Right Livelihood

Within the context of the Buddha’s eight-fold path, Right Livelihood is a subset, a specific case, of Right Action. We generally think of right livelihood as being in harmony with the five precepts: harmlessness, generosity, responsible behavior with respect to sexuality, truthfulness, and sobriety. But making a living in modern society is complex and ever-changing; often we have to balance our intentions with unknown causes and effects. We have to keep alert to whether we are linking our values to our livelihood as circumstances shift.

Right livelihood: the words point to something broad – to whatever sustains life. Because livelihood touches the ubiquitous, sensitive nerves of comfort and survival, it is primal. With the practice of right livelihood we face the everyday roots of stress. There is greed: When is what I have enough? Hatred: Who stands in the way of my comfort? Who threatens my ability to live as I choose to? And there is delusion: Are my lifestyle choices genuinely harmless? Am I living generously and responsibly within the local and global human systems? There is also bountiful giving, as families, friends, and communities support each other to meet their bodily needs. Both the hurting and the helping are powerfully amplified by the hive-like intensity of collective and global focus on acquisition and survival. Both broad and deep, right livelihood is a path factor with heft. (Kramer, A Whole-Life Path, p.166)

In the Pali canon, there are few explicit examples of wrong livelihood, but prominent among them are “business in weapons, business in living beings (slavery), business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.” More generally, making a living in which deception is required would be deemed wrong livelihood.

Right livelihood is sīla in its economic mode. When the Buddha spoke to laypeople about wholesome livelihood, he referred both to the acquisition of wealth and the disposition of it. So income that is honestly gained should go first to sustaining oneself and one’s family or household and then should be shared in a way that encourages the wholesome. Classically this would mean supporting the ordained sangha, but in our time it could include ways that we might maintain and sustain the Buddha’s teachings in our communities.

The categories of acceptable giving to Buddhist monastics could serve as a guide to reviewing our own patterns of consumption: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. In most modern cultures there are those who become obsessed with each of these four categories. Some people are driven to seek out ever more exotic food and drink; for some, clothing is a form of artistic expression or even competition; the race to have the biggest, fanciest house is present in all localities; and the industry supporting our need for health and beauty has reached fantastical proportions in some places.

We can aim for what the Buddha called balanced livelihood. We can accumulate what we need to fulfill our responsibilities and to support whom and what we value in the larger community.

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Right Action

‘I am the owner of my action, the heir of my action; I have action as my origin, action as my relative, action as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever action, good or bad, that I do.’ (from AN 5.57)

  1. refrain from killing/striking other sentient beings,
  2. refrain from taking what is not offered,
  3. refrain from harming others with our sexuality,
  4. refrain from false speech, and
  5. refrain from consuming intoxicants that lead to heedlessness.”

In Buddhist countries, these five precepts form the basic social contract. This is in  contrast to most English-speaking countries where the dominant approach is to look out for ourselves. The precepts apply to others and ourselves equally; we protect ourselves by protecting others through our actions. At first it may seem an awkward challenge to measure what we do by the five precepts rather than  “what’s in it for me?.” We can’t paste the five precepts onto our existing worldview, but to whatever degree we can make the shift, benefits will accrue to us and to those around us.

In the Pali canon, the Buddha often linked Understanding and Action; he called it Dhamma-Vinaya (the Dhamma and the training rules). In the eight-fold path, Right View and Right Intention are the foundation for the behavioral part of the path (speech, action, livelihood). Our beliefs influence our behavior, so it’s important to be clear in our own minds what we believe and what motivates us. After considering, do we think that the five precepts form a better guide to living a good life than keeping ourselves at the center as the basis for decision-making?

Mindfulness requires that we not rush our actions of body, speech, and mind. If we are deliberate in this way, we are more likely to make skillful choices with our actions and interactions. We may have to slow down to notice what we’re doing, before, during, or after the action happens. But once we adjust, a more considered pace becomes more pleasurable than hurrying.

