Karma Yoga: Zen for the Discontented Worker
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
His friend in amazement cried: 'Why? Laila is an angel, so what is the use of seeking her in the common earth?' 'I seek her everywhere,' said Majnun, bowing his head, 'that I may find her somewhere.'
- CXXXVIII, The Wisdom of the Sufis, compiled by Kenneth Cragg
Karma Yoga is unlike any other yoga because it is not done separately from any other activity; and it is not done, as is japa, as a background for any other activity. It is the activity, itself.
In Karma Yoga, we do some bit of work... draw a floor plan... type a page... fill in forms... with an ulterior motive. We are seeking something that has nothing to do with what we are doing, yet is the reason for everything we do. Majnun was not playing with sand to amuse himself or handling it in order to build something. He was seeking Laila. He was trying to find the divine in the material.
Our Zen program is not separate from our work. We do not have to postpone or forfeit an activity to go and sit on a cushion or whirl in dance or pore over scriptures in order to practice Zen.
In the Karma Yoga view, a problem arises when we think that we can categorize our activities as being sacred or profane, that we can then, after separating them, apply different standards to our performance, that we can say, "This is what we are working for, the end result" and "This is the means by which we can attain that end." It is as if someone says that he believes that God is omnipresent and omniscient yet is slovenly and greedy in his workplace but attends his church spotlessly attired and purposefully generous. In fact, he has no creed at all. When we believe in the One, the Indivisible, we cannot conveniently cut out sections, exempting these parts from consideration of the Whole.
Our Buddha Self is omniscient because, being inside us it is privy to our every thought and deed; and it is omnipresent, because where we are it is.
Zen is a religion. It has a supreme being, a whole spiritual matrix from which methodologies merely arise or associate themselves. Zen may seem to be only a 'way of life' because, as in any religious system, it prescribes an ethical regimen which is designed to help us get along in the world. But beneath the ethics is a belief-system. A very natural superstructure of deportment rises from the supernatural substructure, the foundation of Divinity. When we speak of our Holy Bodhisattvas, our Lordly Buddhas, our splendid, young Maitreya we speak of such divinity, and we see all our activity as service to those who reveal themselves in the mystical adventure, the divine drama that is enacted in Zen's Trinitarian Ground.
Karma Zen is difficult to begin because we not only have to unlearn old, ingrained or automatic ways of doing the most ordinary things, but we require a fundamental and immediate change in attitude, one that is predicated on faith. Any kind of yoga can cause a change in attitude, a revalorization of the people, places and things of our environment, the period of change slowly proceeding from isolated Zen exercises to the gradual infiltration of Zen's 'way of life' into our personality. We become Zen men. But Karma Zen begins with its finished product in evidence. It has to be practiced without any reassuring progression of trial and proof.
In the beginning, it is as if we are two people, a drowning man and an observer who wants to save him. If the helper is not a strong swimmer possessed with life-saving skills, they will both likely drown. This is no yoga for the weak-willed or emotional soul.
Before attempting to secure union with the divine, we need to believe in the existence of the divine. Then, we conform practice to belief. There are not many rules, but the few are hard to follow.
It should go without saying that anyone who attempts Karma Yoga is already familiar with the Eightfold Path and the Seven Deadly Sins. Saint Gregory outlined the Seven Sins back in A.D. 600, and they are still a valuable checklist for gauging our daily activities. Every form of yoga requires that we adhere to a code of behavior that avoids pride, anger, lust, sloth, gluttony, jealousy, and greed.
What, then, is the method for attaining union? Union is Samadhi; but the progression is Concentration, Meditation and then Samadhi. So we begin with concentration. First there is focus: attention. Yes, it's the old mondo. The novice asks, "How can I achieve Zen?" "Attention," says the master. "What do you mean, 'Attention'?" replies the novice. "Attention! Attention!," shouts the master, "Attention means attention!"
Before we can attain the concentrated state, we need to be constantly aware, that is to say, on guard, against anything that might interfere with our ability to concentrate.
Emotion is the greatest obstacle to concentration. When we are excited or angry, i.e., when we are projecting archetypes, our responses are "gut-level" - not rational, and this translates as distraction. It is for this reason that surgeons don't operate on their own children: their emotional involvement might compromise their scientific judgment. Since the best way to deal with a problem is to avoid it, we don't fall into emotional traps.
Right Speech is the step on the Path in which we most easily falter. (For more details about Right Speech violations, consult Chapter 13 of The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism on this website.)
To the beginner of a Karma Yoga regimen, no opinions (except for those that are directly job-related) may be requested or given.
In keeping with our 'Crime' analogy, opinions ought to be considered the stuff of expert testimony - perjury, payment, challenge and reputation are on the line.
What is the real reason we offer opinions or seek them?
