Buddha and the Bicycle

part one, Church of the Big Ring can be found  is here.

We might not remember that first moment, but it might be the reason we’re riding.

It is the moment when all the mechanics of riding, the thoughts of what should be going right and could be going wrong, the exhortations of friends, and the advice of magazines all disappear into the background and the riding just flows. You don’t have to think about it anymore; you’re doing it. The bike and you are functioning as one, existing in the moment.  Stimulus, response; you’re moving along, you’ve lost track of time. All that matters is the road ahead and that you’re moving there in an effort that, while felt in the legs, heart, and lungs, is easy, natural, part of your being. The feeling can last a whole ride that takes an entire day, though sometimes it only appears for a few seconds when the wind is nudging from behind and the road is tilting down.

Once experienced, you want it again and again. While it might take some focus to achieve, that focus rewards with a feeling of connection, calm, and leaves one at the end of the ride feeling not tired, but refreshed.

The above might be why many turn to the East when looking for ways to understand that feeling. Eastern religions seem to have an outlook that doesn’t focus as much on dualities, doesn’t focus on separating the divine from the mundane, mind from body, earth from heaven. Nirvana can often be found in the here and now. Hell isn’t a mythical place, but life without riding.

For a number of years, I looked at my own riding as a form of escape. I was blotting out school and studies and the usual teenage concerns by conquering hills, chasing cars, and giving myself entirely to experiencing the bike and what I passed through. Getting lost and arriving home after dark totally blown was simply a sign of my devotion to riding. Knowing that I finished a ride totally empty was a kind of pleasure. At some point, I realized that my riding was a form of balance. I was throwing myself into riding with an intensity that equaled my studies. The mind was the primary focus of one, the body of the other. Yin and yang. Hard rides were another focus that functioned as a way to clear my head, refresh me for studying, while studying refreshed me for riding.

The best days were the ones when the bike seemed to be just an extension of me and whatever my impulse seemed, the body moved, and the bike responded. When everything was good, I found a rhythm that rendered time unimportant. Outside stimulae, like cold and heat didn’t matter so long as they weren’t preventing me from finding that perfect state of riding.

The body and what it senses are everything to the Taoist tradition. In this realm, everything is physical, manifest by action. Taoism, a Chinese tradition founded by Lao-Tzu, is “the way,” or as the Random House Websters College Dictionary writes, “the dynamic principle of life by which all things happen or exist.” (The Free Dictionary definition is here.) According to Lehigh University’s Norman Giradot, professor of comparative religions, “To be in tune with the great power, the Tao, is to do it in the matrix of your body. Tao in some ways is the manifestation of change. What better manifestation can there be than an attachment to a piece of metal that moves forward in the world? That’s a perfect metaphor for the Tao.”

Likewise, Zen Buddhists have a place for cycling. Zen, a Buddhist movement that started in China, emphasizes contemplation but is simultaneously anti-intellectual.   A classic Zen story finishes with the student telling his master, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.” To which the master throws himself at the feet of the student and declares, “I am your student.”

The stories are devices to jolt one’s thinking. But the groundwork behind them is rigorous. Douglas Brooks, a professor of Asian Religions at the University of Rochester, takes his cycling and studies equally seriously. He gives equal time to bikes and books on his webpage. “Zen speaks of effortless effort,” he says, “suggesting that the more adept we become the more the complexities and rigors of the practice appear effortless.”

This is something that we see when watching the fastest, strongest person on a ride, or a pro rider breaking away on television or any cyclist in great form. Even pictures of cyclists can function in the same way. The images we see puts us back on our bikes and reminds us of those moments when we experience the sensation.

We even imagine the sensation of the person in the street, on the screen and page must be feeling—we’ know we’d be pretty happy if we looked like them at that point in a ride or race. We can also feel their pain when they’re going poorly.

The effortless effort is something we can feel when conditions are right. Hopefully, the more we ride, the easier it is to attain. We first had flashes of it when we started riding, but since then, the moments get longer and come more frequently. At times, it seems as if this effortless effort only occurs when pedaling at one’s limit, as if the increased focus reduces the sense of perceived effort.

Riding was a transcendent experience first when I was able to ride without training wheels, without being held, when it was me putting all the little tasks together that make riding possible and seemingly in control of all of it. After that became routine, I subconsciously moved onto bigger challenges. Riding faster, turning faster, climbing hills, feeling comfortable at high speed. Then it was drafting cars, mastering pacelines, and more. I moved onto racing, and to this day, a fast, tight, rotating double-paceline feels like flying.

Brooks compares cycling to a seated meditation. “(T)here is a sense on a road bike that the more still you become, the faster you can go. Also, like most yogas that demand us to be “busy on the outside, we naturally become more calm on the inside…It’s not a matter of whether cycling can substitute for seated meditation but rather what role it plays in a larger meditation practice. For me, cycling is indispensable precisely because I am moving and sitting, I am calm and alert, I am outside and I am inside.” (Italics his)

But the Buddhist world is large and encompasses many different traditions, and in those, different interpretations. John Rakestraw, a former philosophy professor, a Unitarian and bicycle commuter, sees his life as influenced by a tradition known as Engaged Buddhism. Rakestraw sees religion as a part of everything one does, something that informs every aspect of life.

He sees cycling as not only a kind of active meditation, but “It’s a way of living gently on the earth at least part of the time. The bicycle takes less energy to manufacture, less energy to maintain, and less energy to travel from one place to another than a car takes. And a good steel frame will last much longer than a good car.”

