Akshobya - the Buddha of Wisdom

Right Livelihood: Work as Spiritual Practice

Buddhism has always seen both the work that we do, and the way that we do it, as important aspects of our personal and spiritual development. Right Livelihood is one of eight key areas of Buddhist thought and practice outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path, an overview that dates right back to the Buddha.*

The traditional explanation of Right Livelihood practice has been a list of jobs to avoid: creating and selling arms and weaponry, involvement in slavery and prostitution, livestock rearing or butchery, and trading in drink, drugs or poisons. The point is to apply Buddhist ethical principles to your work so that you:

  • avoid causing harm and move towards creating ever-greater benefit for others
  • move away from any theft or exploitation and towards greater generosity
  • avoid any sexual exploitation or stimulating people's neurotic craving, and support calmness and contentment
  • do not deceive, cause disharmony, or slander people, and communicate in a way that is honest, straight-forward, helpful and kind
  • discourage confusion, distraction and intoxication and encourage awareness and clarity.
  • Seen in this broader context, the traditional list is little more than a starting point, drawing a baseline that excludes occupations that are grossly unhelpful, and setting the context for an approach to working life that can be refined almost infinitely. To adapt the cliché, the Buddhist standpoint is that it ain't just what you do, it's also the way that you do it.

    You might be starting to ask "why is all this so important?" The simple answer is that if you want to grow and develop you need to be bearing this objective in mind and seeking to support it in every aspect of your life. There's no point spending the working day being angry, resentful, stressed and agitated, and then coming home and expecting to be calm, happy and relaxed. At best, you might be able to use meditation to undo some of the knots that you have tangled yourself in during the day, but it's the spiritual equivalent of putting lead diver's boots on to run a sprint - your progress will be so slow that you will barely be able to notice it.

    Sadly, very few workplaces are ideal contexts for this kind of personal development work, and so you will need to set up supports for you to be able to work on yourself in this way, and hopefully to gradually transform the workplace to be a more supportive environment for all. People who work within organisations in this way are sometimes know as tempered radicals, as they find a middle way between colluding with an unhelpful system and reactively rebelling against it. Being a tempered radical can be lonely at times, so it's a good idea to have good connections with people who can support you in holding to your values. Coaching can be a good way of helping to create a support network, so if you'd like to explore this then drop me a line or give me a call.

    *A couple of points:
    1) We don't know exactly what the Buddha said because nobody wrote any of it down until about 400 years after he died. We do have a pretty good idea of what the oldest teachings are, and their consistency suggests that the oral tradition was reasonably accurate.
    2) According to tradition, the Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path to the first people he tried to teach after his Enlightenment. Since this was a group of wandering Holy Men it seems unlikely that livelihood would have been a focus of their discussions.