Engaged Practice

Right Livelihood in an Unjust Society

What is Right Livelihood?

When doing research for this column, rather to my surprise, I couldn’t find all that much written on Right Livelihood, even though it is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. It is as if most Buddhist thinkers consider the matter relatively straightforward, simply a matter of choosing a job that at the very least does not violate the Five Mindfulness Trainings and ideally one that allows us to help others. But not everyone has the option to avoid wrong livelihood, given the structure of the job market in our society. For some people with few opportunities, the best they may be able to do in terms of a job is one that is at odds with the mindfulness trainings. Even for those of us with jobs that mostly qualify as right livelihood, in a society such as ours so riven with injustice, they are still likely to have aspects that are problematic in light of the mindfulness trainings.

The Buddha himself, of course, spoke of what constituted Right Livelihood. In the Pali Canon (the earliest layer of Buddhist scripture), the Buddha forbid people to work in trades that caused others harm, specifically naming occupations that involved the sale of weapons, living beings, meat, intoxicants, or poison. He also encouraged householders to work hard, since he saw being able to support oneself and one’s dependents as virtuous for a householder. But he also also encouraged laypeople who could afford to do so to be generous with their wealth. More specifically, in The Discourse on Happiness, the Buddha said “To have a chance to learn and grow, to be skillful in your profession or craft, practicing the precepts and loving speech—this is the greatest happiness. To be able to serve and support your parents, to cherish your family, to have a vocation that bring you joy—this is the greatest happiness. To live honestly, generous in giving, to offer support to relatives and friends, living a life of blameless conduct—this is the greatest happiness. […] To live in the world with your heart undisturbed by the world, with all sorrows ended, dwelling in peace—this is the greatest happiness.” In the Buddha’s eyes, for householders, practicing Right Livelihood was not only a matter of doing right, but being able to have a job that allowed them to bring joy to themselves and others, while maintaining equanimity and not being attached to the outcome of their livelihood.

Our Society’s Limitations on Right Livelihood

But how many people have such opportunities? In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay, dealing with the difficulties of the contemporary world, paints a more complex picture. He warns that even monasticism can become wrong livelihood if monastics make unreasonable demands on laypeople. He also points out that many people are trapped in wrong livelihood. He encourages them to do what they can to change jobs or transform their occupation. As an example, he points to farming, encouraging farmers to switch over to organic production practices to the extent that they can, while recognizing that this is not always easy.

But many people have little control over their jobs. In a sangha I used to sit with, one person worked as a server at McDonald’s. This is clearly not right livelihood—he was serving meat and McDonald’s routine business practices contribute greatly to the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems. But, given his life circumstances, this was the job he could get and he was making the best of it. It is worth noting that such jobs are often not only harmful to others, but to the workers themselves. An extreme example of this is the way workers in slaughterhouses often develop PTSD from spending all day killing animals.

Bringing the Practice to Whatever Livelihood We Have

Even when we are trapped in occupations that are wrong livelihood, we can try to bring the practice to them and cultivate mindfulness. In The Hidden Lamp, a collection of wisdom stories and koans about Buddhist women practitioners, there is the story “Ohashi Wakes up Working in a Brothel.” Ohashi was a woman from the aristocratic samurai caste who sold herself into prostitution to support her impoverished family, when her father lost his position in the court. While living this life, she met the great Zen Master Hakuin. He did not condemn her for practicing wrong livelihood, but told her she could achieve enlightenment where she was—which, with diligent practice, she did. Eventually, married one of her patrons and, with her husband’s permission, became a nun. Commenting on this story, Zen priest Judith Randall notes that Ohashi’s reasons for entering prostitution were themselves part of the bodhisattva path—she sought to support her family, despite how degrading job must have seemed to an upper caste woman in a culture concerned with personal and family honor.

Like Hakuin, in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay encourages us to try to make the best of whatever job we have by bringing mindfulness to it, engaging in practices such as telephone meditation and loving speech. This is something even people trapped in wrong livelihood can do, making the job a little better for the world.

My job—a college faculty member who teaches sociology and global studies—could certainly be considered right livelihood in many ways. A major part of my work is raising awareness of important social issues among my students, encouraging them to be open-minded to new ideas and to the experiences of people coming from much different social backgrounds than they do. And yet there are aspects of the job I wrestle with, because in my mind they are harmful to my students. There are many ways I could easily transform my job into wrong livelihood—showing a lack of compassion for my students when they are having life difficulties that make it hard for them to keep up with their work, using harsh speech or dogmatically imposing my views on them. These are things I mostly manage to avoid, thanks to my mindfulness practice, though I am by no means perfect. But there are still many parts of my job that trouble me and seem to be at odds with right livelihood. I must grade my students, despite abundant evidence from educational research that, over the long run, grading discourages learning. And, simply by following the norms of higher education, I am socializing my students for lives of obedience in the corporate workplace.

