The Eightfold Path: #5 – Right Livelihood

My understanding of ‘Karma ?‘ is that it is action with effect far out in time and space beyond understanding or control, either positive or negative and neither positive nor negative, fully obedient to the laws of causation. To me a good example of ‘Karma’ is how habits in families span many generations. This even includes family speak or habits as drinking and smoking and such. The parent transfers his or her actions to the next generation, just by doing what he or she does. But it goes way further. As all is one, the simple act of breathing is bringing the universe to life.

Turning the Wheel

Although I have the wish to be free of karma through enlightened action, which I understand now to be not acting as someone, but being action itself, I have not (yet :-)) reached that ability. So with my doing, speaking and thinking I actively add to the karma already there. That is how I keep the wheel of Samsara ? turning and turning again. This makes me very aware of my actions. Aware even up to the point where I hardly dare do anything, because I have no way of knowing what I cause by doing something.

I think that is beyond the point where not doing is actually doing something too. As always there is a middle way somewhere. But where?


The question of doing the thing of the middle way becomes very prominent when choosing what to do for a living. Together with ‘right speech’ and ‘right action’, ‘right livelihood’ fits in the ethical conduct section of the Noble Eightfold Path ?.

Table 1: The Noble Eightfold Path
1. Right View Wisdom Path
2. Right Intention
3. Right Speech Ethical Conduct
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort Mental Development
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

‘Nett Growth’

With every move I create life. How does one create life as free activity even in an ordinary, Western job?

As I’m currently in between jobs, right after having lived in a Zen Monastery, I feel the urge to make the next step a move into the right direction. I sense this reluctance within myself, to go back to commercial activities. I sense this feeling of having had enough of the way the world is preoccupied with money and profits and nett growth always referring to something rather than someone.

I firmly believe that people need to grow, not economies or businesses. Societies need to grow, not countries or governments. That is the kind of growth I’m willing to contribute to.

Buddhist jobs

So I wonder, are there any real Buddhist jobs out there? I asked on twitter what my Buddhist friends do for a living. I got some responses:

@Sasii_K says:

Sometimes we have to adapt to what they want even if you don’t like their attitude. But if u can do that with no attachment (source)

That will be enough as a buddhist. (source)

Is that true? Is that all that is required? Doesn’t that make any job possible, even being a butcher or hangman?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I can see where the ‘no attachment’ comes from, I think, but I would like Buddhism to spur me into action and not to reform me into a drone that is not attached. To me this ‘adapt and don’t attach’ is a representation of the nihilistic view that the Buddha himself regarded as wrong view. But I could be wrong in interpreting these very short responses. So if I’m wrong, please enlighten me.

Another response came from @damici2:

IT Professional. (source)

Very much to the point indeed 🙂 And as such a very Buddhist answer. But it doesn’t really help me much. Why is this ‘Right Livelihood?’ Or why is it not for that matter?

Next came an answer from someone I know. She is an intermediary for self-employed Buddhists, business to business. @Petrah responded:

Trade in Buddhists 😀 (source)

Well, you have to do something as a right livelihood 🙂 (source)

This comes closer to what I can sense as being a right livelihood. It brings Buddhism right into businesses. It opens doors that otherwise might not open. It gives Buddhists a fair chance to perform their trade, being a Buddhist, and actually make a living out of it.

Another response comes from @mt_klein:

Woah this is difficult these times: maybe some sort of teaching or consulting is apropriate? (source)

I think @mt_klein senses the same difficulties I do. What livelihood is right livelihood within paradigm of Buddhist Ethical Conduct? Teaching, consulting, might be right.

Still, intention will be a big issue then, because teaching and consulting can contribute to horrific actions of governments and businesses alike. I only have to remind myself of the role Zen Buddhism played in Japan during World War II.

The Focus of the Mind

How do other Western Buddhists go about this question? Not living a monastic life? Not being an Unsui, bhikkhu or bhikkhuni? Not being a teacher, a master? Maybe not even seeing a teacher or master regularly.

The question of right livelihood is not easily solved. It is not on its own. It is one of eight questions which can only be answered together.

Living in this world that defined ‘nett growth’ a necessity and of pure materialistic nature, how does one create ‘nett growth’ for people rather than businesses, for society, rather than countries and governments? Where do you put your energy? Where do you focus your Mind?


About Jikai

Living a life of blessed less where my feet support my walk and my hands create my story. View all posts by Jikai

One response to “The Eightfold Path: #5 – Right Livelihood

  • mtk

    Dear Barbara,

    thank you for bringing up this important topic. I’m trying real hard to find an satisfying answer to the question for some time now, because after quite a few years working in a company environment, there had to be a change. But what is to do? It seems that everyone is ‘doomed to sell’ and the only choice is, to which degree.

    Butcher, hangman or similar are obviously not an option, salesmen or somebody who tries to tempt people to consume more and more isn’t either. To actively generate demand for a product whatsoever isn’t the right way to me. And this includes a lot of professions these days. In my opinion we have more than enough and real happiness doesn’t lie in another gadget. (But there are salesman who promote alternative and ecological types of energy generation in favor of nuclear energy…hmmm…)

    What is left?

    Maybe something where I offer a service more or less silently and with the intention to help or give joy to people. A job where customers come to me, because of recommendation from other customers. Something where I can put in all my experiences and knowledge to be as helpful for others as possible.

    Everybody has to make up this on their own and has to ask themselves about the nature of their motivation.

    And if you are lucky, you can make a living out of it… 🙂

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