The Yoga of Kings

(23 May 1982)


A king, in the classical Indian tradition, was not a man who’s happy as a king. He was the man who took supreme responsibility. His day was divided into eight periods of three hours each, of which one was for sleep. He had to be up at 3:00 in the morning and listened to the intelligence reports brought by his agents from the neighbouring kingdoms.  He had to review the troops. A lot of the day was devoted to hearing law cases. He had to study. He had a period for religious worship. He had one period of three hours for recreation. It was a role very few people could take.

When he felt that his son was old enough and trained enough to take over the kingdom, the old King was expected to die in battle. His life was a total dedication. The Gita says in the chapter, when Krishna gives manifestations of the Lord, “Of mountains, I am the Himalaya. Of rivers, I am the Ganges. Of men, I am the King.” – because this was the position of the greatest responsibility, a whole life devoted to service.

Now in his commentary on the Gita, Shankara says, “The Yoga has been handed down through the Kings.” Shankara comments, “The Law taught this Yoga to put strength into the Kings. It’s only when possessed of the strength of this Yoga that they can perform their duties, protect spirituality, protect the people and do justice. When spirituality is protected, and the people are protected, then the world can be maintained.” He says this was handed down through the Kings. The Upanishads, the end of the Vedas, were learnt and passed on by the Brahmin caste, which was the caste of those who were devoted to Brahman or spiritual truth.

It didn’t mean originally somebody who was the son of Brahmin parents. The law book of Manu says, “An elephant made of wood and the Brahmin who doesn’t study and try to realize the spiritual truth, there’s nothing there but the name. A wooden elephant, an unspiritual Brahmin.” Shankara says elsewhere, “A Brahmin is one who wishes to realize Brahman, spiritual Truth.”

In the Upanishads, there are a number of cases where the Brahmins, the great Brahmins, the teachers of spirituality, learn from the Kings, and this is very surprising. The Kings were supposed to study for spiritual Truth under the Brahmins, who specialized in the knowledge of the scriptures and in how to perform the great ceremonies and sacrifices for all the prosperity of the people.

Yet in two of the oldest Upanishads (something like 600 BC, they were in existence and perhaps for very long before that) there are cases where the Brahmin doesn’t know, and he goes to the King and asks the question about the Truth. The King says, “Oh, is quite improper for a Brahmin to ask for instruction from a King.” The Brahmin says, “I come as a pupil.” The King says, “You are a real Brahmin. You sacrifice your pride to learn the truth.” Then the King teaches him; but not truths about the sacrifices, not truths about rituals or the names of the heavens. The Kings teach them for realization in the things of ordinary life – in eating, in sleeping, in walking and, in the case of the King, in fighting.

He is expected to be able to realize truth in the smallest things of everyday life, not on the great occasions only. The idea was that before the great sacrifice, the people purified themselves, they lived a very careful life, they raised their consciousness and then, at the moment of sacrifice, they could receive a blessing. Then, after that, they would return as they were. But the Yoga of the Kings (and it comes more than five times in different Upanishads) is concerned with the events and the smallest actions of everyday life – to find a spiritual realization, not an idea, not simply an idea, but a spiritual realization in the small things of daily life.

Now, in the Gita, which is the Yoga of Kings, there’s a division before the first realization and afterwards. Before that, the spiritual Truth is an idea, a devotion, but it is still only theoretical. There’s a line drawn in empty space. Below that, this world is practical reality, the spiritual Truth is only theoretical. Above that line, the spiritual Truth is practical reality, and the distinctions of the world are theoretical. The distinctions between the people, their great talents or their apparent stupidity, and their laziness or their industry, those things become theoretical differences.

In the individuals themselves, there is absolute value, and Krishna says, “He will see the Lord standing the same in all the living beings, the unchanging in the changing.” Before that point, it is a theory in which we can have faith, and on the basis of which we can practise – but it’s still only a theory, an elevating idea. The Gita is very insistent not to remain satisfied with an idea, because ideas change. We can feel elevated, but then it changes. We can perform religious ceremonies regularly. We can feel exalted, but it’s not permanent. In that very regularity, there can be a hidden danger.

