In determining right livelihood

Hi guys,

This thread is related to Right livelihood and harmlessness thread but want to be more specific so I created this thread.

It’s not clear cut how do you determine what is considered right livelihood. But generally, it’s understood that “Right Livelihood is, first, a way to earn a living without compromising the Precepts. It is a way of making a living that does no harm to others”.

“Pure” livelihood is impossible. There are many jobs that are not easily fit into five types of jobs that are discouraged by Buddha. For example, making bread is not harmful but when you know the fact that when butter is heated more than 150 C it starts to become carcinogen. Since pure livelihood is not possible, the best think we can do is to minimise harm, but the question is to what extent? Thanks :pray:


I think it became apparent in the other thread that this isn’t always clear cut, hence the idea of minimising harm.
It might be useful to consider some specific examples. What exactly is troubling you here, practically speaking?


To the extent of your development. However, your objectives should be to move to the next level.
For instance, a monk has the capacity to have a more refined livelihood than a layperson.
Once you have fulfilled the right livelihood as a layperson, your next goal should be to practice it as a monk.


Rather than ask where the line is (“what extent”), consider these quotes from DN33:

All sentient beings are sustained by food.
, , ,
To never be content with skillful qualities, and to never stop trying.

Sustained by food, we require the ending of other beings. Some eat whales, some eat vegetables.

Taking these two quotes together, we realize that there is a problem in determining “what is the right livelihood?” If we ask what livelihood is right enough, we would always be looking for limits to our skillfulness, ignoring what lies beyond, feeling content at the rightness of our livelihood. We would allow a perpetually vast sea of unskillful ignorance beyond that sea wall at the extent of our skillfulness.

Instead, we ask ourselves “how skillfully can I live?”

Thinking this way, we place no limit to our love, compassion, rejoicing and equanimity.


There’s no end to being perfect. Therefore there will be no end to a journey purely into wholesomeness; enlightenment will not be possible. Wholesomeness isn’t only a Buddhist construct, right.

However enlightenment is reachable if we consider the level of unwholesomeness which must be avoided, as this can be quantified!

Another thing to say is that wholesome livelihood does improve as virtues increase.

You cannot reach enlightenment by reaching the end of sila, and you cannot reach enlightenment without reaching it either!

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As i personally see it this will fall in the category of questions like;

  • Should one abstain from driving a car knowing that it is guaranteed to kill insects?
  • Should one abstain from removing lice, tape-worms, knowing some beings will die?
  • Should one abstain from buying meat, knowing industry kills?
  • Sould one abstain from buying veggies, knowing that industry kills insects in the fields?
  • Should one abstain from exercising his legs in the open air knowing he might step on some insect?
  • Should one abstain from killing bacteria in the gut?

My take on this is that sustaining one’s life is going to take a toll on other beings proportional to the level of ignorance but it is also a field for merit. Therefore one’s responsibility is to minimize ignorance and ultimately dispersing birth and all modes of this lowly and compromised existence altogether. Whatever arises is arisen due to resultant conditions coming into play, therefore one navigates this life to one’s best ability and understanding. Based on one’s conviction and wisdom one becomes established in principles and according to one’s ignorance one makes mistakes. Therefore try to focus on essentials and for livelihood you should make effort to keep purifying it and abstaining from what you know to be against your principles whilst keeping in mind whether your guiding principles might or might not be adequate at that point.

I don’t think i can or want to give categorical answers to these should or shouldn’t dos but we all make best of what we got and try to keep on track to our best ability. What i can say is that what you know to be detrimental to your training that you should make an effort to abandon. For right livelihood i would advise evaluating it in light of other path constituents like ‘does the job require you to lie or not’, do you think wise people would blame you for it, are you ashamed of it, how much do you think it compromises you as a person and to what extent does it break you as a person, are you able and/or willing to live with yourself, are you rationalizing the taking of the blame knowing it is not without blame, where do you draw your limits and what evil won’t you do, are you able to concentrate the mind, are you currently or will you be tormented by regret, what do all these things say about you as a person and what are you going to do about it?

When you become an Arahant all this will be solved and you will never be compromised again, the expected value of progressing on the Path is therefore immeasurable and that should be your focus, imho.


Some jobs do not cost antyhing, some cost other people’s health, etc. Do you think changing to other job is the best decision? Or keep minimising harm but does it make you indifference?

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Obviously you can’t become a monk just because the right livelihood does not fit in.

