DT-Eightfold Path-Right Livelihood

Tonight, we’ll continue our series of dharma talks based on Gil Frondsdal’s book, Steps to Liberation: The Buddha’s Eightfold Path. The fifth step on the path is Right Livelihood. 

We have seen how Right Action focuses on our particular acts. With Right Livelihood, we shift our attention to the general ways we live our lives. What we do repeatedly has greater consequences internally and in the world around us than what we do only occasionally. Optimally, our means of sustenance will enhance our spiritual development, and at least not interfere with it. 

Wise Livelihood refers to more than our job or our occupation. It encompasses lifestyle choices such as what we buy, consume, and depend on for financial support. And it includes how we care for our family and how we live in retirement. 

Gil asks us to reflect upon some basic questions regarding Right Livelihood: 

Is the way we are living conducive towards compassion, peace and freedom?

Does it nourish us?

Does it add to our ease?

Does it support our happiness? 

Does it help others?

The most fundamental question about Right Livelihood is:

Does the way we are living cause harm to others or suffering for ourselves?

We often forget to take into consideration how we contribute to the cumulative effect of many people doing the same activity. If I were the only person driving a car, its exhaust fumes would barely affect the health of people around me. Yet, if I join thousands of other commuters who are driving in rush-hour traffic, my car’s exhaust is adding to smog that can be a wide-reaching health hazard.   

Sometimes the cumulative effect of our lifestyle is positive. A couple of times a week, I take our compost container to Mandell Park to add to mounds of food scraps brought by our neighbors. The compost transforms into nutrient rich soil, which volunteers use for a flourishing communal vegetable and flower garden. I feel good taking part in this project that benefits the community. 

Gil points out that the practice of Right Livelihood cultivates greater awareness and responsibility for the world. For most people, the central aspect of Right Livelihood is the work they do. Venerable monk Bhikkhu Bodhi reminds us of the Buddha’s ethical guidelines for earning a living. Any occupation that violates right speech or right action is not a right form of livelihood. Aside from earning wealth only by legal means, employers and employees should attain it peacefully, without coercion or violence, and honestly, not by trickery or deceit. 

The Buddha listed five specific kinds of livelihood to avoid because they bring harm to others: dealing in weapons, in meat production and butchery, in poisons, in intoxicants, or in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter, trading in slaves, or profiting from prostitution). 

Mindfulness teacher Bhante Gunaratana has updated the Buddha’s list to indicate wrong kinds of livelihood in modern times: research and development in chemical or biological warfare, construction of nuclear warheads, manufacture or sale of insecticides, designing computer guidance systems for missiles, and profiting from sweatshop labor or narcotrafficking. We might think of working for a radio talk show that broadcasts hateful, slanderous commentary as a form of dealing in poisons. Wrong livelihood includes owning or working for a casino, which is associated with gambling addictions, and making a living from violent sports such as boxing.

The Buddha mentioned three dimensions of Right Livelihood: actions, persons and objects. “Rightness regarding actions” refers to fulfilling duties diligently and conscientiously, and to accurately reporting the number of hours worked, without idling away time or stealing goods. 

“Rightness regarding persons” means that cooperation is valued over competition and that employers, employees, colleagues and customers treat one another with respect and consideration. For example, a wise employer assigns workers according to their ability, pays them fairly, promotes those who deserve promotion, and provides adequate vacation time. 

In 2015, one of my friends, Gabriel Thompson, wrote a book titled Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do. As an investigative reporter, Gabriel signed up to do back-breaking, poorly compensated work alongside Latino immigrants in Arizona’s lettuce fields. To further understand migrant work experiences, he endured icy cold temperatures in the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse in rural Alabama. Then during his job as a bicycle delivery “boy” for a restaurant in New York City, he was injured as he tried to dodge a taxi. By revealing the horrible working conditions that so many people suffer in order to earn a living, Gabriel has become an advocate for “rightness regarding persons.”

“Rightness regarding objects” means that business transactions and sales are free of deceptive advertising, dishonest manouvers, or misrepresentations of quality or quantity of articles. 

Illustrating the importance of “rightness regarding objects,” Bhante Gunaratana refers to a story about the past lives of the Buddha and his cousin Devadatta. According to folklore, the trustworthy Bodhisatta (future Buddha) and his unscrupulous cousin traveled together and worked as rival peddlers, selling pots and pans. In one village, Devadatta visited the home of a formerly wealthy widow and her daughter. They showed him a great golden bowl that was covered with grime. Unaware of its value, they offered to trade it. Although Devadatta saw that the bowl was worth a fortune, he declared that it was worthless, threw it on the floor, and departed. He intended to return later and to offer them a mere pittance for the bowl. 

A little while later, the Bodhisatta arrived at the same home. When the women offered him the bowl in trade, he replied truthfully that it was much too valuable for him to buy. The women respected his honesty and asked him to give them whatever he could. The Bodhisatta gave them all his money and all his pots and pans. Carrying the golden bowl, he departed for the river crossing to the next town. 

When Devadatta returned to the home, the widow accused him of deceit and informed him that a trustworthy peddler had paid them well for the bowl. In a rage, Devadatta chased after his cousin, only to see a boatman rowing him to the far side of the river. Filled with hatred and resentment, Devadatta died. The Bodhisatta became wealthy from selling the honestly bartered bowl and devoted his life to charity and good deeds. The good merit from his Right Livelihood led to auspicious rebirths until eventually he attained Buddhahood. 

Take a moment for reflection: 

What are the purposes for your work?

What values do you express in your work?

What consequences does your work have on the quality of your inner life?

How does your work impact the world around you?

Gil emphasizes that peace, joy and ease are important parts of the Buddhist path. When we are ethical and honest in our work, and when we are free of debt, we tend to have a clear conscience and to feel at ease. Doing work that benefits others and sharing the fruits of our labors adds to our satisfaction. If we live in a balanced way without overworking, we enhance our inner peace. 

Our attitude about work has a big impact on us and others. When we are distracted and uninspired, our labors are far less fulfilling than when we are mindful, engaged and focused. We tend to be satisfied when we enjoy our work for its own sake rather than for the income it will earn. Consider the difference between a work environment that values kindness and generosity and one that prioritizes productivity and profits above human relationships.

Let’s pause for another period of reflection:

Are the ways that you are occupied satisfying and enjoyable? 

If not, what might you change to experience greater ease, joy, and fulfillment? 

Consider what work or activities you engage in that provide you with financial and material support. 

What is your relationship with what you produce? 

What attitude do you have towards your work? 

Is it meaningful?   Does it inspire you? 

Does it help you become a better person?

Does it benefit others?

[Some of my money is invested in a mutual fund, which pays me quarterly dividends. Instead of seeking quick profits, I’ve asked the fund manager to explore sustainable or socially responsible investing. My goal is to help support companies and ventures that contribute to positive environmental and societal changes.] 

Now reflect upon what you purchase, consume, and use, in order to meet your basic needs and to sustain your lifestyle.                                                             

What motivates your choices about what you consume?                                     

How are you affected by what you consume?                                                     

What values are you expressing with these choices?                                           

Does what you consume benefit others directly or indirectly?                                

[In some cases, I feel ambivalent about what I consume. To support local restaurants during pandemic restrictions, Mark and I have been ordering take-out meals. However, because we’re also trying to limit our nonrecyclable garbage, we favor restaurants that prepare meals without plastic containers and plastic ware.] 

Ideally, Right Livelihood means living and working in ways that support the Eightfold Path. We can incorporate the first four factors of Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech and Right Action into our work by practicing good will, compassion, skillful speech and ethical behavior.