No other system documented the essence of karma yoga as carefully as the Indian scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita. This does not mean that other spiritual systems are ignorant of the implications and utility of karma yoga. Far from it. They just did not write about the subject in detail. Instead, the essence was conveyed by the spiritual master to his disciples on a personal basis. The teacher taught and demonstrated by personal example.
Let us look at Taoism. Intellectuals have wrongly interpreted Lao Tse, the sage who formulated Taoism (he did not invent Taoism, but merely put the ideas on paper). He expounded the idea that one should do only that which needs to be done. Many people thought that he was urging total complacency and laziness. Taoism was branded as the philosophy of idleness, but the critics have missed its essence. Lao Tse meant that people should act as though they are not acting. This is not laziness; it is letting the body-mind act in the way that comes naturally. It is allowing the body-mind to act in accordance with that which has to be done and simultaneously knowing that the true Self (Tao) does not really act. The Self is inactive and is the witness. This is karma yoga and is exactly the same as described in the Bhagavad Gita. This close correspondence should not surprise us, for basic truths are universal. They are not the monopoly of any one creed or nation.
The Tao says that one should flow with the current of life. Again this has been grossly misinterpreted. It means that one should try to act in the way that suits the situation as it really is. Don't act from the ego. If circumstances demand that you be industrious or protect your property, then by all means do so. Do that which is demanded by the circumstances, that which is best for the whole. Only then is it right action.
The Tao is very much concerned with the perfection of action. The Fisherman, the carpenter, the builder and other craftsmen are skilled for one reason: they utilize the available materials and themselves in the best possible manner. They harmonize themselves with the tools at their disposal. If the muscles are overused, if one is beset by worries and tensions, if one is too egotistical, then the work will not be the best that can be achieved. This is admirably summed up by the following verse from the Tao Te Ching:
The man with power does not reveal that he possesses power; therefore he keeps his power. The man of lesser power tries continually to demonstrate that he has power; therefore, in fact, he is without power. The man of real power, the expert, does not really act, whereas the man of lesser power acts.
This is pure karma yoga. As the Bhagavad Gita says: "Yoga is efficiency in action." Things happen in the way that they should for the given circumstances. A person on the path of karma yoga makes optimum use of the natural abilities and things available to bring about the best possible actions.
Zen Buddhism has produced some very profound poems on what we would call karma yoga. They are not specific but implied. Zen emphasizes the importance of living every moment to the full. This is karma yoga. A positive action is seen as that action which expresses the fullness of life at a particular time and in given circumstances that make the action possible. This is karma yoga. Every action should be lived and pursued with the greatest intensity. For most persons this is almost impossible, for they are beset and continually distracted by mental tensions, anticipation of results or fruits, personal enmities and prejudices, desire for domination and possession and so many other things. The action becomes the means and not the end in itself.
Zen is very pragmatic and non-escapist in its attitudes. Many people think that Zen and other spiritual systems go against the grain and the flow of life, that they somehow oppose daily life. This idea could not be further from the truth. Zen sees the path to higher awareness to be through the world; it is not to be experienced by escaping from the world. There is a Zen saying that goes something like: "Not escape from life, but escape into life." This is the essence of karma yoga. Life an d its experiences, its ups and downs, are to be used to help one know higher knowledge. The Zen masters shun logic and reasoning in the same way that they would an angry cobra. They demonstrate through action and example. Every act, whether eating food, digging the garden or whatever is regarded as a religious act. They do not try to divorce spiritual aspiration from daily life. They are karma yogis in the fullest sense of the word. Why waste valuable time with useless philosophical ideas? Act, but act with intensity and awareness. Be totally involved in each and every act.
The Zen masters did not preach one thing and then do something else. They actually practised karma yoga (as we would call it). In fact, many Zen masters seem to have carried on the line of work for which they were trained, and why not? There are many stories of masters who were butchers or woodcutters and the work they did was their path of Zen. They saw absolutely no discrepancy between spiritual and daily life. This is perfectly summed up by the master Huang Po: "Don't allow the events of daily life to bind you, but never stop doing them. Only by acting in this way can you become enlightened."
In other forms of Buddhism karma yoga does not seem to have been specifically classified, but in Mahayana Buddhism it is strongly implied. It is said that the purpose of the journey to nirvana (enlightenment) is not taken for the individual but for the benefit of all. The necessity of unselfish motives is inherent in the system. This is karma yoga in essence.
In Christianity there is no systematized form of karma yoga, but again there are powerful hints, suggestions and allusions. In fact, in one short sentence the whole philosophy of karma yoga is summed up. In the Lord's Prayer it says: "Thy will be done."
An explanation is hardly required in view of what we have already said about karma yoga in this topic. It means that the individual on the spiritual path accepts what has to be done and does it, but of course it implies far more than this, for it says "Thy will" which implies that the action is in tune with the cosmic consciousness.
There is one more unforgettable statement which relates to karma yoga. It is as follows:
"The Father (consciousness) and I are one, but the Father is greater than I . . . the Father doeth the work."
The implications and meaning of this phrase are wonderful to say the least. This is an utterance of a mystic in a higher state of meditation. It is similar to many phrases that are abundant in Indian scriptures. This should not be surprising for the experience of samadhi is not located in one place. It is the experience of mystics throughout the world.
We could so easily write a voluminous book on this one quotation, but we will not for we are presently only concerned with karma yoga. This statement indicates the highest stage of karma yoga, and in fact of yoga in general. It tries to describe the impossible: perfect harmony and union between the individual being and supreme consciousness. In this state of experience, the individual does not really do any work. The work happens through the instrumentality of his body and mind. The work is really done by consciousness. This is beautifully described in a similar Indian maxim, which irrefutably utters: "Naham karta - Harih karta,"- "I don't do - consciousness does."
So, to summarize, we find that the idea of karma yoga is not confined to the Indian scriptures and yoga. It is common to other systems, including ones that we have not had time and space to mention. However, it is only in the Indian scriptures and in yoga that we find a systematic formulation of its laws and aims. This, of course, has its disadvantages in that it is easily open to gross misinterpretation by intellectual analysts, and this has happened with sad results. The other systems have left the transmission of karma yoga to personal instructions handed from teacher to disciple. This of course has meant that its relevance and application were confined to the few, but at least there was less misunderstanding.
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