The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood

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We all have to pay the bills. The way we pay the bills influences not just our checking accounts but also our wellbeing. It also affects the impacts we make on the world. Here we enter the domain of right livelihood, the next part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Just as we saw with right speech and right action, we recognize that our behaviors can either create suffering or reduce it. 

This point is particularly relevant to our professional life. We undoubtedly spend more of our time than any other aspect of life. Right livelihood encourages us to consider the consequences of our jobs. In essence, we should avoid work that causes harm. If possible, we can make an effort to avoid work that has no purpose. And if we’re in a position to do so, we could aspire to engage in work that benefits others.

Work is a tricky subject, though. Sometimes it’s hard enough to find any job, no less to find one that meets the moral criteria of ancient sages — however relevant those criteria might be.

Depending on various conditions, you may not have much choice about the kinds of work available to you. Many factors can limit freedom of economic opportunity. Even if we have preferences to engage in work that is beneficial to others, our obligations to provide for a family can outweigh our moral intentions.

Sometimes the needs of survival force us to choose between satisfying our hearts and our bellies. 

All that said, if we are in a position to choose our work, we might find that seeking a “right” livelihood can be mutually beneficial. The Dalai Lama advises us to be “wisely selfish.” When we work for the welfare of others, we also benefit from this effort. 

Classical views on right livelihood

What does the Buddha have to say about what constitutes right livelihood? In general, he taught his adherents not to engage in work that does not violate the Five Precepts. These precepts include abstaining from taking life (covering not just humans but all sentient beings), stealing, sexual misconduct, slander or false speech, and clouding the mind with intoxicants

The Buddhist sutras offer some more specific guidance on the kinds of jobs to avoid — from which we can hear echoes of another era. The sutras tell us to avoid any work that deals in arms, the slave trade, the meat trade, selling alcohol, drugs, and poison, or telling fortunes.

In many ways, this list shows that the Buddha was ahead of his time. With this straightforward guidance, he is promoting peace, despite his birth in the warrior caste; denouncing the evils of enslaving other humans; espousing a vegetarian culture; and recognizing that our brains on drugs just aren’t quite the same. 

Nonetheless, most of us would probably find it relatively easy to avoid the kinds of professions described by the Buddha. Except for jobs like butchers or bartenders, most of these are restricted, illegal, shunned, or generally deplorable.

Some thoughts on right livelihood in today’s world

What guidance is there for right livelihood in our far more complex modern times? It’s hard to argue that we have vastly greater choices to make today than in the time of the Buddha. There are far more professions today with far more nuances, and so relying on a list is of “off-limits” jobs is probably not as helpful.

Instead, we can use the rule of thumb mentioned in previous posts:
Is this likely to create more suffering or less? 

Will this work help cultivate compassion and wisdom, or will it promote desire, greed, or ignorance?

Another important consideration is that it’s not just what we do — but how we do it. Most jobs today aren’t easily placed on a “right” or “wrong” spectrum. You could be a software developer and produce an app that enhances people’s wellbeing, or you could create software that steals their data. You could be an investment banker and manipulate clients to enrich yourself, or you could use your wealth to invest in worthwhile causes. 

Even if you’re in a job that is ostensibly “noble” or selfless, you might do it in an unethical way. You could be the executive director of a human rights organization and work tirelessly for the cause, or you could take advantage of your power and exploit those around you for selfish gain. If we lie, cheat, slander, take what’s not ours, or hurt others in some way on our rise up the ladder in this otherwise honorable profession, then we’ve failed.    

And even if we have little choice about the kind of work we do, we can still ethically perform our work. In so doing, we uphold this practice of right livelihood.

Whatever profession we’re in, it is essential to recognize that our work bears consequences. There is no easy answer to finding the “right” job, satisfying both our survival needs and moral values. Sometimes it’s just hard to find any job. But to the extent we’re able, if we can seek a profession that at the least doesn’t cause harm, and if possible, benefits others, then that is a good step forward on the path.

Right livelihood and the SDGs

How does right livelihood relate to sustainable development? One might argue convincingly that this part of the Eightfold Path touches every single one of the SDGs. In a sense, a vision of sustainable development would see each of us embodying a right livelihood mentality. We spend the better part of our lives at work. The cumulative effects of billions of people consciously seeking through their work to limit harms to and maximize other-focused benefit could be transformative.

Rooting out exploitation of workers within commodity production supply chains, paying fair wages, and providing safe conditions can contribute to achieving SDG 1, No Poverty. Likewise, focusing on environmental impacts in supply chains can help achieve SDG 12, Responsible Production and Consumption. Many companies rely on these supply chains; employees for these companies can work to influence company policies.

Achieving SDG 5, Gender Equality, and SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities, could be directly influenced by the day-to-day decisions taken at every level of our businesses. Supporting equitable pay rates, countering gender bias, and the inclusion of women in decision-making are all attainable within our workplaces. Every company could undoubtedly find ways to reduce income inequalities and eliminate discrimination based on race, gender, belief, or other factors.

And SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, relates directly to the kinds of jobs we work, create, or promote. Anyone working in a company who can maximize stakeholder benefit and not just shareholder profit can contribute to this goal. The Targets for this SDG include providing support for sustainable business and economic growth, as well as labor rights, using resources efficiently, and eliminating the slave trade. The Buddha would certainly approve of work to this end. 

No doubt we could identify plenty of other links between right livelihood and the goals and targets of sustainable development. But the number of professions out there vastly outnumber the word count these posts intend to include.

It would be naive to think we can easily transform all of our professions and businesses here, there, and everywhere. It will be a prolonged effort.

That’s why the next part of the path, Right Effort, is so important.