A few evenings ago, I was drifting off while reading and had a dream—maybe you’ve had this same dream—that I was falling off a chair. I jerked awake, arms out, trying to right myself from the fall, even though in reality I’d been perfectly still. I don’t know how many times I’ve done this in my life. But every time it happens, it feels real. And intense. And awkward. Just like actually falling.
Dogen (1200–1253), the Japanese founder of Soto Zen, spoke of falling off a horse:
When a person falls from a horse, various thoughts arise before he hits the ground. When something occurs that is so serious that one’s body may be damaged or one’s life may be lost, no one will fail to put all his intellect to work… Therefore, if you think you will die tonight or tomorrow or that you are confronting a dreadful situation, encourage your aspiration and you will not fail to attain enlightenment… We are only alive now. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)
In those few seconds of a fall—from a horse, a chair, the top of the stairs, wherever it starts—we react completely. We don’t think it through, or try to come back to our breath, or multitask. We bring our entire body and mind to this situation. The stakes are high, so our eyes are wide open, our body is engaged. The response is total.
There’s a tendency, I think, to associate Buddhist practice with equanimity. We imagine doing things slowly and gently. Calmly. That can be a beautiful practice, but it can also be manufactured, an imposition of an ideal state on a not-so-ideal reality. What I love about the image of falling off the horse is that it’s a vision of the spiritual life that has nothing to do with acting Buddhist. It’s wide-eyed and clumsy. It allows for flailing about. It isn’t about landing just right or landing with the right state of mind—landing is later. It’s about knowing that you’re falling and responding, honestly, however that looks.
When you fall, you do whatever you can in that moment because you won’t get another shot. The reminder from Dogen is that if we are really present to what’s happening, then we see that we are always falling. We always have been. We never get another shot at this moment.
Right now, you may know you’re falling off the horse. If you’re a health care worker on the front lines, or if you’ve just lost your job, or if you’re sick, you may feel that dizzy urgency. But most of us, even if we’ve known that kind of experience, ease out of it. We settle in. And though the reality of our life is no less pressing—we’re still growing older, we’re still susceptible to illness, we’re still going to die—that urgency fades to the background. In fact, a lot of us, even in the midst of a pandemic, are sleeping in a bit more, showering a bit less, letting days run into one another as if time has lost all meaning. I’m not saying you need to put your pants on or comb your hair—only you know if that matters or not. But maybe ask yourself, are you treating your life as if it’s on hold? Because it isn’t.
Wherever you are as you read this, you’re probably pretty still. Maybe you’re sitting on a sofa or waiting for a bus. Take a breath and try to notice where you are in relationship to that horse. Can you feel everything move? Do you feel the rush of gravity, the loss of control? As Dogen said, “We are only alive now.” This is what it feels like—awkward, struggling, awake.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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