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It is easier to define "right livelihood" in the time of the Buddha when compared to our modern society. I would like to know if this situation can be considered wrong livelihood and if it creates bad kamma or not:

Imagine someone that works for a company, just a regular employee, maybe from HR, finance or the legal department, this person provides a service and gets paid for it, but what happens if the company sells alcohol or maybe other product that damages people's health or even if the company sells meat or products to kill insects, plagues and so on...

To be honest a great part of the companies these days either damages the environment or the public health, others may have practices not very ethical regarding labour or tax payments, it is not easy to find a 100% "clean" business.

I have tried to find an answer in the suttas and dhammapada and the closest thing I found was a story about the wife of a hunter, she used to help her husband by cleaning his weapon, the traps and cooking the dead animals, the Buddha said she was not guilty and was not creating bad Kamma, only the hunter who was actually killing animals.

Are there better references than this one? In my example, is it wrong livelihood? Does it create bad Kamma?

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  • Are you sure the story said she was helping with the traps? – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 23 '14 at 19:38
  • Hi Sankha, I may be wrong, but by helping I meant "cleaning the traps" and not using them directly in the forest, I will edit the question. Thanks! – konrad01 Jul 23 '14 at 20:03
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It depends on what services you are providing to the company. If you are just helping them to balance accounts, it'll be similar to the hunter's wife cooking the meat. But if you are actually involved in poison making or marketing of the product, it won't be a right livelihood. Even as an HR officer, if you are hiring people to make poison or butcher animals, it's not a right livelihood. As a lawyer, if you are helping the company to get away with environmental damage, tax fraud, public health concerns, it's not a right livelihood. Yes, it creates bad Karma.

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    Thanks Sankha, I tend to agree with you, in addition to that I think the shareholder is more responsible than the cashier selling an hamburger for example. I think it comes down to 2 aspects: What kind of serviced you are providing and If you are the owner (shareholder) or just a simple employee, sometimes it is hard to see the clear picture these days. – konrad01 Jul 23 '14 at 20:53
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    Yes, the shareholders/investors are much responsible as they are investing to butcher. – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 23 '14 at 20:59
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For me, at this moment, right livelihood has two components

  1. Is ethics of the business compatible with your current understanding and relationship to Buddhist ethics
  2. Does the nature of the work allow you to have an effective Buddhist practice

I would (and have) argued that both these components need to be addressed for something to be termed right livelihood.

If I can give a personal example. I was a school teacher a few years ago. I was spending my time working towards a societal good. So was this right livelihood for me at that moment? No - because I was so overworked and stressed I couldn't even imagine having an effective practice. I could barely look up. Now I am a software developer which scores lower on point 1 but is a far more agreeable occupation. So now I have a (reasonably) effective Buddhist practice. So that is the right livelihood for me right now.

I'm aware that there is the danger of justifying your own decisions with this. Also I think as time goes on you will move into roles that are more compatible with your ethics.Your understanding of ethics, of others, of the world and it's interconnections will increase over time. Your understanding of right livelihood will develop with it.

Or you will go part time and leave yourself lots of time for practice. I know a lot of people who have done just that. That's right livelihood too.

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    I see your point, but when I think about right livelihood I think more about the kind of work you do than how much available time will you have for Buddhism, I believe we can try to integrate the practice in our daily lives, including the working hours (not meditation of course, but the precepts for instance) – konrad01 Jul 23 '14 at 18:54
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    @konrad01 I do appreciate that this reading of right livelihood is non-standard. I guess it's my interpretation of it and what it means in the modern world. For me the challenge is engaging in the first place without being overwhelmed - but this certainly isn't a reading that you would find a whole lot of support for in the canonical texts – Crab Bucket Jul 23 '14 at 20:56
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Although an old question, perhaps worth another perspective since this type of speculation often resurfaces.

On the most basic level, one could say that adhering to the 5 precepts, also contained in Right Action and Right Speech, goes a long way - if not all the way - to maintaining Right Livelihood.

Right Livelihood at its core

"And what is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This is called right livelihood." — SN 45.8

So if the living situation is such, that you do no harm, by abstaining from killing, from taking what is not given (purposely not just 'stealing'), and from sexual misconduct, you are acting in accordance with the teachings.

And if the living situation is such, that when you speak, you abstain from lying, from speaking harshly or out of anger, from malicious or divisive speech, and from gossip and idle chatter, you are speaking in accordance with the teachings.

If living in a heedful way, not taking intoxicants that lead to carelessness in these areas, such as alcohol, drugs (or even medication), you are living in accordance with the teachings.

And if, when speaking of actions and speech like the above, you do not promote harmful action, harmful speech, and carelessness (like what's mentioned above), but you promote wholesome action, wholesome speech, and heedfulness, you are living in accordance with the teachings.

The balance of the middle way

"Herein, Vyagghapajja, a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.

"Just as the goldsmith, or an apprentice of his, knows, on holding up a balance, that by so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up; even so a householder, knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income."

AN 8.54

Simply avoiding extravagance and stinginess, the middle way of being heedful of income and expenses and not making purchases to show off or accumulate non-essential things. Dana - giving - is also part of wholesome living, although not mentioned here.

For lay followers to avoid

"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

Additionally, some suttas strongly suggest avoiding careers in the military (SN 42.3) and acting (SN 42.2). These are likely to be conducive to a rebirth in a hell realm.

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  • Can you consider GM foods as poison? Most people consider it's safe but it's a controversial topic. Will you avoid foods and beverages business for the sake of minimizing harm or will you follow the AN 5.177 above? – B1100 Mar 31 at 10:02
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Modern and ancient worlds are not very different. If you are saying people are more selfish than they were before probably you are right. But fundamentally people have not changed for last few thousand years post civilization. It is wrong to blame current social,political, and economic setup.

If you are working for basic livelihood then working for a corrupt person/organization is justified since one needs to survive first for Nirvana to happen. Its simple intelligence. But if one is working to get to enjoy Honolulu holidays and beach outings on weekends then one is asking for trouble.

Most of the moral dilemma of this sort happens because the person does not know that one can survive with the minimum. But the person does not want to seen as laggard. I have been to Laddhak, a sort of mini-tibet in India. There is acute poverty because of lack of natural resources and industries but everyone is happy. Question is not about corruption outside but inside. I am yet to find a person whose actions are not guided by desires.

If you do not find the environment conducive to your growth leave it. Start something of your own which is 100% clean. Do what you love to do. You will make enough to survive. Of-course you need to cut down on entertainment bills. Probably you do not want to and that is why this question arose.

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