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Buddhism and Me: Right Livelihood 
31st-Jan-2012 02:54 pm
earth, hhgttg

1. Introduction
2. The Three Refuges
3. The Four Noble Truths
The Eightfold Path:
4. Right Understanding
5. Right Intent
6. Right Speech
6. Right Action

One more entry on Ethical Conduct before I tackle the slightly more obscure subject of Mental Development – and this one really got long, as you might expect. After Right Speech and Right Action comes Right Livelihood; because it’s just just about what you say and what you do, but deeper than that: how you live.

It’s arguable that simply by observing Right Action and living by the precepts, one would achieve Right Livelihood, but the difference is the same as that between tactics and strategy; Right Action covers every day to day thing you do, Right Livelihood the long term decisions and plans you make. It is not just the job I have and the work I do, but a large part of it is. It’s also the hobbies I pursue, my volunteer work, my habits and my routing. Right Action was deeds, Right Livelihood is lifestyle.

I’m going to follow an outline by Jack Kornfield of DharmaWeb, and break Right Livelihood into five aspects: Harmlessness, happiness, growth, simplicity, service.


There are four specific areas of employment that are singled out by the Dharma as explicitly worth avoiding:

  1. Dealing in weapons
  2. Dealing in Living Beings
    Slavery and prostitution, but also raising animals for the slaughter.
  3. Meat Production and Butchery
  4. Selling intoxicants and poisons.
    This includes dealing in alcohol – which I suspect deserves a bigger explanation, but I’ll deal with that when I cover the Precepts.

Choosing a trade, of course, is a privilege not everyone has. Limits come from all directions, and pressures in all forms, and sometimes it really does come down to ‘do this work or starve’. And so I stress that self-care is a vital part of the Path; if the only work available to you is one that falls within one of the above categories, then do the work. Self-deprivation benefits no one.


There is little that sucks the soul out of a life than a job you don’t enjoy. I look at myself when I’ve worked in office administration, as a barista, or even being a scientist, and I see what a hole the lack of fulfilment was to my life. It’s hard to be full of loving kindness to all beings when I’ve been dealing with a difficult boss, and it’s hard to be mindful and joyful in my life when I’m bored and frustrated for 40 hours in every week.

It wasn’t until I’d been doing my PhD for four years before I added education work into my life, first volunteering at the Natural History Museum, then working at the Science Museum. If you came with me on that journey, you might have seen on the outside the blossoming fulfilment I felt within myself at the time. Having something I could put myself into was a life changer, because my life suddenly had something in it I was deeply passionate about.

Happiness in one’s work comes in the following ways:

  1. Having a trade or a career. This doesn’t need to be permanent; it hardly matters if you have seven careers in a lifetime as long as you have one now. It also doesn’t have to be the work that brings in the money; I know people who are currently pursuing personally fulfilling political careers, but haven’t quite made that work pay. This goes just as strongly for the writers I know. It also doesn’t have to be ground breaking; this happiness doesn’t come from impressing people at parties, but in being satisfied with what you do.
  2. Producing something. Either as goods or as service to other people. Creating, discovering, making, selling, teaching, helping, but doing something. Essentially, none of the people on the B-Ark were really practising Right Livelihood.
  3. Being free from debt. I think about who’d going to read this, and I don’t think a single person of my acquaintance struggles to understand the happiness that comes when you manage to do this.
  4. Being free from blame or fault. Doing a job not to please or satisfy someone else, not because you feel you ‘have’ to, but because you want to, in yourself. So actions come not from an external diktat, but because you know they are the right things to do.

Growth and Awareness

The whole point of following the Eightfold Path is to grow and to cultivate those virtues that are beneficial to oneself, and move away from fear, hate and delusion. So what’s the point in pursuing a livelihood that does not give me the space to do that?

This is partly why teaching is so great for me, because one cannot teach without learning, and one cannot teach without being present in the moment, and one cannot teach without compassion and loving kindness for your students. All of this is important for me as an educator, and as a Buddhist. There are other ways to bring mindfulness to a job: regular meditation break; mixing up repetitive tasks by doing them slightly differently, using a different hand, for example. I have a note to myself in my diary or on my desk at nearly all times, with the thing I am committed to e doing right now. I find that reminder, and I stop whatever else I may be caught up in, centre myself and bring myself back to the moment. I use my bracelet to remind myself of my Path and how to live this moment to its fullest.


Live lightly on the earth. Take as little as possible. Destroy nothing if you can help it. Remember the intention of Renunciation. What do you really need to be happy in this world? What do you really deeply care about? Why make anything more complicated than it needs to be? It comes up over and over again in Buddhism: a happy life is a simple one.


The way of the world is that harmlessness isn’t enough – there’s enough harm going on in the world that I bear my share of responsibility to reach out and remember my interconnectedness to all of life around me. Service and generosity is not just doing something for free (although it can be), but doing something for someone else out of the joy of doing it – whether paid or not. There’s a world of difference between customer service from someone who genuinely wants to help, and someone who just wants the payslip, even if they’re both taking home the same.

It’s important to me to do something for the world, to reach out and remember how beautiful it is, and feel the interconnectedness with all living things.

Sometimes, this isn’t possible in a paid day job, but there’s more to a life than just those 40 hours. There volunteering, for example. There’s secondary jobs. There’s the conversations one has daily with everyone around you.


Right Livelihood is a lot more than just a list of things to do. It involves pouring my Practice into every part of my life, and not just acting like good person, but being the best one I can be.

This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.

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