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Would Sid ever bartend? Buddhism, bars, and depression

Not only would Sid bartend but he would also play in fountains with umbrellas

What would Sid do?
Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a
confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a
spiritual life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was
supposed to do
with his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the
women were all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine
close friends just referred to him as Sid.


Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid
as a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like
New York? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where
they’re discussed.

Each week I’ll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a confused guy working on
his spiritual life in a world of major distraction, would do. Because
let’s face it, you and I are Sid.

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

Q: 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?

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. What “peaceful” is may be up to our
interpretation. However, if we wanted to get specific there are five
traditional 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

a minute! You can’t make money off of selling meat? So if we want to be
strict here not only can you not be an exterminator or bartender or
butcher but you can’t even work in a deli. 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


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.

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


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:

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.

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.

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 spacious and accommodating. And probably one that that
person needs if they are talking to a stranger.

We all have jobs
to which we could apply these principles of watchfulness,
inquisitiveness, being open-hearted, and listening fully. 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.

Comments read comments(5)
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Patrick Groneman

posted July 3, 2009 at 10:42 pm

My Grandfather was a Beer salesman and all accounts within the family are that he was a model of everyday compassion and upliftedness… a Bodhisattva Beer Salesman. Interesting fact is that he also ate a cheese sandwich for lunch every day of his adult life.

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posted July 6, 2009 at 4:09 pm

That’s a great use of the thing about acting! I’d never seen that sutta before. It just goes to show you that there are all kinds of interesting things one could get fundamentalist about, if so inclined. I think a passage like that is a great example of a candidate for the Cabezon three step approach I blogged about: 1) becoming as familiar with the textual tradition as possible, because ignoring or refusing to confront it is not an option 2) reflecting critically on it, to see if it accords with reason and our sense of right and wrong 3) using modern critical tools to assess the context in which these rules were formulated, to get a sense of why they make have been instituted and what the spirit of the law may have been.
I wish I was in a position to analyze the context as per step 3.

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Your Name

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:43 am

A useful book about Right Livelihood is MINDFULNESS & MEANINGFUL Work,Explorations in Right Livelihood, Edited by Claude Whitmyer
Parallax Press, 1994

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posted July 8, 2009 at 1:29 pm

As a nurse, I am often reminded of the Hippocratic Oath–Do No harm. However, as a fallible (way too much so, I fear) being, I have often done harm despite my intentions to the contrary. (I don’t mean that most or all of my mistakes have taken place in my role as nurse ;~) )I feel there are few, if any, occupations/activities where we can guarantee our actions or words will do no harm. To avoid this conundrum, I feel we must be aware that compassionate intention is what is necessary, and the only thing that we can reasonably guarantee. I am very interested in what others may think of this ideal. Thanks.

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