“O fool, right action does not lie
in observing fasts and ceremonial rites.
O fool, right action does not lie
in providing for bodily comfort and ease.
In contemplation of the Self alone
is right action and right counsel for you.”
~ Lal Ded (14th Century)
Politeness, wanting to be good, to do the right thing has tremendous power. It binds the world together. In spite of all the suffering, the hardship that exist in society, it is remarkable to notice to what degree people, all over the world, manage to lead a quite responsible life, searching to act in ways that are right, respectful. I used to work in a spiritual community where we would employ, for specific tasks, some people that were outside the community, people that wouldn’t give a thought about spiritual matters. There was a joke that ran amongst us, which was to notice how these people were always acting in ways that were so balanced and good. We were talking about it endlessly, but they were the enlightened ones! The same could be applied to our old parents, to simple, humble people all around the world. How come? It could be argued that this driving force comes from the fear of god, the concern about other people’s judgement, about society’s or life’s punishment. But it comes nowhere near a plausible explanation. Is it that there is something incredibly meaningful, powerful, hidden behind right action, behind right behaviour, kindness, goodness, all the expressions of what is judged to be the timeless qualities of man? But how do we know that? How come it has such a binding force? Where does that wisdom come from? What are the hidden meanings behind ethics in the context of spirituality, or nonduality? And what are the mechanisms hidden in not behaving in ways that are loving or respectful of others and indeed of ourselves?
Let’s be honest. Most of the time, this is the lack of care and compassion that is jumping out at us and that we can see in the news with increasing acuteness. Through lack of attention or clarity, through the interplay of beliefs and feelings, life grabs us and dims our essential nature of goodness. We act in deeply reactive, time bound ways, and have forgotten how to be, act, behave in a way that is instinctual, natural. “How one should live“, to borrow the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, is really what it boils down to. For right action is as fundamental as peace, love, or happiness and is intuitively recognised and valued all over the world, and by all people. We can see the importance of thought as an investigative tool to access our true self, we can see how the love of god or inner presence can lead us to recognise and realise our fundamental nature as love, or see the very fabric of the world as made out of consciousness and revealed as beauty, but there is a fluidity in the action process that makes it more evanescent, hard to reach and fully realise. It is slippery, uncatchable. So it might be wise to address it in a more tangible way. India did it who accepted action as a pathway to the realisation of god, making it as important as the paths of knowledge (Jnāna) or devotion (Bhakti). Karma yoga is valued as the path of action, where one is encouraged to engage in selfless activity, which means acting non-egotistically, not seeking or being attached to the fruits of action.
“Thy right is to work only, but never with its fruits;
let not the fruits of actions be thy motive,
nor let thy attachment be to inaction.”
~ Bhagavad Gita, II.47
Karma, which comes from the Sanskrit root ‘kri’ meaning to ‘act’, refers to an action, a behaviour, in relation to people and to the world. It is fair for a human being to seek the fruits of action, especially if this human being has been led to believe in being a body separate, and therefore cut off, from the world. Action then becomes a tool for securing a sense of well-being that is felt to be lacking. But if this sense of being separate is a belief only and not an expression of truth, and if lasting happiness is not to be found in objects, then not only such action loses its raison d’être, but it could very well be the source of endless conflicts and misery. According to philosopher Bilimoria, Karma yoga is “ethically fine-tuned action“. And a fine-tuned action is one that is in line with truth, that doesn’t spring from, or is not motivated by a false, illusory sense of self.
One important thing to remember is that right action is not moral. Morality is tainted by belief and thought, it is cultural, time bound. Right action – maybe we should call it spontaneous or natural action – is wild, untouched by thought which is time, beyond any idea of right and wrong. It could be said to be god’s hand. In that pure action, there is nobody to act it out, no doer. Action is like the waves in the ocean. No wave could be said to be right or wrong, it is the natural expression of the ocean. But if the wave thinks itself out as being separate from the ocean, independent, cut off from its energy and momentum, it will start to act in ways that are not in line with the flow of the ocean. It will acquire, through a wrongly understood sense of freedom, a behaviour that is hectic, faulty, random.
“All actions are wrought in all cases by the qualities of Nature only.
He whose mind is deluded by egoism thinks: ‘I am the doer’.”
~ Bhagavad Gita, III.27
In the recognition of our true nature, one is encouraged to put aside the qualities, conditionings, and idiosyncrasies of the body-mind in favour of something prior to them, named awareness or consciousness. Right action is intimately connected with the body-mind, but not with its conditionings which belong to time and the belief in being a separate entity. Although it is channelled by the body-mind in its relationship with people and things, with objective experience, behaviour is expected to spring naturally from awareness’s qualities of understanding, love and beauty. It can be equated with the very energy contained in consciousness. It acts because it is its nature to do so. Krishnamurti said: “In the transformation of your consciousness, with all its content, in that freedom you have tremendous energy, which is the essence of intelligence. And that intelligence will operate in every field if you are aware of the total human existence.”
There is a perfume to right action – the action that springs from pure love and understanding, not diluted by thought and the process of time from where all the conditionings creep in, the idiosyncrasies, the beliefs attached to the apparent person. Although consciousness could be said to be quality-less, motionless, empty, still, it is expressed through the agency of the subjective mind and the objective world as movement, action, behaviour. Because the body-mind-world is made out of pure consciousness which bears at its core qualities like truth, love, beauty, any action that springs within the intimacy and compound of the body-mind-world is bound to also express the same qualities. That movement is in essence right action or behaviour, ethics of the purest kind and order. Often, we can recognise an action as being lazy, sloppy, not precise, not cutting. It is because it doesn’t take place in the present, although it appears to be. It is a process of time. As Krishnamurti put it, ”the past activity colours the present action, modifies it, somewhat transforms it and creates the future action.” This action ends up being no action at all, breeding only more confusion, more suffering. For Krishnamurti, right action is “a precise, objective, non-personal, non-romantic action that does not bring about more and more conflict.” True action always brings light and clarity. There is freshness to it. Action is an expression of being. Action is being. “Love and do what you will” said once St Augustine.
“But for that man who rejoices only in the Self,
who is satisfied in the Self,
who is content in the Self alone,
verily there is nothing to do.”
~ Bhagavad Gita, III.17
In India, action is not only seen as such, but also as its counterpart as reaction. It is a chain. Within the overall belief in reincarnation, the concept of karma was designed as an explanation for the difficulties and sufferings that we may, or may not, encounter in our lives. It is believed that our past lives’ actions are colouring our present life and circumstances. But is that really so, or is it just the expression of a concession to the limited understanding that we may have? See here how Nisargadatta debunks the law of causation: “Like everything mental, the so-called law of causation contradicts itself. No thing in existence has a particular cause; the entire universe contributes to the existence of even the smallest thing; nothing could be as it is without the universe being what it is. When the source and ground of everything is the only cause of everything, to speak of causality as a universal law is wrong. The universe is not bound by its content, because its potentialities are infinite; besides it is a manifestation, or expression of a principle fundamentally and totally free.”
Most of the time, the Indian law of karma is unsatisfactory because it gives the stress on the separate self that seeks to act in certain ways by fear of consequence or punishment, or to attract good things as a recompense, which both imply time, calculation, fear, demand. Of course, any act seems to bear in itself some seeds. These seeds bear consequence in as much as they are, or are not, the expression of a natural understanding. They are some kind of leftover, something too much, unnecessary, or rather that has its necessity in some kind of belief or illusion. As a result, the fresh clean air of natural action is somewhat polluted. This pollution is the dye that renders an action unjust, unfair. It is wrong to call them thoughtless actions, for they are really actions that spring from excessive thinking. Right action is the action that comes from pure being, devoid of any superimposed, extra layers of unnecessary thoughts.
“Actions do not taint Me, nor have I a desire for the fruits of actions.
He who knows Me thus is not bound by actions.”
~ Bhagavad Gita, IV.14
But let’s not be childish and lured by the apparent simplicity of karma as a law. For Rupert Spira, the idea of karma is like a fairy story: “All the objective elements of the story are untrue. They’re made up. However, the story expresses a deeper truth.” Remember, we are never a separate self who is having consciousness, but rather, we are the awareness in which is experienced a particular body-mind. Therefore, awareness is all important. If it is tainted, or polluted by actions born out of a false sense of self, the environment thus created will be the new base where the newly reincarnated body will be called to live in. This new base is like an echo of our former life experience. And yet, we never leave, or depart from our eternal identity of pure, untainted awareness.
Now, if everything, the whole world, is an expression of consciousness or pure being, it would mean that no action, however wrong, stands on its own. All action is made out of being in last analysis. Although it may not express being, but the illusory beliefs that are at their origin, being will nevertheless colour any limited action with a certain amount of suffering, unease, consequences. We are never free, or happy with doing wrong actions. This is the call, the seed of consciousness that paves the road. As if the whole of life was a conspiration to make you realise truth. Nisargadatta calls it “the healing hand of God.” In any case, when or if our present circumstances are bent by previous lives’ actions or pollution, the way out is always to seek to attain the fresh air of being, where pollution is no more. This is always a timeless action, and what is unbound by time cannot bear anything that doesn’t come from the now. Presence is sinless. Presence is painless. Not the seeking of presence, but presence itself. Just the simple knowing of our pure being. This is the primary action. Knowing. An action that leaves no residue for it is not fuelled by any superimposed thought or feeling, any imaginary consideration. A knowing that is nothing else but being. This knowing has right action as its dna.
