Mindful Technology For Right Livelihood: Foundations and Examples
Dharma practitioners, and many people who uphold and live by ethical values, can sometimes be far from open minded, even old fashioned to the point of having preconceptions against modern ways of life and all sorts of technology-based tools, in particular the Internet. Practitioners who seek Internet connections for their retreat abodes are often frowned upon, as if Internet connectivity somehow invalidates the integrity of their practice and the purity of their practice boundary. In this column, I will seek to defend the view that technologies are not inherently at fault, but are merely instruments that can be used ethically or unethically.
Nowadays, information technology, communication networks, and digital devices pervade and mediate most human activities, interacting deeply with societies, and with the mind and body of the individual. It is important, therefore, to learn how to use them to support the promotion of ethical values and to strengthen enlightened behaviors. Previous articles in this column provide examples of how technologies, in particular open technologies and the web, can actually help practitioners access Dharma knowledge. This article expounds the notion of Right Livelihood, and provides real-world examples—in the form of mini case studies—of how web technologies can actually sustain right livelihood and, as such, contribute to upholding and furthering ethical values.
In his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha expounded the cornerstones of the enlightened path—the way that leads to peace and freedom called the Noble Eightfold Path—advising practitioners to adhere to the principles of:
The principle of Right Livelihood states that practitioners should earn a living without causing harm or, even better, by making ethical contributions to the economic fabric of society.* The three principles of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood constitute guidelines for ethical conduct, which in turn are derived from the Five Precepts:
Not misusing sex
Not abusing intoxicants
Right Livelihood can be defined as a way of earning a living without compromising the Five Precepts, by deeply respecting the environment and by reducing the depletion of natural resources—which can sometimes be challenging for modern-day practitioners who need to pay bills and get by in rather unforgiving, sometimes cutthroat societies. An interesting in-depth discussion can be found in related essays.** Simply adopting the Internet and web technologies can immediately reduce costs associated with communications and operating time for any commercial and business activity, to the point that many global outlets nowadays exist solely, or mostly, online.
By reducing operating costs, including transportation and energy requirements, the use of web technologies can reduce the environmental impact of any business, and can enable enterprises in rural or remote regions to connect with global markets and have a virtual presence worldwide. Web technologies also enable small and microbusinesses in remote regions to have access to the latest market knowledge necessary to make products and services appealing to customers worldwide.
During fieldwork in Bhutan, I identified some right livelihood problems and issues that could be solved through the adoption of free web-based technologies and, in some cases, only mobile telephones using voice and SMS (text messaging).
1. Many senior Dharma practitioners have expressed concern about the increased dependency of youngsters on technology, leading them astray from the practice of concentration, and distracting their minds with worldly things, During my visit to Bhutan, I asked one such practitioner if he would help me to map all of the country’s Dharma sites, in particular the sacred spots in which saints have meditated (in the past, as well as in the present), so that I could publish it online. The idea was actually driven by my own need to see a map of such places during my excursions in the country. He understood immediately the value and potential impact that such a digital tool could have, observing, “Countless beings all over the world could benefit from the dissemination of this knowledge.” He was, at least in part, instantly converted to “good” technology.
2. A well-known television news reporter in Bhutan had identified the need for novel commercial initiatives. According to her, what prevents young entrepreneurs in her country from setting up startups is a lack of financial means. Many novel commercial enterprises depend on international funding and aid money to realize their dreams and fulfill their ambitions. Considering, in particular, the wish of this reporter to start a public relations agency, I explained to her how, to begin with, there was no real need for funding. By using online resources, knowledge, and skills that can be acquired via the web, she could start a PR agency online within her own means, and without even having to quit her day job. The Internet provides tutorials, guidelines, and ample resources to set up an online PR agency. The other question, however, was public relations to what end? For worldly impermanent goods and services that inevitably increase dependencies in the material world and the associated suffering? Or public relations for practices that lead to liberation and happiness? The conversation ended on that question mark.
3. I met a young entrepreneur who is currently managing a family store in Phuntsholing, on the border between Bhutan and India. When discussing right livelihood, he confessed an ambition to have a paper-recycling business. He also had a personal desire to start a business making natural incense, using the abundant, free herbs in the countryside, to be used as car air fresheners. By combining these ideas, I suggested that he could make paper shapes (by cleaning and compressing paper then making shapes out of it) that could be infused with essential oils extracted from plants, initially using equipment found in the kitchen. YouTube videos show how to extract essential oils from plants using a pressure cooker, for example. I taught him about prototyping, and using local taxi drivers to test the products for free, and eventually selling the air fresheners to customers and even promoting them to international customers who could act as representatives for the products when they return home. I showed him how to open an eBay store and discussed other ideas.
The list could go on. From the monk who has been taught and encouraged to auction on eBay the leaves and seeds of the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya collected during the fall season (otherwise not available anywhere else online), to helping a local artisan in Rewalsar in northern India to sell worldwide via a mobile phone and the postal service the lungtas she manufactures and prints in her small craft shop, there are a million ways that simple free technologies can help right livelihood efforts.
During a meeting with the executive director of the Loden Foundation in Thimpu, after the 2015 International Conference on Gross National Happiness, it became evident that the scarcity of entrepreneurship in Bhutan can be attributed largely to limited funding and foreign investment in early-stage startups. This is also true in other countries and regions.
Personally, I am more inclined to put it down to lack of knowledge, knowhow, and creative stimuli to pursue alternative paths. Young entrepreneurs should be encouraged to start businesses in the best entrepreneurial tradition, using knowledge, intelligence acquisition, and free and open web technology to minimize external and third-party financial investment. It is not sustainable to make economic sufficiency dependent on foreign investment, however it is possible to teach young entrepreneurs about sustainability and how to develop economic opportunities that leverage the knowledge and operational advantages offered by web technologies.
Ethical values and right livelihood principles can guide and support business models facilitated by new technology to ensure that economic activity serves an enlightened society. This is possible however only with the availability of reliable and affordable infrastructure, such as fast reliable Internet access, as well as computer literacy and the availability of devices.