There is a Sufi story of a man who came running to the mosque in the time of Muhammad. He found the people coming out, and he said, “What’s this?” One of them said, “Why have you come late? The prophet has given the blessing and departed.” He gave a great cry: “Alas.” It was said that it was as though his heart’s blood, the smoke of his heart, was in that great cry: “Alas”. One of the congregation, who was a spiritual man said, “Give me that sigh and all my prayers are yours.” The man said, “Yes” and he changed. That night the man who had taken the sigh, which was so full of regret and longing, had a vision which said, “You have bought immortality. You have bought nectar. You have bought full realization. While you went every day and prayed in the mosque and received the blessing of the prophet, you were satisfied with yourself and you didn’t make further progress. When you bought that sigh, which was so full of regret and longing, you bought life.” Then finally the vision said, “For the sake of that sigh, which you bought, the prayers of all the congregation will be answered.”

Well, this is a theme, which often comes, that self-satisfaction, continuity in a practice, is good.  But people can settle down in a practice or in an idea, and then it doesn’t develop and then the hidden divinity doesn’t unfold. We can stay where we are.

The first element is to find out what we worship. Many people think they don’t worship anything – but people do. There is something which we regard as somehow sacred or divine. It may be money. A go-getter salesman, who suddenly became desperately ill, was on his deathbed.  Even though he was dying, to the visitors who came he said, “Let me sell you some insurance, I’m not insured. I’m not insured. I’m going to be ruined. The same thing can happen to you, because it’s happening to me.  Better get insured.”  Right up the moment of death, he was making some money by selling insurance, using his illness as a sales pitch. He worshipped.  Unconsciously he was worshipping, although he knew death was staring him in the face.  This was what he worshipped.

Now the Gita says, “We must worship the Reality.” Well, how can we do that? He says, “If we read the holy texts, something will strike on our hearts from the holy texts.” They knew in the time of Shankara in 700AD what our psychological laboratories are just demonstrating today – that if a man is sleep and a tape is played of names in a whisper, he doesn’t wake up.  But if his own name is among those taped, whispered names, he wakes up. He was asleep – I can tell from the EEG; and yet, though his own name is in the same whisper as the others, he wakes up.  In the same way, in the holy scriptures, the true name of man is being said.  If he reads them with attention, something will strike, something will momentarily stir in him, and he will begin to realize it. They have a sort of charm, a sort of attraction for us. It’s because the true name of man is being said in a whisper in the scriptures.

There are many riddles in the scriptures, which we overlook. Things which have never been explained by the commentaries. “Seek to enter by the narrow gate.  Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to salvation and few there are that find it.” What does it mean?  “Strive to enter by the narrow gate, for I tell you, many will strive to enter and not be able.”  It’s referring to something, and those who read with attention, something will stir in them, and they’ll begin to understand what the narrow gate refers to.  To find out what we worship, the Gita recommends – and my teacher recommended – reading the holy texts with attention.  Try to find these points where something begins to stir in us and, when we do, to concentrate on it.

The next thing is Tapas – austerity. There must be a certain independence of the events of daily life. We’re expected to practise it first with small discomforts like heat and cold.  It doesn’t mean to endure them by gritting the teeth and clenching the fists; but to endure them, keeping the spirit calm. You can say, “Well, how can we do that?” Yes, by practise, it can be done. Not so easy. I don’t recommend this, but in some schools, they practise in mid-winter, standing under a waterfall, where the water comes from the mountains and the snow. It comes out in a gutter like that. The man, just in a little cotton loincloth, goes and stands under it.

The people who do this just stand under for a few seconds and come out; then, again, they stand under it.  When he goes and does this for the first time, he’s hunched up and the teacher says, “No, drop your shoulders, calm your spirit and stand under it.” He thinks, “Yes, drop the shoulders, calm the spirit.” He walks forward and he hunches up again. But with practice, he’s able to stand that intense cold just for a few seconds with the shoulders dropped. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to stand an insult. In one of the Indian traditions, an athlete is practising lifting a very heavy stone, for what we would call bodybuilding. He manages to get this thing up, and he’s going to carry it for twenty paces on his back.  A horseman rides by and says, “What a fool. Whatever you pick up, you’ve only got to put it down again.” The athlete drops the stone, and his eyes blaze as he shouts after the horseman. A wise man who is watching says, “You see, he could bear that great weight, but he can’t bear one tiny word.” These sorts of austerities are not easy. Tapas austerity – this is the second element.

