Zen and the art of Hang Gliding

The art of hang gliding stems from a deep mysticism, with its origins in mythology (The Garuda, Hermes, Apollo, Icarus and Daedalus) through to James Barrie’s Peter Pan. The craft is, of course, taught by the Masters of the art. Their teachings are held in reverence, it’s as if these teachers have attained spiritual enlightenment. It has been a source of amazement to me that the basic skills of Hang Gliding are usually attained within a week. What is the process that follows after?

Mount Elliot Launch

While in Bright, at the Mystic landing field and Porepunkah airstrip, I was performing the usual routine of the packing of the glider and was reflecting on the fine flights had. Thoughts wander, and I contemplated the notion that this pack-up ritual vaguely resembled the Japanese Tea ceremony. There is an order to the process that is logical and grounding. While newcomers to this ritual may still require some cognitive process, the Initiates and Masters seem to perform this ritual automatically, but are usually immersed in their contemplations. Such phenomenon is demonstrably Zen at the core.

The fundamental tenet of Zen is that enlightenment (Satori) is attained through practical application “without words, without explanations, without instructions, without knowledge”. This pervades through the hang gliding community as an unspoken philosophy. There are, of course, regulatory frameworks and broad strategies, but the Spiritual side is self determined. There is a Zen phrase:

“A finger is needed to point at the moon, but that we should not trouble ourselves with the finger once the moon is recognised”.

The original “Masters” of Hang Gliding provide a finger that is soon dispensed with, knowing that the spiritual aspect of the art will finish the learning process. Enlightenment in Zen “doesn’t mean withdrawal from the world but means, on the contrary, active participation in everyday affairs”. It is not a monastic recluse that partakes in Hang Gliding it is someone answering a call and embracing all the obligations. This call, like the approach in Zen, emphasises life’s practicalities but nevertheless “holds a mystical experience in wonder and mystery in every single act.”

There is occasional talk of having a so-called Sherpa that can carry and set up your glider, and then pack it up when the flying is done. This may be from those who consider the art to be akin to middle age knighthood, where to attain the highest rank one needed to ascend from Page through Squire to Knight. The process is really more holistic for reasons of safety as well as pleasure (although having a buddy co-pre-flight makes good sense). A Zen parable runs:

A monk told Joshu: ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’
Joshu asked: ’Have you eaten your rice porridge?’
The monk replied: ‘I have eaten.’
Joshu said:’Then you had better wash your bowl.’

Rather prosaic perhaps, but early in the hang gliding course the Masters place heavy emphasis on the set-up and strip down of the glider, and advice as to stowage of pack up gear, along with preliminary ventures into ground handling.

Anticipating flight often involves the process of “Hang waiting”. During this period the preparatory ceremony (set-up/pre-flight) has usually been performed, and the contemplation of fluid dynamics commences. To attain enlightenment a Zen master will provide their student a “koan”. This is a paradoxical question that is intended to stop the mind and empty it in preparation for Satori. Since no one has perfected “Thermal Detection Goggles” much time is spent on the paradoxical nature of thermal behaviour, or coastally on fronts, wind cycles, and launch directions. This period serves to empty ones mind, become transcendentally detached from the earth, and thus in tune with the heavens.

Zen is blended between Buddhism (meditational) Taoism (mystical), and Confuscianism (formalised and dealing at times with morality). A common symbol across these beliefs, and based in Toaist thought is that of the T’ai-chi T’u. This is the familiar image shown at the start of this article. In its origins the dark and light tadpole shapes represent the shady and sunny sides of a mountain. Each “tadpole” has within it the seed of its counterpart, and represents the balance of yin and yang. These two opposing characteristics need to live in harmony with each other. Its western analogy is the pendulum, which will inevitably swing the other way.

Those catabatic (yin) and anabatic (yang) airflows, or onshore/offshore cycles, that effect prospects of flight are both manifestations of the cyclic nature of the T’ai-chi T’u. The yang or (lighter side) represents the bright side of the mountain, it is creative, implies movement, and also is aligned with heaven (It is also designated as male for what it’s worth). If these meteorological forces are in sway then we will hopefully have some yang for launch.

Once having performed the launch ritual and found ourselves airborne we move directly to a state of Satori. One of the Zen methods of invoking enlightenment is for the Master to shock the student at a critical juncture through a yell, or a hit with a stick. I wouldn’t advocate this as a requirement after a hang check, but then perhaps the sudden flurry and injection of adrenaline already performs this for pilots. The eastern mystics also study these meditation techniques because of its value to warriors. The detachment attained through meditation allows one to concentrate strongly on the task at hand, to the expense of any distractions. A Zen Master Yasutani Roshi describes the meditative state of Shikan-taza as follows:

“Shikan Taza is a heightened state of concentrated awareness wherein one is neither tense nor worried, and certainly never slack. It is the mind of somebody facing death. Let us imagine that you are engaged in a duel of swordsmanship… were you to relax your vigilance even momentarily, you would be cut down instantly.”

He goes on to describe the crowd that gathers, but suggests that you (the warrior) are distracted by neither their noise nor presence. The Bhagavad Gita, India’s favourite religious text is set in a battlefield, and Bushido is a form of Samurai swordsmanship strongly influenced by Zen. Certainly the vigilance of the pilot is key to a safe, enjoyable, and successful flight.

One of my early revelations in the understanding of thermals is that if one takes the path of least resistance they should get prepared for a landing. The thermal will tip your wing away and you will always find sink. I struggled with early theory advising that the air just outside a thermal sinks faster than air further afield, so that when encountering a sink on my right wing I yielded right in search of the thermal beyond (to the despair of those on the ground watching the eagle to my left). The Lao Tzu would say ‘Whenever you want to achieve anything you should start with its opposite.’

Invariably the pendulum will swing and the yin again strengthens over the yang. “Landings are mandatory”. The yin is the darker side of the T’ai-chi T’u, being the shady side of the mountain. It further represents the earthly aspect of the balance, and brings things to rest. It is intuitive, and is described as female, or maternal.

So we go back to the pragmatic duties of pack-up and the cha-no-yu (tea ceremony), although my luck is usually better and my wife has a few cold beers at hand. Soon afterwards; I become thankful for the yin.

Authors notes:

Other activities are attributed to Zen like structure: “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” (Robert M. Pirsig), “Zen in the art of archery” (Eugen Herrigel), “Zen and the art of Windsurfing” (http://www.hsuyun.org/Dharma/zbohy/Literature/essays/sangha-essays/windsurfing.html).

This article is in contrast to true Zen, that would simply state “The instant you speak about a thing you miss the mark”.

Much of the facts and material quoted here has been obtained from Fritjof Capra’s “Tao of Physics”.

This article was originally printed in Soaring Magazine (Skysailor) 2005

Since then there have been others along this vein, here’s a useful one on Zen and Thermals


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