When we initiate the subject, it's easy to trace our motives. Perhaps we are on a little egotistical foray, introducing a topic in which we feel particularly competent so as to demonstrate our superiority; or we're filling air-space with static drivel; or , less nobly, we're trying to expose someone else's ignorance. Especially when we're in Karma Yoga training, the moment we feel the impulse to state or to ask for an opinion, we quash it.
When we're asked for our opinion, a bit more in the way of discipline is required.
People often act as if each of us is obliged to have an opinion on every subject known to man. We are so pressured to produce an opinion that if we don't already have one in our philosophical storehouse, we immediately manufacture one. In Karma Yoga 'to opine' is to invite disaster.
Yes, as we would invite a krait into our sleeping bag, we should welcome opinions into our realm of consciousness. Since none of us wants to share a bed with a venomous snake - present company excepted, all of us should avoid giving or asking for opinions.
Often, the request for an opinion masquerades as a request for information. But seldom does the quest for knowledge occasion the request. An example may help to clarify this. Recently I was asked if I thought that my state should enact legislation that would permit Gay and Lesbian marriages. The woman who asked me had cloaked her question in the innocuousness of inquiry, as if she were seeking information, but it was hardly a secret that she had already taken a stand on the issue. What she was really trying to determine was whether my views (assuming I had any) agreed with hers. If they were consonant, she would put her imprimatur on me and my ministry; and if they were dissonant, she'd make me regret the day I learned to talk. Such was the value she placed upon the power of opinion, hers in particular.
What she was interested in, then, was not my view about Gay and Lesbian marriages as such, but rather whether she could identify me as an ally or an enemy. But I was not obliged to enter the conflict, and I declined to comment. Immediately she attacked my competence as a minister, asking, "How can you be an effective religious leader if you don't offer guidance to your flock?" I said that I did not consider myself a religious leader and that the people who belonged to our Sangha had not yet expressed a fear of being stampeded over the cliff-edge of the Gay and Lesbian Marriage issue. They did not require a shepherd.
This assertion did not endear me to her and she immediately accused me of not caring what people thought about me. I overlooked the instantaneous multiplication, that this single woman had become society, itself, and tried to explain to her that my religious service requires that I not care what people think about me. I do not do what I do in order to gain love or fame or anything else. My duty is to serve the Dharma, to write about it and to teach it in the way I understand it. Period.
She persisted. She, knowing that I performed marriage ceremonies, vehemently insisted upon knowing whether I would marry a homosexual couple. I reminded her of her original question which explicitly acknowledged that it was not legal for homosexuals to marry in our state. In her emotionalism she saw herself as an irresistible force. It remained for me to remain an immovable object. I don't know how she spent the rest of her day, but I returned to my duty.
Am I qualified to give expert testimony on the subject? No. Am I obliged to abandon my other areas of service to study this issue and to oppose or support someone to whom the question is important? No.
Sometimes the request for an opinion appears to be casual and convivial, but in actuality is not. One person will ask another for his opinion about a movie, a book, or a restaurant and, particularly if the opinion is favorable, will then see the movie, read the book, or eat in the restaurant and be unconsciously prepared to dislike it. All he wants is a recommendation that he can oppose, definitively, as evidence of someone's incompetence or inferior taste. Some people are so contrary that a certain way to ensure that they will dislike something is to recommend it to them.. or vice versa.
After abstaining from offering opinions, the Karma Yogi In Training (KYIT) should give some thought to the deeper question of the validity of any samsaric judgment.
It is not enough merely for us to keep our mouth shut and withhold opinions. We have to consider the Karmic aspect of Karma Yoga. Any event is always the result of many factors. An infinity of causes form the karmic net of any moment's circumstance; and we cannot remove a single knot from that net without affecting the lines that lead to it and from it.
Upon what criteria are opinions based? If we eat at a restaurant and are later asked our opinion of the food, what subjective criteria are involved here? In terms of karmic consideration, not only does the food change from moment to moment, or day to day, but the consumer changes, too. Ultimately, the consumer is describing how he thinks he felt at the time he ate one meal as it was presented at that one, specific time. Perhaps when he entered the restaurant he was not really hungry or perhaps he already had indigestion. Perhaps he was starved and would have eaten tripe and gizzards with gusto. What mood was the reader in when he read the book? What previous books contributed to his appreciation or dislike of it? And movies? A critic may deride a film as being "derivative" - but to someone who is unfamiliar with those productions from which it is derived, it will surely seem original. What value is his opinion? Even restaurant, book and movie critics, whose business it is to render judgments, who may testify in a courtroom as experts, do not always agree on the quality of the object they are reviewing.
It is the ego that sets itself up as the arbiter of taste. As KYIT we cannot allow ourselves to give such free rein to our ego. If we trust the judgment of a certain professional critic, we should consult that expert if we desire advice. We should then see the movie, read the book, taste the food. If it is agreeable, we ought to be grateful. But in any event we ought to try to "accentuate the positive," to focus on those parts that were enjoyable. Deriding or denigrating anything is usually an exercise in egotism. When someone says, "I don't know anything about art, I only know what I like," the subject is then "I" not art.