The fifth precept for laypeople appears to have come later than the first four. The Buddha adjusted his rules for skillful action as the need arose. It became clear among monastics that intoxication was leading to undesirable behavior, specifically to breaking the precepts, so the rule against intoxicants was originally added to the rules for monks and nuns. It seems to have been applied to laypeople later.

What life situations are conducive to keeping the precepts, and under what conditions are we likely to behave unthinkingly? Each of us is in a unique situation; we have our personal histories, energy levels, inclinations, hopes, relationships, etc. Within our own life, what would keeping the precepts look like? Is there one that clearly requires immediate attention?

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Right Speech – Words with Value

Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal.
– translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The fourth and last aspect of Right Speech that the Buddha taught is to refrain from samphappalāpa, an onoematopoeic word meaning gossip or idle chatter.  It sounds like lips flapping, doesn’t it? This comes after the admonishments to be truthful and to use words that are gentle and intended to heal. Speaking of what has value is very much connected with mindfulness as we need to become aware of situations in which we tend to be lazy or careless, when nothing much seems to be at stake. But we can fill our minds with thoughts that are unworthy or worthwhile, that’s our choice, and unworthy thoughts tend to be expressed in words that fill the air with noise but often not with sense. Maybe our mother used to say “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything”. This Right Speech precept is slightly different: “If you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, keep your silence.”

By monitoring our speech, we help to maintain our mindfulness, our general sensitivity to where we are and what circumstances we’re in. We can adjust our awareness so that it’s not an exhausting exercise to check in with ourselves regularly: Are our thoughts in the present or elsewhere? Are we listening to and observing what’s going on around us? Is there an opportunity for us to bring peace or wisdom to the situation, or is silence the best option at the moment?

From Thanissaro Bhikkhu: As my teacher once said, “If you can’t control your mouth, there’s no way you can hope to control your mind.” This is why right speech is so important in day-to-day practice.  https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/speech.html

From the Buddha’s teachings, there’s a good quiz we can use to discover if we should speak or not:

  1. Is [what we intend to say] true?
  2. Is it beneficial?
  3. Is it the right time?

We can say something that’s true but without the intention to be beneficial. We could say something that is both true and beneficial, but if it’s not the right time, we may be speaking to someone who’s not listening, or is not open to hearing what we have to say. Giving advice to someone who didn’t ask for it is usually unskillful. The question “Is it the right time?” could also refer to leaving enough time for the conversation to continue to a productive conclusion.

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Right Speech – Gentle speech

I undertake the training precept to refrain from harsh speech.

Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The rule of thumb for this particular form of Right Speech is to guide ourselves away from speaking harshly and towards speaking with compassionate intent.

Harsh speech might be too loud, threatening, sarcastic, inappropriate in a particular setting, swearing, crude or belittling speech, or anything similar. We might think of it as bullying speech, by design or by habit.

What balance of [kind vs. harsh] speech feels natural to us? In some parts of the southern United States, the custom is to avoid confrontation and say what we think others want to hear, even at the expense of truthfulness. In other places, speaking truthfully but roughly is the norm. We might have to reflect with purpose to discover where we are on this spectrum, where we are most comfortable, and whether that’s where we want to end up or not.

Different styles of talk are practiced in different places and at different times. At a sporting event, we might shout at the players or the referee (even if this means yelling at the television); within military service settings there is a formalized way of address; in public, polite words smooth our way. Are we the same person in all the different places we find ourselves? Or do we adjust, consciously or unconsciously, to fit in with those around us?

“One should speak only that word by which one would not torment oneself nor harm others. That word is indeed well spoken.

“One should speak only pleasant words, words which are acceptable (to others). What one speaks without bringing evils to others is pleasant.” — Thag 21

We might think that this is a lesser aspect of the path factor of Right Speech, but for a person who speaks harshly as a matter of course, life can be rough and seem unfair. If our sense of humor involves swearing or the abuse of others, we are transgressing against this precept and not helping ourselves or others. If we’re not careful, we can speak truthfully and still hurt the people around us.

