Right Livelihood Buddhism – The Fifth Spoke of the Wheel

Right Livelihood Buddhism & the Fifth Spoke of the Wheel of Dharma

This is the fifth principle in the Eightfold Path and the third principle of Buddhist Ethical conduct, together with Right Speech and Right Action.

right livelihood buddhism

In the ancient Indian Pali language this is called “Samma-ajiva” which translates as “right way of life”, “authentic living”, “skillful living” and refers to the occupation or career that we choose in this life.

Defining Right Livelihood

According to the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, the Buddha defined it for his disciples as follows:

“And what is Right Livelihood?  There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This is called Right Livelihood.”

This teaching also includes adherence to what are known as the Five Precepts:

  1. Not harming or killing (ahimsa)
  2. Not stealing
  3. Not misusing sex
  4. Not lying

The key to Right Livelihood is to find a way to earn a living without violating any of the above Five Precepts, so we need to consider that we need to live in such a way so that we do no harm to ourselves or others.

Which occupations cause harm?

In the Vanijja Sutta the Buddha said, “A lay follower should not engage in the Five types of business. Which five?

  1. Business in weapons: trading in any kind of weapons and instruments for killing
  2. Business in human beings: slave trading, prostitution, or the buying and selling of children or adults
  3. Business in meat: Breeding animals for slaughter
  4. Business in intoxicants: manufacturing or selling intoxicating drinks or addictive drugs
  5. Business in poison: producing or trading in any kind of poison or a toxic product designed to harm.

Applying Right Livelihood

How do we know that our occupation doesn’t harm others?  In our global economy it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a good paying non-harming occupation that would fit the bill for Right Livelihood.

For example, it wouldn’t be appropriate to work for a retail store that sells products originally made in sweatshops or if any company’s merchandise is made in a way that hurts the environment.

The problem here is that we often don’t know what goes on behind the scenes for many occupations and we may end up working for an organization that actually does more harm to people than good (a pharmaceutical company is a good example).

If you already work in an occupation that brings harm to others, directly or indirectly then we can either get out of the occupation and pursue a career in a more compassionate field even if that means taking a pay cut.

If it isn’t possible to get out of such an occupation, then we can do what we can to make our occupations as humane as we can.  An example of an occupation that inherently is a non-harming one would be nursing or working for a non-profit organization.

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is to pay attention to how you’re feeling about your occupation and examine the impacts that our actions have on everything else.  Be mindful of your actions and do all you can to either not harm or at least minimize it and to act in ways that are ethically positive.


Are you doing all that you can in order to earn money in a way that causes the least harm?  Or are you in an occupation that does harm directly or indirectly?

I’d love to hear from you so be sure to leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading this article on Right Livelihood Buddhism and may we attain perfect Buddhahood for the sake of all living beings!

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16 Responses to Right Livelihood Buddhism – The Fifth Spoke of the Wheel

  1. Alan says:

    Great article.

    I always felt interested in budist teachings , not for religious purposes but for moral standards. I feel some of them if people applied them to their daily lives this world would be so much better.

    I’ve got one question about jobs, although its not my case i know some people may be forced to work in those type of businesses to make enough money for a living, so in those cases what should they do?

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Alan,

      Buddhism is not as much a religion as it is a science. There are the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path which is one that anyone can walk but all of it is grounded in the here and now and not in blind faith hoping to get to some heavenly place when we die. Buddha interestingly also urged his disciples to not believe him, and to work it out for themselves.

      You don’t have to become a Buddhist. There is no conversion process. You can take the teachings (Dharma) and take what is useful to your own understanding. Everyone sees things through their own delusions.

      With regard to a high paying job, if it’s not feasible to leave without compromising your ability to provide for one’s family then the least that person can do is be more compassionate with others, practice Right Speech or if they have control over activities that may involve sometimes hurting people, they could take whatever steps they need to in order to make those activities do as little harm as possible.

  2. Christopher Scott ( Teddy Bear ) says:

    I am a Christian, but I have found a great deal of the teachings of Buddha, to line up with Biblical Dogma.

    You cited:
    Not harming or killing (ahimsa)
    Not stealing
    Not misusing sex
    Not lyingp

    This is among what I know as the 10 commandments.
    I am interested in knowing more and feel like your fait may be more tolerant than any I have ever studied, including Christianity.

