The mystery of flight. A Small Zen meditation.

The mystery of flight. A Small Zen meditation. December 14, 2022



As it happens it was on this day, the 14th of December in 1782 that the Montgolfier brothers made their first test flight of a hot air balloon. The balloon floated a little over a mile before coming to ground. Surprised onlookers destroyed the remains of the balloon. As it happens, it was also this day in 1903 that the Wright brothers made their first attempt at heavier than air flight. It would be three more days before they succeeded on the next trial.

Flight. An ancient, ancient dream of the human species. I suspect this fascination first popped up in human brains somewhere in the tail end of the Pleistocene, as our ancestors watched the flight of birds and insects. And projected our wonders into the heavens.

I find myself caught up in fancies and fantasies of flight.

Su tung-p’o sang to us:

To what can our life on earth be likened?
To a flock of geese,
alighting on the snow.
Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage.

And of course, speaking of geese, Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

But in the moment I find a koan coming to mind, to heart. Touching me into my bones. A koan is an assertion about reality that comes with an invitation to intimacy. This one is simple as simple can be.

When the wind blows
the willow seed floats away.

A little more humble than those wondrous geese. Just a willow seed floating. Again, I can see our Pleistocene ancestor sitting, just for a bit, life was pretty dangerous to indulge a lot of lollygagging. But, no doubt, no doubt a pause. And a noticing. The wind. A willow seed. Floating.

Life, of course. Death, it hangs there, as well. Passingness. All that passingness.

My brother in the dharma the Zen roshi David Weinstein once commented on the case:

“I didn’t know what willow seeds looked like when I first met this koan. I imagined something like a dandelion seed. It wasn’t until many years later, while sitting in the backyard of our home in Oakland, where we had a willow tree, that I understood what a willow seed looks like. I noticed a swarm of tiny white insects above me. When I looked more closely, I saw that they were not insects at all, but tiny little seeds. The seeds are so small that it takes no wind at all to move them. The barest breath of a breeze will send them sailing this way and that.

I think it was the old master Hakuin who told us:

The willow is the true form of the
Bodhisattva of Compassion, The pine
wind’s song is the melodious voice of
the Buddha.

A little grand. But the old guy was kind of like that.

And appropriately. We notice. And we can go in several directions. I love those guys and their hot air balloon. I love those guys and their decision to put on wings and fly. Dreams piling unto dreams, and becoming the stuff of our worlds. Wonderful.

But. But, most of all, I’m impressed by those ancients who sat down and noticed. David in his backyard. Jan and me quietly walking in the morning. And then. Looking. Noticing.

In the intimate moment. Geese tracing across the sky. The willow seed floating in the air. And I am one with it. And it.

In the intimate moment. Those geese. Their flight. Their call. My flight. My call.

That willow seed…

Not exactly one.

But not precisely two, either.

The mystery of flight.

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