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WWSD: Buddhism, Bars, and Right Livelihood

Can a Buddhist be a bartender? What about a butcher? A Chris Brown-esque rapper? A superhero like Captain America? This meditating thing doesn't pay the bills so we have to do something for the green.


Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment he was a confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a spiritual life. Each week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What Would Sid Do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and I'll probably get to it!


I'm a bartender and I feel like when I work all I'm doing is feeding depressed or lonely people drinks. It brings me down too. Would Sid ever be a bartender? - Buddhabar


When Sid became a buddha he laid out the eightfold path to enlightenment which included Right Livelihood. In brief it refers to being employed in a legal and peaceful way. In my opinion, what "peaceful" might be, is entirely up to interpretation. However, if we wanted to get traditional, there are five specific aspects to Right Livelihood:

1) you can't deal in living beings, i.e. prostitution, raising animals for slaughter, slavery, etc
2) you can't make money selling weapons. I'm not sure if this includes nun-chucks but hopefully not because those are awesome.
3) you can't make money selling poison
4) or intoxicants
5) or meat

Wait a minute! You can't make money off of selling meat? So if we want to be strict here you can't live out your lifelong dream of being an exterminator or bartender or butcher. According to this strict interpretation, you can't even work in a deli making $10/hour making sandwiches because you would be profiting from selling meat.

I personally take offense as my ancestors were butchers: the "rinz" in "Rinzler" apparently is a word for "butcher" in the old country. And yes, if you put that together with my Tibetan first name it does mean "Butcher of Intellect."

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that we can get pretty carried away with what we should or should not do for a living. Not only can you not work in a deli but some stories of the Buddha imply you can't even be an actor or you will be reborn in the hell of laughter realm. Which, incidentally, I interpret as the live studio audience for Friends.

The bottom line as I understand it is that Right Livelihood means that we do not cause harm to others or ourselves. On one hand, yes, if you're bummed out at work then it's probably not for you. Go find work that you find meaningful. On the other hand, bartending itself is not a problem in my mind, assuming you are encouraging Right Drinking (copyright!).

To answer your question I'd like to say yes. I think if Sid were here with us he might have moved out of his dad's palace and would be couch-surfing until he landed a job to pay for what can at times be a pretty expensive spiritual path. If offered a bartending gig I think he would accept and make the most of it. Here's how:

1) Don't aim to sell the most liquor to get the most tips. People tip when they feel respected and enjoy the bartender's company. Serve what is reasonable and, I believe, it's your prerogative/responsibility to see when someone has had too much to drink and cut them off.

2) Not everyone at a bar is depressed or lonely. Some people go out to celebrate. Others to catch up with friends. We can't assume another being's motivation in general so be open to your customers and their emotional states. Which brings us to the key point...

3) Offer your heart to those patrons you encounter. You may see 100 different people in a night but you could consider it a practice to connect with as many of them as possible in a genuine way. A dear friend once worked at a check-out register at Trader Joe's and made it part of his practice to be genuine with as many of his customers as possible.

4) Part of that is listening. Really listening. It's an old cliche that people will pour their heart out to a bartender but if someone does that it's such a rare gift to be met by someone who is spacious and accommodating.

We all have jobs to which we could apply these principles of awareness, inquisitiveness, being open-hearted, and listening fully (that's you Chris Brown!). We also all have jobs that we may feel good about but have a negative effect somewhere, be it on the environment when we travel by plane or on America's economy if our company outsources work overseas. I would love to hear from someone who doesn't have at least one aspect of their job negatively effect someone in some way.

So yes, Sid might bartend, but in a way that does not encourage harm. It's tricky work as you're never 100% sure how much someone has had to drink, where they are coming from, and so on. I fully acknowledge that. However, I would prefer my bartender to be someone engaging the principles of mindfulness and compassion, wouldn't you? Part of the bodhisattva-warrior's vow is to go where they are most needed. If you really are serving depressed and lonely people don't they need to see some of that mindfulness and compassion?

I wish you lots of luck. Right Livelihood means so many things to so many people; you need to figure out what it means to you. But remember, it's not exactly what you do for a living but what you do while you're doing it.

P.S. This is a timely one as I am teaching a day-long workshop in NYC on applying the teachings to our jobs, relationships, and even SEX on May 14th. Click here for more info.



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thanks for this

we can do anything mindfully, can't we? we can do anything with compassion. I wrote this ages ago:


I love your tips on how to bartend with mindfulness and compassion. And I love this quote:

"I'm not sure if this includes nun-chucks but hopefully not because those are awesome."

Hear hear, sir. Hear hear.


Thanks Jon! I really like

Thanks Jon! I really like that piece you did.

Dealing in intoc

What part of "not dealing in intoxicants" is difficult? One has to choose between making samsaric existence more tolerable or doing what it takes to escape it.

Hello, I understand where


I understand where you're coming from, but to play devil's advocate, so many of us work in industries that make samsara more tolerable. As Jon points out in his article linked to above, anyone in the entertainment industry could be considered guilty of that charge.

As could anyone who works at Disney World, although one of my teachers, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, has pointed out repeatedly that if used correctly Disney World could be a modern day charnel ground for today's practitioner. We can use moments of intense fear on some scary-ass ride to connect with what it will be like when we enter the bardo.

In short, any place of employment can be a ground for practice.

For another take on moving into the heart of samsara to make a difference in our world, check out this piece I did for IDP a while back:


Thanks for commenting,


Yes it COULD be a charnal

Yes it COULD be a charnal ground. But how many of us are really ready (willing?) to take our practice to that level? Same as bartending - we COULD do it, but let's be real: odds are if you're a bartender, you're not helping more people to end their suffering than prolong it.

The things that these posts often miss is the need to adjust our OWN discipline. At some point, you see the fruitlessness of working in a bar, and want to take your practice to a new level. And when we REALLY know what it's like to walk the path of a bodhisattva, perhaps we decide to skillfully return. But not many of us really reach the point where we can put our agenda, and hopes and our fears aside genuinely.

Don't be a bartender. Start sitting, and cut the excuses.

Hello Anonymous, Eight

Hello Anonymous,

Eight years back I coordinated a conference for young Buddhists called Vajra Dawn. 200 people of various practice levels between the ages of 18 and 30 gathered together in anticipation of what the head of the Shambhala lineage, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, might impart by way of advice. After a long wait he sat down in front of us and requested that we help him transform the world with a culture of kindness and decency.

During this initial talk he said, "We might think we need to sit a great deal more, and go on these sorts of meditation retreats, and study with these kinds of teachers. We can grow very old thinking there are certain things we need to do before helping the world in a direct and real way. We can't afford to do that; we need to do it now."

That potent word "now" has stuck with me over the years. Our practice is essential as a foundation for this work, as is our intensive study, but but if we cannot take our practice off the cushion and apply it now, to our love life, to our family life, and our jobs, then I think we are missing the point.

A Buddhist friend of mine wrote me upon reading this article, talking about how she is serving as a bartender on Restaurant Row in NYC. I don't think she would describe herself as the most advanced Buddhist practitioner on the face of the earth but she's doing it, and from what I can see, doing it well.

Even if you disagree with the idea of a Buddhist bartender, Anonymous, I hope you find the four suggestions above applicable to your own line of work.

With warm regards,


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