Right Livelihood: Is It More Than Not Harming?

One most often sees Right Livelihood, the fifth path factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, defined negatively, in terms of not causing harm. There are at least two fairly distinct dimensions to this:

  1. Your livelihood should not implicate you in speech or in actions that cause harm to others (or indeed to yourself).
  2. Your livelihood should not cause you distress such that it interferes with your spiritual-philosophical practice and development.

As you can see, both those dimensions are negative, in the sense (of course) of not doing. I’ve seen fuller breakdowns which reveal a great deal more nuance, yet are still mostly cast in terms of what a livelihood should not do.

This naturally may raise the question: Ought right livelihood to do significantly more than simply not harming and not impeding spiritual growth? Ought it not to go farther, and do something positively beneficial as well?

Analogous Questions

In response to a previous post concerning right livelihood, at least one commenter raised this question. I too have often wondered about it, and not only in connection with right livelihood. Right Speech and Right Action are also most often defined negatively, again meaning that they are defined as not speaking and acting in certain ways. More specifically, and as with right livelihood, one often encounters right speech and action being defined as speaking and acting only in ways that do not cause harm. Again, however, one wonders: shouldn’t right speech and action be positively beneficial, and not merely non-harmful?

With respect to right speech, the answer comes easily. Although abstention from types of harmful speech is often emphasized, positive converses to types of harmful speech are also prescribed: speech that is truthful, uplifting, gentle, and moderate or useful.

The case of right action is similar. Emphasis is often placed on refraining from harmful actions, with specific types of harmful action being canonically listed (killing, theft, false speech, sexual misconduct, misuse of drugs). However, it turns out that these negative observances — these refrainings from harming — are a foundation and starting point. It is pragmatic and expedient, as in medicine, first to do no harm. Furthermore, without the basis of not harming, and the mental transformation which accompanies that accomplishment, it is difficult genuinely to act beneficially. But from that restraint and personal transformation, the intentional qualities of Right Intention (such as generosity, love, and compassion) naturally bring forth positively beneficial actions in ways that suit each situation.

The Answer for Right Livelihood

What then of right livelihood? In my limited studies, it has primarily been explained negatively, as in the two dimensions of not-harming I listed at the start of this post. The explanations have not been entirely negative, however. In order to be right livelihood, one’s dealings will be honorable, blameless, and fair; everyone involved will be treated honestly, well, and fairly. Implicitly, also, greed will not be a motivator for one engaged in right livelihood. This already seems positively beneficial.

Logically, with the various constraints of non-harm in place, and the benevolent qualities of right intention developing, livelihood will naturally seek and select positively beneficial expression. Here consideration of such matters enters into a great deal of nuance and of context-specific considerations.

How well you are supported by a livelihood is one relevant and legitimate factor. This is partly for your own peace of mind, but if you have dependents, it is also relevant to their well-being. It may be better, and “righter” or more “skillful,” not to voluntarily impoverish yourself or your dependents, assuming of course that better options are available.

At the same time, the benefit to others, and to society, of the work itself will also be relevant. I do find it difficult to think of non-harmful occupations which are not needed and beneficial. However, supposing there to be occupations which are neutral (neither harmful nor beneficial), and occupations which are beneficial, it might make sense to select the beneficial occupation in preference to the neutral one. And perhaps some occupations are more beneficial or more needed than others, but again, what is most “right” for any particular person at any particular time may be very context-dependent.

Within the realm of non-harming livelihoods, one of the biggest factors, in terms of positive benefit, may not be the occupation or form of livelihood itself, but rather the manner in which the occupation is done, and the motives from which it is done. This ties back into treating everyone well, honestly, and fairly; into personally observing, and perhaps at the level of organizational culture and policy, promoting, right speech and action; and into expressing and cultivating the qualities of right intention.


In all those ways, it thus seems to me that right livelihood does in fact go well beyond refraining from harm, although pragmatically it may begin from principles of not harming. It may be less obvious than in the cases of right speech and action, or for that matter, right intention. Yet it is no less real. It embodies all three, right action, speech, and intention, enacting them within the context of materially supporting oneself and one’s dependents. It includes consideration of everyone else who is involved, as well as one’s own spiritual-philosophical practice and development. And it naturally tends toward maximal appropriate expression of the positively beneficial aspects of right intention, speech, and action within and though the relations and processes of business and work.

(My main references are Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana; What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula; The Noble Eightfold Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi.)

This is a follow-up to a previous post, “Feeling Engaged or Disengaged at Work: Meditating On Right Livelihood.”

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6 thoughts on “Right Livelihood: Is It More Than Not Harming?

  1. I always love the concept of flipping the script! Too often in life, things get framed negatively, based on other’s inner limitations, or their desire to spare us from troubles they have gone through. Understanding that each of us will make our own set of mistakes, if we leave the boundaries of fear, and instead find the positives, we have then given ourselves much more doable life goals.

    Many religions and traditional groups teach from a place of fear, telling us all the things we shouldn’t do and telling us sometimes exaggerated consequences to steer us away from them. Like a dieter being told never to eat chocolate cake, that then becomes the primary focus of desire, because it has been made taboo.

    Yet, if we are instructed in a more gentle way, teaching us how to care about and respect one another because it is the way to peace and serenity, we then feel drawn in to want to do it, for deep down that is what we seek.

    This isn’t about making everything positive at the cost of never being able to feel or examine our strong and sometimes negative emotions, thoughts and actions, but rather a gentle guide for our lives, where we use that as a guide to travel through all those things.

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