“Children, not the wise, speak of knowledge and the Yoga of action
or the performance of action as though they are distinct and different;
he who is truly established in one obtains the fruits of both.”
~ Bhagavad Gita, V.4
The question now is, can it be a pathway? Can action be a path used to uncover our true nature, to unravel all that is not truly ours? Most of our actions are meant either to release the pain of disappearing, the fear of death, or to look for fulfilment, to alleviate our sense of lack, of not being enough, complete. Because they are performed on behalf of the belief in a separate, erroneous sense of self, these actions are illusory and therefore only breed more suffering. Right action is one that springs from the true recognition of what we are, the naked awareness at the core of our self. It is therefore not excluded that by acting in a most disinterested, perfect possible way, we could be led back to the recognition of our true self. This would have to be implemented in a very subtle manner. Politeness, and the rules of conduct that we learn and apply are ways to mimic actions and behaviours that are consistent to a truly loving, caring, compassionate, orderly way of living. Because we have lost the instinctual, natural way of living, we therefore have to act in ways that are learned. But this seems to be too crude to be used with any efficacy.
One way to implement this right action or behaviour is Rupert Spira’s suggestion to look at the world as if made out of pure gold, and see the effect that it has in our relationship to people and to the world. Of course, this is a concession to the separate self, but a very effective one. In Rupert Spira’s words, we “start leading a life that is consistent with our understanding. (…) We discover that the stuff the world is made out of is more precious than gold. It’s made out of our self.” In a way, this is what men and women are called to live by in monasteries. To live a life, act and behave not for themselves, but for one thing only, the love of god, or more rightly said, god’s love for them. They are asked to sacrifice their little self’s wants and cravings to embrace god’s presence, or in other words, live in accordance with the subtle ethereal qualities of consciousness itself, which is our true identity. Right action could really be called ‘the monastic life’: To live with and by the solitude (monos – alone) of inner presence, its fundamental oneness and energy. We sacrifice what is not essential, our petty little ideas and beliefs, to live by god’s will only. This is a deeper meaning of sannyasa: To express this sense of renoncement and sacrifice within action, while living in society.
“Therefore, without attachment, do thou always
perform action which should be done; for,
by performing action without attachment
man reaches the Supreme.”
~ Bhagavad Gita, III.19
There is a flaw in thinking that one has to act in a selfless, disinterested way, without being interested in the fruits. For it can separate us, make us think that we have something to do. In such action, we can feel the push of thought, of the imaginary self who is asked to perform in a certain way. Selfless action doesn’t lie in choosing to act in a way that is unselfish, with the promise that it will lead us to know truth. Of what value would be a chooser born out of an illusory self? Being selfless rather means to first recognise that we are not the separate little ‘me’ that we imagine to be, but the Self, awareness itself. Action comes second. It springs from this recognition, or better, it is the very energy that is contained in this recognition. Then right action will spring naturally, and because it is the expression of truth, will not leave any residues of falseness, or misunderstanding. As Nisargadatta pointed, “One may think that one lives; actually, one is only ‘being lived’.” Karma as a law of cause and effect becomes inoperative. And our suffering is made inoffensive, replaced by the peace of our true nature.
Most of our actions are filled with expectations. They have an agenda, and the agenda is, through a play of avoidance and attraction, to secure a sense of well-being and happiness in ourselves. But of course, this is only for the imaginary, cut-off sense of self that thinks that happiness is only to be found in situations or objects. When happiness is found to be the very core and substance of our real self, all these former actions just die out for their purpose is discovered to be illusory. Action then takes on a wholly different meaning and reason. Pure necessity, celebration, educative or learning purposes, amongst others, become the only forces behind any action. It is interesting to note that in French, there is an expression – ‘bien élevé’ – (‘literally ‘well elevated’) which means ‘being polite, behaving properly’. I think this is the perfect metaphor for the understanding of right action. When we reach, or elevate ourselves to high enough grounds in our understanding of ourself, acting becomes a natural flow and is informed by goodness.
“Having abandoned attachment to the fruit of the action,
ever content, depending on nothing,
he does not do anything though engaged in activity.”
~ Bhagavad Gita, IV.20
Text by Alain Joly
Quotes from the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Sivananda
– Karma Yoga (Wikipedia)
– Karma (Wikipedia)
– Jiddu Krishnamurti
– Rupert Spira
– Nisargadatta Maharaj (Wikipedia)
– Bernard Williams (Wikipedia)
– Purushottama Bilimoria (Wikipedia)
– Bhagavad Gita (Wikipedia)
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