    I have noted the books you recommend and wonder if you know of any that deals with strictly Christianity and being a Buddist.

    Can you give me some recommendations?

    Teddy Bear

    • Ian H says:

      Yes, Christianity and Buddhism can co-exist as long as there is tolerance and love from the Christian side, which is sadly rarely the case. You’ll hear them berate Buddhists for not believing in a creator god claiming that they are atheists, when that is not the case at all.

      I wouldn’t really call Buddhism a faith, since blind faith is discouraged. Rather Buddha wanted us to follow in his footsteps and laid out the path to Nirvana, happiness, and the joy of existence.

      I think that Christians who have read and get the Gospel of Thomas are the closest to Buddhism. In Buddhism, Jesus is also considered to have attained the same state of enlightenment and there is the very real possibility that Buddhism had an impact on him since it was prevalent in Judea during the time of Jesus’ life. It’s all just different names to refer to the same thing and I think the fact that Jesus wanted us to follow in his footsteps is lost on Christians these days.

      Here are a few books that I would recommend for you:

      Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh

      Living Zen, Loving God

      Jesus and Buddha, the Parallel sayings

  3. Julie Nourish says:

    I really LOVE your article about living in harmony with a correct livelihood. I am a spiritual leader myself for 22 years and I agree it is difficult to find a good paying non-harmful occupation that lives in harmony with this principle. I love the points you have made about what occupations are considered harmful. I agree wholeheartedly. The work you are doing in this website is very important. Thank you.

  4. Dylan says:

    This is a really fantastic website you have here and it has a lot of good information.

    This can be really complicated concept and philosophy to write about and you did a great job simplifying. It’s amazing how relevant this can be today, even though it was made thousands of years ago. They really ahd great foresight.

    Thanks for the info.

    • Ian H says:

      Yes, the Dharma really is timeless since it is really about seeing things as they really are instead of how we think things should be.

  5. Igor says:


    This is a very interesting article, just like the niche of the whole website. Honestly I have always loved these concepts and resonated well with them, even though they are completely a different dimension comparing to the world we live in. You are right when you say we often do not know what is behind the scene, and we may find ourselves serving evil enterprise.

    Nevertheless, the nobility of intention always bring light and quality in what we do. World in general would benefit greatly by Buddhist concepts and ways of living. You are doing a great work writing about it!


    • Ian H says:

      Hi Igor,

      Thanks! Yes, sometimes I think we are living in some kind of hellish dimension giving what is and has been going on in the world in recent years.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I love the concept of creating the right livelihood. Everyone should feel good about what they are doing. You want to go home at night with a clear conscience. I used to work as an educator of young children and I always loved what I did. Now I help people grow an online business so they have more freedom to stay home with their kids.

    • Ian H says:

      Absolutely. Helping others grow their online businesses is definitely a good example of Right Livelihood because we are helping others not worry so much about the financial aspects of life and focus on what really matters such as our family and our awakening to the true nature of reality.

  7. Mijareze says:

    I just read your post titled, “Right Livelihood Buddhism….” It is interesting to read about your faith. I am a Christian and I pastored for 12 years. The first website I built out is a Christian based website.
    Anyway, your faith teaches good principles. The world we live in today is very corrupt. I am 58 years old, so you could say that I have been around and I have seen much. The world today is much different than the world I remember as a young man. So while our faiths may be different, I am happy for the teachings and morales taught by other faiths that promote respect, “good living” etc.
    Take care,
    Edward Mijarez

  8. Sergio says:

    hello there. I can tell you my personal experience. For 20 years I worked in the logistic department of a company that manufactures military aircrafts. I was not totally comfortable with that, of course, but I always thought that, if I quit, I would not harm that firm in any way, since I would have been immediately replaced. Besides, I was using part of my salary to alleviate the suffering of other people, something which I may not have done if I was jobless, or getting a lower salary somewhere else. This thoughts somehow allowed me to do that job professionally, without constantly torturing myself.
    Was mine just hypocrisy, or do you think that my actions were at least partially justified?

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Sergio,
      I don’t think it was hypocrisy on your part. Though you worked for a company that manufactured aircrafts that will be used to kill people, you did the best you could. I think our intention is the most important thing here. And I think that using the money you gained from that to help others is a way to turn something terrible into something beautiful. I think that you acted appropriately given the situation at hand.

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