Working to help, not harm
A right livelihood is one that does not bring harm to anyone or anything. Buddha listed five professions that constitute wrong livelihoods. They are dealing in weapons, dealing in humans, dealing in meat production, dealing in intoxicants and dealing in poisons.
Traditionally these professions are dismissed out of hand, but I feel a little uncomfortable with that. I have Indian friends that have joined the army so they can provide for their parents and siblings. They didn’t go in to the army with the sole intention of killing people, although that may be a consequence of their action. Also, if a country didn’t have an army, how long would it be before another country took it over. These days the army also does peacekeeping missions and so, in that way, is helping society.
It is clear that it isn’t as black and white as Buddha’s list suggests. I think one should aim for a profession that does not harm, is not deceitful and dishonest, doesn’t involve trickery, treachery or any kind of fortune-telling. Buddha went into a lot of detail regarding the last one, fortune-telling, in the Samannaphala Sutra:
… reading marks on the limbs [e.g., palmistry]; reading omens and signs; interpreting celestial events [falling stars, comets]; interpreting dreams; reading marks on the body [e.g., phrenology]; reading marks on cloth gnawed by mice; offering fire oblations, oblations from a ladle, oblations of husks, rice powder, rice grains, ghee, and oil; offering oblations from the mouth; offering blood-sacrifices; making predictions based on the fingertips; geomancy; laying demons in a cemetery; placing spells on spirits; reciting house-protection charms; snake charming, poison-lore, scorpion-lore, rat-lore, bird-lore, crow-lore; fortune-telling based on visions; giving protective charms; interpreting the calls of birds and animals … [The list goes on and on]
Any type of fortune-telling or predicting the future is a form of deceit and trickery, even if it is done by some religious person. All you are doing is peddling false hope.
It is never right to deal in humans, such as prostitution, people trafficking, forcing children into work or teaching them to fire a weapon. Nor is it right to make illegal drugs and poisons. All of these professions are bringing harm to people and so should be avoided.
The bottom line is that our livelihood must not bring harm to people, animals or the environment. If we stick to this we will be on the road to living a responsible life.