Karma Yoga: Zen for the Discontented Worker
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
A desire to know Her brings one to love her;
Loving Her enables one to follow Her will;
Following Her will is the sure path to immortality;
And immortality is oneness with God."
-- Solomon, from Two Suns Rising, edited by Jonathan Star
It's impossible to read an account of any religion's Karma or action yoga without encountering the most sober and profound tributes to a wisdom goddess. Especially when we consider traditionally masculine religions such as Buddhism, we're always astonished by the depth of devotion we find in tributes to deified feminine wisdom. We expect scriptures written by men in celebration of manly gods to be virile expressions - strong, aggressive, and self-reliant. But curiously we find that when poetic lines are dedicated to male divinities they are often fluffy stuff, grandiosely written in praise of creation, or maudlin in complaint of affliction, or petulant in a foot-stamping insistence that God should smite some poor souls that the male poets couldn't quite handle on their own.
But if the literature dedicated to paternal gods seems always to remind the gods of what they could and should do for mankind, the literature dedicated to maternal divinities is quite different. The goddess is seldom asked to act except to impart wisdom or to enable the individual to do for himself those actions which "could and should" be done. Tributes to goddesses are offerings of self.
Always we find that strange and intimate connection between the goddess, the worker, and the work, a sacred collaboration. Homer, preparing to recite the demanding lines of the Iliad, begins his labor, "Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, Peleus's son." And then he lets the Goddess sing through him during the course of his long and arduous recitation.
Goethe, in the terminal lines of Faust, cries out, "Virgin, Mother, Queen! Goddess on thy throne! ...the Eternal Feminine lures to perfection." Goethe's perfection.
What is it then that these men see and grasp that so eludes the average man?
ParamaShiva - Great Shiva who is the totality, the One...divides himself into Shiva, pure consciousness, and into Shakti, universal energy; and Shakti is the Great Mother. It is her head's curly 'strings' that radiate through time, itself. She is the power and he, the law that power obeys.
"The man through whom the Dao flows freely.." says the scripture and we instinctively know that this is the complete man, one whose pure yang consciousness has been infused by the radiant Yin. And this complete man is, indeed, an extraordinary individual. Lao Tzu reiterates in verse XX of the Dao de Jing (The Way and its Power), "The multitude all have a purpose... I alone am different from the others and value being fed by the Mother." (D.C. Lau's translation/Penguin Classics.)
Something or someone needs to inspire us, to urge us to take control of our lives, to believe in us and to support us as we struggle to believe in ourselves. We must tap into that latent power if we are to reverse the spiral of our deepening discontent.
"Ah," says the Buddha, "One man may conquer ten thousand men in battle; and another man conquer only himself... but this man is the greater victor." True, we say. So very true. But how do we accomplish this singular victory?
The Eightfold Path's way is well known to us. We understand the rules. But from where does the power come to effect the change?
The answer lies in a shift from a passive obedience to external dictates to an active reliance upon this interior force.
Shadrack, cast into the fiery furnace, relies upon God's saving power to deliver him ... or not. An earthly king commands Shadrack to come out of the fire, and he obeys. But from the Lotus Sutra we find a different solution: an acknowledgment of an inherent feminine or androgynous power:
Jonah, caught in the belly of the whale, cries out for help; and an exterior Paternal God considers the appeal and renders a decision: "And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land." (Jonah 2:10) But, again, from the Lotus, we find a different approach:
Perhaps we relate so readily to a feminine divinity because the model of mercy has been fashioned by our own mothers. We so often see our mother as the intermediary between us and an intransigent father; or perhaps we feel that if we try and fail, no awful Paternal Wrath will come down upon our heads. Men are inclined to fear being judged as harshly as they have judged. A female overseer is bound to be more forgiving.
The word. The name. The visual identification of the archetype. The concentration that invokes the image and the transcendental power. This is what is necessary.
