Right Livelihood

“To practice Right Livelihood, (samyag ajiva) 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.”
Thich Nhat Hanh in The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

Right Livelihood is one aspect of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, which is the way to well-being. Other aspects are Right View, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Thinking, Right Diligence, Right Action, and Right Concentration.

We can think of Right Livelihood in terms of choosing an occupation that does not add to suffering and we can think of it in terms of how we perform our work. Some jobs would not qualify as Right Livelihood under any circumstances. Assassins, drug dealers and arms merchants obviously have not chosen career goals with Right Livelihood in mind. What of the person in a helping profession, though, who appears to serve others, but does it with a harmful attitude?

Any occupation can be destructive if it is not carried out in an ethical manner. When supervisors demean those they supervise, when case managers treat their clients as cases rather than persons, when nurses turn bitter and distant, when doctors lord it over the nurses, when those entrusted with confidences break confidentiality, when spiritual leaders use their position for self gratification, or when artists degrade the culture rather than enhance it, suffering is increased and the livelihood is wrong.

To avoid harmful occupations is wise and virtuous, but to perform even the most elevated work with an uncaring attitude is a mistake. Life is stressful. We must learn to manage the stress so that we can treat other people with compassion. We must seek to see the people we work with or that we serve as individuals deserving of kindness. In order to do these things we must take care of ourselves so that our bodies and minds are strong and flexible. We can assure that they are by attending to the Eightfold Path.


As you prepare for work each day, consider the attitude you wish to bring to work. Observe the state of your emotions. If you notice anger, resentment, anxiety or other negative emotional conditions related to your employment focus in on what is really troubling you. Sit with the feelings and the associated thoughts, and seek to understand their causes. Look past the surface cause to deeper levels. If your boss triggers your anger, look at how that has happened in other situations where someone had authority over you, such as with parents or teachers. Is the source of your anger in the behavior of the other person solely? How much of your emotion is the consequence of your own thoughts and beliefs?

Develop an intention to bring greater understanding and compassion to your work. Whatever you do, do it with caring.

Notice the type of conversations you engage in at work. Are they right speech, or do you contribute to a culture of complaining and gossip?

Do you give diligent effort at work?

Do you allow yourself to relax enough that you don’t lose sight of your own needs and those of your family? Workaholics are not practitioners of Right Livelihood.

As you move through the workday, remind yourself to pay attention. Seek to be mindful of your actions, thoughts, emotions, and interactions. Breathe more mindfully. Smile more as an expression of the loving kindness you wish to embody.  

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© 2002 Tom Barrett