Buddha taught ekagata. Eka means ‘one’. ‘Gata’ is from the verb ‘to go’. Thus ekagata refers to going alone or going as a single one. What does this mean?
We can take it externally and internally. Externally, at the very least, it means that a Buddhist practitioner is at ease in solitude and the knowledge that he or she is at ease when in solitude means that when in company she or he has no need to 'cling'. It also means that it is good to seek a good teacher, but if you can’t find one then it is better to plough your own furrow than to follow somebody who will lead you astray. Of course, ‘ploughing your own furrow’ does not mean following some foolish fashion. To do so would be the same as following a bad teacher. It is important to say this because many people nowadays - and perhaps in all ages - construct a kind of ‘individualism’ that is really just adoption of currently fashionable ideas. Just to be against the establishment because all of your friends are is not real individuality.
This consideration leads us easily onto the internal aspect. This internal aspect is the more fundamental. Examining it we can see that fulfilling the Buddha’s prescription is not so easy. Essentially it means to be free of all our ‘internalised others’. When we examine our life we can often see that we are living out an imaginary relationship with an imagined audience. This audience may be one or both of our parents or might be society at large. In this imaginary relationship, we may have several habitual scripts which are like vows that we have made at various crucial points in life. Such scripts might be “I’ll show them!” or “I’ll get my revenge,” or “I hate you for being better than me, but I’m familiar with my repertoire of hateful thoughts, so I’ll go on playing this part,” or “I’m the sick member of the family’” or whatever.
We can readily see that these scripts and imaginary relationships constitute an imaginary identity for oneself. Dropping them may leave one in unfamiliar territory. This leads us to the, perhaps startling, conclusion that the truly and authentically individual person does not know who or what they are. Their nature is something that they are continually discovering. Furthermore, they do not really discover it so much by paying attention to themselves, but more by their involvement with fresh encounters in the world.
It is not so much that one uncovers a true identity as that one simply plays one’s part, does one’s duty, and notices what is necessary and gets on with it. Then one is being a ‘fully functioning person’ without having to have any particular or strong awareness of the fact.
In the play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More is asked whether he fears for the fate of his soul and he says not and when this is questioned, he says that the Lord will not refuse one who comes to Him so blithely. The Buddha is saying something similar. The true life is lived blithely. It is not tortured by endless introspection. Some introspection once in a while can be valuable, but the main stuff of life is to be found in engagement. However - and here we meet what seems like paradox, again - it is only the one who is free who can really engage. Only when one recognises and respects separateness can one have a fully healthy relationship with others. Only when one is singular, in the Buddha’s sense of ekagata, can one play one’s part in community in a fully responsible manner.