Such an interesting phrase – making a living. Usually we understand it as the way in which we acquire money to support ourselves. When the Buddha talked about right livelihood in the context of the 8-fold path, he was talking about all of our actions and intentions connected with earning an income, but also the ways in which we spend or invest that income. By extension, we can think of right livelihood as an intention to spend our time and energy in ways that are wholesome.
Right Livelihood (samma ajiva)
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.
– Bhikkhu Bodhi, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html#ch4
However we make our living, it is essential that we do it without breaking the five precepts – no killing, stealing, abusing others or deception (which non-indulgence in intoxicants makes easier). We also have a duty to spend our resources wisely, which includes both supporting those who depend on us and being generous to those in need.
We might be tempted to think of our working life and our non-working life as two separate, independent streams. But our actions and their results carry over from one context to the other.
It is true that the Budhha lived in a simpler world in what later became India. Within the complexity of our world, most of us have more choices than people did in the 5th century BCE. It’s also true that before the global economy got going, it was easier to see the chain of cause and effect that labor of different types produced. Now when we purchase something, it is often not clear what went into its production, transportation, and sale.
And yet, it is supremely worthwhile to weigh our actions using this guide. We try to make ethical choices with the information we have. We put forth energy in a way that balances our needs and the requirements at hand, and repeatedly check on outcomes. Living a balanced life is right livelihood.