Right livelihood is one of the branches of the eightfold path that is often skimmed over. It seems so simple and unproblematic: don’t earn money in a profession that brings harm to others. Even in the thousands of pages of the Buddha’s discourses, right livelihood is a relatively undeveloped topic.

If we are embarking on a spiritual path, we need to live our lives ethically, and this means ensuring that we do as little harm as possible to anyone or anything while we’re earning our daily bread. If we don’t, our practice will be undermined by our daily actions, not only because of the practical consequences of harmful acts but also through the internal agitation of remorse and denial.

The Buddha’s statements about right livelihood are mostly what we would expect him to say. Avoid business in weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, and poison, according to the Anguttara Nikaya. Monks and contemplatives should steer clear of fortune telling, blood sacrifices, and other “base” or “lowly” arts, the Digha Nikaya reads. The careers of a soldier and actor are also full of dangers to the soul, warns the Samyutta Nikaya, and any activity requiring dishonesty and injury will annul spiritual progress.

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All of these guidelines seem clear enough, and yet the path to right livelihood itself isn’t that simple. For example, is a soldier’s career necessarily incompatible with a spiritual life if he aspires to keep the peace and protect sentient beings? If plays and films have the potential to bring an audience closer to the truth about the human condition and to awaken compassion, why can’t there be Buddhist actors?

Even professions that seem admirable and praiseworthy can be tangled up in negative consequences. A physician today is implicated in a dubious industry that often benefits corporations and shareholders more than patients. My own career as a professor at a private college is mottled with questions about the consequences of the debt these young people take on in order to study. Is it truly worth it for them, or will it hurt them in the future in ways they cannot yet imagine? And, if so, does this negate the beneficial aspects of my work?

Almost every profession carries a burden of nagging doubt. Life was simpler 2,600 years ago. A butcher’s job related to the farmer who sold him the cow, the cow he butchered in his yard, and the customers who bought the meat.

Today, any means of livelihood is knotted into a vast system that impacts lives and landscapes thousands of miles away. A modern butcher’s livelihood is inextricable from the powerful farming and slaughtering industry that has the power to wipe out small farms and entire communities.

It has become much harder to evaluate the consequences of our jobs: we can do the research, or we can shut our eyes. In either case, the result is that deep inside, we find ourselves unsettled.

Since stepping out of the great economic net is also not possible for most of us, how can we find right livelihood?

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We might resign ourselves to the fact that any profession we choose will be a messy mixture of good and bad consequences. We can make a daily effort to maximize the good and minimize the bad; indeed, nearly every job gives daily opportunities to help people and improve the world in some way. The effort to understand the antecedents and consequences of our work is also a mindfulness practice in a system that would prefer us to function on autopilot. To a thoughtful person, this effort also creates a constant tension with our work; we cannot hurl ourselves into our jobs with unquestioning ardor.

Many of us crave careers about which we can be wholeheartedly enthusiastic, but it can be a good thing to be in two minds about our jobs and to not identify with them too strongly. In Pali, the prefix samma means “complete, perfected,” rather than simply “right,” with its connotations of orthodox correctness. Thus, samma-ajiva may mean something more like “livelihood fully understood and rightly conducted, with all its tensions.” This would involve a saner relation to our work lives, in which we strive to be the best we can, and yet do not expect our jobs to give us the impossible, namely complete happiness and fulfillment.

But is it too narrow to limit livelihood to your job? After all, livelihood includes sustenance, the resources that help us continue our daily lives, and the entire network that sustains us, not just what we do to get paid. This includes the price of gas, food, and clothes, which in turn presuppose the activity of millions of human lives. The clean water in our taps and the condition of our streets, as well as electricity, trash, and sewage systems, are all are wrapped up in our livelihoods because they are part of our ability to live day-to-day.

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We cannot run away from our connection to the rest of the world. It guarantees our existence. If we have a “good job” and yet refuse to think about where our food comes from, where the plastic goes, why gas can be so cheap, and so on, our spiritual practice will be undertaken with eyes wide shut.

In a lesser-known sutta from The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, the Buddha gives this advice to rich lay people:

Herein, Vyagghapajja, a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.

Just as the goldsmith, or an apprentice of his, knows, on holding up a balance, that by so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up; even so a householder, knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.

On casual reading, this passage appears to be sensible advice for running an individual household. But on further reflection from a broader perspective on livelihood, we can see that the idea of a life in which income and expenditure are balanced encompasses the greater “household” of the socioeconomic and ecological world in which we live.

Right livelihood involves mindfulness of our place in the whole, and thus becomes the foundation for intelligent social activism and ecological responsibility.

 

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