And so we find that Mahayana followers, not content with the mere lines of the Prajna Paramita Canon, that body of scriptures that virtually defines the Mahayana, flesh out those literary bones with the beautiful form of the goddess herself. Buddhists do not merely recite the lines in dusty libraries. They go to Prajnaparamita's altar, put flowers there, and kneel. As Athena sprang full grown from the brow of Zeus, so Prajnaparamita and the Bodhisattva of Compassion, too, spring into existence as the utterance of sound from the Godhead, Amitabha/Amitayus - Infinite Light, Infinite Time. The divine word has taken on divine and lovely form.
It all seems so very strange. And yet it is there....the artwork that is not merely decorative but functional, those temple sculptures that bear witness to the presence of that divinity which exists within ourselves. Piously we say, "When we bow, we bow to the Buddha within." Yes, and to the Bodhisattva, too.
What do we do when we're in a job we detest but are compelled by circumstance to continue in it? Providing we can accept the fact of this interior divinity, we apply the techniques of Karma yoga. Naturally, the changes in our attitude and deportment are always beneficial, but if they are only mechanically enacted, cosmetic, they will not be sufficient. They need to be organic. We have to be able to concentrate so thoroughly that we can hold an inner dialog with this personified force, and we have to possess enough faith and trust to obey the wisdom that is imparted to us. This is no place for superficial Zen men. This is a place for believers, for devotees.
Majnun sought Laila as a devotee of Laila. His labor was of no particular consequence except as it provided him with the means to realize her. This realization and the indescribable peace, joy, truth and freedom it brings, this transcendental experience of sheer bliss and liberation was what he sought. For this, he sacrificed his labor.
Karma or action union requires the adoration of the Eternal or Mysterious Feminine: as Shakti, or the Holy Mother, or the merciful Guan Yin; as Tara, Sophia, or Prajnaparamita. The devotee dedicates his labor to the divinity of Mater, the uterine material. The Shakti within Shiva.
First we have to accept responsibility for our problems and start with what we have and where we are. We may not cast blame upon others, for this prolongs the distress by focussing our attention outwards. Just as the source of correction lies within ourselves, so the responsibility for that which requires correction must be seen to lie within ourselves. Pride and Anger guard the gates of heaven against us; and for so long as we suppose that others are to blame for our troubles, and not we or our reactions to the problems caused by others, we will get nowhere.
It is not always boredom or job discontent that moves us to action. Often it is disgust, creeping or sudden, that impels us to change:
After years of working, a man achieves success in his career and an enviable domestic life: wife, kids, house, cars, dog. Success confers a lordly status upon his ego and lets him believe that he has earned the right to be free of conventional restraints. "...where there are no bonds, where there is the madness of license, the soul ceases to be free," says Tagore. "There is its hurt; there is its separation from the infinite, its agony of sin."
And so the man, indulging himself in worthless pleasures or in the illusions of his own importance, neglects what he should have guarded. He loses his family and cries, "Another man now sleeps with my woman, plays with my kids, mows my lawn, and tosses a Frisbee to my dog. My lifetime of sweat has given this man the good life while I have nothing to show but a leased car, an efficiency apartment, and a bunch of canceled support checks." Sniff. Sniff. He no longer sees the point of working at all.
An educated young career woman stifles future growth by an obsession with gross materiality - the wardrobe, the hairdo, the vehicle, the residence. She works to pay the expenses of working, competing with associates for such spurious sigils of achievement. The process of decadence sets in: more and more is required to achieve less and less. And as that "more" consumes her energy, that "less" is evident in her failure to keep informed, qualified and competitive in her career. She, too, is trapped by her own self-indulgent priorities.
But if there comes to these two people a moment of clarity, a single moment in which they see their error and decide to revalorize the people, places and things of their lives, they are in an ascendant mode and have begun to reverse the spiral.
The first rule requires us to simplify our lives and to understand that our material existence is always of secondary consideration.
Laila, for example, as did Layman Pang and his daughter and so many other saints and holy persons, showed complete humility, a poverty of material goods. Laila would have told the young career woman to remove the warpaint and fashionable dress and to array herself in less ostentatious attire, using the time and energy thus saved to pursue things of real value. (Laila, in fact, used the metaphor of nakedness. "I cover myself with only one long plain shawl which goes up the left side of me, around my neck, and down the right side, equally;" she said, "and every day when someone complains about my dress, I put a knot in the right panel, and when someone compliments me about my dress, I put a knot in the left panel. Then, at the end of the day, I weigh both sides. They always weigh the same.")
