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Dharma Talk: Air Travel as a Form of Practice

January 24, 2016

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, our temple holds a dharma and meditation service. One part of the service is a dharma talk, when either a kyomunim (priest) or member of the community relates some part of the Won-Buddhist scripture to their life experience. A few months ago Rev. WonGong asked me to consider giving a talk. Friday I sent her a draft, seeking some feedback. She replied, “How about giving this talk this weekend?” I had not planned on going to the temple, because Jonas had dumped enough snow and ice to make travel dicey. But I figured there would not be many people there, reducing the pressure on me, and Vicki was willing to help me get her car out of our driveway. It took us a while, but Vicki was determined to get us on the road. Off we went, and after I gave the talk at the Saturday service, Rev. WonGong gave me some feedback and passages to include in the Sunday service. Here is the talk I gave today.

Notes: Quotes are from The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism. The Founding Master is Sotaesan, who established Won-Buddhism 100 years ago in Korea. “Son” means “meditation.”

The Founding Master said, “Ordinary people consider practice to consist of always sitting quietly in meditation, reciting the Buddha’s name, and reading scriptures, and do not realize that there exists a practice conducted throughout everyday life” (pp.147-8). My everyday life involves air travel. I fly for my job, and I fly often. I began my job of teaching workshops and training trainers to teach workshops in 2004. Since then I have flown about 1.8 million miles. This work has opened up the world to me. When I began it, I did not own a passport. Now, when I go to Korea with the temple group in April, it will be my 24th country to visit. I am grateful to have work that is so interesting and has offered me so many opportunities.

But to balance this life in the air, I need grounding and stability. I have a family that supports me. I have colleagues who make my work easy and enjoyable. And for almost a year and a half, I have had this sangha. Maybe it is not a surprise that I love coming to a place where I spend a lot of time sitting on the floor. In the front of The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism it says, “Timeless Son, Placeless Son,” which means we can meditate anytime and anywhere. Later, the scripture says, “Even a farmer wielding a hoe can practice Son, as can a carpenter wielding a hammer, a clerk using an abacus, and an official seeing to an administrative matter; and we can practice Son even while going about or staying at home” (p.62). For me, this teaching means airplanes and hotel rooms should be just as conducive to my meditation as this temple.

The main principle of Son is that “Ever-alertness within calmness is correct … ever-calmness within alertness is correct” (p. 152). Rev. Ginger included this principle in a recent dharma talk, and it helped me to look at air travel as a place for my practice.

When I prepare for a trip, I need to be alert within calmness. When you make as many trips as I do, it is easy to slip up. To reduce the possibility of forgetting something, I have two checklists, one for domestic travel and one for international, that I use when packing for my trips. This way, rather than wondering if I have forgotten anything, I can focus on what I am packing, counting shirts and socks to make sure I will have enough. The list allows me to relax and focus.

The next phase of my travel requires calmness within alertness. The process of travel to the airport, checking bags, proceeding through security, and boarding the plane can be stressful. I am tempted to resist things I cannot change. I cannot change when the plane leaves, so I must give myself plenty of time to get to the airport and to navigate the lines. I cannot change the length of the lines or their speed, so I just bring my focus to my breath, let go of the tension I accumulate, and move when the lines allow. I cannot change how many security stations are open, or how long it takes my fellow passengers to remove their belts and shoes, or how slowly the TSA agents respond to those who need extra attention. Again, the breath gives me a place to let go of stress and remain calm. When the gate agent announces boarding has begun, the passengers swarm toward the gate. We are all wondering–will there be space for my bag? I try very hard not to move until my zone is called. I try to use my calmness to overcome the anxiety in the air.

Once we are all on board and the flight begins, my focus shifts back to remaining alert within calmness. Air travel is not easy for most of us. We’re sitting in a small space among strangers. It’s difficult to move around, and even harder to move without disturbing others. I believe that, even though flying is common now, we know sub-consciously that we are sitting in a small tube high in the sky, and that hidden awareness produces fear. In these challenging conditions the temptation is to numb the mind, to make the fear go away and the time pass as painlessly as possible. So people order Bloody Marys at 6:00 am. They play solitaire and watch movies and sleep. While I too sleep on flights, and on long flights I watch movies and TV shows, most of the time I try to use my time well. Because I fly so much, I cannot numb myself. Instead I choose to engage. I read–and not junk but good stuff, novels and books about my work and of course books on Buddhism. I sometimes write, and I tackle my inbox, and in all ways try to be present–alert amidst the calm.

What can I gain from approaching my travels in this way? Master Sotaesan says that we too “must advance still further in our practice in timeless Son of ‘one suchness in action and rest’ so that we too will gain the three great powers” of Cultivating the Spirit, Inquiry into Human Affairs and Universal Principles, and Choice in Action (p. 149). No matter where I go now, I try to bring this practice with me. I always travel with The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism, my Meditation Chants booklet, and my dharma journal. And I have a small Il Won Sang image I place on the desk of my hotel rooms. This community has given me a place of grounding, which I then try to bring with me, timeless and placeless. I am grateful for the dharma that guides my travels, and for this sangha which keeps me balanced even when I am far from here.

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