I’ve tried to address these by implementing a grading system that is more transparent and, at some colleagues’ suggestion, this year I will be experimenting with rewarding students for creativity and risk-taking—even when they get things wrong. And I make a point of demystifying the “hidden curriculum” in my classes, explaining to students how all their college classes socialize them to be creative within the boundaries set by an authority figure, the skillset most valued for white-collar workers and professionals in a typical hierarchical bureaucracy. But this does not solve the problems, only blunts them—and, just as the McDonald’s worker must continue to do harmful things if they want to hang on to their livelihood, I too must do these things if I wish to continue pursue my career.

Additionally my ability to try to mitigate and demystify the harm I do is a privilege. A McDonald’s server can’t try to raise customers awareness about McDonald’s negative environmental impact, at least not without being fired from their job.

Interbeing, Social Organization, and Right Livelihood

Even should we somehow have a job that truly constitutes right livelihood, that does no injustice or other harm, we do not live in isolation. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay looks at the interbeing nature of right livelihood—even if we have a job that is right livelihood, by participating in our wider society, we create a demand for jobs based on wrong livelihood. A straightforward example of this is that, even if we are not butchers, if we eat meat, we create a demand for people to be in that trade. Probably most of the people reading this column don’t eat meat, but are you able to eat a diet that is entirely organic and otherwise ecologically sustainable? I buy what I can that it is organic, but I certainly can’t claim an entirely organic diet—and thus I contribute to farming that hurts the Earth and creates a demand for people to engage in wrong livelihood by engaging in conventional, environmentally destructive agriculture. Thay notes that even religious orders or charities are caught up in this dynamic, since they generally accept monetary donations from those who practice wrong livelihood.

What this means is that, if we want everyone to be able to work at right livelihood, it’s not enough to look at people’s individual choices. We need to look at how our larger social organization limits and channels people’s choices—and then we need to change how our society is organized, so people have better, less harmful options available to them. Many activist groups have been pursuing such goals for a while.

Moving to a Society that Supports Right Livelihood

Peace Conversion

One example is from the peace movement, in which activists have advocated for what they call a “peace conversion”—converting industries and factories away from weapons and war production to socially beneficial uses. In doing so, they hope to get the support of workers in such factories, by ensuring that they will be able to keep their jobs—the factories will stay in production, but be restructured for new products; and the workers will get retraining so they can continue to work there. Mary Beth Sullivan, summarizing the ideas of Seymour Melman, lays out what a plan for peace conversion might look like: The process would start with setting up local alternative use committees at military factories, each consisting half of management, half of workers. These committees would draw on their knowledge of the factory and workforce’s capacity to develop proposals about how to shift production in the factory away from war-oriented products to more socially beneficial ones. Ideally, this would happen at factories across the country and the national government would publish and promote the plans each factory came up with. The government would additionally make investments promoting the peace conversion, both in individual factories and in rebuilding public infrastructure, thereby creating market for the new goods.

The most successful peace conversion campaigns have been ones that actively involved workers in planning the conversion, drawing on their existing skills and knowledge of what the plant does. Brian Martin points to Lucas Aerospace in Britain in 1970s, where the initiative for a peace conversion came from the factory workers themselves. This is particularly important because in communities where people feel heavily invested in military production for jobs and prosperity, can be hard to win people over. When some of the initiative comes from the workers themselves, this can make people more open to the process. At the same time, outside peace activists need to be prepared to support workers in these factories, who are often vulnerable to firing or other forms of retaliation for speaking out.

Unfortunately, there is seldom support from those in management or other positions of power for such initiatives. Mary Beth Sullivan describes the effort by Speaker of the House Jim Wright in 1988-89 to hold hearings on a peace conversion bill. These hearings never happened—opponents of the whole idea mobilized charges of financial misconduct against Wright, forcing him to resign and thereby putting an end to any discussion of peace conversion in Congress. There will inevitably be an uphill struggle against those who are invested in the current power structures and feel threatened by such changes.

The Green New Deal

The Green New Deal involves a similar idea, but applied to environmental issues—investing in clean technologies and converting polluting industries to environmentally sustainable ones, including providing retraining for workers so they can work in these new industries. The Green New Deal not only seeks to ensure that people can keep their jobs, but to improve the quality of those jobs and create more jobs for the unemployed, while empowering workers through strengthening unions. Proponents of the Green New Deal also want to invest in communities that will be hardest hit by climate change—many of them also the poorest communities—to help them manage the transition to a world shaped by climate chaos. Some versions of the Green New Deal also propose funding these programs by slashing military budget, others by raising corporate taxes, and yet others by specifically targeting polluting industries by eliminating subsidies, increases taxes, fees, and fines. (For more details on various versions of the Green New Deal, see 1) Tom Athanasiou, “Bernie’s Secret Climate Weapon,” The Nation, September 30, 2019, pp. 24-26; 2) John Bellamy Foster, “On Fire This Time,” Monthly Review, November 2019, pp. 1-17; 3) Joshua Holland, “Think the Green New Deal is Pricey?” The Nation, September 30, 2019, pp. 4-5).

