WISDOM IN ACTION
Every human soul is an apprentice in the sacrificial art of applying cosmic energies for the sake of universal good. Thus, all human evolution is a record of lessons learnt, lost and rediscovered in the arduous practice of Karma Yoga. The ragged and uneven tale of recorded history and the glamour of current events are nothing but the distorted image of the pilgrimage of humanity reflected in the inverted lens of egotism. As a result, individuals oscillate between a sense of starvation for meaning in events and a sense of being overwhelmed by their magnitude. Nevertheless, there must be true Karma Yogins in disguise on the stage of the world's theatre, individuals with a measure of maturity, from whose sacrificial examples earnest students of human life may learn. Unfortunately, the energy of action is most easily stimulated by egotism, engendering a momentum that is sometimes linked to a grandiose conception of the world and of history, seemingly independent of self. Then through subsuming one's false sense of identity under some vague notion like national destiny, one can view one's life in terms of a false drama. Very often figures in public life are caught up in just such a melodramatic response to chaotic events; they regard their own choices as unique, unprecedented, momentous, fraught with extreme consequences for the future. There is in all of this, of course, an absurd element of unreality. Such illusion is conveyed in the story of the French writer who imagined a poignant meeting of some of the great women of history, including Cleopatra. Gathering together in their old age, and looking back upon their lives, they recognize their relative irrelevance. Plato in his dialogues made much the same point by putting into perspective the presumed importance of what happened in Troy.
In a world of imperfect beings, certain events and actions inevitably assume a much greater magnitude than they truly deserve in the longer view of history. Nature moves gradually, working silently and gestating invisibly under the soil. This is true of the work of sun and fire, sky and earth, air and water; all mirror in time the archetypal realm of Aether-Akasha. As Kropotkin pointed out, one could hardly recognize from a study of earthquakes and volcanic explosions the vast geological changes that take place over millions of years, proceeding through minute imperceptible increments. These almost invisible changes can accumulate to set off a shifting in the continents. Thus, massive volcanic eruptions, for example, are the result of a long series of tremors, though they come about as abrupt precipitations filled with fury and force. So long as human beings remain trapped in the realm of effects, seeing only with the physical eye and considering only a very narrow view of time, they will have no sense of the majesty and symphonic resonance of Nature, nor will they feel its resonance in their lives. Instead, they will be caught in what Thoreau called a life of quiet desperation. They will react only to whatever seems to be titanic, dramatic or volcanic, and so reinforce their subservience to the illusion of effects.
Although true of human beings in general, it is especially true of those figures in history who are powerful in a conventional sense. Whether one considers a figure like Alexander or a Genghis Khan, or a more contemporary figure like General Douglas MacArthur, one can see that it is easy for such dedicated and determined individuals to become suddenly caught in the maya of the magnification of importance of events. There may have been an element of truth in what General MacArthur saw, at the time of the Korean War, as the tremendous effect upon China of the actions of the United States. At the same time, his judgement isolated China and the United States from the rest of the world. Unlike the more discerning Lord Louis Mountbatten, he was insensitive to the aspirations of millions of souls in many burgeoning nations, great and small.
Whatever the details of an historical judgement, once one leaves out of account large portions of humanity, one can be right at a certain level, though at the expense of being caught in an exaggeration. Yet it was this same sense of the enormity of events that made MacArthur the man he was, a man capable of rendering a far greater service to the nation of Japan than he himself ever realized. As a nation stultified by its immense but wounded pride, Japan required extraordinarily delicate handling. Not only that, it needed to be shown a way out. In doing this, it was necessary to act with a true humanitarian instinct, free from any taint of racism and based on a genuine love for the Japanese people. Out of his soldier's ability to distinguish between the Japanese people and their defeated generals, it was possible for MacArthur to assist in the greatest transformation of Japanese history since the Meiji restoration. If this was evident at the time to some, though perhaps less so now to many observers, its long run and fundamental importance will not emerge until after the end of the present century, when Japan shall have fully worked out all the implications of the route it has taken — breaking with elements of its own tradition, gaining an unprecedented economic ascendancy, and yet feeling itself weighed down by the anxiety that accompanies frenetic success.