We can become an oasis of verbal peace for the people we encounter. All it takes is remembering to be committed to gentle speech.

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Right Speech – Harmonious Speech

Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.
(AN 10.176, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

The second way to practice Wise Speech is to refrain from speaking words that are malicious or divisive. Divisive speech is driven by the intention to put someone up or down, to set one person or group against another. “This person said some negative things about you.” “I heard he might be playing around.”  “People of that faith (or nationality, or social class, or profession) are all stupid (or without scruples, or arrogant, or corrupt).”

Setting ourselves apart from (or above) someone else is a drag on everyone. Encouraging others to think less of a person or group may briefly make us feel superior, but it carries a lot of negative energy. Some people might want to make something (anything) happen so badly that they’re willing to stir up old resentments. We might be tempted to join in with general complaining or criticism to feel part of a group.

As with all forms of Right Speech, mindfulness is the key. If we listen closely to ourselves when we speak, we will notice whether our intentions and words are designed to generate peace or agitation. This awareness is the beginning of wisdom. We can recognize it when others are speaking in ways that are gratuitously disturbing and resolve to be a force for calm and clarity.

Consider the karmic effects of speech; what we put into the world will come back to us in some form.  Do we generally carry the motivation of healing people, reducing fear and anxiety? Hate groups are based on divisive speech; there’s a distancing of “us” and “them”. What would the opposite of that look like? There are many people who give time and energy to the healing activity of listening and engaging with others in helpful ways. This doesn’t have to be in a crisis situation; our everyday interactions are very important in forming our mental and intentional habits. Can we nudge our words so they become more soothing (without being false) or compassionate in a way that might bring about greater understanding among people?

What is our internal monologue like? Do we criticize ourselves and others or are we inclined to “speak” kindly? Are we thinking harsh or gentle thoughts? If we are unkind to ourselves in this way, it will be hard to be kind and harmonious with others. This may be where beneficial speech begins.

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Right Speech – Truthfulness (2)

The person who lies, who transgress in this one thing, transcending concern for the world beyond: there’s no evil he might not do. -Iti 25, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

There are many references in the Pali canon that emphasize the importance of truthfulness, and this is probably why all the recommended forms of Right Speech are summarized as truthfulness in the normal presentation of the five precepts. A quite specific instruction is given, among other places, here:

AN 10.176 (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) “There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.

This could be the foundation for our modern laws of perjury. When we go on record as saying something, we can be held accountable for it. According to the Buddha, we have to be quite clear on what we know and don’t know, what we can declare we have seen or not seen. In good conscience, we can’t lie because it will help ourselves or someone we know; we can’t trade away our truthfulness for favors or rewards.

Meanwhile, outside of legal proceedings, we are not obliged to answer every question put to us, particularly if we think the asker has no business inquiring on the subject in question. We can keep our silence as a form of truthfulness if it would be for the benefit of those affected. Random surveys or press interviews can (and often should) be met with silence. When questioned by someone whose only interest is gossip or stirring up trouble, noble silence can be maintained. We must use our judgment to decide what is the most ethical action; if we lie to protect a wrong-doer, we are putting ourselves in moral peril.

Truthfulness is a practice we can continually refine. Sometimes humor crosses a line if the audience isn’t in on the joke; feelings can be hurt. If there’s something that “everyone knows”, we can ask ourselves if we do in fact know it or just take it on faith because we’ve heard it elsewhere. It is a demanding form of mindfulness to examine our words for truthfulness.

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Right Speech – Truthfulness

Truthfulness is the first of the four categories in the Buddha’s description of Right Speech. It is the foundation of Skillful Speech and, when practiced uncompromisingly, is a powerful virtue. If we were to choose one skill to train ourselves in as the basis for all other good qualities, truthfulness should be at or near the top of the list.