The first one is worship. The second one is to practise austerity – to fail again and again, and to try again and again. The third one is to practice meditation, samadhi. Now, there are many meditations which are given, but in the Gita, one of the main ones is that the universe is created by, and under the control of, the Lord who is bringing all beings to perfection. “The friend of all beings”.  We can say, “Well, not very friendly – some of the things that happen.”  A man said to a Zen teacher, “How can you say there is a benevolent purpose in the world? Look at what is happening. Look at the evil that’s happening.”  The teacher said, “Do you yourself contribute to this evil?” The man said, “Well, yes, I’m afraid; sometimes I have.” The teacher said, “Ask yourself the question, why you made this evil? Why you created the evil you did? Then you can ask about the universe.”

It’s not so easy to meditate on the Lord as the creator and the controller. We can justify this by studying some of the accounts of the universe. We can see how many elements, how the so-called cosmic constants, are specially tailored, as they’re now saying, to human life. If gravity was a little stronger, the stars would all be red dwarves – nothing like the sun, no possibility of life.  If gravity was a little weaker, again, blue giants – no possibility of life. They are finding how many of these, so-called, coincidences there are. Shankara makes the point: the world is created for life and consciousness, for experience under the control of the Lord.

Why is there evil in the world? Because we ourselves are doing evil, and we can change. Finally, this worship, this meditation, must lead to a direct vision. Simply to believe in something beyond the horizon, for time, it can seem to be elevated – but it’s only an idea, and ideas change.  Ideas can always change.  Shankara says, “Not simply by the words. We can’t live by the words, there must be a realization.” Every day he has to practise going into meditation, reducing the thoughts.  If he’s practised tapas, austerity, he will be able to reduce the thoughts, and then to focus his thoughts on one of these flashes that has come to him when reading the holy scriptures, this is the third element. The first is to find out what he really worships, and to come to worship the Truth by reading the scriptures with close attention – not casually, not mechanically, not reading the scriptures 10 minutes a day, then slamming the book and thinking, ‘I’ve done it’; but very attentively – to find something there, which we miss.

It’s not so easy, but there’s something there which is missed, which refers to something in ourselves, ‘the narrow gate’.  What does this refer to in ourselves – “Seek to enter by the narrow gate”? It must lead finally to a vision. First of all, to find out what we worship, to practice austerity, to try to give up our hatreds and resentments.  They may be justified, but to try to give them up. Jesus would have been justified in his resentment; many attacks were made on the life and especially on the reputation of the Buddha.  But they demonstrated that it was possible to give up even justified resentment.  Then to practice samadhi and something will begin to stir.  The absolute value in every man will begin to stir, which is different from his external circumstances.

Lastly, is the ability to work and surrender the results of the action to the Lord, to be indifferent to the results of our actions. We say, “If you do that, all your work will be slipshod.” No, we know in this country, as in very few countries, something about sport.  We are able to try very hard – in fact, many people try much harder at their pet hobbies than they do in their ordinary work.  When they win, they’re not exultant; when they lose, they’re able to appreciate the opponent’s skill.  A good sportsman has a very good chance in spiritual affairs. One modern Zen teacher has said, “If he understands what sport is, he’ll have the ability to try very hard and if something happens so that he’s not successful, not to be upset; and to try very hard and when he’s successful, not to be exultant, but to be friendly with the loser.”  It’s not so easy, but this is the fourth element.

There are those four elements – worship, austerity (tapas, dropping the shoulders in calmness of spirit), samadhi (meditation on one of these flashes, which comes from the holy text), and lastly giving up the claim on the results of our actions.

Something about learning is to be said.  My teacher was a learned man, and I’ve known many Zen Abbots who were very learned men – but they didn’t attach importance to learning as a direct course of spiritual realization. I have spent some years in study and, without wanting to say anything personal, I’ll tell you the remark of a teacher. He said, “If you have a restless mind, a restless character, you may have to do a lot of physical work. If you have a bad character, you may have to do a terrible lot of study.” People who have bad characters should study intensely. It changes the character. It focuses the will, and then it makes a change much easier.

