Here’s an excerpt of a talk about competition (as it applies to how we live our daily lives) from a Buddhist perspective from one of the foremost Buddhist teachers in the world, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche—fluent in English, raised in America, son of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (a pioneer of Buddhist in the Western world) and an accomplished sportsman in his own right.
Easy Come, Easy Go
I’ve always loved sports—horseback riding, golf, running. I once asked my father, Chogyam Trungpa, what he thought about football, since it’s a sport that didn’t exist in Tibet. He answered, “They’ve been winning and losing the same game for a hundred years.” I was struck by his humor, but even more so by the subtle truth behind what he said. Over those hundred years, games were won and games were lost. The players may have gained endurance, discipline, and camaraderie, but in the end, they did not make any progress, because they were always playing with the goal of gain.
In samsara—the endless cycle of suffering—we are always winning and losing the same game, somehow expecting to make progress. We spend part of our life trying to get it together, and the other part watching it fall apart. We don’t realize that if we try to gain something, we had better be ready to lose it. As soon as we have time—“I have a whole hour free”—we are losing it. We work hard to have a relationship, and then it breaks up. We come together for a holiday party, and then it’s over. We buy a new car, and the fender gets a dent.
Everything we gain is subject to loss. Although this is as true as the sky is blue, we keep trying to make gain permanent in order to try to bring about happiness for “me.” We think, “If only So-and-So would love me, I would be happy,“ “If only things would change, I would be happy,” “If only things would stay the way they are, I would always be happy,” and it only leads to heartache. This kind of wanting involves a lot of hope and fear, all based on denial of a simple truth: all the pleasure the world can offer eventually turns to pain. Trying to hold onto pleasure only causes more pain.
Why do we put all that effort into gain, when in the end, we are going to lose it? Indulging in gain and loss is like inducing amnesia. We’re always finding something new to gain, which helps us forget to look but a few seconds back at the last thing that we lost. Fabricating this chain of desire is how we keep ourselves in samsara. Like nothing we own, this pattern does stand a chance of lasting from lifetime to lifetime. Contemplation allows us to step back and see it from a deeper point of view, to be less mesmerized by it. Then we’re less apt to work fervently toward gain.
The Buddha said that our existence is marked by impermanence, selflessness, and suffering. When we contemplate his insight in morning meditation, we’re letting the truth about existence penetrate our being. We’re bringing that truth into our own experience: whatever we can gather, we will lose. Even this body will dissolve. To contemplate gain and loss is not to say that we can escape this reality, but it helps us stop being fooled into thinking that worldly gain will bring permanent happiness. This is how we bring our mind into harmony with the truth about gain and loss. We realize that gain and loss is just an illusion—one that we’ve allowed to rule our lives. When we stop being baffled, surprised, or insulted by it, we will no longer experience the highs and lows that accompany gain and loss.
We often lose our perspective about gain and loss, because the modern world is very competitive. With that attitude, we are in a perpetual rub with our environment. We’re playing the game of “’What about me?’ If I gain something, I will be happy. If I lose something, I’ll be miserable.” That kind of friction simply wears us down. Competition doesn’t enable us to accomplish what we want. It just adds the grind of trying to gain by outdoing somebody else. It makes us aggressive—unable to relax in our own mind. We become susceptible to anger, which destroys any virtue that we’ve gathered. Trying to manipulate the environment by promoting ourselves and hoping for others to fail is unpleasant and delusional. We are only as good as we are, and forcing another person down doesn’t make us any better. Competition is unstable. Even when we win, we have not really won. We always have to prove ourselves again. If we want to make progress on a spiritual path, we cannot base our worth on succeeding or failing at one event.
After I’d been running for a while, two friends—both experienced marathoners—said that I was in good enough shape to run one myself. It hadn’t been that long since running for an hour had felt like a long time. What’s interesting about a marathon is that even though it is considered a race, most of the competition is with ourselves. We are rising to our own challenge. As I ran the Big Sur marathon—considered one of the most beautiful and difficult—I felt relaxed and comfortable. I thought about all the miles I’d run to get to this point, through snow and rain, heat and cold. When the race was over, someone asked me who had won. I said, “I’m not trying to be corny, but everybody won.”
When we compete, we are honing our skills…for the rest, click here and go to the Sakyong’s site.