Watching How Traffic Gridlock Forms
Harmonious Paths in Disaster
The Bodhisattva Vow
Traffic patterns, much like check-out lines at a store are fascinating to observe – people always jostling for a better position, racing ahead only to get stuck as that lane eventually slows to a crawl again. Having a higher-view, similar to what truckers can see, you start to see the larger picture of traffic. On some freeways, for whatever reason, sometimes the right-side slow lanes go faster than the left-side passing ones. Motorcyclists tend to be more aware of their surroundings, so we notice when the little red sports car that sped up quickly to race ahead, gets blithely stuck in slower traffic and fades to the rear. We notice when there’s an unusually slow driver in the far left lane causing traffic from behind to have to move right to pass.
We also notice how the large truck drivers, sentenced by regulation to an existence imprisoned within the right two lanes, also learn to drive with consistency of both throttle and path. They don’t tend to change lanes, and try to maintain a steady pace of forward momentum. Having so much mass to move, does not allow for rapid fluctuations in speed and direction, so those drivers have to plan well ahead in order to stay safe, and keep from endangering others. These professional drivers make decisions to change paths because of safety and overall-efficiency. Opening wide the throttle to jump into a temporary opening might decrease a few seconds of the trip time, but the sacrifice is an above-average burn of precious (and these days, costly) fuel. Too many snap decisions and there might not be enough in the tank to complete the trip without stopping for more fuel – adding additional delays to the overall arrival time.
Every time someone unexpectedly changes lanes, whether without signalling, or abruptly changing from one lane to another, those people displaced usually end up slowing down slightly (to keep themselves safe), and those in-front glance in their rear mirrors wondering why they are being suddenly tailgated. The people to the sides spend a few thought moments thinking to themselves “how rude!” or other distractions. Collectively the single decision of one person to try and jump a little farther ahead of the others, ends up having collateral energy expenditures on all those individuals around them, and inevitably, that lack of focus and concentration also results in slightly slower progress.
Buddhism observes many such paths and interactions: water flowing along a stream, winds flowing through and around forests, birds migrating from place to place – each having a starting point and a destination. Each kind of energy makes its best effort to get to its ending point but deviates its path only for natural drives: danger, hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Ultimately the path of least resistance is always sought, to conserve energy. Water gains flow and volume when it moves as a whole, widening its path and straightening its course. Air becomes powerful as it goes faster and forms streams of continuous flow. Birds in flocks expend less energy to get to their destination when they take turns leading and following each other, staying within the leader’s wake, taking the least amount of energy to maintain formation flight.
March 11 marks the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the third memorial service for its victims (In Japan, a funeral is counted as the first of the yearly memorial services, so the third memorial service is conducted on the second anniversary.) The torrential water that flooded most of the Tohoku region followed its own path of least resistance. Residents noted the risks associated with building directly in the path of the ocean’s own tides, and recommended higher altitude and raised platform construction be incorporated during the reconstruction. Living in connection with the ever-present tides and constructing flexible buildings that can sway and move with the quaking earth are similar examples of harmonious paths.
Two thousand, five hundred years ago, at the Buddha’s final moment of nirvana, Chunda, the lay follower, showed us in his purity how to truly accomplish dana paramita, or the perfection of giving. Shakyamuni accepted Chunda’s sincere offering and reassured him that he’d be there whenever Chunda needed him. “There is no need to grieve over my death,” he said, “I have entered a state of nirvana. I am in a place of eternal bliss. Listen well, with a sincere attitude. I will explain the bodhisattva vow [to endeavor for the sake of all sentient beings] to you, so that serene and tranquil bliss can be attained equally by all sentient beings. You have now listened to the truth of my ever present tathagata nature; etch this truth and what you have heard into your mind, and train accordingly.”
And so, returning to our traffic analogy, imagine what traffic would be like if the very front person on every lane were concerned about holding up traffic flow for everyone behind them. And each person in-turn was focused on the safety and efficacy of each other driver’s capacity to reach their destination safely and quickly. And even the last person was conscientious about lagging too far behind, lest someone else follow behind them. Races go fast because each individual has the same objective – the finish line. A careless and untrained move by any individual can lead to disastrous results for everyone participating, so they each strive to maximize their potential, which results in a collective increase in effort and effectiveness for everyone.