The Dilemma of Right Livelihood: Buddhism and the TCM Career Path

By Eric Baker - February 5, 2016
The Dilemma of Right Livelihood: Buddhism and the TCM Career Path

By Eric Baker, full time faculty member, Master degree department, Chicago

When I was in my early twenties, after I finished my Psych undergrad, I planned on trying my hand at becoming a monk.  I had already become enthralled with Asian Culture, a love that continues to this day.  So, my plan was to first move to Japan, through the JET program, teaching English as a second language.  Once there, I would begin my search for a suitable Zen Master, and then, with a little luck, Zen monkhood.  I had put together the arrangements—submitted my application, got glowing recommendations, including one from a former US ambassador, etc.—and then, stunningly, the whole project fell apart.  The Japanese apparently didn’t want me.  I was declined from the program; my visa never came through.  I was shocked and at a loss.  What was I supposed to do with myself now?

As is so often the case, the whole situation worked out for the best, and in ways much better than I ever could have anticipated. And not just because I am pretty sure I would have made a very mediocre monk.  I had a high school PE teacher who explained to us that the pinnacle of the world’s wisdom was actually to be found in the Rolling Stones’ Classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  And, in this instance, his insight was born out: “if you try sometimes, you get what you need”.  Even in terms of my spiritual pursuits, things turned out well.  I found a very strong Zen Organization right here in Chicago, on Belmont Avenue, four blocks south of Wrigley Field.  I didn’t need to go to Kyoto after all.

The Concept of Right Livelihood in Buddhism

Still, my twenty-something year old self faced a legitimate, deep, and serious problem, one presented in the Buddhist teachings themselves: the problem of Right Livelihood.  There are many ways of presenting the “Buddhist Path” in the various Buddhist traditions.  One can look at three aspects of training, Ethics, Concentration, and Wisdom.  One can look at the Six Perfections: Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Effort, Concentration and Wisdom.  However, even bringing up questions like ethics, generosity, patience and effort is already moving toward something like Right Livelihood, which is found in the “Eight-Fold Path:”

  1. Right Action
  2. Right Speech
  3. Right Livelihood
  4. Right Effort
  5. Right Concentration
  6. Right Mindfulness
  7. Right View
  8. Right Intention

The trio of Right Effort, Concentration and Mindfulness are typically thought as referring to the Buddhist meditative process, how to apply effort, focus the mind, and maintain mindful awareness.  The duo of Right View and Intention have more to do with Wisdom, establishing and maintaining the deepest version one can muster of the Buddhist Insights into the “Nature of Reality.”  The last trio, Right Action, Speech, and Livelihood, however, directly connect to one’s behavior and lifestyle “in the world.”  It’s connected to basic questions, like “How do I earn a living?” and “What kind of Career Path do I pursue?”

My early-twenties self was grappling with these very fundamental Buddhist questions.  I had earlier seen what my father’s work life had been like.  It would be very difficult not to describe him as a success.  His own father had died when he was young, and my grandmother made a heroic effort supporting her three kids and keeping the family together.  My father grew up in Chicago Housing Authority/CHA public housing.  In an almost Horatio Alger-type climb, my dad ultimately worked himself up the corporate ladder, with no college degree to support him.  Like every American Family, probably, there were still “money problems,” but my dad earned a very good six-figure income, especially by 1980s standards.

Still, it was obvious his job left him in an almost constant state of frustration, anxiety, and, at times, barely suppressed rage.  He worked incredible hours, sometimes, driving from Chicago to Iowa and back in a single day.  As a kid, the financial, business pressures he carried on a daily basis were hard to understand.  Out to dinner with him, especially after day’s work and a couple of Drambuies, he would say that work is essentially 99% BS and 1% satisfaction, whenever a project managed to get completed.

When I was young, I interpreted this as him being “Rhetorical,” kind of speaking for dramatic, and the way he delivered it, comedic effect.  Later, though, after he retired, I realized that he really meant what he was saying.  Without work in his life, he became a completely different person.  Most of his sullenness and outbursts of temper were gone.  He spent his time strolling to the café to read Agatha Christie novels—He eventually finished them all, and Ms. Christie wrote a lot of novels.  He got a job in a local department store to keep himself busy, working in the stock room.  One day I stopped by to visit him at his “new job.”  I asked a girl, probably in her mid to late teens, working at one of the registers if she knew where I could find my dad.  She started gushing about him: how funny and easy-going he was.  He had even helped set her up with one of the other teenaged guys who worked in the stockroom.  My dad playing matchmaker?  I honestly thought there was some confusion, that we must not be talking about the same person . . .

Discovering Oriental Medicine as a Path to Right Livelihood

In Oriental Medicine (OM), there is a saying, “In adults, treat the Liver.”  Part of the idea in the medical theory is that each organ system has its connections with and vulnerabilities to certain emotions.  With the Liver, it is this range of emotions clustered around “Anger:” anger itself, rage, frustration, irritability, agitation . . . the list goes on and on.  The implication of the saying, “In Adults, treat the Liver,” then, is that adult life is assumed to most likely be inundated with these kinds of  emotional states.  Ergo, the clinician will probably have to treat the Liver system, at some point or another, as a natural part of most adult cases.

My dad definitely lived that phrase, “In adults, treat the Liver.”  So, for me, looking at my career path options, one of the things I deeply knew for certain was that, regardless of anything else, I did not want to do the same.  Since then, watching friends and family follow the same general career route my dad took has just convinced me more and more.