Another Right Speech danger that exists particularly in the competitive workplace is the deliberate manipulation of a person's comments in order to discredit him. We all know that there are but two ways to win a race: either we run faster than our opponent, or we fix him so that he runs slower than we.
Worker A smiles and says to Worker B, "Isn't the boss's daughter ugly?" Worker B shrugs and grunts, in seeming affirmation. Worker A then finds a way to inform the boss that Worker B said his daughter was hideous. To doubt this is to doubt the First Noble Truth: Life is bitter and painful. This duplicity is precisely why the First Noble Truth is true. Worker B, by his apparent acquiescence (which he cannot deny) has unwittingly made himself a target for his boss's ire. If he had steadfastly refused to comment or even to have given the appearance of comment, he'd have a lot more job security. (Like Caesar's wife, we must not only be virtuous, we must appear to be virtuous.)
There is no way to calibrate the sense of freedom that adherence to this Right Speech/No Opinion rule provides. It is exhilarating. Zero opinion means zero misunderstanding and manipulation. Without having to defend ourselves against those very charges that we helped to create, we avoid anger, resentment and embarrassment - all those emotional states that impair our ability to concentrate.
If, then, as Karma-Yogis-In-Training we are asked to give an opinion, we say, "I'm sorry, but I have none to give." If necessary we explain that we're involved in a spiritual regimen which prohibits us from rendering opinions. We are nice about it, but we are immovable.
At work, when opinions are part of the job, we need to respond responsibly. If asked, for example, "Which story board best conveys the concept?" we formulate a criticism based soundly on knowledge, insight and experience and purge our comments of emotional, personal elements. "This sucks," is not a critical analysis of a work. "You're incompetent," is not an appraisal of a product. We are firm but respectful and confine our opinion to the specific criteria that apply to a work, foregoing the pleasure of psychoanalyzing the worker or antagonizing him until he is forced to plot revenge against us.
We are so often tempted to assert ourselves, to rise to the occasion of leadership. We want to emulate our heroes and in this desire we make ourselves vulnerable to the brainless whims of emotion. Catchy pronouncements grab us and toss us into precipitous action. We consider Plato's sage pronouncement, "The penalty that the wise must pay for failing to lead is that they must be led by inferiors," and without asking, "Who is wise and who is inferior?" we decide that our course is clear. We see ourselves as leaders, as a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, and step forward into the limn light. But Gandhi and King were not spiritual trainees. They were not wise because they took a stand; because they were wise they took a stand. Despite the seeming rectitude of a cause, we need to amass some wisdom, not to mention self-discipline, before we consider ourselves wise enough to lead others.
The Karma Yogi In Training also needs to rid himself of the notion that work can be evaluated according to some scale of importance. In Karma Yoga we cannot assign value to work, appreciating it because we consider it significant or noble and disparaging it because we consider it beneath our station, disgraceful, or foolish. If a worker is seeking Laila, it does not matter what he appears to be doing. A sales clerk is a sales clerk and it does not matter whether the clerk sells Cadillacs or Yugos.. Well... maybe not Yugos. Kias, then. Further, the person who sells cars is no more nor less noble than the person who sells bicycles. The sales clerk (and this is the attitudinal discipline of Karma Yoga) is no more nor less noble than the customer. It takes a firm mind to appreciate that the CEO of a major corporation is no more nor less noble than a janitor in the building over which the CEO presides. Both men are human beings and as such they each have a head-full of archetypes that assault their ego. They both are quite likely to have troublesome in-laws and ungrateful children and acquisitive wives and jealous neighbors. Possessing money and power does not proportionately remove an individual's social and emotional problems. If anything, it intensifies them.
It does not matter how others regard us. They are not involved in a Karma Yoga regimen. What matters is that we discipline ourselves to regard with equal respect all others, that we make no distinctions whatsoever between people. There is a practical aspect to this occupational egalitarianism. By offending no one we eliminate resentment against ourselves; and without having to respond to resentment, we are free to concentrate on our work.
We turn away from worldly pursuits - none of which can deliver spiritual satisfaction, and concentrate on spiritual improvement, spiritual renovation. All of the Seven Deadly Sins need to be reviewed each day for signs of stress fatigue; all of the steps on the Eightfold Path need to be swept free of debris. But the step that needs most of our labor is the one that is most befouled in the workplace: Right Speech.
Good work is noticed by those whose business it is to notice it. As long as profit drives the market, the productive person is secure. A talented person who wastes half his day fretting about the jealousy and resentment of others, has lost much of his productivity, a financial fact which though lost to him is recoverable to his critics.
In Karma Yoga, then, with one effort we accomplish two tasks: the less important one is that we do more and better work and relieve some of the angst that made us discontented workers. The more important one is that we find the peace, joy, truth and freedom attainable in union with our Buddha Self.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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