It might be helpful to appreciate that often the changes we seek to effect in the workplace are so drastic that we inhibit our ability to perform them because we fail to identify ourselves as trainees. People, baffled by our new attitude, tend to react negatively towards us until they become aware that we're seeking spiritual goals. We encourage their acceptance of our unaccustomed behavior by wearing quasi-clerical garb: subdued garments and a bracelet of wooden beads usually suffice.
As to the necessary internal image of divinity, curiously, once a sincere commitment is made to follow the Karma Yoga path, an initial dream or vision of a wisdom goddess is often experienced. This peculiar initial dream often occurs when people begin psychoanalysis or other emotional therapy. In the absence of a visionary encounter, we can browse the shops for statues or medallions, remaining passive in our gaze and never... never letting our ego tell us that something is too cheap or too gaudy or anything else. No judgment may be rendered as regards the effect the item will have on those around us. This must be a purely personal selection, one that cannot be accomplished if we even begin to consider public appreciation of it.
Once we have an image, and again it does not matter whether the image if of Guan Yin, Parvati, Mary, Sophia, the White Buffalo Spirit, or even of ancient Egyptian and Grecian goddesses, we concentrate fiercely on the image. This can be done in bed or during a lunch break or even sitting on a meditation cushion. The important aspect of this is the decision to concentrate on this interior image and not to let our attention indulge itself in frivolous, 'time-filling' distractions. (The depth of concentration required is such, however, that we should not attempt it while driving.)
We scan our mind, probing this inner resource of strength until we touch the font, the stream, the current of force. It is a strange but compelling feeling, one that will seem uncomfortable at first; but when the novelty wears off, it becomes delightful. In fact, we run a danger of enjoying it so much that we become smugly independent and hold ourselves aloof from ordinary men. A few days worth of euphoria is quite enough.
The desired result is to relax and let the Dao flow freely; and if the morning freeway traffic does not flow so well, we will not much care about cars or clocks. And there, clasping the wheel, we might chant the Bodhisattva's name, recite her Dharani, and greet the day joyfully while others around us snarl into their cell-phones and suck on their cigarettes, breathing so much sound and fury.
But if we arrive at our workplace placid and self-assured, in disposition gentle, how do we respond to the aggression we encounter by others in the workplace: the unreasonable client's threats; the contemptuous remark; the venomous sneer; the hurtful snub; the unjust accusation; the theft of our ideas or parking space?
We freeze our reaction. This does not say that we count to ten and stall our anger. Such an insignificant pause is too often a prelude to submission, a planting of contempt down into our psyche's earth, that Muladhrara chakra, the bowels of earthly reaction. The anger will grow there and if we don't know that by now, we're beyond those numerical "count to ten" nostrums.
Neither do we allow ourselves to vent our anger and denounce the person who has troubled us. Instead we hold our anger "in our throat," in accordance with the dictates of our interior Bodhisattva. Her voice will speak to us in firm but gentle tone, reasoning, and urging us to reason: "The more importance you give an insult, the greater must your response be. Weigh this insult, and consider its source, its cause and its effect, and then consider the source, the cause and the effects of your own response." Uh, oh. Now we have to think.
Always, we are confronted with this choice: Swallow our venomous anger; spit it out; or hold it in our throat. If we engage our mind and consider the various aspects of action and reaction to the anger, the anger will simply descend to the throat. This kind of holding confers immunity to the venom; and every religion accounts for this harmless consequence. In Eastern religions it is either Shiva or Avalokitesvara who is addressed as "Nilakantha" (the Blue Necked One), blue-necked because in loving defense of us, he or she takes the poisons of the world into himself and holds them there harmlessly in the Vishuddha region, the region of speech. It is for this reason that the Vishuddha chakra is violet in color.
Likewise every Mahayana Buddhist sings the great Dharani to Guan Yin .. the more famous Japanese version, Dai Hi Shin Dharani, begins "Namu kara tan no tora ya ya:" the original Sanskrit of which is, "Namo Ratna Trayaya" (Hail to the Triple Treasure.) The third sentence in that Dharani says, "Having adored him, may I enter into the heart of the blue-necked one known as the noble, adorable Avalokitesvara!"- who is more famous in his androgynous, feminine form, Guan Yin.
Says the Lotus Sutra, "Had you imbibed some fatal draught and lay now at the point of death, One thought of Guan Yin's saving power would nullify its poison."
We decide then to postpone making a decision, to set a statute of limitations on the process, to check our watch and note the time and then to give ourselves, depending on the severity of the insult or injury, twenty-four or forty-eight hours to let the yin and yang forces rebalance themselves, and to allow ourselves the time to give the miscreant back his humanity. And then, when we are in full command of our resources... calm, and cool, and with our brain in gear, we move to address the injustice or the action that inspired it. (Cold blood is ever so much more efficient than the hot variety. When inflated and heated by indignation, brainless, air-headed anger, vented verbally or in some precipitiously written letter, has a way of making us step off our own self-constructed cliffs without benefit of parachute.)
We elevate and channel the indignation until it is tempered by thought. Lower energy centers (the Svadhisthana and Muladhara) are unconscious centers. Assuming we don't bark angrily - the usually disastrous fire response, whenever we allow our responses to environmental situations to remain down in these areas, we unconsciously resort to schadenfreude or passive-aggressive tactics - secret feelings of satisfaction at the distress of others or subtle sabotage and "unintentional" errors. The emotion must be raised. In the rear of the brain is the moon center, the light which tempers yin feelings. In the front of the brain is the sun center, the light which tempers yang determinations. Physical kriyas, chakra or Microcosmic Orbit meditations, help to accomplish the raising of these gut-level responses to the light of conscious consideration. (A complete regimen will soon be offered by Yin Zhao Shakya on our ZBOHY website.)
We remember Hsu Yun's favorite expression, "Let it be..." and like the woman who attained the Holy Fruit by keeping this thought firmly in her mind, we hold the venom in our throat - neither swallowing it nor spitting it out - but storing it temporarily, giving ourselves the time to react constructively and to convert the venom to medicinal purpose. We say only, "Let it be. Let it be..." The effect is stunning.
The voice inside us steadies us. "Don't go down that road again. You know every stone in it. You've stumbled over them all. Stay here with me. Hold your ground. Neither advance nor retreat. Wait. Be patient. Let it be."
As we become more entrained to the goddess' voice, establishing a dialogue, it is as if we automatically hear her cautioning us to remain humble and not to let our piety carry us into haughty realms. The advice may sometimes sound a bit cynical, but it is usually ennobling and always practical. If we are singled out for praise, the voice says, "Refuse to accept the credit for yourself for in doing so you cause anger and resentment to rise in the hearts of your co-workers. Do not be the occasion of such injury to them." (We might as well be magnanimous at the outset, since our co-workers, collectively or individually, consciously or unconsciously, will act to make us pay dearly for that portion of the praise that each feels was his due.)
Then the voice continues, "Be the occasion of good feelings. Demonstrate that in my name you have cultivated a generous spirit." Immediately we insist that credit be given to those whose contributions were far more important than ours, everybody who was associated with the project, including the mail boy. Again, this is not entirely spiritual largesse. This is often just plain smart. Only a fool willingly gains the approbation of the few at the contempt of the many.
And so, as reluctant as we are to accept praise, that quickly do we advance to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong. That little voice inside us will tell us to apologize immediately for error, and when we do, we're often astonished to see how quickly we ennoble others. No sooner do we step forward to accept the blame, but others step forward to protest our hogging of the guilt. When others freely share the responsibility for a problem, a sense of teamwork is generated, and in this enlightened atmosphere, nobody wastes time with rancorous fretting, and necessary corrections can be efficiently made.
The idea of conducting a dialogue with an interior, archetypal presence is fundamental to the spiritual experience. We tend not to take this possibility seriously, however, because we so often hear accounts of conversations with deities in which the mortal speaker is instructed to make money or board a comet trailing spaceship. At other times we regard it as a fictional device, as Virgil to Dante. But Carl Jung, who in his fruitful correspondence with D.T.Suzuki helped to formulate the structure and dynamics of Zen psychology, writes eloquently of his own interior dialogues with an archetype he named Philemon. "Psychologically," writes Jung in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, "Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious figure to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru." Jung relates a conversation he had with a "highly cultivated" friend of Gandhi's who spoke reverently of his own guru with whom he had a gratifying teacher/student relationship. The guru was revealed to be none other than Shankaracharya, the 9th Century commentator of the Vedas who is credited with founding the Vedanta movement. Jung, remembering his own dialogues with his own wise, interior guru found the information both illuminating and, especially since Shankara had been dead for centuries, quite "reassuring."
We should not doubt the possibility of generating an abiding relationship with a wisdom Goddess; but we should also not suppose that this is something that is easy to accomplish. It requires a clear, unemotional mind and an intense ability to concentrate and, of course, an intense desire to achieve it.
Karma Yoga does not encourage positional stagnation. We should be ambitious and desire to advance in our work. Ambition is not the problem, it is how we implement desire, the ethical or unethical, the selfless or selfish means by which we strive to advance.
Finally, if we consult with our interior Guide, we'll hear the sobering words, "Do not desire money and power in order to make yourself desirable, for then, to your horror, you will discover that you are desired only for your money and power. Succeed, but retain your humility by surrendering the fruits of your labor to me while regarding the success of your labor as praise of the Lord."
This, of course, is the essence of Karma Yoga: striving for excellence but detaching ourselves from the results. It is as if we work as anonymous volunteers. If the project succeeds, we're glad to have helped. If it fails, we know we've done our best. If we eliminate ourselves from consideration of the results, from gain or loss, we then eliminate our ego, and no value attaches to praise or blame. We are free and need not grovel for compliments or cower from criticism. And when we speak to the divinity within ourselves, saying, "This is all that I have to give, it is not much, but I will do it as best I can and I will do it for you," we are set free from the bitterness and pain of Samsara and get at least a foot in Nirvana's door.
In Karma Yoga, work is a form of prayer. As such it is important that we understand the kind of attention that is required. Just as prayer said by rote - the mind absent because the thought is elsewhere - is meaningless recitation and not prayer at all, so work done while the attention is focussed on music or in daydreams or in some hypnotic blur is not Karma Yoga.
Attention means complete awareness, absorption in the task, but not becoming entranced by it. (Years ago I had a neighbor who was a foreman at a factory. One of the employees he supervised, a young woman, operated a metal punching machine. She'd insert a piece of metal and with her foot would activate the powerful punch which slammed down and stamped a number into the metal. Hour after hour the young woman repeated the procedure. One day this foreman came up behind her and jokingly whispered, "I wonder what would happen if you put your hand in there." Immediately, in her trance state, she did just that and permanently lost the use of her crushed hand.)
Non-hypnotic absorption, full and alert concentration, elevates consciousness into exalted spiritual realms. There is intense, total focus upon the work, the sustained elation of worthy purpose; and, as if we fully intended anonymously to donate the work to some charitable enterprise, i.e.., to detach ourselves from the results of it, we proceed, immersed in the work. When the task is finished, we release it. No longer part of us, it is gone; and no pride or shame attaches us to it. We have put it into a Goddess' hands, and we pray only that it is worthy to be there.
Baba Ram Dass who in his secular life was Richard Alpert, a former Harvard professor, used to tell the story about a lecture on spiritual transcendence he once gave to an audience of mostly academic types - learned men and women from such disciplines as psychology, theology, and philosophy. Encouraged by this array of intellectuals, Ram Dass, in clear but sophisticated language, began his exposition.
Sitting conspicuously in the front row was a grandmotherly lady; and whenever Ram Dass made a point that should have provoked an affirmative response from his audience, this lady and only this lady immediately nodded. When he resorted to sly, "insider's' wit, this lady and only this lady laughed. Clearly, she was the only one in the audience who understood what he was talking about. At the end of the lecture he came down from the podium and questioned her.
"Are you a teacher?" he asked.
And on that Karma pearl we'll quit.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts