Wise Livelihood

  • Wise Livelihood

Following Wise Speech and Wise Action, the third of the ethical practices of the Eightfold Path is Wise Livelihood. In the foundational teachings of the Buddha, Wise Livelihood is defined as earning one’s living through wholesome avenues, those that do not bring harm to oneself or others. One’s work should be legal, peaceful, and honest; without coercion or violence, manipulation or deceit. Additionally, any profession or occupation that violates wise speech or wise action is a wrong form of livelihood as it inherently causes harm.[1] As an example, one can be skilled at wise speech but be involved in the illegal drug or weapons trade. This would be both wrong action and wrong livelihood, and therefore breech the Buddhist ethical practices.  

Wise livelihood is not only defined by how our work affects others, but also how it affects us. As I think back over the last 30 years of my working life, my most difficult time was while I was a nurse working in the hospital setting. While from the outside nursing appears to be the epitome of wholesomeness (and in many ways I believe it is), for me it was fraught with so many bumps and bruises characteristic of unhealthy work-place interpersonal dynamics; competition, distrust, poor communication, difficult hours, jealousy, and lack of advocacy all within the confines of a demeaning hierarchical political structure while facing straight-on the frailty of life and certainty of death, every moment of every day. 

It didn’t work for me, and it was painful to face the truth that the profession I had chosen was hurting me and by extension, my young family. I was really suffering. It was such a relief early one morning when I came home from a night shift barely able to keep my eyes open thoroughly exhausted and feeling demoralized when my husband said, “You know…you don’t have to do this work.”

Right there was the truth of impermanence, the truth of suffering, and the truth of karma. Things could and would change, I was in pain, and my happiness and unhappiness was so clearly dependent upon my own actions and no one else’s wishes for me. Either I was going to do something about it or stay stuck in the muck. It was actually pretty good news! I did leave hospital nursing and I’ve never looked back. Because we spend so much of our lives working, if we can make the wise choices that translate to a wise livelihood and a happier life, we may as well give it a try.

One of the core teachings of the Buddha is cultivating the capacity to know the difference between skillful and unskillful action; those that lead to our long-term welfare and happiness and those that lead to further distress and suffering. In times of self-reflection you can ask yourself “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?”[2]It’s a great question. It accesses your deepest wisdom. Another way to ask this same question might be to say “What would my 85 year-old self tell me to do?” I hope that by the time I’m 85, I will have reached the fullness of my wisdom.

When I was young and was asked the proverbial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would bristle and think ‘I just want to be myself.’ My mother used to say “Find out what you’re good at and do it for all you’re worth.” That was pretty good, but it still didn’t quite get me to the core.  I think one of the most useful questions for teasing out one’s path comes from Howard Thurman. He said,


"Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive." 

If we can tap into and develop our passion, what really makes us come alive, I believe we each have a much better chance of spending our lives doing what brings out our most wise, effective and happy selves.

[1]Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path; Way to the End of Suffering, 1994.

[2]Thanissaro Bhikku, Selves & Not Self, 2011

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