top of page

If We all Made Our Living By Helping People it Would Heal the World

We live in a busy world filled with social and ecological injustice. If you are a socially conscious person, you probably ask yourself frequently what you can do to be of the greatest service to others. Finding ways to help people in our everyday life through acts of service to the less fortunate, and helping the environment to combat climate change are goals that we can dedicate our lives to.

Right Livelihood

Finding careers where we can serve the greater good follows the Buddhist principle of Right Livelihood. When we choose our careers, we can be mindful of the ways that we can use our skills and abilities to best serve the greater good.

According to Kosmos Journal,

The pursuit of Right Livelihood refers to the type of work we do, as well as our attitude towards work itself. In contrast to conventional professional development narratives around ‘climbing the corporate ladder’ or progress as making more money, right livelihood offers a view of work as a vehicle for self-actualization, systems change, and planetary healing. It invites the personal practice of approaching work with joy and intention and committing ourselves to efforts that support justice, equity, and ecological sustainability. Right Livelihood is our unique contribution to a more life-sustaining and enlivening world.

The concept of Right Livelihood is part of the Eightfold Path laid out by the Buddha as the pathway towards enlightenment. Since the Buddha addresses work directly, it shows that careful consideration of how we make our living is an integral part of our spiritual path.

Our spirituality and out day to day life aren't separate. The way we live in each moment determines our charter and our moral values. This is why it is so important to find meaningful work that aligns with your spiritual path. This allows us to become the best version of ourselves in our daily lives.

According to Contemplative Studies,

In the choice of occupations to pursue there are some obvious jobs to aspire to. These are occupations that on their face create good and promote well-being. They include professions such as physician, social worker, peace negotiator, relief worker, therapist, etc. Of course, even these occupations can cause harm, as mistakes can and do happen, but the intent is to relieve suffering, and that’s what counts. Similarly, there are occupations that rather obviously create harm and should be avoided, such as drug dealer, arms merchant, professional criminal, etc.

We can consider the concept of right livelihood both in our personal endeavors, and in the views of the way our society functions as a whole. We should do our best to make sure that helping professions flourish in our society. We need to consider the impact of the way our actions impact others and the environment.

Since the environment supports our wellbeing, when we preserve the environment, we are achieving a moral good for humanity as well. When we work in careers that help the environment, we are helping others too.

It is important not just to consider the nature of our profession itself, but the way that we carry ourselves in the work world. Cultivating ethical behavior in the workplace, promoting diversity and equality, and fair wages for all should be considerations when it comes to our work.

We live in a world where not everyone can find an ideal situation. There are many professions which may indirectly cause harm to others, even if that is not our intention.

Lions Roar tells us,

The Mahayana scriptures teach that bodhisattvas can appear as butchers or prostitutes, vocations generally condemned as violating right livelihood. Kindness can show up anywhere, even where we least expect it. There is no intrinsically “pure” vocation. We are part of a matrix of contingent relationships. Just by virtue of being alive we can’t avoid causing harm, at least indirectly.
The workplace can be a rich environment to practice dharma.
The Buddha called this state of affairs “all-pervasive suffering.” If you are a policymaker, for instance, it is likely the decisions you make will benefit some people and harm others, even if your motivation is altruistic. The Mahayana scriptures also say a bodhisattva’s greatest fear is to rest in a state of perfect peace, divorced from the suffering of beings. The bodhisattva is committed to engaging challenging situations, to “infiltrating from within.”

We don't live in a perfect world, so it stands to reason that many of us are faced with difficult situations when it comes to our work. There may be situations which somehow force us into taking jobs in less than ideal situations. The dharma is open to interpretation, since it really only forbids five professions. However, the Buddha lived in a simpler time, when many common professions today did not exist. This leaves us to make judgement calls based on our own interpretation.

Evaluating what we consider essential

During the pandemic, we all heard about "essential jobs" that were needed in order to keep society functioning. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, essential jobs during the pandemic included:

  • Energy.

  • Child care.

  • Water and wastewater.

  • Agriculture and food production.