The karmic lesson to be drawn is that even the most remarkable figures in history, whether statesmen, military figures or politicians, often cannot gauge the significance of the events they seem to initiate. That man is wise in his time who, without exaggerating or underestimating his own role, understands something of Tolstoy's view in War and Peace — that the commanding generals are irrelevant and that in a sense even the vast masses of soldiers are acted upon. There is a mighty force at work in history, moving in mysterious ways through myriad wills. How they all clash and combine and resolve themselves is difficult indeed to know. It certainly cannot be understood if one subscribes to some simplistic Great Man theory of history or military strategy. Here one may learn from the example of General George C. Marshall. As a man, he no doubt took his profession as seriously as did General MacArthur; yet he was fortunate not to have had any other advantage save loyalty to his family, loyalty to what had been done before and loyalty to his teachers. Working hard and well, he at no point found spectacular success, yet he acquired a considerable wisdom in action. For a general or anyone involved in strategic planning, wisdom in action is crucial, less in regard to one's own sphere than in reference to understanding other human beings and in choosing and drawing out their hidden potential. The ability to groom talent innately presupposes some measure of self-confidence and selflessness.
This may be seen clearly in the extraordinary choice made silently and far-sightedly by Marshall of his supreme commander in Europe. At the time Marshall's eye fell on him, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in a position to become the commandant of a military college, in which capacity he could have developed his own deep interest in the profession of military strategy. Marshall wrote to him, suggesting that he might, if he liked, come to Washington and serve in a thoroughly unimportant role as a kind of attache; Eisenhower wrote frankly of this, remarking that the position of commandant was extremely tempting, but that, out of pure and simple respect for General Marshall, he would take up his offer. What Marshall knew relatively early in the war, but kept to himself, was that there would one day come an extraordinary challenge to selfless coordination among the different allied nations. It would require a quality for which America does not prepare its people — letting others take the credit while standing behind the visible scene. It requires the ability in repetitious and protracted arenas of conflict to be cool and constructive. Marshall knew that any officer who could eventually play this role in the most crucial engagements at the end of the war would have to be trained in anonymity.
If it required a certain karmic insight on the part of Marshall to choose Eisenhower, it required a certain Buddhic intuition on the part of Eisenhower to respond to the call. Hence, he embarked upon a long apprenticeship which featured little of the excitement that he would have enjoyed had he been commandant of a college teaching military strategy. In fact, most of his duties were chores. In effect, Eisenhower merely polished the shoes of his commander, but he was happy to stay put, to watch and learn. Marshall knew that it would require an extraordinary wisdom, when the time came, to match up to the brilliance and force of personality of men like Harold Alexander, Alanbrooke and the other English generals. Most of them were well schooled in a philosophy of true sportsmanship, selflessness and disinterestedness; but at the same time it would also be necessary to cope with MacArthur-like figures on the British side such as General Bernard Law Montgomery. Remarkably, when Eisenhower was appointed as supreme commander, he quickly won the respect of Alexander and all the others, who saw that he could not be drawn into competitive games, let alone the nationalistic rivalries that were part of the high command.
Instead, they found in Eisenhower someone who was willing to learn, willing to stay quiet, but at the same time extremely strong; he was waiting to act and to act with a decisiveness born of deliberation. Eisenhower worked as karma works. When there were critical choices to be made at the end of the war, decisions affecting millions of lives and the concerted effort to bring the war to a close, the last-minute freedom of decision was left in Eisenhower's hands. Under karma he was able to initiate the final move so that World War II in Europe ended on the eighth of May, White Lotus Day, 1945. Here one may discern the Nirmanakaya influence at work, affecting selfless and open-minded individuals through their dreams and intuitions, their imagination and ideals. That larger force may also be discerned in the closure of World War II in Asia on the twelfth of August, 1945, the birth anniversary of H.P. Blavatsky. Thus one finds the most remarkable karma quietly at work; for those who were truly awake and alive to the meaning of events in 1945, it was a time of extraordinary tension, far greater than anything that has taken place since. In the intervening years lesser persons have been dislodged by relatively minor crises. None of them had had a preparation in living through crises, making distinctions and learning from events. Such is the mark of the Karma Yogin in the realm of public affairs.
Promethean foresight must be earned through a thorough study of the mistakes, as well as the wise moves, of all who have gone before. Every great military commander has the utmost respect and fascination both for the successful moves but also the avoidable mistakes made by his precursors in the field of battle. This true learning from the past means putting Epimethean wisdom in the service of Promethean forces with reference to the future. What it comes to in practice is that one must study the lives of others well enough to learn how easy it is to be mistake-prone oneself. At the same time, however, one must not let the fear of mistakes come in the way of doing the best that one knows. One's motivation can and should be to lay down as a sacrifice all that one has in the best way one can for the sake of the whole, without drawing attention to oneself. When one can do this, one can become an instrument of a higher law or collective force. In a karmic field, wherein high ideals may be intact but threatened by pollution, such as the peace that follows a horrendous war, it is possible for many people to be touched by such motivations. But to become one with an ideal and so free oneself from all pettiness and residues of personal egotism is to prepare oneself to be used by the wisdom operating through karma. Such detached ardour towards ideals was epitomized by Louis Claude de Saint-Martin at the time of the French Revolution:
Foresight at that level requires the courage to negate time, the judgements of the present and also the judgements of posterity. Too many politicians dance with an eye to posterity. This is foolish. The greatest men, like Lincoln, were not obsessed with posterity but with rightness; they understood something of the timeless nature of the enactment of right in the name of an ideal. At the same time, one must make full allowance for all the imperfections in oneself, in the moment and in the act of embodying an ideal. Therefore, Karma Yoga requires a balance between a capacity to be strong in a timeless and universal field and a simultaneous ability to be courageous in that sphere wherein, as Krishna says, no act is without blame. Put in another way, one must combine a macro-perspective with a micro-application, see events both in the large and in the small. The more one is able, through detachment, to infinitize and so negate the finitizing tendencies of the human mind, the more one empties oneself into the boundless, unknown, uncertain and indeterminate ocean of space. At the same time, to gain efficiency and precision, skill in the performance of action, one must master concentration, the ability to bring things to a centre, to an intense, sharp focus. If one can fuse together this sense of infinitude and a sense of laser-like precision, one will gain much more than a sense of what is immediately relevant and essential. One will begin to see the equilibrizing forces of karma as centered upon an invisible point. It is like saying that to be able to master attention in reference to three things, for example, one must focus on some invisible fourth thing that one may think of as either inside or outside the triad, but which is, in reality, entirely beyond it.
Karma Yoga depends upon a sense of depth, a sense of that which is infinitesimal and hidden. This is known by the greatest dancers, archetypally represented by Shiva Nataraj, who are concerned not with position but motion, and who at the same time know that there is something mayavic about motion in relation to a field that is homogeneous and immobile. Its pure existence is in the realm of the mind. It is the etheric empyrean of the poets. It is like the sky in which the bird takes wing and floats in a refulgent majesty, remaining in motion, but when seen from a great distance, seemingly motionless. It is difficult indeed to understand or experience this fusion of motion and motionlessness, action and inaction, the micro-perception and the macro-perspective. When one looks at the night sky, one recognizes that boundless space itself is vastly greater than all the possible galaxies and systems. Even the immense voids in intergalactic space that have recently been discovered only give a relative sense of the metaphysical void of absolute space. And when astronomers speculate along the vague lines of the so-called Big Bang theory, this is nothing but a materialized shadow of the teaching of Gupta Vidya regarding the emanation from within without, a version of the Central Point — the one Cosmic atom — of all the myriad centres of activity in the incipient cosmos.
