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Buddhism and the Myth of Rugged Individualism

In America, we have  a culture that is self-centered and individualistic.  We believe that each person must look out for their own self-interest, working to earn as much money as possible at the expense of others.  

Ideas like community and egalitarianism are looked down upon; replaced by a social Darwinism that insists only the fittest among us are worthy of food, water and shelter.

But this me-first mindset doesn't stop with finance and social programs.  It has burrowed into our Buddhist centers; coloring the ways in which we read scripture and teach the Dharma.  For example, take this quote from the Dhammapada

No one saves us but ourselves.
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path:
Buddhas only show the way.

The first time I read this passage the message seemed clear.  I was responsible for my own actions, and if I I wanted to walk a spiritual path, I had to walk alone.  Many years later, I realize the first half of my statement is true, we are all responsible for our own actions. The second part, however, is misguided.

The problem comes in the last line of the verse, "Buddhas only show the way," which when read from the view point of an individualist suggests the Buddhas are largely uninvolved in our journey towards enlightenment.  But this isn't the case, rather the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of this world are there every step of the way; supporting us in our journey.  Furthermore, it was plant Buddhas that taught me this lesson.

I grew a bush variety of yellow wax beans in my garden this year.  The plants were as close to identical as one can get; they were grown from seeds  that came from the same package, they were planted in the same soil, and they received equal amounts of sunshine and water each day.  They only meaningful difference between them was their location in the garden.

Several rows of beans were planted in a corner by themselves, and the rest were planted next to some Marigolds and Lavender flowers.

All of the bean plants grew as expected for about two months.  However, I noticed something interesting when they began producing fruit.  The bean bushes that were planted in the corner by themselves were slower to mature, and I harvested fewer beans from them.

However, the bean bushes that were planted near the flowers produced a surplus of food.  The latter was a good problem to have, but it warranted some investigation.  

So, I paid close attention while watering the garden, and I noticed that the Marigolds and Lavenders were attracting bees, which would then hop over to the bean bushes and pollinate their flowers.  

I'll be honest, I didn't know beans produced flowers until I planted my garden, but they do.  And if those flowers don't get pollinated, fewer beans get produced.  

I saw this firsthand in the bean bushes that I planted in the corner of my garden.  They lacked the additional support of other flowers beside their own.  So, they grew less food.

This experience showed me that while plants start off as rugged individuals, growing towards the sun via their own strength.  They require a relationship with the rest of the garden in order to produce fruit.

Humans operate in the same way, especially when we walk the Buddhist path.  We see this if we reread the passage from the Dhammapada with a focus on relationship instead of individuality.

No one saves us but ourselves.
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path:
Buddhas only show the way.

The first three lines are reminding us that we are the gardeners of our own spiritual bean stalks.  We must plant the seeds and create the causes necessary for our own enlightenment to bloom.  No one can do this for us, we must take the first steps.

However, the final line is a reminder that the steps of our journey are not taken alone.  Once the beans are planted, once the flowers open, there will be Buddhas to direct our path; to push us over the edge to enlightenment.

These Buddhas take many forms as we go through our day.  They might be the barista who prepares our coffee, or the trash collector who hauls away our waste; making our lives easier in the process.  But even if we can't see the Buddhas who help us, they are always there.

And they pollinate us in the same way that bees pollinate flowers; ensuring that there's plenty of (spiritual) food for the harvest.  These relationships are the heart of Buddha Dharma, 

And as we grow in our faith, as our flowers explode with vibrant colors that reveal the Buddha within us, we carry on their work.  We pollinate the lives of the people around us through wisdom and compassion; beautifying the garden of our life.

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Buddhism and the Myth of Rugged Individualism


  1. Written with such heart my friend. That last paragraph misted these old eyes. Gassho,


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