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The Inner Art of Airmanship

Zen and the Art of …

It's a cliché. Or at least it can sound like one. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or Zen and the Art of Sock Drawer Organization, or Zen and the Art of Landing the Space Shuttle. But most are serious books with real messages. Here are some good ones I've learnt from:


Zen Tennis: Eastern Wisdom For Western Sport
Paul Mutimer

Accessible introduction for bringing Eastern philosophy into sport. Playing in the zone, Yin and Yang, mind, body, belief. Written by a tennis player who was sidelined due to injury, found Zen, played better, and became a coach.

Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior
Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty

Real sports. Real coaching. Real Zen. Phil Jackson won a NBA championship ring as a player, then won a record six more as coach of the Chicago Bulls, and another two as coach of the LA Lakers. Luck? Or his thoughtful mix of Eastern and Native American philosophies. It's mindful basketball from a master.

Blowing Zen: Finding an Authentic Life
Ray Brooks

Very readable, almost like a novel. An Englishman in Japan takes up the shakuhachi, a vertical bamboo flute. The best authors show not tell, and Ray is a good author. No lists, no lessons, but a life well lived.

Zen and the Art of Writing
Ray Bradbury

Work. Relaxation. Don't Think!
These are the three ideas that famed writer Bradbury links together in a short but powerful essay of Zen. For someone who "knew nothing of Zen until a few weeks ago" he clearly shows right mind here in words.

One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery, Enlightenment
Kenneth Kushner

Kyudo is the traditional Japanese art of archery. The author takes us on a well thought-out, well written journey out to Hawaii and Japan. And inside oneself as he cleans the Dojo, sits Zazen, and learns to perfectly pull a big bow. Ties together martial arts, Zen, and everyday life. Makes an excellent companion to Herrigel's classic (next).

Zen in the Art of Archery
Eugen Herrigel

"The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art …"

In the 1930's this German philosopher and his wife Gustie spent several years in Japan. He taught University courses and learned Zen through archery, while she learned and wrote about Zen in the Art of Flower Arrangement. One of the first books to introduce Zen to westerners, and still one of the best for taking the practical route rather than the contemplative. The book titles inspired Pirsig's memorable classic (next).

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert Pirsig

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become winded, slow down. If bored, speed up. You climb the mountain in equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead (mindfulness) each footstep isn — t just a means to an end, but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are the things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It is the sides of the mountain that sustain the top. Here is where things grow. But of course, without the top, you can't have any sides"

Maybe the best known book with 'Zen' and 'Art' in the title. It's a clever title, worthy of a clever book. Actually not an exploration of a Way (save a little motorcycle maintenance), or of traditional Zen, but rather a major expedition into quality. It's a complex story of relationships, values, madness, and, eventually, enlightenment. Maybe little connection to flying, but it is an amazing philosophical tour de force, and prompted others to question traditions and to explore Zen ideas.

Cruising Blues and Their Cure
Robert Pirsig
Esquire magazine, May 1977, p. 65-68

"It has something to do with the way the sea and sun and wind and sky go on and on day after day, week after week, and the boat and you have to go on with it. You must take the helm and change the sails and take sights of the stars and work out their reductions and sleep and cook and eat and repair things as they break and do most of these things in stormy weather as well as fair, depressed as well as elated, because there's no choice. You get used to it; it becomes habit-forming and produces a certain change in values."

The author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance takes a slightly different tack. An article about people who work and save and dream for years to buy a boat, then end up selling it in disgust shortly afterwards, victims of what he calls the Cruising Blues. It's a meditation that works equally well for flying as it does for sailing.

The Centered Skier
Denise McCluggage

"I was high on t'ai chi and aikido and eager to apply their concepts of Centerness and energy flow to skiing. Why not t'ai ski? Ai-ski-do? The East comes to Eastern skiing!"

A groundbreaking book. The legendary motorsports writer brings together Zen, Taoist philosophy, Chinese calligraphy, and snow skiing into a meaningful — and useful — whole.

The Art and Zen of Learning Golf
Mike Hebron

"Golf is both mental and physical, and the physical is always best controlled by information that is personally gathered by the student's brain. Ideas and perceptions from others, when used, can mislead. Others can guide the learning process, helping students define and understand what they are seeing and experiencing, but students cannot really be taught a motor skill."

I don't play golf, and so was a little confused when Sam gave me an (autographed) copy of this book. It ended up becoming a template for this website! Clear instructions for learning the motor skills for golf combine with the art of bringing Zen into the mental game, all with boatloads of supporting quotes and references. There are other books with Zen ideas and golf, but very little like literature regards piloting. Which is why I continued to research the Inner Art of Airmanship.

Zen in the Art of Flying
John Shade
Air Progress magazine, March 1975, p. 34-37

"How do you land an airplane? Well, how do you sit down in a chair? Yes, of course, but how do you always manage to end up on the right place in the chair, and to hit it with the right amount of force? It's like landing an airplane; you don't do anything, you just fly up to the runway and sit down."

An aviation magazine talking about flying and mind and mushin (no-mind-ness)? No wonder it no longer is in print. The dirty Outlaws. I had many words written about Sam and the Inner Art of Airmanship, none of which I had shared with anyone, when this magazine found me in a bin of old magazines in a shop under a tent under the July sun at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Zen in the Art of Flying. Sam was not alone. It does make sense, in a little article about flying by feel and knowledge, rather than flying by numbers.