Without becoming caught up in the unresolved disputes of contemporary cosmology concerning questions of the expanding universe, continuous creation and other mysteries, the ordinary person may learn to look at the sky using the mind's eye. Directing the vision of the hidden eye of the soul through continuous concentration, one will find that what one sees above in the heavens is mirrored within the heart. In particular, one may develop a sense of space in reference to the Akasha within the heart. Just as there are chambers in the heart and empty cavities in the brain, so too there is voidness throughout the human body. That voidness, however, cannot be understood in a two-dimensional or three-dimensional sense. Instead, one needs a sense of another level of matter which is consubstantial with the great universal matrix, Mulaprakriti, the Divine Darkness or primordial ground and substratum of all manifested matter. On that plane the distinction between matter and mind has no meaning; Mulaprakriti is mirrored as the Akasha within the heart. It may be symbolized as radiant matter or as a dark luminosity, and mystics have noted the striking analogies between the solar system within which the earth revolves and the miniature solar system within man. As Kropotkin said, every human being is a cosmos of organs, and each organ is itself a cosmos of cells. To be able to experience the cosmos within the empty space in the heart is to discover the seed point or bindhu within the lotus of the heart. But to experience it, one must experience the depth of introverted vision. Those who do so are actually much farther from the ordinary terrestrial realm than could ever be reached by traversing what is called outer space.
To reach the heart of action one must rethink one's view of space and time and motion. In the seventeenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna gives the mystical key to this meditation upon the heart of action. Having explained to Arjuna the application of the complex doctrine of the gunas, or qualities affecting all action, Krishna gives to Arjuna the talismanic mantram vitalizing all true faith and sacrifice:
This is the ancient and sacred mode of consecration of karma or action. The more disinterested one's practice of Karma Yoga, the more that action is itself a disinterested flow of benevolence, the more one begins to gain clues into the magical connections of the workings of karma in the large. Freed from a concern with one's own karma, one may begin to discern the karma of nations, continents, races and human beings whom one wishes to serve and help. As one makes inevitable discoveries regarding the cyclic working of karma, one will begin to recognize that the more complex the karmic mathematics, the more one's practice of benevolence depends upon strength of mind and clarity of perception in taking hold of a set of karmic curves and releasing potent seeds of action.
OM is the Soundless Sound in boundless space — space beyond all subjects and objects, beyond all qualities, space which is no-thing and the fullness of the void. But OM is also in every atom, stirring within the minutest centres imaginable and in all the interstices of empty space. It is also a reverberation of one's own being, omnipresent in all the vestures, the great keynote of Nature. To be able to bring it before consciousness and to consecrate oneself to it as the Atman or eternal spirit is to reduce oneself to a zero, a sphere of light filled with the oceanic pulsation of the OM at the cosmic level. It encompasses all beginnings, middles and endings. It includes all creative, supportive and regenerative action. Most human action is not creative, but mechanical and routinized, half-hearted and preoccupied, based upon indirect calculations of consequences in the future or guilt over the past. Such action is neither free nor one-pointed. Therefore, it is significant for beings who do not normally experience creative action to set aside certain times of the day to engage in action in a deliberate spirit of sacrifice and charity — yajna and dana — for the good of all.
