• The Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s guide to enlightenment.  Right Livelihood is the fifth element of the Path, and is grouped with Right Speech and Right Action to form the “moral discipline” (read: ethical conduct or harmonious practice) portion of the path.

Right Livelihood

Right livelihood is focused on we earn a living, with work done in an ethical way, and that wealth is gained while maintaining certain standards. It should be done:

  • legally
  • peacefully, without coercion or violence
  • honestly, without trickery or deceit
  • in ways that do not harm or cause suffering to others.

Today’s Conundrum

In developing the Eightfold Path, Buddha clearly saw prosperity and financial security as positives that can support one’s journey towards enlightenment. In 500 BCE however, things were simpler in terms of occupation choices. Today’s complex world makes it difficult to separate how we manage our livelihood from the interconnected systems that make up our society.

Everything we consume (gas, food, clothes) and the infrastructures that support us (electricity, clean water, sewage systems, roads, buildings) all combine to support our ability to be gainfully employed. Were all these things developed without harm to others or the environment? And by consuming or using them, are we now complicit in whatever harm was done initially?

The Ethical View 

In considering the ethical aspect of livelihood, the Buddha indicated the following were non-starters as livelihoods:

  • Manufacture of weapons
  • Trading in living beings (examples: prostitution, animals for slaughter)
  • Trading in intoxicants
  • Trading in poisons
  •  Killing beings

Restrictive or Liberating?

With ethics, you could take the approach of the Ten Commandments (Thou Shalt not……) and look at the various guidelines as restrictive.

Alternatively, if we look at the raison-d’etre of the Eightfold Path, each of the Path’s components has been formulated to develop the most efficient path to liberation.

Two guidelines, then to follow:

  • Internally, do you feel good about what you are doing (conscience, ethics)
  • Externally, are you causing harm to others?

Taking it up a level, does your work create benefit? Right livelihood should bring benefit to ourselves and those around us.

What and How

Another aspect to consider: there is what we do, and how we do it. There are certain jobs where maybe the worldly benefit is hard to place. However, by virtue of attitude and approach, the manner in which the work is done can benefit others.

An admin with a great attitude, for example, can positively impact the mood of her co-workers in the office. The “how” becomes a really important foundation of their work.

I am reminded of a personal experience while visiting Cuba. Everyday I would get my expresso from the same coffee shop. For a couple of  days my regular barrista was not there, and his replacement made the expresso for me and it tasted, well, ok but not as flavorful.

My regular barrista returned, and I watched him go through the same steps as his co-worker in preparing the expresso.  I tasted it, and the drink was back to its flavorful standard.

I asked, “How it is that you and your co-worker make the expresso in exactly the same way, but yours taste better?”

He replied, “I love my job.” 

Reference Material

The Noble Eightfold Path – Bhikku Bodhi

Gil Frondahl – Insight Meditation Center – Eightfold Path Program