[The venerable Rahula receives his teacher (and his father), the Buddha.] Rahula saw the Blessed One coming in the distance and made a seat ready and set out water for washing the feet. The Blessed One sat down on the seat made ready and washed his feet. The venerable Rahula paid homage to him and sat down at one side. 
Then the Blessed One left a little water in the water vessel and asked the venerable Rahula: “Rahula, do you see this little water left in the water vessel?” – “Yes, venerable sir.” – “Even so little, Rahula, is the recluseship of those who are not ashamed to tell a deliberate lie.” [i.e., a monk telling a deliberate lie values his life as a monk only so little.]
Then the Blessed One threw away the little water that was left and asked the venerable Rahula: “Rahula, do you see that little water that was thrown away?” – “Yes, venerable sir.” – “Even so, Rahula, those who are not ashamed to tell a deliberate lie have thrown away their recluseship.”
Then the Blessed One turned the water vessel upside down and asked the venerable Rahula: “Rahula, do you see this water vessel turned upside down?” – “Yes, venerable sir.” – “Even so, Rahula, those who are not ashamed to tell a deliberate lie have turned their recluseship upside down.”
Then the Blessed One turned the water vessel right way up again and asked the venerable Rahula: “Rahula, do you see this hollow, empty water vessel?” – Yes, venerable sir.” – “Even so hollow and empty, Rahula, is the recluseship of those who are not ashamed to tell a deliberate lie.” (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

In this teaching from the Pali canon, the Buddha is instructing his young son (an ordained monk) in the importance of being scrupulously truthful. The implication is that being a monk in the Buddha’s sangha is an honor and a privilege that everyone should value at the highest level. A monastic in the Buddha’s order has committed to sacrificing everything worldly in the pursuit of cultivating wholesome behavior and wisdom. The implication is that without truthfulness, no other development is possible, which would be quite a sobering teaching from the Buddha. The same instruction applies to us; if we are loose with the truth, all of our other virtues are compromised. 

So, if we can claim one strength in our spiritual training, let it be intentional truthfulness at all times. 


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Right Speech

…Right speech, right action, and right livelihood may be treated together, as collectively they make up the first of the three divisions of the path, the division of moral discipline (silakkhandha). Though the principles laid down in this section [of the eightfold path] restrain immoral actions and promote good conduct, their ultimate purpose is not so much ethical as spiritual. … Though the training in moral discipline is listed first among the three groups of practices, it should not be regarded lightly. It is the foundation for the entire path, essential for the success of the other trainings.

The observance of sila leads to harmony at several levels — social, psychological, kammic, and contemplative. At the social level the principles of sila help to establish harmonious interpersonal relations, welding the mass of differently constituted members of society with their own private interests and goals into a cohesive social order in which conflict, if not utterly eliminated, is at least reduced. At the psychological level sila brings harmony to the mind, protection from the inner split caused by guilt and remorse over moral transgressions. At the kammic level the observance of sila ensures harmony with the cosmic law of kamma, hence favorable results in the course of future movement through the round of repeated birth and death. And at the fourth level, the contemplative, sila helps establish the preliminary purification of mind to be completed, in a deeper and more thorough way, by the methodical development of serenity and insight. (Bhikkhu Bodhi https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html#ch4)

So, to sum up: Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood are really important! For all four of the reasons Bhikkhu Bodhi cites above we have to apply mindfulness to our actions of body, speech, and mind if we want to live peacefully, both internally and externally. When we are acting, we are creating kamma in the present that may have consequences in the future. Our actions strengthen (or weaken) our mental habits and may have profound effects on those around us. The waves and ripples that our actions – speech in particular – initiate may go on for a long time, even for generations.

Right Speech: The Buddha divides right speech into four components:

  1. abstaining from false speech,
  2. abstaining from divisive speech,
  3. abstaining from harsh speech, and
  4. abstaining from idle chatter.

