Right livelihood (sammā ājīva) is the fifth step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Livelihood is the work we do in order to live. To be ‘right’ in the full sense of the word, a livelihood would
- (1) have to provide one with at least one’s basic needs,
- (2) it would have to be in accordance with ethical principles and
- (3) it would have to make a useful and indeed a beneficial contribution to society.
The Buddha mentioned as examples of wrong livelihood, dealing in weapons, human beings (slavery, people smuggling, certain types of prostitution and living off the income generated by it), trade in flesh, manufacturing and selling alcohol and poisons (A.III,207). Today this list could be increased considerably. The Buddha said that to be ‘learned and skilled in one’s craft’ (bāhusaccañ ca sippañ ca) is a great blessing (Sn.261). He described a wholesome and honest income as being ‘earned by hard work, by strength of arm and sweat of brow, honestly and lawfully’ (A.II,67). For example, whether living off investments would be a right or wrong livelihood would depend on what one’s money was invested in. We would normally think of being a doctor, a nurse or a teacher as being right livelihoods but again, it would depend just how these professions were practised. So right livelihood is not just what type of work we do, but also how we do our work.
Work as a Spiritual Practice, Lewis Richmond, 1999.