The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D/


“Given that almost everyone’s life includes an economic dimension, work and career need to be integrated into life as a Buddhist. Most of us spend the majority of their waking lives at work, so it’s important to assess how our work affects our mind and heart. How can work become meaningful? How can it be a support not a hindrance to spiritual practice — a place to deepen our awareness and kindness?” – Sangharakshita


Most people need work to earn a living to support themselves and a family. For most, this is not a choice, it is a necessity for survival. But, what we do to make that living can be a choice and the nature of the occupation chosen can have a major impact on the psychological and spiritual development of the individual. The Buddha’s notion of “Right Livelihood” emphasizes the nature and importance of this choice.


Unless you’re a hermit, making a living is a social endeavor. It involves an array of people and it impacts on many others. A manager of a grocery store has to hire and coordinate the activities of many employees, has to work with upper management, suppliers, government regulators including the health department, and has to interact with customers. The manager’s activity impacts a wide array of people. This will also be true for most of us in our work. So, again the choice of occupation can have far reaching effects, not only on the individual, but on a wide network of interconnected people. Positive and/or negative effects of our occupation can thereby have many direct and indirect effects on our happiness and well-being as the effects on others feedback and affect ourselves.


“Right Livelihood” is the fifth component of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.” “Right Livelihood” is actually a subcategory of “Right Action”, but is so important that it like speech is singled out for its own step on the path. It’s particularly important because of its cascading impact on others. What we do and how we do it can make important contributions to the well-being of many or it may produce widespread harm. Having an occupation that produces good and doesn’t produce harm is as important to our own spiritual development as can be to the well-being of others.


The notion of “Right Livelihood” mandates that we should engage in an occupation that not only earns us a living but also creates greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering in ourselves and others. Conversely, we should avoid occupations that produce harm. The notion of “Right Livelihood” doesn’t discourage earning profits and accumulating wealth. It simply indicates that it must be done in the right way. It indicates that we should acquire wealth only by legal means, peacefully, without coercion or violence; we should acquire it honestly, not by trickery or deceit; and we should acquire it in ways which do not entail harm and suffering for others. This means that in performing our work we should fulfil our duties diligently and conscientiously, not wasting or misrepresenting the hours worked, or stealing, we should pay due respect and consideration to employers, employees, colleagues, and customers, and we should engage in business transactions truthfully without deceptive advertising, misrepresentations, or dishonesty.


In the choice of occupations to pursue there are some obvious jobs to aspire to. These are occupations that on their face create good and promote well-being. They include professions such as physician, social worker, peace negotiator, relief worker, therapist, etc. Of course, even these occupations can cause harm, as mistakes can and do happen, but the intent is to relieve suffering, and that’s what counts. Similarly, there are occupations that rather obviously create harm and should be avoided, such as drug dealer, arms merchant, professional criminal, etc.


Most occupations, unfortunately, are not so obviously good or harmful. Many can have harmful effects, not by immediate actions, but indirectly. For example, working as an accountant for a cigarette manufacture. Accounting is not itself harmful, but in this case would contribute to the distribution of a product that has been demonstrated to be harmful to people’s health. But, most occupations are even trickier to evaluate. Working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico produces a product, energy, that is needed for the well-being of virtually everyone. Without affordable energy, every aspect of the economy would collapse. So, working on the oil rig could be seen as promoting well-being and relieving suffering. On the other hand, there is potential for great environmental harm, including oil spills that directly pollute sensitive environments, or contributing to carbon dioxide emissions that can indirectly create great harm by contributing to global warming.


So should someone on the eightfold path accept or reject a job working on an oil rig? The answer cannot be given by anyone other than the individual themselves. It is imperative that the individual look deeply and objectively at what they’re doing and determine for themselves if they are doing more harm than good. On the eightfold path, the primary spiritual impact of “Right Livelihood” is on the individual engaging in the occupation. So, the decision has to be theirs. That is not to say that experts or friends can’t or shouldn’t be consulted, but that ultimately the individual must decide for themselves and be willing to accept the potential consequences.


Is it “Right Livelihood” to raise cattle, or chickens for consumption, to be a butcher, or sell animal products? At the surface this might seem simple as it involves the destruction of sentient beings which should be avoided. But, like everything, it’s sometimes not so simple. Firstly, killing out in self-defense is regrettable and should be avoided however possible, but if necessary is not a problem. In fact, there is a long history of lethal self-defense techniques being taught and practiced at some Buddhist monasteries. Killing and eating meat might be seen as self-defense and when other foods are not available for sustenance it’s defensible. In fact, the Buddha and his followers occasionally ate meat and taught that once killed animal products should not be wasted. But, in general, for most people in affluent situations, being involved in the raising, slaughtering, and distribution of animals would not be considered “Right Livelihood.” It may well have negative consequences on the individual and others.


In my own career, before I started on the eightfold path, I engaged in research projects using animals. At the time, it seemed to be a noble endeavor, increasing scientific knowledge for the good. But, I believe that I was harmed by this. I now look back with deep regret and guilt that I was responsible for the deaths of literally hundreds of animals. It doesn’t matter that they were lab rats. They were beings who should not have been used and harmed for my own selfish reasons to advance my scientific career. I remember those days long ago vividly and feel terrible that I could have created so much harm. It is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I paid and am paying the consequences on violating “Right Livelihood.”


We spend so much of our lives at work, that the choice of the wrong occupation can be a major impediment to our spiritual growth. Conversely, the choice of the right occupation can be a major asset. It can create greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieve suffering in ourselves and others. This is a major step on our spiritual path. So, engage in “Right Livelihood” and move forward toward enlightenment.


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


“A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.” – Buddha

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