We could rephrase these as:

  1. Being truthful, not generally but specifically, and all the time;
  2. Speak in ways that bring harmony, not discord, between or among people;
  3. Speak gently whenever possible, and it’s almost always possible;
  4. If it’s not worth saying, if it doesn’t need to be said, let the moment pass in silence.

In the next post we’ll take a closer look at what the Buddha said about truthfulness.

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Right Intention (3)

Gregory Kramer describes the power of shared intention in his book, A Whole-Life Path. There’s a powerful argument that who we spend time with, and whether or not we have shared intentions with those people, underpins our actions, in a wholesome or unwholesome way. Shared intention will apply to intimate relationships, family groups, work groups, social groups and others. Kramer suggests three questions we can ask:

  1. Is there alignment or non-alignment? That is, are the intentions of the people involved in this activity/situation similar or dissimilar to each other?
  2. Is there a shared goal, explicit or implicit? Has an agreed-upon intention been spoken out loud, or is it assumed?
  3. Is our aim wholesome or unwholesome?

Sometimes, maybe often, we will join a group because we share their intentions, e.g., animal rescue, psychological support, religious development, training in a particular skill, etc. Even then, things may eventuate that get the group off-track. The overarching question is: when we spend time with others, what is the underlying (or explicit) intention for our time together?

The Buddha documented for us an important way in which he developed skillful intention:

From MN 19: [The Buddha mused] ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will, and thoughts of non-cruelty.

“As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of sensual desire arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of sensual desire has arisen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.’ … Whenever a thought of sensual desire arose in me, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it.

“As I abided thus, diligent, ardent, and resolute, a thought of ill will arose in me…a thought of cruelty arose in me. I understood thus: ‘This thought of cruelty has arisen in me. This leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.‘ When I considered thus…it subsided in me. Whenever a thought of cruelty arose in me, I abandoned it, removed it, did away with it.

[Practitioners], whatever a [practitioner] frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind.

So, if instead of sensual desires, ill-will, and cruelty, we frequently incline our minds towards renunciation, good will and harmlessness, our good intentions will thrive and grow.

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Right Intention (2)

Part of working with Right Intention as a path factor is to ask ourselves at various times: what is my intention now? When doing the dishes or sweeping the floor we might harbor resentment (why do I have to do this?), or we might take joy in caring for the cleanliness of our home or in doing our share of the housework to support the people we care for. We might appreciate all the things that are going in a wholesome direction for us. When we sit down to meditate, do we feel we’re being imposed upon or do we see it as an opportunity to bring a better version of ourselves back to our daily lives? There could be other intentions, and we’ll only know what they are if we take the time to investigate our mental state during activities, as they are happening.

Sorting out what our intentions are and getting our habits to line up with our intentions can be a lifetime’s work. Think of addictions – we may decide to give up cigarettes or alcohol or pornography, but need a plan of action to alter our habits. We might need to change our physical surroundings, join a therapeutic program, work with a buddy, change our daily routine, etc. Sometimes starting over again and again is not failure but part of the forward motion towards an overarching goal.

Likewise, if we want to improve our relationships at home or work or anywhere, we need to start by figuring out how we can try to do that, even if it’s hard, even if we have to ask for help, and then start moving in that direction.

Besides being a critical factor in the eightfold path, intention is a key to understanding karma. Intentional action, for good or ill, is what (according to the Buddha) creates our lives, now and in the future. Thanissaro Bhikkhu said “…anyone who really believes in the power of action wouldn’t want to harm any being at all.” (From “It Comes Down to Character”, published in Buddhadharma Quarterly 2020.) So we have to ask ourselves, do we believe that actions have consequences? Do we have faith that what we do matters, as well as what others do? Does some corner of our psyche think it doesn’t really matter what we do? Do we leave ourselves that out for when we find our situation difficult?

In the long run, our intentions reveal our character. If we have integrity, if our actions (of body, speech, and mind) consistently tend towards renunciation, good will, and harmlessness, then we and others will know that. We can’t fake having a good character; well, we can fake it but no one (including we) will believe it.

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