Last night Ryushin and I watched a brief movie about the Japanese sport ekiden(駅伝). Ekiden is a long distance relay race where a team of runners “pass the sash” from person to person at each leg. Participants interviewed in the film talk about the ekiden as a uniquely Japanese race. They comment, “passing the sash was the only thing on my mind when running,” and “we feel pulled along by an unseen force.” One of the runners talks about his legs giving out in the final stretch of the race. What keeps him motivated to push through the exhaustion isn’t his desire to win, it’s his desire to not let his team down. In order to be able to celebrate with them later, he needs to know that he has absolutely given them his best effort.
Embracing collective effort and success over individualism extends beyond the race itself. The ekiden team trains together for months, showing up every morning and evening to practice, building a level of trust and spirit that carry them through the race as well. Similarly, when we follow the bodhisattva path, we recognize that supporting others in their lives and practice is part of what keeps us motivated to practice ourselves. The bodhisattva path requires that we practice in community.
Last weekend Winding Path Temple hosted a formal refuge ceremony during which two of our sangha members made a public declaration of their commitment to practice the Buddhist path. Chisei and Kaishin each had their own reason for taking refuge at this time, but the ceremony was meaningful for the entire sangha. The refugants’ public commitment is a reminder that none of us is traveling this path alone. It is due to the effort of people who have come before us and those traveling alongside us that we are here right now. The refuge ceremony reminds us that when we know others in sangha are here to support us, when we know we are a part of a larger community of practitioners, it is easier to maintain our energy toward our own practice.
I am continuing to reflect on the importance of collective effort and interdependence as we move into the US Independence Day weekend. The July 4 holiday has a complex history and conflicting symbolisms: hope, freedom, victory, the denial of freedom, unfulfilled promises, stolen land. This year I’m thinking about the word “independence” and its connection to separation and individualism. Individualism is part of the dominant cultural narrative in the United States and is one factor that works toward upholding existing inequitable power structures in our country. Perhaps the July 4 holiday is a time to look deeply at the roots of that core value. If we want to create a world where everyone is truly guaranteed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we will need to shift away from the mindset and practice of individualism and toward the mindset and practice of working together in community.
(Note: Tema Okun along with several collaborators offers this fantastic page as a helpful explanation of some of the ways that individualism can be a hindrance in our work toward creating a just society. It’s a useful and important site to read through if you haven’t seen it before.)
When we apply right effort to our practice on and off the cushion, working alongside others to ease our dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, anxiety) we will feel the energy of our collective diligence. Like the runners in the ekiden race, we may feel ourselves moved by the “unseen force” of others working toward the same vow.