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Zen and Sport

maya doka

Once during my time in a Korean Seon[1] Monastery, at one of my autumn walking meditations through the forest, I saw two mountain bikes neatly leaning on the wall of the neighbouring temple. As someone who has been involved in extreme sports all my life, I was searching for Sunims[2] to join their rides through the beautiful Korean woods, only to learn that they are not allowed to ride bikes at all. It surprised me that even in a country where Buddhism is very much rooted in culture and society, some sports are considered dishonourable for people on the spiritual path.

Here in Europe, Zen monks and nuns are more liberal when it comes to different sport activities, of course when performed in their free time. Even so, the physical practice is usually seen as an individual choice rather than a Zen practice, unless it is part of the regular monastic chores. It is certainly important not to fall into the Ego trap and start worshiping the body, but it is also necessary to accept that the body is part of the system that we call Self, and as such, it must be maintained the same way as the mind.

Body can either be our friend or enemy. As a friend, it supports our overall growth. If we take care of it, it allows us to sit longer, to walk further, to sleep less and to control our minds better. As an enemy, it causes mental over-activity, mind chatter and toxic emotions, causing tension, weakness and illness that prevent a good circulation, exchange and transformation of everything that constitutes us.

Practicing how to stay unattached to the body, how to let go of it, and at the same time optimise its functionality, is not much different than practice of the mind. Therefore, instead of rejecting one or the other aspect of our being, we should learn to include it in our practice and to understand that only in this way can we reconcile our entire system. Nevertheless, the choice of physical activity should not be judged by the eyes of our Ego, which often falls into competition and comparison traps. We should understand that, in order to maintain optimal body and mind condition, some people are well served with the gentle physical activities, while others may need more intense bodywork. But after all, it is not so important what, but rather how and for what purpose something is done.

I was once asked, how is it that a Zen nun gets into extreme sports? This is not an unusual question. It arises from the dualistic thinking (spirit vs. body, Zen vs. worldly life). Coming from this perspective, many people share the opinion that the Zen state is shown by external calmness and slowness, and that the sport is mainly related to the craving for endorphins and adrenaline. Although this is often the case, the Zen practitioner goes beyond that.

When physical activity is elevated to the level of Zen practice, the inner calm remains even when the body accelerates, which increases the focus. Anyone seriously involved in downhill, single trails or pump tracks knows that riding without focus and absolute presence can be fatal at any time. Nevertheless, the focus is maximised when death, pain and fear are faced with non-judgmental awareness. One sees without looking, hears without listening and reaches a state of non-thinking and no-mind that leaves no room for thoughts and toxic fear. Also the emission of the endorphins and adrenaline is limited, what prevents development of an addiction to it.

Shortly, when sport is performed without separation from the spirit, the mind becomes empty, thoughts and fear transcend and the Self flows into activity, becoming one with it. And finally, there is no more activity, just a Zen state of mind.


[1] Korean Zen

[2] Korean zen monk or nun

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