Since all beings must act out of internal necessity or dharma, it makes sense to set aside certain actions — kriya — as creative contributions to the universal good. Far from being grudging or mechanical, such performance of duty through action flows with a serene and steady rhythm, rooted in an ability to abstract from the outward particulars of acts and a freedom from illusion that is gained through meditation upon the OM. There is an element of illusion in all action, and hence there are always retrospective painful lessons to be learnt from it. OM is the destroyer of illusions. Through it one may learn from the flow of action, from past mistakes and illusions. By making oneself a zero, one can regenerate oneself through the OM. The OM is all this and much more. Through it one may get away from particulars, apprehending the whole, entering into the ocean of space and absolute darkness pregnant with the luminosity that contains universes. Reaching beyond the mind, it touches the deepest core of one's being connected with the immortal Self in eternity. Thus Krishna taught:
The moment one consecrates with the OM, one says TAT — That — without past, without limits, the boundless and nameless. To name anything is to limit it. It is not this, it is not that — neti, neti. It can never be made an object or a subject. It is prior, and yet also posterior, to the rise of all possible objects and subjects, all possible constellations of entities and atoms, all possible worlds and minds of beings. Thus having in the moment consecrated through the OM, one goes into TAT, totally negating oneself. Having heightened the significance of what one is going to do, one negates it, relinquishing every wish for any fruit of a sacrifice. Through the power of tapas one makes the sacrificial act disappear into the totality of TAT. This is a dialectical activity requiring the highest practice and exercise in self-consciousness, self-reference and the interplay of the individuality of the sacrificer and the universality of the cosmic sacrifice. As human beings will naturally experience a sense of satisfaction in an authentic act of creative sacrifice, Krishna pointed to this experience of inner fulfilment, inner freedom and inner recognition of truth:
SAT is not a truth, but rather ALL-TRUTH. It may be experienced as truth, goodness, purity, love or a number of other modes familiar to those who are experienced in tapas. Thus, having begun by consecrating with the OM, and then emptied all into TAT, which is beyond all possible concepts, worlds, definitions and beings, one reaffirms Being at the level of invisible unity, the level of the One Light of the One Spirit. Through the trinitarian mantram of OM TAT SAT, one may consecrate activity, negate the personal self, and at the same time realize a state of self-consciousness which will give contentment, substance and continuity to a life of service. When this mode of yajna becomes as natural as breathing, it infuses creativity, sustenance and regeneration into every action.
Metaphysically, the entire cosmos of manifestation is sacrificial. All existence is sacrifice. All descent from homogeneous planes into planes of greater differentiation is a sacrifice, a kind of grace, an avataric descent of the Logos. The primordial compassion in the One initiates and inaugurates the many. The one white light breaks up into the spectrum and then into the myriads upon myriads of hues that are implicit in the hebdomadic worlds. The entire universe may be understood as a great act of compassion. If this is true of the whole, then by identifying oneself totally, in one's deepest identity, with the Logos, one may find that everything is sacrifice. Once one is attuned to the Logos in this way, then all the tiredness of calculation vanishes, to be replaced by fearlessness with facts and freedom from illusion. One can learn to live in the world, and yet live outside it; one can learn to live only for the sake of sacrifice and benefit to others. By accepting this and cooperating with the cosmic Logoic sacrifice, one frees oneself from virtually all the tension, anxiety and fear that arise out of pseudo-agnosticism, false pride and the inability to recognize that one does not know the karmic mathematics of the universe. One learns to admire the good in others and to adore the wisdom of those who are greater than oneself. As presumption falls away, so too do envy, craving and irritation.
At some point, one can come directly to grips with the twin demons of craving and contempt, like and dislike, attraction and repulsion. Every time one falls prey to the demon of craving, one is equally in the grip of the demon of contempt. So too in the reverse. Once one begins to understand the operation of these shadowy forces in the realm of shadowy selves, one may cut through the pall of murk and gloom that they induce and establish one's mind in the realm of pure light. The shadow world of interaction and action of shadowy fears and hopes is a lie obscuring the dynamic light of true action. That light moves through a dynamic field of endless sacrifice and perpetual motion. It is difficult to root oneself in a consciousness of that realm, but it can be done through training oneself to hold fast to a sense of the heart and a sense of that which is between the eyes. It is possible to create an alignment between the eye of time and the eye of eternity, between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, between the field of specific sacrificial karma and the boundless fields of universal sacrifice — Adhiyajna. To do this is to discover wisdom in action, Karma Yoga. If one sets out in dead earnest, one may be confident that things will get worse before they get better. It simply means that each individual has a measure of karma to be worked out. The intense discomfort that one feels in this process is a sign that one is being tested by karma. In fact, one should be grateful that forces are rushing in. It is better to have them precipitate together than to be spread out over a protracted period. And as this happens, one should not advertise it, because it is something that everyone has to do.