  • Critical retail (i.e. grocery stores, hardware stores, mechanics).

  • Critical trades (construction workers, electricians, plumbers, etc.).

  • Transportation.

  • Nonprofits and social service organizations.

These jobs were classified as essential to our society, so we should be asking ourselves if the things we consider essential to our society meet the criteria of being 'right livelihood.' If not, then we may need to reconsider our values as a society.

Interestingly missing from this list are, most notably, healthcare professionals and teachers. These professions are also essential to our society, in that we need to care for our health, and educate our children. Healthcare is essential in the present, and education is essential to our future.

Unfortunately, not all of these professions operate in an ethical manner which would align with the criteria set forth by the Buddha as right livelihood. Since both energy and transportation are contributing to global warming, although they are a need and a public good in one sense, they are also causing significant harm to the world (and thus all of humanity) in the long term.

Also, if we consider healthcare, although caring for people's health is essential to survival, the way that healthcare is carried out as a for-profit system in many places which excludes people in need based on their ability to pay is harming people as well.

If we are to truly consider the concept of Right Livelihood in our most essential industries, then we need to provide for human needs in a way that is not harming people or the environment. Infusing ethics into industry is a critical step towards creating a society where everyone can choose a job that will constitute Right Livelihood.

Creating a more ethical society

Since society itself isn't based on Buddhist principles, we cannot enforce the concept of right livelihood on the world or on people who are contributing harm to others or the environment.

However, we can use the concept of ethical conduct to infuse society with a higher sense of purpose. By promoting ethical principles, we can lead society as a whole towards the values of non-harming that are foundational to Buddhism.

Even in secular society, there are codes of business ethics that companies are supposed to follow. When businesses act ethically, then it improves society and provides workers with a better work experience as well.

According to Investopedia,

  • Business ethics involve a guiding standard for values, behaviors, and decision-making.

  • Ethics for business have changed over time but they're important for every company.

  • Running a business with ethics at its core from the top down is essential for company-wide integrity.

  • Behaving in a consistently ethical manner can lock in a solid reputation and long-term financial rewards for companies.

  • Employees tend to remain loyal to, and perform more effectively for, a company with a high standard of ethics.

When companies hold themselves to a high ethical standard, this can greatly improve society. By working for an ethical company, you can dedicate yourself to the concept of Right Livelihood by working in most professions.

Unfortunately, not all companies behave in an ethical manner. Some companies exploit workers by providing low wages and poor working conditions. Others refuse to comply with regulations of the state or country in which they operate. Some, simply by prioritizing profits over people's lives, can make a negative impact in society.

When it comes to our work, there is much that we can do to behave in an ethical manner, and contribute to the world in a positive manner. As we carefully consider both our professions and our personal behavior in the workplace, we can follow the concept of Right Livelihood in our personal lives.

If everyone would consider their work more carefully, as an extension of our spiritual selves and an opportunity for service, then we could make a huge positive change in society and in our world. Leading with compassion and helping create an ethical society can help to make the biggest impact possible on those around us.

Not only that, we can advocate for fair labor conditions for everyone through political involvement. We can vote and advocate for a living wage for everyone. We can insist that employers provide healthcare for all of their workers. We can vote to ensure that everyone has safe working conditions.

By advocating for fair labor politics that are inclusive of marginalized groups such as racial minorities, women and people with disabilities (among others) we can help to ensure fair working conditions for everyone in our society. This would ensure a source of Right Livelihood for a much greater amount of people. Fair labor is an extension of the concept of Right Livelihood.

Although we may not all have the bandwidth for advocacy personally, we can still support fair labor practices by voting for these measures at election time. We can also sign petitions to support these causes as well. This may not seem like a lot, but even simple actions by a large amount of people can make a huge difference.

Infusing Buddhist principles into our daily life through our work can make a great impact. It may not seem that way, but even acting with compassion in your workplace can help the people around you to have a better day at work. Even a small positive impact makes a difference. When we all do our part to spread compassion, we create a better world a little bit at a time.


bottom of page