Cockpit Mind Control
Michael Maya Charles
Flying magazine, November 1990, p. 132-133

"Flying can be a form of meditation, as can playing the cello or glassblowing. All require a singular mind focus to elevate the practice from the ordinary to the art form. It is a lifelong pursuit and may benefit other areas of a pilot's life as well. Perhaps your flying can become "hours and hours of awareness punctuated by brief moments of sheer boredom.""

The Z word mentioned in the world's most widely read aviation magazine? Thoughtful article from an airline captain and professional writer who also has studied the Japanese shakuhechi flute. Fifteen years later he wrote the book Artful Flying. While talking with Michael, he shared with me that the magazine title was added by the editors, and that he still hates it!

The Red Baron Meets the Buddha: Reflections On Dharma & Combat
Mark J. Williams
Bodhi magazine, Volume 5 No. 3, 2002, p. 30-36

"When mind is unclouded and flowing with the engagement, SA blossoms. Thinking or conceptualizing detains the mind and freezes the frame, losing the view. Situational awareness "sees" without stopping. SA demands an intuitive seeing in the mind's eye, like the inkblot that suddenly morphs into a young woman. It rests in the dynamic experience of the battlespace itself and unfolds as the information flows. With SA I know the composition of space, the movement of enemy fighters and their relation to friendlies, who has the advantage or disadvantage, and most importantly, whether or not to strike. Lacking SA, the thousand arms of Avalokiteshvara clash in discord and fail to strike the enemy. With SA, the swords strike a thousand targets without pause, in unison, precisely."

This is the cutting-edge Zen of martial arts, by an F-15C pilot who engaged in air-to-air combat in the Gulf War. Brilliant article that covers awareness, meditation and mushin in the extreme world of the most powerful fighter aircraft in the United States Air Force. It's the valuable inner knowledge of someone who was a warrior in mortal combat, then got a degree in religious studies.

Cockpit Buddha
Rod Machado
AOPA Pilot magazine, May 2009, p. 42

"It's now clear to me that those with an extraordinary ability to keep themselves safe in the air do so because they — there's no other way to say this so I'll just say it — mimic the behaviors of what the self-help literature calls the enlightened individual."

Great one-page article by an expert aviation educator and entertainer who has a degree in psychology and several martial art black belts. Rod suggests that pilots with an "extraordinary ability to fly safely — enlightened pilots" do so by mentally stepping outside their fuselage and constantly hold the thought what's happening to me? in their mind. This idea then becomes "a dominant and permanent part of a pilot's background consciousness." It's an idea and a process that more than any other "completely informs a pilot about his or her present level of in-flight safety."

Zen and the Art of Soaring
Ed Jones
Soaring magazine, August 1994, p. 38

"I think a modern Zenmaster would appreciate soaring. First, it is a quiet, peaceful sport, with only the sound of the wind. Second, it usually is beautiful, especially when flying in view of big, puffy cumulus clouds. Third, it is mentally demanding. You must focus your mind on what you are doing, both in order to get where you are going, and to keep out of trouble."

The one-page article goes on to describe a nice day of glider flying from Warner Springs, California. Really not much else. Powerful title, nice flight, says that practicing graceful wingovers is a meditative Zen exercise.

Zen and the Brain
James H. Austin, M.D.

A neurologist spends a sabbatical year in Kyoto, Japan, and takes up Zen meditation. Years later, after much study, he produces this amazing tome. It's over 800 pages of detailed referenced explorations for several aspects of Zen practice and how they relate to the inner workings of the biological brain. There are lots of sentences like this one, "Pivotal to Zen are the networks of attention which interact in the …  prefrontal cortex, the posterior parietal cortex, the cingulate gyrus, and the thalamus." This is a deep book for the limited audience who really appreciate brain geography and bio-chemistry; but it is an important book that rigorously connects traditional Zen practice and neurological brain processes.

Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness
James H. Austin, M.D.

His third book on Zen and neuroscience; again for a limited audience but unquestionably a masterwork of connecting these two powerful worlds. Fully referenced with the latest exciting research as of early 2009. The purpose is to "develop a simpler, coherent understanding of how the ancient Path of transformation leads toward rare states of consciousness."

The Flying Mystique: Exploring Reality and Self in the Sky
Harry Bauer

"Some of the most advanced meditation techniques were developed by ancient Japanese warriors who needed to be able to respond without hesitation to the movements of their opponents. To hesitate, to stop to analyze, to screen a perception through the thinking process could mean death. In a way our flying becomes a manta, the focus of concentration, and we control the airplane without consciously trying to do so."

A gentle book that never mentions the word Zen; but covers inner flying, bringing the left and right sides of the pilot brain together, and Maslow's humanistic psychology. Not a practical guide to better flying, but an insight into many ideas of what being a pilot can mean to humans.


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The Way isn't something that can be put into words. You have to practice before you can understand. You can't force things, including practice. Understanding is something that happens naturally. It's different for everyone. The main thing is to reduce your desires and quiet your mind

— Hsueh-tou Chih-chien

You must make the most strenuous efforts.  Throughout this life, you can never be certain of living long enough to take another breath.

— Huang Po

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I never cite Buddha — s words or the word of Zen patriarchs when I teach. All I do is comment directly on people themselves. That takes care of everything. I Don't have to quote either the Buddha Dharma or the Zen Dharma. I Don't have to when I can clear everything up for you by commenting directly on you and your personal concerns right here and now. I've no reason to preach about Buddhism or Zen.

— Bankei

The great end of life is not knowledge but action.

— Thomas Henry Huxley


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