In the traditional categorization of the Buddha’s eight-fold path, the section on ethics is made up of three components:
1) Right action (the five precepts except for speech)
2) Right speech
3) Right livelihood
We’re now on to the third of these: Right or wise livelihood.
From Bhikkhu Bodhi:
Right livelihood is concerned with ensuring that one earns one’s living in a righteous way. For a lay disciple the Buddha teaches that wealth should be gained in accordance with certain standards. One should acquire it only by legal means, not illegally; one should acquire it peacefully, without coercion or violence; one should acquire it honestly, not by trickery or deceit; and one should acquire it in ways which do not entail harm and suffering for others. The Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood which bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants (AN 5:177). He further names several dishonest means of gaining wealth which fall under wrong livelihood: practicing deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, and usury (MN 117). Obviously any occupation that requires violation of right speech and right action is a wrong form of livelihood, but other occupations, such as selling weapons or intoxicants, may not violate those factors and yet be wrong because of their consequences for others.
This analysis gives us a handy checklist to use when thinking about our work:
– Is it legal?
– Is it peaceful?
– Am I able to stay honest?
– Is my work non-harming in nature?
Even though I’m retired now, I think these questions apply to me and others who don’t “work” in a traditional sense. Whatever we do with our time, whatever actions we perform regularly – whether study, volunteering, caring for others, or just staying out of trouble – deserve to be reflected upon. We need to consider (again) both our intentions and the consequences of our actions.
In this reflection, we also think about where our money comes from; is it a source that we are ethically comfortable with? Are we doing our best to use what we need and share the rest?
In my own thinking about right livelihood, honesty seems the fundamental virtue. The whole package is important, but if we are not honest with ourselves and other people, then the factors of peacefulness and harmlessness can’t be accurately evaluated.
I invite you to read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s words carefully and see if anything new about your own livelihood occurs to you.