Right Livelihood: The Quest for Ethical Work
What Is Right Livelihood?
Right livelihood is earning a living in an ethical way.
It is based on traditional Buddhist teaching.The goal is not just prosperity, but to do work that does no harm to others, that benefits others, and that brings personal fulfillment.
The Quest for Right Livelihood
Right livelihood is based on the teachings of Buddha, a sage who lived in India sometime between the fourth and sixth century BCE. His teachings became the basis of the non-theistic religion of Buddhism.
He taught that the way to achieve enlightenment and to end human suffering was to follow the “Noble Eightfold Path.” There are three divisions of paths--Wisdom, Conduct, and Concentration. Each of the "paths” is designated by the term “right,” meaning ethical or moral.
Right Livelihood is one of the three paths of Conduct.
The Eightfold Path
The Three Paths of Conduct
What Was Buddha’s Definition of Right Livelihood?
Buddha defined five precepts of right livelihood. Certain professions were forbidden because they resulted in harm to other living beings. These professions are:
- Business in weapons
- Business in human beings (Slavery, prostitution, anything to do with the exploitation of sex)
- Business in meat ("Meat" refers to the bodies of living beings after they are killed. This includes breeding animals for slaughter as well as the use of their bodies for food, garments, tools, etc.).
- Business in intoxicants (The manufacture or selling of intoxicating drinks or addictive drugs.)
- Business in poison (The manufacture or selling any kind of poison or a toxic product designed to kill.)
The Modern Definition of Right Livelihood
What Is a Modern Day Definition of Right Livelihood?
Buddha lived in a much different time. If you are not a Buddhist, you may not wish to follow the prohibitions against meat and intoxicants. As for me, I’m OK with poisons that kill the cockroaches or other vermin that would otherwise overrun my home.
Additionally, everything is so inter-related that it is hard to be “pure.” Perhaps you work in a store that sells many good products but also products that exploit the labor of third world farmers or manufacturers. For the sake of right livelihood, should you be obliged to quit that job?
In the modern world, I think we must follow the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. In the 21st century, right livelihood means staying as far as possible from activities that cause harm and being ethical in your business dealings.
What does it mean to be ethical in your business dealings? It means: Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not cheat. Be honest with your customers and vendors, be honest with your co-workers, and be honest with your employer (or your employees if you are the employer). For instance, a person who engages in right livelihood would not sell shoddy goods, would not try to take advantage of another person in a business deal, would not take credit for someone else’s work, would not undermine a co-worker for personal advancement, would not take home office supplies, etc.—you get the idea.
An employee engaged in right livelihood would give a full day day’s work for a day’s pay, and an employer would pay a living wage to his employees.
Another part of right livelihood is treating everyone you come in contact with during the course of your work with courtesy, kindness, and respect. If you are in a position of authority, you help the people who work under you to grow and advance. If you are an employee, you are willing to go out of your way to help your co-workers or to show a new employee the ropes. It is going the extra mile. It is doing every task to the best of your ability.
What Types of Professions Are Consistent with Right Livelihood?
Obviously a profession that helps others, a doctor or nurse or lab technician, a cook or a waitress, a teacher, a scientist, a social worker, etc.--is consistent with right livelihood. Obviously, being a pimp, or a drug dealer, or a hit man is not.
However, it is not only the profession, but how the duties of that profession are executed that matters. A lawyer that helps exonerate the innocent is engaging in right livelihood; a district attorney who prosecutes a person he knows to be innocent is not. An accountant who keeps the books for a company is engaging in right livelihood; an accountant that cooks the books is not. A doctor who performs an operation to save a person’s life is engaging in right livelihood; a doctor who performs an unnecessary operation just to collect a fee is not.
Find the Joy. Follow Your Bliss.
How Can We Achieve Personal Fulfillment?
Buddha wished to ease human suffering. Anyone who has ever had to do a job they hated, day after day, year after year, just because they needed the paycheck knows what it is to suffer. Personal fulfillment is a basic human need.
There are two ways to get to personal fulfillment. You can change your attitude or you can change your job.
Change your attitude by “finding the joy.” There are some aspects of every job that are unpleasant, but most jobs are not 100% soul-crushing drudgery. Enjoy the interactions with your co-workers or customers. Enjoy a sense of pride in a job well done.
See if there are ways to make the job more pleasant. Sometimes even small changes can help.
Perhaps it is not the work itself, but the work environment that is at fault. You might find personal fulfillment from your work if you can find another job doing the same or similar work, but with better working conditions.
Of course, the best way to gain personal fulfillment is to do the work you love. This is sometimes referred to as "following your bliss"--doing work that makes you happy.
Pick the Right Occupation for You.
How Can You Find Work You Love?
The first thing you need to do to find work you love is to identify what kind of work you love. The second task is to identify what kinds of jobs are a good match for your passions and talents. And finally, you have to prepare yourself for the job of your dreams.
You can identify what kind of work you love by making a list of all the things that you enjoy. Name this list “My Passions.” Do you like being outdoors, do you like children, animals, talking to people, making things, reading, drawing—put everything on the list.
In the second column next to each passion, write down a list of possible occupations. For instance, if you like animals, you could list veterinarian, zoo worker, pet store worker, breeder, farm worker, ranch worker, animal trainer, dog groomer, dog walker, dog boarder, and probably a dozen more.
When you are done with your lists--it might take several weeks, or even months, to complete them as you think of additional occupations that fit your interests.. Select the occupations that most appeal to you. List the skills needed for that job. Do you have those skills? If not, list all the ways you can learn them.
What type of work matches your passions and your talents? If you need to learn new skills, what will it take to get those skills? Is it feasible for you to get those skills?
After a while, you may find that a few occupations have a strong "pull.” Start reading about those occupations. Start talking about those occupations. Mention your interest to everyone you know or meet. You never know who will have some good advice for you or who may have a lead for you, or who might even have a job for you. Once you know what you want, dedication and perseverance will get you there.
Find Your Right Livelihood
This book inspired me. It gave me an overview of the thinking from many different traditions, not just Buddhism. The book includes essays on Amish economics, Islamic banking, and the psychology of mindfulness. It helped me to understand the many ways of applying right livelihood to my daily life. Not every essay was perfect for me, but each one offered some good ideas to think about.
Don't Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good.
It may not be possible to do no harm. Also, not everything is clear-cut. In the process of doing something that is good for the world and yourself, you may have to be associated with something you feel is not so good. See if the good outweighs the bad. Figure out how you can minimize the harm.
You may not find the perfect job. The perfect job for you may not even exist. If you can find a reasonable amount of satisfaction from your work, count yourself lucky.
Always keep your desire for right livelihood in the front of your mind, and you will be fine. The neurolinguistic movement tells us we get what we think about.
A Quick Summary of the Buddhist Philosophy of Right Livelihood
A short poll:
How do you feel about the work that is your main source of income?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2014 Catherine Giordano