Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.
Right Livelihood applies morality specifically to the question of how one earns one’s living. This is an aspect of action, but a particularly important one. We have to put a lot of energy into our work, and the type of work we choose has a big effect both on us and on the world. Buddhism does not allow a big distinction between a job that we are “forced” to do and leisure time that we have control over, but rather stresses our responsibility for the work we choose to do and the economic processes we choose to support through that means.
The most obvious wrong livelihoods are those which directly involve breaking the Five Precepts: for example working in a slaughterhouse, being a fisherman or soldier (first precept), being a thief or swindler (second precept), being an astrologer or being a journalist on the Sunday Sport (fourth precept).
One important aspect of Buddhist ethics is the recognition that our actions may also indirectly contribute to others’ suffering. It is our intention rather than the directness of the effects of our actions which has the karmic effect. Indirect effects are often important in economic life. For example, by making or selling things that are harmful, we can indirectly contribute to harm even if we don’t actually directly apply that harmful thing. This is why Buddhism traditionally considers trading in poisons, weapons or alcohol to be wrong livelihood.
Even if violence, theft, sexual misconduct, lies and intoxication are things people choose to do for themselves, you are also partly responsible if you encourage them or provide them with the necessary facilities: so acting in violent films, receiving stolen goods, prostitution, advertising and working in a pub might all be considered more or less questionable when judged in terms of Right Livelihood. However, it’s obviously impossible to have no indirect connection at all with conditions which support breaking any precepts: do you refuse to sell apples because they could be made into cider, or a kitchen knife because it could be used violently? Obviously there are relative judgements to be made about how far to go in ensuring Right Livelihood.
Some occupations are also not obviously unethical, but how far they are Right Livelihood depends on how much effort is put into them. Working in a shop selling genuinely useful and non-harmful goods, for example, might be seen as Right Livelihood provided that one relates positively to the customers.
The supreme example of Right Livelihood is traditionally that of the monk or nun. Having renounced both possession of money and the responsibilities which require lay-people to earn money, the monk or nun relies only on gifts to meet their basic needs. No harm is done or even supported through this, but instead the opportunity is given for lay people to earn merit. Traditionally this is seen as an entirely blameless vocation.
Would these be examples of right or wrong livelihood? To what extent? Why? (NB this is often a matter of interpretation rather than having an absolutely right answer.)
- Bingo caller
- Diamond miner
- Worker in a fish finger factory
- Journalist working for Vogue
- Merchant sailor
- History teacher
- Tree surgeon