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 and 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.