The 5 Types of Wrong Livelihood for Lay People – The Buddha

Right Livelihood is 1 of the 8 Factors (the 4th Noble Truth) that take you towards Nirvana (the 3rd Noble Truth).  Remember, you’ve got to have all 8 factors in a sufficient amount to enable them to converge and form a conduit towards Nirvana.

So it’s important not to engage in wrong livelihood because it will not only harm others, it will also affect your conscience and so, will put up blocks to prevent you from awakening to Nirvana.

So which sort of industries are wrong to be in for your line of work?

“A lay follower should not engage in five types of business.

Which five?

  • Business in weapons,
  • Business in human beings,
  • Business in meat,
  • Business in intoxicants, and
  • Business in poison.”

Vanijja Sutta: Business (Wrong Livelihood) Anguttara Nikaya 5.177

Why are they wrong?

Because they cause harm:

  1. Weapons – so don’t let your work contribute to the killing of other human beings in war, nor contribute to the killing of other living creatures
  2. Humans – trading in humans, e.g., slavery and human trafficking
  3. Meat – so try not to get involved in selling animal products
  4. Intoxicants – so no selling alcohol, no selling cigarettes, no drug dealing
  5. Poison – so try not to work for pest control companies

Now there are some people that say, “Oh, I’m just making the weapons, I’m not doing the actual killing”.  But people are still getting harmed by those weapons that you played a part in making.

Example of Playing a Part in Something Good

Saving Someone’s Life

To illustrate this, let’s look at the reverse situation, where – say you play a small part in helping to save a life.  Maybe you see someone having a heart attack on the street and you ring the ambulance – and the ambulance staff and doctors end up saving his life.

So although you yourself did not do the actual saving of his life – you did not put defibrillator on to re-start his heart, you did not perform the stent surgery or heart bypass surgery.  So even though you did not do any of that, you still played a significant role in ringing the ambulance to start the process to save his life – you played a part – so it’s your karma (good karma in this case).

Now someone else could’ve done it – but if someone else rang the ambulance instead – it wouldn’t be traced back to you – so it wouldn’t be your karma in that case.  But if you rang the ambulance, it’s your karma – it’s your good karma – because you played an important role in getting the process started.

Say there was no one else around except for you.  If you didn’t ring the ambulance – then the guy would’ve died.  So even though you didn’t do the actual saving procedures, you were part of the causes, conditions, methods and karma of saving his life.  So the karma is significant.

To put it simply, you were a link in the chain that led to the saving of his life.  Without that link – without you playing a small part in that chain – his life wouldn’t have been saved.

Wrong Livelihood

Don’t be a link in a chain that leads to harm

In the case of working for a company that makes weapons – you too are playing a part – but in this case, playing a part in potentially harm.  These would include things like guns, missiles, grenades, bombs etc…

So although you are not doing the actual act of killing – you are still getting involved in the causes, conditions, methods and karma of killing.  You are helping to create the conditions (i.e. the fully formed weapon) that make the killing possible.

Because what is the purpose of weapons?

To kill or to injure.

And if you’re in a trade that makes weapons – you are playing part in the creation of them (even if unintentionally – because someone or some creature could be hurt or killed by that weapon that you played a part in making).  You are forming a link in a chain of potential harm.  And in the case of military weapons – there is the potential for that weapon to take a human life.

Now suppose that a gun that you make is to be made only for shooting targets – that’s okay because no one is harmed in that – no bad karma is done in this case because no one was harmed.  However, you have no control over where those guns are going to be sold and re-sold.

The military weapons industry is worth thousands of billions of dollars each year.  As a friend of mine said when I asked him, “What does company xyz do?”

He answered, “They deal in death my friend, they deal in death.”  So even non-Buddhists recognize this.

The Story of Ajahn Chah and the Fisherman

As for not trading in meat, there was a story of how Ajahn Chah taught a fisherman.  Fishing was this man’s sole livelihood in Thailand and he was doing really well.  “I have to support my family – what will I do if I don’t fish, I don’t know anything else?!”

So what did Ajahn Chah do?

He said to him, “Fish less.  Only enough to feed your family” and in the mean time, Ajahn Chah taught him how to use herbal medicine – so that by the end, this man total did away with fishing altogether and started treating people with herbal medicine and was able to live off that.

So in this way, Ajahn Chah turned what would’ve been a lifetime of fishing – and perhaps inter-generational fishing – as him and his family’s mode of making a living (because he would’ve passed it on to his sons), and turned it into a more wholesome method of living.

So see, you can transform things, you can transform unfavorable circumstances into more wholesome, skillful and more beneficial ones.

You don’t have to just accept your lot!  You don’t have to let what’s gotten to you to this stage define you or shackle you for the rest of your life.

You can be your own agent of transformational change – for the better!

2 thoughts on “The 5 Types of Wrong Livelihood for Lay People – The Buddha

  1. Hi, The Story of Ajahn Chah and the Fisherman is great and inspiring. Every job can be turned into something good and beneficial for us and for other people too. But we have to have a right mindset to do it.
    “If it isn’t good, let it die. If it doesn’t die, make it good.”
    ― Ajahn Chah

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