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At Issue: Is competition healthy? Is there a danger in it for us? Or can it help humanity progress?

Response: “Do not elevate yourself and put down others.”

This Zen Buddhist precept acknowledges our tendency to compare and to compete, and yet it also encourages us to express our true nature as “one-with” rather than “separate from” or “better than” or “worse than.” We react from the false, hurting self and seek validation or escape through external rewards won through competition: power, fame and wealth.

It is our nature to do our best, to uncover obstacles, and to authentically realize ourselves. In Zen we say this is the natural act of polishing a diamond. We do not need “being the best” or “beating opponents” to harness our energy and bring us satisfaction, although we may have been taught to believe that we do.

I recently began study of Shaolin Kempo. I sometimes have thoughts such as, “I’m definitely the worst one here” or “I’ll get my black belt someday too.” In Zen practice, we are encouraged to honestly acknowledge these thoughts of judging, comparing or competing, but then to return to the kick or block or jumping jacks at hand. I re-focus on being wholehearted about my training, developing my fitness and skills to the best of my ability – not to mention losing some weight! If we listen carefully, we hear our suffering when we compete, whether we win or lose. Instead, we can find deep satisfaction in taking our place in life just as it is in the present moment.

In a society so heavily influenced by corporatism and consumption, competition is presented as an American value. Whatever its possible merits, we would do well to reflect critically on the dangers. Its “survival of the fittest” undercurrent implies that free competition has fairly rewarded those who deserve it, and that little is owed to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of society.

Religious traditions affirm the dignity and rights of those who have lost the competition.

– Rev. Dr. Deborah Barrett

Published: June 17, 2004