Learning has some value. It can give us faith. Unless we have some idea of the theory, the normal person won’t be able to persist with a discipline. He has to have some idea of the theory behind it. There are a few people who can simply go on for perhaps a year, but most people have doubts.  For instance, somebody who wants to learn to sprint may go to some famous trainer, who gives him exercises for developing the lungs, and also for abdominal muscle.  Well, he does them for a few weeks, then he begins to think, “Well, what have lungs got to do with running? What have abdominal muscles got to do with it? The legs, that’s what he ought to be strengthening. He doesn’t understand me.” Some people are simply able to go on, just because the trainer says so; but to many others, the trainer has to explain, “You need big capacity for the oxygen, and for the quick start to develop the abdominal muscles.”  Then, knowing that much of the theory, many people are able to train hard at it.  But if they don’t know any theory, many people will begin to tail off.

Some theory is necessary, but theory can easily become a refuge. One thinks, “Oh well, it’s no use practising until it’s all absolutely clear; otherwise, you’ll be practising the wrong thing.  And then they lose themselves in theory for ten or twenty years and don’t practise. Theory must be a reinforcement to practice. The second advantage of study is that it’s an encouragement. When people begin to become slack or lazy, if they know some theory – e.g. to have read the lives of great ones of the past and know what they have done – is an encouragement.

The last most important thing of theory is that it enables him to see something in his own experience, which he hadn’t noticed before. If he studies the theory carefully, he’ll find something in his own life, in his own experience. In some of the Zen riddles, which are directed at this point, when the man solves them, it’s not like something completely new. He thinks, “Oh, that!”  There’s something of which he’s been half-conscious, just a little bit conscious, but has just brushed it aside. The theory can help him to recognize that.

People who have been told there’s a treasure in their garden, they start digging.  They dig and they don’t find anything. They go on digging and still they don’t find anything.  Then they begin to say, “It may not be there.” Then somebody comes and says, “Oh well, you see what’s meant by ‘treasure’? It’s symbolic. All the digging you’ve done will make the ground very fertile. You’ll be able to plant vegetables, and you’ll have beautiful allotments, and you’ll have such good food. That’s the treasure.” That’s another way of giving up – the feeling that “Well it’s symbolic somehow”. If he goes on digging, the time will come that he will find a little piece of metal, a little piece of gold. Once that happens, the whole basis changes; before it’s entirely based on faith. When that happens for the first time, he’s got a tiny confirmation of something which theory has told him.  Having confirmed one thing, it seems likely that the rest can be confirmed, and it’s much easier for him to continue practise.

The next point about these four practices – to worship, to learn to worship; to practise austerity in some form (not so much that the spirit is completely disturbed, to practise calmness of spirit in austerity); to practise meditation on one of the great aspects of God; and lastly to be able to give up a fixed claim on the results of actions (to be able to act very hard and very well, but without feeling, ‘I have a right to these results’) – is that, when they’re done for a long time, they make changes in what’s called the sanskara layer.

It’s a little bit like Freud’s idea that our unconscious is constantly sending dynamic impulses into our mind; but in Freud’s view, the main impulse in the unconscious is sexual in a very wide sense. One of his pupils, Adler, found power; but it’s an interesting fact that one of Freud’s greatest pupils, Stekel, wrote towards the end of his life, “I’m finding in my patients not repressed sex, not repressed power, but repressed religion, and repressed morality.”  These are the things which today are not talked about, are sort of pushed on one side. People are saying, “Oh, I’m not religious” and “I believe in absolute freedom.”  – but they are repressing a religious instinct. He believed, finally, this was deeper than the other impulses.

The Gita agrees with this, but is much wider than it. The Gita says that the basis of the man is the Lord – much deeper than any of the individual manifestations. By practising those four methods, he lays down impressions, dynamic impressions, in what we call the causal life.  It takes a long time to lay down those impressions.  It’s like when we learn a foreign language. At first, we’re consciously learning, we’re consciously translating sentences in our head, then we’re speaking them in the foreign language. We’re laying down impressions; but one day, the time will come, when we will begin to think in that foreign language. Then that means that the causal layer of impressions of that language has come alive. Before that, we could construct individual sentences, but it wasn’t alive; but now we begin to think in that foreign language.