Each human being must seize his or her birth, just as, in the Japanese fable, each human being must recognize the donkey of stupidity that he or she is carrying and quietly put it down. These are all elements of past egotism, thoughtlessness, envy, contempt and insensitivity. In the past, one saw people who were blind, deaf and dumb, and instead of saying, "May that be my burden and may I help", one said, "There but for the grace of God go I."
Having separated oneself from those who have mysterious karma to bear, these failures will come back to one, and one will have to live out future lives in blindness, deafness and muteness. Whatever the karmic consequences of one's actions, one must accept them as that which is best for the soul, that alone from which one may learn. It requires extraordinary fearlessness, but when one measures up to the test of accepting the truth, one will discover authentic freedom and true humility. Letting go of pride, one will see that everything is a lesson and that one is glad to learn. As one learns this true patience, one will become grateful when one can pause to look through the eyes of other human beings. One will start to feel something about the total saga of the human enterprise, encompassing all the souls living and learning and somewhere in their hearts unconsciously loving.
Inserting one's life into the vast human enterprise, one can become a serene instrument of the cosmic sacrifice, consciously throwing all sense of self and separateness into the fire to be burnt. In the end, this is far wiser than being burnt out because of frenetic action, perversity and allegiance to the tired machinations of the false persona. Instead of being an incessant and repetitive victim to excess and deficiency, one may become like the quiet tender of a fire. Discerning the illusive elements in actions, one may gently cast them into the flames of sacrifice, receiving the warmth and joy and light of the fire and freeing oneself from the burden of ignorance. If one can make this a natural way of thinking and breathing, then one will burn out all the dross that would otherwise have formed, at the moment of death, a grotesque kama rupa.
Through the initial mastery of sacrificial skill in action, one may purify one's will and desire, minimally assuring oneself that one's actions in life will not be a source of pollution to the human race. When this healthy tropism of the soul has been restored, one is in a position to learn about the positive applications of the Fohatic power of desire. Instead of making an unconscious form or rupa out of kama, one may enter into the current of joy that accompanies sacrificial participation through meditation and action in the pilgrimage of humanity. One learns to engage in self-study solely for the sake of helping others. One learns to sleep and remain awake, to eat and bathe, to sit and walk, to breathe and think and feel for the sake of others. As this grows natural, one becomes like a station beaming vibrations to vast numbers of human beings in need. Serving as an instrument of the Logos far more than one will ever know, one remains free of the distraction of thinking about how much one may have done. Instead, one is concerned only with maintaining the mental stance and spiritual posture of sacrificial action. This is the central teaching of Karma Yoga, which brings about whatever joy, meaning and hope in life is supportable by the universe and is compatible with the joy and hopes of all other beings. Karma Yoga is action in accord with the great wheel of the Law, and it is the rightful inheritance of those who have the courage to make experiments with truth on behalf of humanity.
Instead of wasting time in daydreams about others, or about one's regrets and mistakes, one should quicken one's sense of what is necessary to do now. One must learn to stay still and do it. If one can become a one-pointed, whole-hearted person in two or three things done each day, one has embarked on the path of Karma Yoga, and the instances will increase with time. The higher cosmic energies guided by the true Karma Yogin are the energies of the highest Self — the Atman — and they are released only by the power of constructive vows. The mysteries of action and inaction are revealed only to those who bind themselves by sacred vows and commit themselves to the judgement and impartiality of Nature. The selflessness and integrity of Nature is the inward and invisible strength of the Karma Yogin. The secret is to work with the Silence residing in the unmanifest, courageously holding to the sacrificial current and welcoming the adjustment whereby distractions are dissolved and one's heart and mind are drawn back to the invisible centre. The more one can learn to shackle the unruly vestures, making them instruments of Atma-Buddhi-Manas, the more one can create a stronger karmic matrix for a more glorious future.
Hermes, June 1985