Rakestraw believes one of the ways Engaged Buddhism is manifesting itself in the way that the act of cycling can teach. “Others see me commuting to work in setting in which they are reluctant to cycle, and I hope that occasionally one of them might think, ‘I could do that.’”

Furthermore, he thinks that even if cycling might not seem meditative to many, it often creates the same results. “If a meditative process is one that facilitates one’s seeing the world in a different way, then I think that bicycling can be a meditative process—not because it has one sitting silently and quietly so that enlightenment might come. Rather because it pushes a reorganization of the way one sees the world.”

Part of that reorganization for many is seeing and experiencing the divine in the quotidian. Brooks says, “In Hindu traditions the divine either mingles with the mundane or actually becomes it.” He paraphrases The Bhagavad-Gita a when he says, “Of mountains, I am Himalayas, of Rivers I am the Ganges, of bicycles, I am (insert your favorite, my tastes run to Rivendell, Sachs, Mariposa, Singer, another masterworks of lugged steel).”

Hindus also have a place for the little rituals we perform to get ready for riding. “Hindus, like Buddhists and others, also regard ritual as a means (or a performative expression) of the deepest experiences,” explains Brooks.   “Ritual is either a way to achieve these experiences or itself a part and parcel of those experiences.” Getting out riding gear, pumping up tires, filling water bottles can be religious. “We create thoughtless thought: we don’t have to think about it, but “not thinking about” is better or even more effective than thinking about it…Therein lies the beauty of a meaningful ritual (as opposed to one that is dry, empty of meaning or awareness)—the ritual is a way for us to touch what is important by giving extraordinary meaning to the perfectly ordinary or everyday needs.”

The carbo-loading meal or the pasta feast the night before an event is one of these rituals. I enjoyed it for many years, then got sick at one such feed, which made me wary. And, as time went on, I got away from the idea of loading my carbs, preferring to enjoy carbohydrate-rich foods most of the time. I certainly miss the event-quality of the night-before meal, as it was a manifestation of being ready, but I think I had tired of depending on this ritual for knowing I was ready.

Getting ready for a ride isn’t something I saw as part of my personal religious interpretation cycling, but it does take a certain focus, and in so doing, is relaxing, almost confidence-inspiring. The stuff I do the night before going to an event often seems to help me settle down, as it’s a situation where I can think about what’s ahead and assure myself that I’ll be able to handle it. If it’s something I can ride to, I get out all the permutations of clothes and gear I might need. If I have to drive, that stuff gets packed out of storage and into a bag and then the travel food is set up, and extra bike parts.

Even after all the layers of complexity, the preparation, the gear, the years of accumulated knowledge, and maybe even a little wisdom, everything gets back to riding. Whether it’s an event, a training ride, or hopping on the commuter to run an errand, most rides are inspiring. Even on the sub-freezing days when it takes too long to feel comfortable, once the legs start turning over and are en route to a rhythm, I find that refreshing focus, a center for my immediate concerns, and the experience is only good.

Sadly, the flip side of such devotion is the days when the legs, lungs, and heart can’t respond. Those days, the union with the bike seems broken. And the promise it offers goes unfulfilled. Some days, it’s worthwhile to get on the bike just to see if the feeling can be found, while other days, it’s best to forsake riding in hopes the union can be rekindled another day.

None of this is to suggest you should feel differently about riding. Merely, the feelings you get from riding can be both as profound and mundane as one can experience.


SIDEBAR: Zen and Cycling


A Zen Teacher saw five of his students return from the market, riding their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the teacher asked the students, “Why are you riding your bicycles?”

The first student replied, “The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!” The teacher praised the student, saying, “You are a smart boy. When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over, as I do.”

The second student replied, “I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path.” The teacher commended the student, “Your eyes are open and you see the world.”

The third student replied, “When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant, nam myoho renge kyo.” The teacher gave praise to the third student, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly trued wheel.”

The fourth student answered, “Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all beings.” The teacher was pleased and said, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.”

The fifth student replied, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.” The teacher went and sat at the feet of the fifth student, and said, “I am your disciple.”

Courtesy of Piaw Na, Internet-BOB


Sidebar: Blog commentary from Richard Sachs

“This, from my beautiful wife deb, a longtime practicing Zen Buddhist: “In its simplest form, Zen, as a religion, is to ‘pay attention’, meaning ‘pay attention to the present moment’. So if you are paying attention while filing lugs into intricate shapes, that’s Zen.”

“Me, i’m a jewdist, so i make my own rules. because i think about frames as well as make them, my thought on this issue is that a frame is a unit, a life form if you will. i see the work going into making a lug, or refining a lug, or adding adornment to a lug as part of the process rather than ‘the’ process. in essence, for me, all the energy spent on creating any one detail of a frame should be spread to the making of it in its entirety. the lugs are not the frame. the geometry is not the frame. the alignment is not the frame. the material is not the frame. the frame is the frame.”


The above article, Buddha and the Bicycle, appeared, in an edited version, in Asphalt Magazine.  Volume Two, Issue One.  2005.


3 thoughts on “Buddha and the Bicycle”

  1. Thank you for publishing this article. It chimes with many thoughts I’ve had both on and off the bike.

    You mentioned David Brooks’s writing on cycling, but I can’t find it online. Could you link to the sources of the quotes or point me in their direction?

  2. As a Buddhist who restores and rebuilds classic English and Italian Bicycles from the 1970’s and 1980’s I really empathise with the theme and with similar thoughts I’ve had both on and off the bike. May I borrow some bits, in which case, I’m more than happy to donate to Just Riding Along and toss a few bucks in the jar?

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