The Eightfold Path, part 5
This article is the fifth in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're taking a look at the fifth factor of the path, right livelihood. As you can see from the quotation above, the instruction for this one is pretty simple - just avoid wrong livelihood! But what does that actually mean, and what difference does it make anyway? Let's get into it.
What is the 'wrong livelihood' we're supposed to abandon?
As you may have noticed, the definition of right livelihood that we find in Samyutta Nikaya 45.8, the discourse that we've been using all the way through this series of articles for the definitions of each aspect of the Eightfold Path, is rather sparse - some might say useless. We're told to abandon 'wrong livelihood', but we had probably already figured that one out given that there's something called 'right livelihood' that we're supposed to be doing instead.
If we search around some more in the Pali canon (the collection of discourses from the earliest stratum of the Buddhist teachings), sooner or later we come across Anguttara Nikaya 5.177, which suggests one definition of wrong livelihood:
"Monks, 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."
This is much more concrete, and thus at first sight appears to be much more helpful. OK, so we're supposed to avoid business in 'weapons' (selling weapons, maybe making them too?), business in 'human beings' (one imagines that this includes things like slavery rather than working in Human Resources), business in 'meat' (fishing, being a butcher?), business in 'intoxicants' (being a drug dealer is off the cards), and business in 'poison' (presumably both poisoning people and selling poison to others is frowned upon).
If you've read my previous article on right action and the precepts, however, you'll probably already know that I tend to get a bit suspicious of neat little lists like this. They seem to give a very straightforward answer to our moral questions, but a lot of it comes down to interpretation. While my comment above about Human Resources in relation to 'business in human beings' may have come across as facetious, there's a valid point there. I've lived a pretty sheltered life, but even I've worked for bosses who cared about me and looked out for my interests, and I've also worked for bosses whose only interest was to exploit me for everything I was worth and then throw me aside when I was all used up. Where do we draw the line with 'business in intoxicants' - are we concerned only with certain types of alcohol, or do we include creating apps which are designed to be habit-forming for the purpose of persuading people to part with significant amounts of money through hundreds of microtransactions?
Broadening our perspective on right livelihood
Let's set the specific list to one side for the moment. What's actually going on here? Why do these categories of 'right livelihood' and 'wrong livelihood' even exist?
Right livelihood is part of the section of the Eightfold Path concerned with sīla, or ethics. Fundamentally, all of the ethical teachings demonstrate how the second factor of the path, right intention, is to be practised - in particular, the intention of harmlessness. So we have the third factor, right speech, which points out how easily and immediately we can create harm through our speech, and provides some guidelines for how we can minimise that harm. Next, we have right action, which takes a broader perspective, looking not just at our speech but at our actions more generally, highlighting how we might cause harm through taking life, taking what is not given, or engaging in sexual misconduct. Finally, we arrive at right livelihood, which takes a broader perspective still, looking at the type of life we lead.
Our livelihood matters because it shapes so much of what we do - particularly if we broaden our sense of 'livelihood' to include 'lifestyle' rather than simply 'occupation'. Our lifestyle governs to a significant degree the types of situations we end up in - and thus some lifestyles are much more conducive to right speech and right action than others. A career criminal is very likely to have to tell lies (wrong speech) and take what is not given (wrong action) as a matter of course. Even leaving aside the harm that comes from such a lifestyle, being in this kind of life situation is very unlikely to lead to a peaceful mind which is well suited to meditation practice.
So I'm going to suggest that the most useful questions to ask ourselves in relation to right livelihood are not 'Is my occupation on the naughty list?', but rather 'How do I make my way through the world? What are the positive and negative aspects of my lifestyle? What effect does my lifestyle have on my state of mind? And, once I've really spent some time with this and come to a balanced assessment, how should I move forward?'
This kind of close examination of our lifestyle isn't necessarily a practice that needs to be undertaken every day - that could lead to endless second-guessing and self-paralysis - but it's definitely useful to go into great detail at least once, and then check in every so often (maybe every couple of years, or after a major life change) to see how things are going. Our lifestyles tend to drift rather slowly, usually too slowly to notice it happening in real time, so checking in every once in a while gives us the opportunity to notice how things might have drifted over the months and years.
Practice and life
The inclusion of right livelihood in the Eightfold Path really helps to highlight that, for the Buddha, 'practice' and 'life' were synonymous. For many of us, it's easy to relate to 'meditation' as just one of a wide range of activities in our busy lives, twenty minutes a day of self-care that we can treat a bit like going to the gym - we know we're better for doing it, but we leave the weights in the gym at the end of a session and forget about them until next time.
This is actually fine so far as it goes, and I don't mean to criticise anyone who has this kind of relationship to their meditation practice! I used to feel that way too, actually. For me, though, as my practice has gone deeper, I've started to notice more and more ways that my meditation practice and my life overlap. Insights that come up in meditation can often be applied to life situations - and conversely. (The model of 'excitation and stimulation' that I described in a recent article was something I first noticed as a result of looking at stress in my working life and experimenting with different strategies to manage it, not something that was directly related to meditation practice.)
In the Zen tradition, there's a strong sense that practice can be continuous - not limited to any particular time of day or posture, but rather an attitude of presence that is carried throughout all of the activities of the day. When we have work to do, we can apply ourselves wholeheartedly to it, focusing wholly on the task at hand. When we have a quiet moment, we can return to meditation, or simply rest in the present moment rather than letting our thoughts spin out into planning tomorrow's meeting for the seventeenth time.
As we do this, we start to feel the boundaries between 'practice' and 'life' dissolving. Meditation becomes more 'ordinary' and life becomes more 'extraordinary'. We discover that we can walk the spiritual path not in order to get to some special destination, but simply because walking the path is a good way to live.
May your practice (and your life) go well.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!