Noble Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood
We are now at the fifth fold of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s master checklist for mastering the skill of life. The Ethical Conduct Group of the Noble Eightfold Path consists of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. We will finish the Ethical Conduct group with this post and its comments.
We have seen that Right Speech and Right Action are karmic, that is, they are intentional, something done by choice. We might think of our lives as a long series of densely packed choice points, in each of which we try freely to pick the most skillful alternative: “Speak falsely or tell the truth, I think I’ll, um, … tell the truth… Take what is not given or be satisfied with what I have, I think I’ll grab what I want while no one is looking, …” However, for most of us it does not generally feel like we live life so deliberately. If we pay attention we recognize that there are choice points, but we seem to skip right through the on automatic pilot almost every time: “Mmmm, chips, grab, gobble. Yikes, there’s that jerk, must avoid. Beautiful woman, hubba hubba, straighten tie and smile, …” The reason lies in our habit patterns. These are like the ruts worn in a path over which ox carts have passed for many years. At any point we could veer to the right or to the left, but we don’t. And when we don’t, the currently operative habit pattern becomes even deeper. These habit patters are the stuff of our character. Those grounded in seeking personal advantage tend to be our natural overriding concern. Ethical Conduct is the practice of changing our habit patterns with respect to actions of body and speech to those that are more skillful. Ethical precepts, such as “Do not take that which is not offered,” define points at which we become more deliberate in our choices,; they are clearly defined opportunities to get out of the rut. Developing the resolve toward loving-kindness apply a more general pressure toward deliberation.
There are other concerns besides existing habit patters and our practice vows that may form future habit patterns and ultimately character. Each of us is embedded in a network of relations, and prominent among these are societal relations, which entail obligations to do certain things or behave in certain ways. These can take the ox cart out of old ruts, and lead to the creation of new ruts. Prominent among these is our livelihood. Now, once we choose our livelihood we might not have much choice left about the actions we preform while engaged in that livelihood. Nevertheless the karmic effects of those actions will be as before: Performing those actions will have harm or benefit as before and will shape one’s character as before. Therefore, it is important that one choose one’s livelihood with care. For the aspiring master potter Right Livelihood would be to actually make a living as a potter, especially with a customer base with a great appreciation of fine workmanship. This would afford the greatest opprortunity to develop skillful habit patterns indeed. It is so with the skills of life: Right Livelihood would be that which allows full expression of selflessness, goodwill and compassion without compromise.
So, when is a particular livelihood Right? Just look at the job description. Is each task mentioned consistent with Right Speech and Right Action? Does it involve deceit? Does it involve killing or otherwise harming living beings? Does it entail taking what is not given freely? Does it involve or encourage misuse of sexuality? The Buddha specifically points out the following red flags in assessing livelihood: deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, and usury. It is a challenge to find Right Livelihood in sales or marketing, or in banking or investing that fall under Right Livelihood. The Buddha also specifically recommends against jobs that deal in weapons, in living beings (such as raising animals for meat production or facilitating prostitution), in meat production, in poisons, and in intoxicants. So you should not be a soldier or arms dealer, a butcher or corporate farmer, a pesticide producer (or presumably a farmer if this means using pesticides), or a liquor store proprietor (or even a Benedictine monk if this involves brewing beer). In modern times is that it is probably particularly difficult to find a job that is Right Livelihood. Before I was a monk I used to work in software R&D, artificial intelligence, for companies that had contracts with defense contractors, which I decided was clearly Wrong Livelihood. But how about working as a cashier for a retail store that happens to sell liquor? We often have little choice of livelihood simply because the economy offers few choices.
What is considered a respectable livelihood in our society may be quite a bit different from what is Right Livelihood in the Buddhist sense. Being a soldier, or a banker, investing in real estate, exterminating insects and pests or stretching the truth a little to make a sale might all be completely acceptable a particular culture or subculture. However, the mechanisms of Karma will shape the character in pretty much the same way regardless of the approbation of the society. In other words, Buddhist ethical thinking rests primarily on observable causes and effects rather than on social norms (though social norms do determine what constitutes harsh speech or otherwise might lead to disharmony). If a livelihood forces one to act habitually with greedy or cruel intentions, the character will develop to become more greedy or cruel. Consider that when you take on employment, your boss generally predetermines many of your choices from that point on. This means that your character will come more and more to resemble that of your boss.
We may further reduce our options by taking on various obligations. If we have debt or a family to feed, or own property or possessions that must be maintained and insured, we are forced into earning a certain level of income, possibly forcing us into a Wrong Livelihood. A monastic has the great benefit of what might be called the ideal livelihood. First, in order to be ordained into the Sangha one must be quite free of conventional societal obligations: no wealth, no debt, no family to speak of. Second, one has no livelihood at all in the conventional sense: One is entirely outside of the exchange economy, there is almost nothing one can do on one’s own behalf. As a monastic, one is subject to a large number of precepts, many of which are in fact societal obligations. However, each of these obligations is of benefit to others and consistent with the harmony of the community. In fact, monastics take on the greatest societal obligation of all: they are the designated caretakers of the Buddha’s teachings and responsible for its perpetuation.
Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood constitute the Conduct or Virtue or Morality Group of the Noble Eightfold Path. Broadly speaking Buddhist virtue is presented in different terms, in Precepts, that is, specific rules of conduct; in the principle of Karma, and in Right Resolve, the resolve to be selfless, kind and compassionate. In fact, every step in the Eightfold Path reinforces this thrust.
On this New Moon Day, consider your Livelihood or the Livelihood you aspire to have. And what of your other obligations? How are these of benefit, how of harm? How do you feel about what you do all day? This is not to encourage guilt—Right Livelihood I fear is the exception and we all have to eat—but to take stock and maybe to encourage some slow disentanglement from factors that you can control. If you are fortunate, your livelihood is blameless.