Right Livelihood is one of the ethical principles of Buddhism similar to the Ten Commandments of Christianity. The principle is to earn one’s living legally, peacefully and in a manner that brings no harm. This at first glance seems sane, obvious and not that difficult.
For most people, work takes up more time and energy than anything else, so our means of livelihood has an enormous impact on our lives and the lives of our families, friends, communities and the world at large. Buddhists and non-Buddhists who use part of their energies to develop compassion and understanding while building atomic bombs or selling drugs are going to have some conflicts. Those conflicts will create suffering for ourselves, defeat our practice and, in turn, inflict suffering on the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh has written: “Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.”
And it is not just the effect of our own means of livelihood on our inner selves. Each of us is affected by the individual members of our families, the people around us, our communities and the world, all affected by their means of livelihood. I like Thich Nhat Hanh’s perspective on Right Livelihood—vocation can nourish or erode.
Since all the people of a modern civilization are connected, absolute purity in Right Livelihood is probably impossible. Even if we don’t build atomic bombs, some well-intentioned teacher taught the bomb maker nuclear physics; a farmer grew his food; a carpenter built his house; a mechanic fixes the automobile he drives to work; a ski instructor gives him lessons on the hill—and all are paid with money earned making bombs. Since atomic bombs (so far) are only made by nations, not individuals, the money that pays the bomb maker comes from the taxes of ordinary citizens—you and me.
While building atomic bombs is an extreme example of bringing harm to others, it illustrates the interconnectedness of all things, including Right Livelihood. Our personal spiritual efforts and accomplishments are entwined with the secular world at every level. Principles are living organisms that guide us in life; they are not stone pure in the Fundamentalist sense that, it seems to me, falsely justifies and inspires much of the violence and suffering in the world.
Hsu Yun, a Chinese Chan (Zen) master of the 20th century, offers this perspective about a man struggling to determine what is and is not Right Livelihood:
“[H]e cannot earn his living through ‘cheating.’ (Uh, oh. That lets out used cars, aluminum siding, politics and TV evangelism.) The more he thinks about it, the shorter his list gets … .
“Most religious commentators avoid answering such questions. And nobody can query a book.
“What is necessary, here, is common sense. Religious professionals who earn their living from the donations of working members of their congregations can afford to be angelically employed. Having no family responsibilities to anchor them to earthly reality, they can afford to float above such defilements … . This, of course, is true of any religion. None is fussy about a donation’s provenance.
“Therefore, the solution we apply to the problem of Right Livelihood is simple: A Buddhist may earn his living in any way that is honest and legal. He may sell guns … but not to someone he reasonably suspects is insane or who intends to use the gun for a criminal purpose. He may be a vegetarian and a cowboy ... a shoemaker, a butcher, a soldier, a bartender, and, lest there be any doubt, he may even be the man who throws the switch on someone legally condemned to die. If he doesn’t approve of capital punishment, he doesn’t have to take the job.”
That is, take the job or not, but be awake to and honest about the consequences, both near and far.