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What job is "right livelihood" in the modern world?
February 15th, 2014 (July 26th, 2014)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

What job is "right livelihood" in the modern world?

You might move from job to job, trying to find one that allows you to work but to also keep the 5 lay precepts (to refrain from killing, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying and from intoxicants).
Most likely, you'll still end up having to take care of your looks and to embellish truths (about products, about boss' availability, etc.). "Practical considerations" might seem to go against the vows. So is it possible to live by the 5 lay precepts in the modern, professional world?

Karma is intention

What could be the intention behind saying "he is currently in a meeting so can't take your call",  one of the "white lies" a job might seem to require?

It could be e.g. your rejection of the caller due to prejudice (or becoming tired of their repeated attempts and of their "not getting the 'hint' "), and this would be unwholesome…
But it could also be e.g. your wisdom that 'he' is not currently in the right frame of mind to help the caller, and that calling again later might be more fruitful and wholesome for everyone involved…

What could be the intention behind listing all the positives of a new product?

It could be e.g. obscuring the defects and drawbacks and hidden costs, or it could be e.g. selling a higher-margin product for no other reason than the higher margin, and this would be unwholesome…
But it could also be e.g. your wisdom that this is indeed better for the prospect consumer than other products (in which case, being too soft in promoting your product might be equivalent to negligence)…

Which of these possibilities it is dictates how wholesome, or unwholesome, your intention / action is!

Intentions do matter!


You might need to remember that the precept is not "do not lie"  but "refrain from lying"…  A precept is a training rule, rather than an 'absolute' rule independent from context. This is important because phenomena are impermanent… To pretend to have a fixed, contextless view on a rule is to fall into entity-ness.

It is extremely positive to question which job would allow you to follow the precepts best, but you shouldn't blame yourself for e.g. lying when circumstances give you no alternative. No more than doctors should blame themselves for prioritising among victims (with the risk of letting the worst-shaped ones die to increase the chances of survival of most).

It is very wholesome that you question your circumstances and conditions (and what you could do to improve them), so that constraints imposed by ordinary unwise minds around you would be minimal, or karmically neutral… but you need to be careful with the dream that there might  exist a particular combination of conditions and circumstances which would be 'perfect'.

Saṃsāra is precisely this thirst for a world made satisfactory by arranging our circumstances in a particular way.

The world is as it is, and we can engage with it, but there's no point wishing it to be different: we engage with it so that  we create it different, the solution is not outside of us.

"Life is unsatisfactory" (first noble truth): no quick fix (money or otherwise) leads to the cessation of dukkha, and similarly there is no 'perfect' job that leads to the cessation of dukkha…

While monastic conditions may be beneficial and helpful, they still don't magically suppress dukkha: when the truth is told, there's competition between monastics in many institutions —for the higher ranks and honours,— there's animosity and jealousy… One has to remember that ordinary minds join the monastery, they're not Enlightened just by joining the Saṅgha!

Dukkha in the context of a 'job' might precisely be found in the 'uneasiness' to have to deal with less-than-ideal constraints (e.g. white lies) and the anxiety / lust they generate.

Continue to question your intentions, and to do your best (including to find the best circumstances you know of)!

Just don't fall for the lust / clinging to the 'perfect' job where dukkha would magically not manifest.

If you can 'relax' in the knowledge that you're doing your best for the benefit of all (which requires effort, but can be 'peaceful' effort, 'relaxed' effort, rather than a battle, a fight against an 'imperfect' world), you're embodying right livelihood now!

Right livelihood

Right livelihood is not about a static view of which job is wholesome or not. Right livelihood is found in "what do you do, to make your job an opportunity to contribute wholesomely to the world?"

An extreme example might be 'banker': you might be a bankster, ripping off your clients, or you might actually enable capital to reach the most wholesome and sustainable businesses with a view on the long-term interest of all —this is a serious discussion for pension funds for example, as investing for short-term economic growth might run against the long-term interests of the pensioners due to e.g. impact on the environment they'll have to live in.

Honesty is key, but refraining from lying is different from shock tactics throwing 'truths' to the face of others (i.e. your personal views? Unless you're Enlightened, how do you know you're seeing clearly?).

« A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison. »
— AN 5.177

Almost any job can be "right livelihood", if your intention is to morph the said job —within what's possible, not trying to pretend there's no constraint or reality-check or time needed— into a positive contribution for all.

Even the jobs listed by the Buddha have been taken by great buddhist masters, in order precisely to engage and change society, rather than to sit and let the world self-harm…
Of course, such restraint (e.g. in the heat of battle) is not exactly attainable by the ordinary mind, so most military people should just admit they're not free from the fetters enough  to even pretend they'd favour peace in all circumstances, never being run by fear, by automatism and habits (training drills) or by vengeance [thus the unambiguous Yodhajiva sutta (SN 42.3)].

To morph a job into a wholesome contribution for all requires patience, perseverance, generosity, wisdom, etc. (i.e. the classic Perfections).
This is our practice: transforming any activity into a wholesome activity (rather than lusting after an inherently-wholesome activity we'd just have to find)! 


Oh! and "right livelihood" is also in supporting others, in practical terms… It is to work for the benefit of all (i.e. for the benefit of yourself but also all others)!

As Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote « To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others. »

Supporting others  to embody wholesome intentions is part of "right livelihood". This means providing direct help to them (financially or in kind), this includes financing teachers for them (e.g. via, this includes pro bono…  Tough, I know!

Sharing one's time and one's wealth (well beyond the sole recipient of one's attention on Valentine's)? How awful! Embodying the first pāramī  is so demanding, isn't it?
One cannot even just "work hard and then play hard"; the cultivation of virtue finds a way to spoil it, by teaching that supporting Dharma teachers, or simply anyone in need, is more wholesome than spending hard-earned money on over-priced items on Valentine's Day, items embedded with fake promises of ever-lasting love (as if this could be bought, rather than cultivated together! ).

Did you hope "right livelihood" would give some excuse to 'wholesomely' hoard  the benefits of your work? Saṃsāra! You have to cultivate sharing the benefits of your virtuous deeds too!

The image might seem barely relevant, until one considers the ethical implication of what is weighted: "caterpillar fungus" (or "yatsa gunbu" in Tibetan). Intentions do matter. Cf.