Thoughts on the Buddhist idea of “Right Livelihood”

by Wayne Codling, Times Colonist, March 20, 2012

Victoria, Canada -- Much of our lifetime is spent earning a living. Our economy depends upon the productivity of the workforce. Today I want to introduce the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood” and suggest that including meditation as part of the workplace would represent an overall improvement for all concerned.

Modern studies show that excelling in a variety of emotional competencies, not just a few, is a strong indicator of leadership success. The nine qualities shown to be most important are: Initiative, achievement drive, adaptability, influence, team leadership, political awareness, empathy, self-confidence and developing others.  First, here’s a basic primer on the Buddhist approach to livelihood.

Buddhist practice follows a template called the “8-fold path”. Altogether, the 8-fold path is called the “middle way” and satisfies the three conditions for a good life; wisdom, morality and meditation. “Right Livelihood” is one of the 8; (the others are; right view, right thought, right speech, right behaviour, right effort, right mindfulness, right contemplation). Livelihood is part of our moral life, according to classical Buddhism. What this means is that ‘right livelihood’ is tethered to “ahimsa”, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘harmlessness’. Buddhist morality can be summed up as ‘it is more important to be kind than to be right’.

This little essay is not intended to suggest that business owners convert to Buddhism. But it is undeniable that a good part of the social problems we experience today derive from a much weakened sense of morality associated with how we earn our living. Because there were few qualms about bankrupting and defrauding millions of homeowners and investors, a few made millions and our economy almost collapsed; and still might. A financial sector with a culture that discouraged doing harm would not have been so vulnerable. Zen meditation would be the heart of such a corporate culture.

It can be a complex undertaking. A company wishing to include ‘spiritual well being’ or ‘personal meaning’ or ‘emotional intelligence’ within its purview would need to consider carefully how to structure the new ideas so that they could be replicated, for example. It would also have to be sensitive to diversity and avoid offense or exclusion. However, approached with the appropriate respect, research and experience show that meditation can do all this and will reliably bring the following benefits:

    reduction in rates of absenteeism and sick leave
    increases in measures of production
    significant reductions in stress related anxieties
    significant improvements in recruiting and retaining superior employees

So, for this alone, meditation is worth considering. But, more generally, our society needs to develop a better working vocabulary of right livelihood. This means not only the nature of the work itself, but also the skills and qualities each worker brings. Daniel Goleman in his book “Working With Emotional Intelligence” says, “Analysis done by dozens of different experts in close to five hundred corporations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations worldwide have arrived independently at remarkably similar conclusions. Their conclusions all point to the paramount place of emotional intelligence in excellence on the job – virtually any job”. This is why meditation is so valuable; it is the way to cultivate and develop a workforce with high levels of emotional intelligence.

Wayne Codling is a former Zen monastic and a lineage holder in the Soto Zen tradition. He teaches Zen-style meditation in various venues around Victoria.