Right livelihood is one of the 14 mindfulness trainings as defined by Thich Nhat Hahn. They were formerly known as precepts, but Thay changed the titles to align more with what he saw as the true meaning of the terms which he believes are meant to be more like guiding principles.
The trainings requires the practitioner to undergo certain vows to live a life and work in an occupation that is not harmful to sentient beings, one that emphasizes understanding and compassion. Occupations to avoid would include arms dealing, drug dealing, and the slaughtering and butchery of animals. As concerned and responsible citizens we must be aware of out interrelationship to the environment and not despoil it.
Right livelihood is also one of the Noble Eightfold Paths, which is one of the earliest teachings of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. According to Thich Nhat Hahn, writing in his book, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” the Buddha, as he lay dying, said to one of his adherents, “… it is not important whether you are fully enlightened. The question is whether you want to liberate yourself. If you do, then practice the Noble Eightfold Path.”
The term right livelihood implies a choice. The burden of freedom we carry as human beings requires us to make choices. I have heard some say that because of the economy, “I really didn’t have a choice, I had to work in the meat packing industry, I had to work in this industry or that industry.” While each individual should be viewed with non-judgmental kindness and compassion, we must understand that we actually do have choices.
I can tell you from personal experience that I have had to make some hard choices along the way regarding how I was going to make my living. When I was a young man I worked in a tobacco factory for about six months. I was given the opportunity to go into management. The job paid well and the opportunity was great. I knew then that I couldn’t work for an industry that was basically a merchant of death, dealing out misery, and destruction. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. A few years later, while living in Oklahoma and facing another life changing moment, I had the opportunity to go into hog raising business for the consumer market. Raising pigs for slaughter. I thought about that for about five minutes and said no. I knew it couldn’t be good for my karma. In each case other opportunities presented themselves and I thrived.
Our freedom as humans requires us to make hard choices and to be responsible for the choices we make. Choices lead to action, action creates karma. Life is propelled by the law of cause and effect. You make a good cause, you have a positive effect. You make a bad cause, you have a negative effect. This is how karma works.
By choosing the right livelihood, you follow the path that leads away from suffering, both for yourself and for others. The most important thing is if you can’t do good at least don’t do any harm.