"Right Livelihood" is a traditional Buddhist teaching and one of the limbs of the eight-fold path taught by the Buddha. For laypeople, Buddha's teaching of right livelihood meant ethical livelihood. In the book The Buddha's Teaching on Prosperity by Bhikku Basnagoda Rahula there is this quote from the scripture "Numerical Discourses": "The layperson's objective [is to] live a long and dignified life with the wealth obtained through rightful means." As Buddhism has taken hold in the West, meditation practice and general ethical teachings have been extensively taught and written about, but the details of "right livelihood" have, I think, received comparatively less attention.
Clearly, the Buddha saw prosperity and financial security as a good and appropriate activity for laypeople; "rightful means" meant any occupation that did not cause unnecessary harm to other living things. In the simple economy of 500 B.C. this meant avoiding occupations such as butcher, tanner, or soldier -- if possible. It also meant to be honest and ethical in business dealings -- not to cheat, steal or lie, and in general make one's living in an upstanding way. I daresay that all religions have ethical principles of this sort regarding making one's living -- certainly the Judeo-Christian tradition does.
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.
My father used to tell me that a society should be judged by how well it takes care of its sick, its old and its children. I would add to that its unemployed and under-employed. By that standard, how are we doing? These days I ponder this. In ancient times, Buddhism's main strategy for achieving social justice was to convert the king or the emperor to Buddhism. That worked to a degree in ancient India and China -- the monarch could simply decree, as Ashoka the great Buddhist king of ancient India did in 250 B.C., that people should follow Buddhist teachings and avoid causing harm. Some of the stone pillars Ashoka erected to propagate his decrees are still visible as tourist attractions in India today.
But in democratic societies of today -- where responsibility for political and economic policy is widely dispersed, and disagreements are heated -- what is the responsibility of Buddhist teachers and leaders to contribute to that dialogue? What is the Buddhist position, for example, about collective bargaining for public employees -- a topic that is all over the headlines today? I am happy to continue writing and teaching about Buddhist meditation -- that is my primary role -- but I think my colleagues and I who teach and explain Buddhism should also consider the wider implications of our world-view.
In other words, right livelihood is now a societal, even planetary, responsibility.