves from anything “impure” is impossible, and not really the point.
If you keep working in the department store, maybe someday you’ll be a manager who can make ethical decisions about what merchandise is sold there.