On the road with the Buddha

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” says an old Zen story.

This is simply the Zen way of saying, in dramatic and obscure form, that whoever you may meet along the way whom you think to be Buddha is really just your own delusion and should be annihilated.

But I have had some real encounters with Buddha, in the form of developing better understanding of my practice, on the road.

Back when I was driving many hours alone to go to Zen meditation retreats, I realized that I could take advantage of those hours to practice at least some rudimentary meditation along the way rather than just waste the hours listening to music or radio shows or my own tortured thoughts. Especially on roads with little traffic, I could (quite safely) focus on the highway lines converging in the distance, the horizon line, even on other vehicles in a way that at least approaches meditation.

In heavy traffic, I could maintain equanimity and calm by approaching it as a meditation. I found I was better able to enter into the sesshin after such a trip than I had been in the past.

Earlier this week, I went on a three day motorcycle trip, spending long hours on the road, and I again noticed certain parallels with meditation practice. I was much better able to maintain concentration on the road ahead, particularly in challenging road conditions, by approaching it with this meditative mindset. I was also able to maintain the upright posture for long hours without tiring, thanks to a number of ten-day Vipassana courses!

On a mostly surface level, I think these experiences show how a good solid meditation practice can assist one in most activities in life. I am a safer, calmer, more focused driver – whether in a car or on a motorcycle – and better at most of the things I have to do in my daily life, due to my meditation practice.

I’m not sure that just any “meditation” experience would be as helpful. Weekly 20-minute sessions probably wouldn’t help much, but multiple experiences of ten hours a day on a cushion for ten days – as in a Vipassana course – makes a six-hour ride seem simple to accomplish.

On a deeper level, though, there’s more to be had here than making the trip easier.

The essence of Vipassana practice is caught up in the Pali term sampajanakari hoti: [to do something with] constant and thorough awareness of impermanence. This is one important reason why we do the meditation practice itself, so that this kind of mindfulness will come to persist in all our activities. This is the true mindfulness taught by the Buddha, and the true genius of Vipassana is in this understanding of mindfulness. Most of what is presented as ‘mindfulness training’ by other authors and teachers is simply coming to be mindful of what one is doing at the present moment. A deep reading of the Sattipathana Sutta makes it clear, however, that what Buddha was talking about in the Four Establishments of Mindfulness includes the essential element of insight,  panna, so that everything one experiences (including the most mundane activities) reminds one of the ultimate truth of impermanence.

Another important term in the teachings is atapi – ardent. The Buddha says that one is to be ardent with this awareness of impermanence.

Well, let me assure you that there’s nothing much like going into a hairpin turn on a fast-moving motorcycle to generate ardent awareness of one’s own impermanence! And when that awareness is undertaken in the context of a long and serious Vipassana practice, the riding becomes an extension of the meditation practice.

Indeed, if we remember to take the practice with us when we leave the cushion, everything in life becomes practice.

When one reaches that point, the old Zen saying is turned on its head – one can embrace anyone met, for then everything one meets on the road is the Buddha.

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