Now to give an example, in Judo, one of the first things people learn is how to fall.  It takes some time, depending on the individual; but when he’s learned, he can fall – he can stand and fall to the ground, and he won’t injure himself at all. He can do that very easily. If the teacher asks, “Now do a fall”, he’d do a beautiful one. But that’s not the end of it. He thinks he knows how to fall beautifully, but one day, when he’s standing on the mat, the teacher will come up behind him, and suddenly throw him down.  And with a surprising number of people all their technique of falling has gone. Instinctively, they try to keep off the ground and that means the whole shock comes down on to one point which can be badly injured.  The conscious practice has to go on and then the time comes – perhaps he’ll slip on the ice, or perhaps somebody will throw him unexpectedly – when his fall will be perfect. Then it’s gone into the causal layer. They say, “It’s become his own”.

Without these little tests, nobody really knows what they’re like.  Unless the causal layer has been spiritualized, and come alive, we can’t say what our lives are like, and what we are like. We are honest people, but supposing somebody comes to me and says, “There’s going to be a decision in a week’s time, which I know you can influence.  Now, we are very anxious to get this particular decision. Here is quite a lot of money to use your influence to swing it this way.”

Well, that’s just a bribe naturally; but supposing I know that the decision has already been taken in his direction. If I take the money, I’m not doing anything for it, and you can’t call it a bribe. The decision’s already been taken; it hasn’t been announced – so what harm would that do? Really, I’m simply putting his mind at rest – he’s paying the money to have his mind put in rest. He’s rich, I’m poor, and it’s not going to make the decision any other than it would be. How can I say just what my reaction would be? I could do something with that.  But when the causal layer comes alive, there will not be an agonizing decision at all.  If I want to set his mind at rest, I can say “I think it will be alright, but keep your money.”

There’s a poem in the Far East: “Until he’s confronted with the gold, the minister doesn’t know his own heart”. When there are times of crisis, there are special techniques in Yoga.  When there’s a physical disturbance, when the body is very enervated in the nervous system, to try to calm that by merely mental means is not easy.  It’s better to have a physical method.  There are a number of them. One is to write the name of God, hundreds of times. The repetition of the name of God is well known in all the great religions, among all mystics, but to write it with the muscles is often a great relief.

One Indian teacher used to recommend his pupils to do this. A man wrote to him and said, “My mind is constantly disturbed by anger and resentment.  I’m very badly treated. I do say the name of the Lord for hours, but it doesn’t have any effect at all.” The teacher wrote back to him, and said, “Write the name of the Lord for hours and send me your writings.” He never heard from him again.  That man would be sitting back, perhaps repeating the name of the Lord while he was drinking, or looking at something.  But when it came to writing, he would have been concentrated, but he didn’t do it.

One of the forms that used is the form of OM. This is one of the names of God. This corresponds – the form, as well as the sound, ‘OM’ – to something in man, in the makeup of man. He’ll find the correspondence with himself. From the point of view of this practice, we should write without any thought or premeditation, or planning or attempt at artistic effect, or anything like that – just to write hundreds of times.  They are in different sizes, in different shapes, some of them big ones, some of them small ones, without any hesitation at all, with no gap.

By this method, we bring the muscles into it, saying, ‘OM’, as each one is written – ‘OM’.  The ears, the lips, the muscles, the mind, the eyes are all brought into play.  We place it down into the causal layer, and this brings it to life more quickly.  Until the causal layer is changed substantially – not completely changed, but substantially – our control and our aspirations will always be unstable. We think we are alright.  While we are poor, while we are in difficulties, we’re very humble, very kindly; but when we get a little bit of power ourselves, it’s like at the pantomime, when the demon kings suddenly appears on the stage.

A great Abbott, the head of 10,000 temples, was asked by a reporter about power, and he said, “Power is a great difficulty.” I read the reviews.  The reporter said, “You yourself, you’re the head of a great temple, a very famous man. Do you will find it difficult not to be proud, and to be kind?” The Abbott said, “Well, of course, I have to watch it.  But really, now it’s not difficult because you see, as you say, I’m very well known. That means the press are watching me like hawks. If I make a smallest mistake, they pounce with criticism. Then I have to meet the wishes of the millions of followers. I’m not likely to be able to get tyrannical or proud.

“But once I had real power when I was in my second year in the small training temple. A first-year boy came in from the country, and I was to train him in the kitchen to cook. I was a good cook, because my mother had often been ill, and I had to learn. He was very clumsy and awkward.  So I gave him hell. Nobody knew.  There were just the two of us. I thought, ‘You’ve got to have tough training you know!’ That was real power.”



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