March 17, 2011

Buddhism and Wealth: Defining 'Right Livelihood'

An excerpt from Lewis Richmond's recent piece on the Huffington Post,

In the much more complicated societies of today, what might "right livelihood" really mean? This is a very important issue, and not only for Buddhists. With many of the world's people subsisting on a few dollars a day, and with 15 million unemployed here in the U.S., what does this nice-sounding concept of an ethical livelihood mean in real life?

In my 1999 book, Work as a Spiritual Practice, I introduced the idea of right livelihood as conscious livelihood. In other words, regardless of our job (or lack of a job) we should be aware of the implications and consequences of what we do. Though Work as a Spiritual Practice, by intention, emphasized the choices and changes an individual could make in his/her workplace, I also feel that conscious livelihood should not be limited to individual awareness and action. Society at large also has a responsibility to be conscious of the consequences of its economic and employment policies, even more today than in 1999 when when the economy was booming. It is not clear whether the Buddha thought of right livelihood in this way, but it behooves us to do so now.

Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha could not have conceived of today's complex societies. But he clearly understood what is harm and what is not harm. When a person does not have a job and cannot support his or her family, that is harm -- there is no question about it. The fundamental moral position of buddhism is ahimsa -- which means non harm or minimal harm -- and that has powerful implications for today's workplace world. continued

Read the whole piece here.

Click here to read, "The Authentic Life" an interview with Lewis Richmond from our Summer 2010 issue.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
sharmila2's picture

I don't think that the Buddha would have any trouble conceptualising modern society; human nature hasn't changed too much, we're still driven by greed (maybe more so than ever before in history, but it's still plain old greed all the same), hatred and delusion. Second verse, same as the first. Yet he decried rigorous ascetism, and only prohibited his monks from using money, not laypeople. The verses cited above decry priests who sell "divine" favors for money while leading degenerate lives - quite another issue altogether (although perhaps relevant to the current book discussion!:).

In fact, he specifically spoke on how a layperson should accumulate wealth, including saving one quarter for a rainy day, putting half toward further material growth i.e. investment, and only using one quarter for daily needs. There are several sutras in the original Pali cannon where the Buddha praises the lawful accumulation of wealth, and in fact specifies that this is a duty of a layperson. He speficially mentions what constitutes wrong livelihood (trade in persons i.e. slavery, ammunition, alcohol or poisons), and mentions that as long as other beings are not directly harmed by one's actions, then any other livelihood qualifies. The Buddha was a pragmatist, hence the "middle way"; i do not think that tying oneself in knots trying to avoid harm to any living being directly or indirectly through one's work was what he had in mind.

wtompepper's picture

I don't think I've ever heard Buddha referred to as a pragmatist, or the "middle way" compared to pragmatism. I cannot imagine you mean that in the true sense of pragmatism. However, there is no need to "tie oneself in knots" avoiding anything--instead, just DO something that makes such knot tying less necessary. I hear the "tying in knots" argument all the time; it is too hard to figure out how to make the world better, so we all want to think that Buddha would have thought everything we are doing is just fine, and that all we need to do is avoid things we already wouldn't do (slavery, weapons trading); but we can't just feel better about ourselves through ignorance. Well, we maybe can, but that's not awakening. Didn't Buddha also say "Strive with diligence"?

And I really think it is important to remember the difference in historical period. Buddha recommends that lay people produce wealth, but he could not possibly have meant investing in the stock market. Remember that money was a very recent invention, and it is the coining of money Buddha is referring to with the term "gold and silver." The accumulation of wealth in a pre-monetary economy meant producing more useful goods and storing food, not having a 401k. Buddha does encourage such production, but warns against the delusion of money, for anyone hoping to become enlightened.

pavementandme's picture

I've never commented on here before. This site is filled with varsity buddhists, and I'm more of a Junior Varsity Buddhist. I liked this article. I was a little surprised when it took me to HuffPo which has been in the news for selling itself to AOL, but I liked it. Here's the point, If you're in a career that seems to directly cause suffering, like you work for one of the female beauty magazines like Cosmo that makes women feel insecure, or you work for McDonald's finding new ways to market to children and the morbidly obese or you're married to somebody that does, then yeah, look into Right Livelihood. However, if you're a person that is just an average Buddhist (stay with me), it's easy to get overwhelmed by Buddhism. Like how far do you have to go to make sure you aren't supporting any act of killing? You need to be a Jain. You shouldn't go to any supermarket because they sell meat. In fact, since America supports capitol punishment, you should renounce your American citizenship because every capitol punishment death is listed as a homicide. I'm not saying all this to get you riled, just to show you an example. It's easy in Buddhism to get overwhelmed or paranoid that you're not doing enough. The Noble Eightfold Path is ( or Five Mindfulness Trainings are) ASPIRATIONAL. If you get bent out of shape and worried about being inadequate then this concept is a stumbling block for you that you need to overcome. After all, you already are the person you want to be. That's it, hope this helps and greetings from Saudi Arabia... yeah I work in the country that's punishes homosexuality with death--and I'm gay. So maybe a grain of salt is needed in this case?

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for commenting pavementandme, I think you're touching on some really important ground.

wtompepper's picture

"Like how far do you have to go to make sure you aren't supporting any act of killing? You need to be a Jain. You shouldn't go to any supermarket because they sell meat. In fact, since America supports capitol punishment, you should renounce your American citizenship"

This is the real problem--obviously, as Buddhists, we object to these things, but we aren't Jainists, and so we have to do things like drive cars and use credit cards. lf it is just a matter of "being the person you want to be," you don't even need to be a Buddhist at all. However, for some Buddhists, it is also a matter of helping all beings to achieve awakening. I take a different approach: instead of not acting in the world, I try to work toward a world where acting in ways that produce bad karma will not be necessary.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for the contribution and info Tom!

wtompepper's picture

"Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha could not have conceived of today's complex societies."

I disagree. We need to remember that the greatest source of delusion in our world is the belief in "exchange value." Buddha taught at a time when money was just beginning to come into use in India, as a result of increased trade. He was well aware that money was one of the greatest sources of delusion. Any livelihood that contributes to production or accumulation of wealth is NOT right livelihood. It really is simple to understand--the difficulty is in doing it, in a world in which our pensions are invested in the stock market and we need to have a mortgage in order to have a place to live.

As Buddha said:

"There are some contemplatives and brahmans who consent to gold & silver, who don't refrain from accepting gold & silver. This is the third obscuration of contemplatives and brahmans, obscured by which some contemplatives and brahmans don't glow, don't shine, don't dazzle.

"There are some contemplatives and brahmans who maintain life through wrong livelihood, who don't refrain from wrong livelihood. This is the fourth obscuration of contemplatives and brahmans, obscured by which some contemplatives and brahmans don't glow, don't shine, don't dazzle.

"These are the four obscurations, obscured by which some contemplatives and brahmans don't glow, don't shine, don't dazzle."

Obscured by passion & aversion
— some brahmans & contemplatives —
people entrenched in ignorance,
delighting in endearing forms,
drink alcohol & fermented liquor,
engage in sexual intercourse,
unwise, consent to gold & silver,
live by means of wrong livelihood
— some brahmans & contemplatives.
These are said to be obscurations
by the Awakened One,
kinsman of the Sun.

Because of these obscurations
some brahmans & contemplatives
don't glow,
don't shine,
are impure,
dusty,
dead.[2]

Covered with darkness,
slaves to craving, led on,
they swell the terrible charnel ground,
they grab at further becoming.

"Upakkilesa Sutta: Obscurations" (AN 4.50), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 3 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.050.than.html.