Economic Democracy

Looking forward, we need to think about a democracy conversion—moving towards workplace democracy, so all of us have democratic control over the place they spend most of our waking hours. We can’t really say we have a democratic society if the place we spend most of our waking hours—work—is run in a completely top-down, autocratic manner, akin to a totalitarian state. Philosopher David Schweickart has detailed a fairly complex model of what such a society might look like, which he refers to as economic democracy and market socialism. (See “Interview with David Schweickart,”, by Thad Williamson, for Dollars and Sense, March 4, 2005; and “Economic Democracy” by David Schweickart, for The Next System Project). Businesses would be organized as worker cooperatives. Depending on the size of the enterprise and the worker-owners’ own preferences, there might be regular town-hall style meetings where workers vote directly on major policy decisions, or there might be an elected board of directors, held accountable by active organization on the part of the worker-owners. Again, depending on the preferences of the worker-owners, everyone might be trained in and help carry out administrative duties; or specific people with expertise in management might run the company on a day-to-day basis, while remaining democratically accountable to the workforce. These worker-owned businesses would continue to compete with each other in the market. Another critical element of this system of market socialism for Schweickart is for all banks to become publicly owned, with charters directing them to work for the public good. That way decisions the banks make about what industries to invest in can be guided by decisions democratically made by elected public officials based on the common good, as opposed to the current model, which focuses on what is the most profitable. Schweickart argues this preserves the benefits of markets, promoting innovation, while eliminating the extreme inequalities in power that allow for exploitation. He also notes that such a transition wouldn’t have much disruptive impact on most people’s daily lives, while still profoundly transforming society.

Lest this sound like a complete pipe dream, it’s worth noting that many of the elements of this model already exist in the real world. The best known system of cooperatives is probably the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque region of Spain. Rather than a single monolithic corporation, it is a network of cooperatives, including its own bank and university. They are one of Spain’s major manufacturers. Less well known is the fact that one-third of the economy of northern Italy’s Romagna region is made of worker, consumer and social service cooperatives. Rather than one large network of co-ops as in Mondragon, there are several loose networks of co-ops, including one affiliated with Roman Catholic Church and another with the former Italian Communist Party. The existence of this network of cooperatives is facilitated by Italian law, which provides a support network of laws and other institutions that has allowed the cooperative system to grow and thrive. Based on these and other examples, Peter Gowan has developed a proposal for a legal framework and system of institutions that could foster the growth of worker co-ops in the US. An important element of this would be the gradual conversion of existing business by giving workers the right of first refusal to buy any business being shut down or sold and a system of public financing to support their buy-outs. Publicly owned banks also already exist, such as the Bank of North Dakota and the network of Sparkassen—small municipal banks—in Germany. Based on these, Thomas M. Hanna has developed a set of proposals for converting banks to long-term public ownership when the next financial and banking crisis inevitably hits.

A Mindfulness Conversion?

Finally, I would suggest we need a mindfulness conversion. On one level, there are too many industries that benefit from or actively promote unmindful behavior—think of the advertising industry, encouraging people to consumer ever more goods, in ways that are both ecological unsustainable and encourage people to mire themselves in behavior that feeds the three poisons of greed, ill-will, and ignorance. On another level, too many workplaces are saturated with unmindful, uncompassionate behavior like bullying or expectations that people will sacrifice their personal lives to their work duties. There are increasing numbers of companies with mindfulness programs, but often these are geared towards helping employees manage stress rather than reorganizing the workplace so it is less stressful and more nurturing to begin with. And it is rare that these programs extend to questioning the basic ethics of what the company does. A workplace culture grounded in true mindfulness and compassion would look profoundly different than what we see in most workplaces today. These would be workplaces where everyone is treated with respect and care, where everyone has good health insurance, where everyone’s job is enriching and rewarding, where everyone has a reasonable work-life balance, where everyone is listened to and empowered, where there are thorough-going attempts to root out inequalities based in gender, race, class, LGBTQ status, etc.


All these different types of workplace conversions can be complementary. Brian Martin argues that the democratization of economy—the conversion of businesses to worker co-ops—will help with peace conversion. As workers gain more control over the workplace, they are more likely to put those workplaces to uses that are beneficial to their communities rather than destructive. The same is true of a green conversion. Industries that promote war or environmental pollution are also obviously not consistent with ethically grounded mindfulness, so any mindfulness conversion would have to involve the conversion of such industries to peaceful and environmentally sustainable activities. A democracy conversion could also help potentially promote greater mindfulness, since a healthy democracy fosters more dialogue, reflection on one’s own ideas, and a willingness to listen to others’ ideas, needs, and aspirations.

Matt Williams
Truly Holding Peace
Lakeside Buddha Sangha
Chicago IL, USA

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