In my early twenties, facing these decisions, my burgeoning Buddhist and OM sense of things even saw the “spiritual downside” of all this.  One had to try to do the best one could with “Right Livelihood.”  If it just collapsed into a constant exercise in Anger, suppressed and episodically flooding out; frustration; impatience; and irritability; what would happen to the rest of the whole Eight Fold Path thing?  How could one try to practice Right Speech and Action, through that veil of Heated, Angry emotions?  What would happen to all of that Right Effort, Concentration, Mindfulness stuff, if one was just always internally agitated?  Then, finally, what would happen to the Buddhist spiritual growth I was looking for, embodied in ideas like Right View and Intention?

Also, it wasn’t just a question of trying to avoid the negatives . . . I wanted to make a living, but I also hopefully wanted to have that living reflect some of the deeper sense of life that I was starting to develop.  I had become interested in Zen Buddhism and, through that, Taoism, and I wanted my work to represent that.  I believed deeply in what these Asian culture traditions were expressing; how could I get my life to express that?

Integrating Buddhism, Taoism, and Oriental Medicine in Career

Fortunately, I got kinda lucky.  The Zen school I had found in Chicago was a branch of that founded by Omori Sogen Roshi.  Omori Roshi was one of the great Rinzai Zen Masters of Twentieth Century Japan.  He had opposed the Japanese military aggression that lead to World War II .  He had even spent a year in prison for supporting opposition to the Japanese invasion of China.  Still, after Japan lost the war, he was so full of shame and regret that he almost took his own life via seppuko, the traditional Japanese ritual suicide committed by opening one’s abdomen with a sword.  He was stopped by an older mentor, who pointed out that they had, in their own way, been part of the War disaster, and so it was their responsibility to work towards cleaning up the aftermath.  He was urged to promote the Hakko Ichiu, or “Universal Brotherhood.”

Omori Roshi devoted himself to Buddhism and the Asian Arts, both Fine and Martial.  He believed in a Buddhism that was projected outward into the world.  Actually, I quickly realized that the kind of “Monkish” life-style I had been envisioning wasn’t held so highly within Omori Roshi’s vision and view of Buddhism.  He not only practiced and taught Zen and the Fine and Martial Arts, but also worked as a university president and political activist.  His first American Student was the Zen and Martial Arts master Tanouye Tenshin Roshi, who later became a “Rotaishi,” or teacher of other Zen Masters.  He had accomplished this all while working as a high school music teacher.  I began to see a vision of a life that I really admired, integrating Asian Spirituality and Work in a deeply meaningful way.

It was also through the Zen school that I was first exposed to the Asian healing arts.  The school was especially influenced by Taoism, as well as Buddhism.  There was a very profound style of Asian Body-Work being practiced and taught there.  With my Psychology background, I quickly began to see how the Asian approach, integrating the Body and Mind in its unique way, was really powerful.  Then, I was introduced to my first acupuncturist-herbalist by another Zen student.  Here was an American person, just like me.  He had initially been a pianist, but he had burnt out with his musical career.  He then decided to change his entire life, devoting it to the Asian Healing Arts.

I was fascinated by the Acupuncture and Herbalism themselves and began studying whatever was available at the local public libraries.  But I was also beginning to see a solution to my Right Livelihood conundrum.  I saw the way towards integrating my Buddhist-Taoist understanding and beliefs into my career path.  Honestly, it also “felt” different from the possible psychology career that I had been working towards in undergrad.  Oriental Medicine in the US felt more “alive,” more unformed, and so more vibrant, creative, and evolving.

Realizing Right Livelihood through Teaching and Clinical Practice

I got my degree in 2000, and, since then, so much of that initial vision from twenties has come to pass.  I have had the opportunity to work in major hospitals.  This included years spent working with HIV and AIDS patients in a public health setting through Cook County Hospital here in Chicago, putting the Buddhist ideal of compassion into action, hopefully in a way Omori Roshi would approve.  I also have had the opportunity to teach, starting at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in 2003.  This has given me the opportunity to share the deep love of Asian culture that brought me into the field.  All of this has been my best efforts towards “Right Livelihood.”  For me, part of the deeper moral of these experiences has been something like this:  All of us, as Twenty-First Century Americans, have to wrestle in our own ways with this Right Livelihood question, trying to find our own solution—one that does its best to integrate what we believe and allows the opportunity to share and project that out into the world.  For me, I had the good fortunate to be introduced to and to pursue this path of Asian Medicine and Culture, and I have never regretted it.

If you’re passionate about transforming the healthcare landscape while empowering others to create a balanced lifestyle, PCOM’s acupuncture, massage therapy, or holistic nursing programs are designed for you.

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Eric Baker

Eric Baker has been teaching at Pacific College of Health and Science since 2003. He earned his undergrad in psychology, before switching to Chinese medicine for grad school, inspired by his deep love of and interest in Asian culture, especially Taoism and Zen. The majority of his clinical experience has been through hospitals, including the CORE Center, a joint facility of Cook County Hospital and Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s, focused on HIV/AIDS, and Ingalls Hospital, part of the University Of Chicago Hospital System, though he is also currently in private practice in Chicago. His clinical interests especially focus on the psychology of Chinese medicine, drawing on his backgrounds in psychology, Buddhism, and Taoism. He also is fascinated by pulse diagnosis and has studied in a range of pulse-taking styles and approaches. Sharing the depth, beauty, and power of Chinese medicine is one of the joys of his life.

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