Again, it would be useful to have some detail of the situation you’re asking about, or some practical examples.
There are potentially a lot of issues to consider around employment.

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And how do you measure that?

I thought it is already described above.

You are the owner of a bakery, you know it is a carcinogen once it exceeds 150C. Is that harmful? It can be harmful but Sutta(s) says nothing about this therefore there is no basis. Everything is harmful, at the same time not everybody wants to ordain. What’s the practical and wholesome lay Buddhist decision in this situation? Will you keep doing “harmful” occupation? Some people say, you’re an ordinary lay person therefore you need to do what’s an ordinary lay person does, use your common sense and just be a normal person :sweat_smile:. But Cancer is common sense too. What’s your thought on this?

In this way:

“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

This is a basic minimum [cancer might be included under ‘poisons’ but I don’t know of the research…].

When you progress in the practice of honesty, they might consider this giving up all forms of dishonest livelihood: a friend of mind gave up marketing.

Ultimately one’s values can’t clash with the what the profession values. It causes a disruption In Samadhi, and makes one feel I like leaving that line of work.


I personally think that given that alcohol is not included in poisons but is a category by itself i would assume that ‘poison’ there is things like rat poison and other agents which are used with intention of taking life.

I think for this topic one should consider whether or not a cashier at the local grocery shop is guilty of selling poison and intoxicants as well.

I personally think that working sucks in general and one should quit if he can do but other than that most foods one sells could cause obesity or health issues, eczema, allergies and has traces if it isn’t filled with pesticide and pollutants. I think running a bakery is supposedly a very honest work and is decent work as far as work goes. If it really prevents you from meditating and is such a cause for regret then quit but i think it is hard to find a more blameless work.

I don’t know about the research though if you know your pastry takes a decade of the customer’s life span then it is probably hard to sleep i imagine :stuck_out_tongue: I think it matters what alternatives you have and other circumstances, perhaps you want to start a new bussiness trading in more healthy products or taking care of the sick but i guess you know this better than me.


I can’t think of a single occupation that couldn’t be conceived as “harmful” in some way. So IMO the question is: where does an occupation lie on the spectrum of harm? Bread-baking seems to be very far into the non-harmful side to me. I’d consider your baker to be practicing right livelihood.


Everything, if you look thoroughly can be considered poison. Even the clothing we wear can be harmful because it is full of toxic chemicals. Please tell me what is not considered poison?

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If the work is blameless in an ordinary sense as defined in dictionary but still preventing him from sleeping or meditating, I think it’s not always a good thing as long as Buddhist practice concern. That doesn’t mean s/he is on the path to perfection or he is more advanced practitioner or something like that. But perfectionism comes to mind and/or other mental health issue. Just a thought.

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I also tried to explain that this striving for perfection is somewhat unattainable because when taken to it’s culmination this reasoning leads to where one does not even go for walks or is overcome by grief when eating or not eating in fear of hurting bacteria in the stomach.

If i were personally asked to run a bakery or work at a bakery i think i would find many things not conducive to the training and the carcinogens would not be my primary concern. I would be more worried about seeing women, talking too much, having less time, planning that comes along with running a bussiness, thinking much about the theme of the bakery and not thinking at that time about the Dhamma, etc etc.

However at the end of the day or on a vacation (when i go to retreat obv :slight_smile: ) i would also take solace and be proud of being one who does honest work for a living.

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Thanks for your reply, I think that makes sense :smile:
One cannot become a truly good Buddhist until s/he leaves the worldy life. I think the teaching is designed to lead practitioner move toward homelessness. Until then, only by taking up space in order to exist, we keep doing harmful thing IMHO.


actually i am not sure what you meant in hindsight, of the two which is closer to what you meant?

  1. Eventho the work is blameless it is still bad work if it is a cause for regret and one should change the line of work.
  2. If the work is blameless but one is still overcome with regret, it is not a good situation and one should work to change one’s attitude towards the blameless work.

I think this is only true if the definition of good Buddhist is Arahantship, there are many householders who were attained to the stages of Ariyahood, some were occupied with work and enjoying sensuality, many died as Sotapanna etc. I don’t think monasticism is a requirement per se. Also nowadays i want to ordain but i am actually not sure it is optimal because i see that it is difficult to find a teacher and a good community which would make it worthwhile so i might not pursue it afterall. It is not like it was in the times of the Buddha where one could just go and meet the Arahants and get all questions answered.

A good Buddhist could supposedly eat a meal in the morning and sit down thinking he will not break the sitting posture until his mind is released from clinging :wink: