Sadhguru looks at the importance of the process of karma yoga, its role on the spiritual path, and how one can go about using action as a means to spiritual growth.
Question: What is the role of karma yoga in sadhana?
Sadhguru: It is not needed really. Yoga does not need karma. Yoga is to go beyond karma. Why karma yoga has been brought in is to bring about balance in a person. Whatever we call as our awareness, our love, our experience or our glimpses of our reality, if it has to be sustained, the path of non-doing is a very wonderful path, but it is very slippery. Extremely slippery. It is the simplest and the most difficult. It is not difficult but it is not at all easy, because it is simple – right now, here and now. But that here and now – how to get it? Whatever you do, it is not in your hands. It is never going to be in your hands. But your hands need something right now, you need to hold something. That is why the crutch of karma yoga.
Without the crutch, most people will not be able to walk. There are a few beings who can walk without the crutch from the first moment. They are very rare beings. Everyone else needs the crutch to manage your awareness. Without this, most people are incapable of remaining aware. So karma yoga is brought into your life to properly temper sadhana with the right kind of action.
Activity – liberating or entangling
Karma yoga has unfortunately been described as service, but it is not so. It is a way of undoing the impressions that you have gathered. If you can joyfully involve yourself in any activity, that is karma yoga. If you do it with great effort, only karma will come, noyoga will happen!
Generally it is through various activities that you perform that you get entangled and enmeshed with life. But if the activity becomes a process of liberation instead of entanglement, it is karma yoga. Whether it is work or walking on the street or talking to someone, the nature of the activity is not important. When you do something only because it is needed, where it does not mean anything to you but you are capable of involving yourself as if that is your life, it transforms you and action becomes liberating.
When we were building the Dhyanalinga, people thought, “This is it! He wants this to happen. Let us do it! Once this is done, we can relax.” They worked like their life depended on it. They went from house to house, raising funds and bringing the necessary support and made it happen. When it was done, before they said “Ooff…” I announced ten different projects. I will always keep it on because people need that kind of action. They need to do what is needed without worrying about their fulfillment and their likes and dislikes. Anyway we are doing something for our growth, so let us do something that is useful to everyone. Let us do sensible action.
There have been many masters who created action like this. When Gurdjieff started his centers in Europe, the European elite went to him. In the morning he would give them a shovel and a pickaxe and tell them, “Dig trenches.” In the hot sun, they stood and dug and dug. These were not people who are used to labor of any kind. By the time they had worked a few hours, they had blisters all over. He stood there and drove them on. By late evening, they were hungry but they worked and worked, digging trenches. Then he would look at the watch, “Okay, it is seven o‘clock. Looks like dinner time. All of you can close the trenches again before we go for dinner.” A whole day’s work!
Doing something that does not mean anything to you with total involvement is what breaks the karmic structure. Karma means action. If action has to become yoga, action should be liberating. If your activity has become a process of binding yourself, it is karma. So the question is not about how much activity you do. How you are performing the activity is what makes the difference. If you are crawling through your work, that is karma. If you are dancing through your work, that is karma yoga.
Karma is the Sanskrit word for action. It is equivalent to Newton’s law of ‘every action must have a reaction’. When we think, speak or act we initiate a force that will react accordingly.
This returning force maybe modified, changed or suspended, but most people will not be able eradicate it.
This law of cause and effect is not a punishment, but is wholly for the sake of education or learning.
A person may not escape the consequences of his actions, but he will suffer only if he himself has made the conditions ripe for his suffering. Ignorance of the law is no excuse whether the laws are man-made or universal.
To stop being afraid and to start being empowered in the worlds of karma and reincarnation, here is what you need to know about karmic laws.
1. THE GREAT LAW
– “As you sow, so shall you reap”. This is also known as the “Law of Cause and Effect”.
– Whatever we put out in the Universe is what comes back to us.
– If what we want is Happiness, Peace, Love, Friendship… Then we should BE Happy, Peaceful, Loving and a True Friend.
2. THE LAW OF CREATION
– Life doesn’t just HAPPEN, it requires our participation.
– We are one with the Universe, both inside and out. – Whatever surrounds us gives us clues to our inner state.
– BE yourself, and surround yourself with what you want to have present in your Life.
3. THE LAW OF HUMILITY
– What you refuse to accept, will continue for you.
– If what we see is an enemy, or someone with a character trait that we find to be negative, then we ourselves are not focused on a higher level of existence.
4. THE LAW OF GROWTH
– “Wherever you go, there you are”.
– For us to GROW in Spirit, it is we who must change – and not the people, places or things around us.
– The only given we have in our lives is OURSELVES and that is the only factor we have control over.
– When we change who and what we are within our heart our life follows suit and changes too. THE
5. LAW OF RESPONSIBILITY
– Whenever there is something wrong in my life, there is something wrong in me.
– We mirror what surrounds us – and what surrounds us mirrors us; this is a Universal Truth.
– We must take responsibility what is in our life.
6. THE LAW OF CONNECTION
– Even if something we do seems inconsequential, it is very important that it gets done as everything in the Universe is connected.
– Each step leads to the next step, and so forth and so on.
– Someone must do the initial work to get a job done.
– Neither the first step nor the last are of greater significance,
– As they were both needed to accomplish the task.
– Past-Present-Future they are all connected…
7. THE LAW OF FOCUS
– You can not think of two things at the same time.
– When our focus is on Spiritual Values, it is impossible for us to have lower thoughts such as greed or anger.
8. THE LAW OF GIVING AND HOSPITALITY
– If you believe something to be true,then sometime in your life you will be called upon to demonstrate that particular truth.
– Here is where we put what we CLAIM that we have learned, into actual PRACTICE.
9. THE LAW OF HERE AND NOW
– Looking backward to examine what was, prevents us from being totally in the HERE AND NOW.
– Old thoughts, old patterns of behavior, old dreams…
– Prevent us from having new ones.
10. THE LAW OF CHANGE
– History repeats itself until we learn the lessons that we need to change our path.
11. THE LAW OF PATIENCE AND REWARD
– All Rewards require initial toil.
– Rewards of lasting value require patient and persistent toil.
– True joy follows doing what we’re suppose to be doing, and waiting for the reward to come in on its own time.
12. THE LAW OF SIGNIFICANCE AND INSPIRATION
– You get back from something whatever YOU have put into it.
– The true value of something is a direct result of the energy and intent that is put into it.
– Every personal contribution is also a contribution to the Whole.
– Lack luster contributions have no impact on the Whole, nor do they work to diminish it.
– Loving contributions bring life to, and inspire, the Whole.
Karma: that word that gets thrown around a lot.
People talk about “good” karma versus “bad” karma, or “your” karma versus “mine.”
But despite the term’s popularity, it seems like everybody has a different idea about what it actually means. If karma is truly one of the Buddha’s most important teachings, as he himself repeatedly emphasized, then to follow in his footsteps, we need to be clear about its definition.
The Problems with “Agricultural” Karma
Probably one of the most popular misunderstandings about Buddhist Karma is the idea that everything that happens to us is our karma. If we win the lottery or have an attractive partner, it’s because we performed good deeds in the past—we have “good” karma. If we get hit by a truck or our partner cheats on us, it’s because we misbehaved and have “bad” karma. And, of course, what we do now will determine our future results. Let’s just call this the agricultural view of karma: we reap what we sow.
So, what’s wrong with this idea? Well, whether we’re Buddhist or not, it creates lots of intellectual problems.
The first is that believing we reap what we sow simply seems to contradict a great deal of our experience. We act with kindness, maybe dropping a few coins into a homeless man’s can, only to have him call us a cheap yuppie. Or our chronically underperforming co-worker who spends most of the time surfing Facebook and pilfering office supplies gets a promotion.
In other words, the wicked very often seem to prosper, even thrive, while the good seem to get a goodly portion of crap.
Why, for example, do innocent infants die? They’ve barely had enough time to learn how to digest food properly, let alone perform some wicked deed. (Of course, we need to leave Stewie from Family Guy out of this equation, as well as the idea of the infant proposed by famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who viewed it as a viscous and greedy succubus bent on completely draining the mother of her vital energy.)
I’m sure you’ve already come up with the answer: we must be dealing with more than one lifetime. In fact, the claim is that we have an infinite number of lives extending into the past. With this explanation, all the rewards and atrocities of life fit together like a skillful game of Tetris. We have an account for why infants die, or why we can be completely loving and faithful to our partner, only to end up alone; it’s just our karmic comeuppance from cheating in a previous life.
Sure, we still might feel unhappy because our partner is now dating a princess from Bhutan, but at least we can mourn with a sense of ease, knowing there is some order to events in the universe, and that these personal painful events are just the fruits of old, bad karma. We can also rest easy because in the future, we’ll also reap the rewards of our fidelity—it just might take time.
If we stop here, then all is well.
However, if we push a little further beyond this logical seal, then we confront what we call “the administrative nightmare.” How can all those good and bad deeds possibly be kept track of? And not just in one lifetime, but across infinite lifetimes? What conceivable cosmic ledger could account for all those transactions? It seems like an administrative impossibility to coordinate that vast amount of information and organize events so everything unfolds correctly, and justice gets served to the right people, at the right time, in just the right way. The organizational details are so complex that it leads people to say that karma is some infinitely subtle, ineffable cosmic order, inaccessible to even the most sophisticated minds.
An even bigger problem is that, with infinite lifetimes, absolutely everyone would have enough karma for nearly anything to happen to them. Put it this way: we all have everything coming.
The irony is that this view of karma ends up undermining its original purpose of explaining an individual’s unique, personal history.
Even if we manage to somehow dismiss these logical problems, we’re left with one that chafes at the heart of Buddhism. This view of karma presupposes an abiding self that’s responsible for these events, whereas the Buddha’s central message was the radical proposal that there is no self (anattā). The agricultural view of karma rests on there being some sort of enduring “you” (call it a self, soul, mind-stream, or whatever) who is responsible for what “you” did in the past, and a “you” who will benefit or be cursed in the future.
This view of karma contributes to acting in self-cherishing, ego-reinforcing ways. In other words, it supports the very self-illusion that the Buddha considered the root of our suffering.
Karma as Intention
What did the Buddha really mean by karma? The answer is simple: intention.
He said, “Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, and intellect.” Defining karma in this way, the Buddha departed radically from all previous thinking about karma.
In the traditional Brahmanical culture of India, karma generally referred to action. Do good deeds, and the universe will reward you in turn. But by redefining karma as the intentions behind one’s actions, the Buddha was pointing to a deeper truth: the kinds of intentions we habitually entertain—whether they’re generous and loving, or selfish and aversive—will determine the kind of mental space we inhabit. We can’t fully control whether our dog runs away, or whether our partner cheats on us, but we do have a say in what kind of person meets those events.
Karma as intention was the central message the Buddha emphasized over and over. The more any acts of body, speech, or mind are motivated by poisonous intentions such as greed and hatred, the more toxic we become, and the more we suffer, no matter what happens to us externally. The reverse is also true: intentions of compassion and wisdom shape us into beings with greater patience, who are less susceptible to suffering, no matter what happens to us externally.
To put it succinctly: Buddhist karma is not about what happens to you, but who it happens to.
Yes, the Wicked can Prosper
The Buddha’s focus on intention rather than actions and external circumstances allows us to fully acknowledge that the wicked can prosper, and that selfish behavior can bring a person great fortune and power. However, the mental state of such a person surrounded by luxury is a whole different matter. This also means that acting with compassionate intentions won’t magically prevent us from confronting the slings and arrows of life’s misfortune.
But acting out of wholesome intentions opens up the possibility of becoming a person who encounters these challenges with less grumpiness and greater ease. We have exemplars of this possibility in our great spiritual luminaries, such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn. The fruit of their karma was not the atrocities they were victims of, but the equanimity and active compassion they show in the face of such extreme oppression and violence.
So too, getting sick is not the result of one’s bad karma. People grow old, experience the pain of illness, and eventually die. The Buddha never said you could plant the right karmic seeds to avoid any of these. They’re simply not optional.
However, whether or not we suffer when confronted by them is entirely up to us.
Not Everything is your Karma
In a sense, it’s true that karma means we reap what we sow. The only difference is that we’re sowing in the furrows of the mind, and less so in actual fields in the physical world.
That’s not to say our actions don’t have consequences. If we go around smiling at people, we’ll likely be smiled at in return. If we go around slapping people, we’re sure to get slapped. Yet, the ultimate outcome of our behavior is somewhat unpredictable. We could smile at a stranger, only to have them beat us up in return.
This unpredictability happens because there are other levels of causality working in the universe.
Not everything is our karma.
The Buddha actually taught about these other levels of causality quite explicitly in what are called the five Niyāmas. It’s worth going through them briefly. Here, we give them a modern twist.
The first level of causality is called the Utu Niyāma, or the level of physics and chemistry.
The second level is known as Bīja Niyāma, or biological causality. This new level is necessary because living organisms are more complex than just their physical and chemical constituents.
Continuing up the ladder of emergent complexity, we see that some living organisms have nervous systems and minds, which can’t be fully understood by just looking at the previous two levels of Utu and Bija Niyāma. Therefore, the Buddha talked about the Citta Niyāma, or psychological causality.
Now, some minds have a more hard-wired relationship with the previous levels. Take a lizard, for example. It behaves fairly predictably, based on tight wiring between chemical signals and genetic codes. We will never train a lizard to fetch a newspaper. Other minds, such as those of dogs and horses, have greater flexibility. Yet, teaching a dog to fetch the newspaper depends on an outside stimulus—specifically, our persistent efforts. The behavior doesn’t come entirely from inside the dog’s mind. And in fact, there may be only one animal on this planet with “self-forming” minds: humans. For us, we have to identify another level of causality: karmic or intentional causality, known as the Kamma Niyāma.
Kamma Niyāma opens a space for reflexivity, self-organization, and changing ingrained habits of body, speech, and mind. The preciousness of human life rests in this potential. Karmic causality, in other words, is a whole new level of causality in the universe, allowing us the chance to awaken to the highest level, called Dhamma Niyāma, or Ultimate Reality.
Dhamma Niyāma describes the absolute, indivisible reality, the universe in its entirety. All divisions from these heights are products of a mind struggling to grasp the ultimate. We build conceptual models to try to understand this level, and some models are certainly better than others. If that weren’t the case, the Buddha wouldn’t have bothered teaching. But at this level, all models are equally empty.
To say that everything is our karma is to usurp this vast spectrum of causality into a singular, self-centered mind.
When we realize the complexity we’re dealing with, we no longer see events as a result of karma, but rather as the product of certain physical causes and conditions. We also no longer fall prey to magical thinking, believing, for example, that by giving away money and being nice, we will get money in return and be showered with niceness.
Instead, we realize that when we replace hatred with compassion, or greed with generosity, those intentions will shape the type of being we become, whether rich or poor.
Authors: Culadasa and Matthew Immergut
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr
Source: Elephant Journal