Fear of Falling

What is the sound of one man falling?

What is the sound of one man falling?

I recently left New York City just as I was growing comfortable with my religious identity as a Pure Land Buddhist. After years of intense investigation into Buddhism, many hours of painful cross-legged sitting, and a drawn-out struggle to determine how literally I had to take concepts like “transcendent Buddhas” and “otherworldly realms of happiness,” I decided to commit to the Jodo Shinshu tradition of Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shinshu is an 800-year-old lineage that stresses sincerity, humility, naturalness, and gratitude as the keys to living an authentic life.

Leaving New York was the right decision — I gave up on the crowding, the commutes, and the general ugliness of the concrete jungle — but there are no Jodo Shinshu temples within hundreds of miles of where I now live in North Carolina. So, once a month, I’m forced to return to my home temple in New York to connect with my Sangha, my community of fellow practitioners, and to participate in a training program for lay teachers. The only problem is that to get there, I have to fly.

Even before terrorists crashed planes into the Twin Towers, air travel terrified me. There’s something profoundly counterintuitive about climbing aboard a 400-ton metal contraption loaded with 50,000 gallons of highly flammable fuel in order to fly several miles up into the thin air. Especially when the nightly news regularly feeds us spectacular images of planes blowing up or falling out of the sky like meteors, often for no greater reason than faulty wiring or an unfortunate encounter with a seagull.

When you’re risking your life in the face of fiery death 30,000 feet above sea level, you focus on the essentials. Why am I doing this? I’d ask myself. What do I hope to accomplish? How did I get from being an agnostic science major to a vegetarian Buddhist chanting my way across America? What is it about Pure Land Buddhism that leads me to step onto this deathtrap?

Unlike the more chic lineages of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land is a lay-oriented tradition that seeks to ensure the swift enlightenment of everyone, no matter how deluded they are. It centers on the mythic Amida Buddha, a symbol of the ultimate nature of reality, who unconditionally accepts all into the Pure Land of Bliss at the end of their lives. A major denomination of Pure Land Buddhism, and the first to actively spread to North America in the 1800s, Jodo Shinshu focuses on developing a mind of deep gratitude toward Amida and all things in our lives. Rather than formal seated meditation, the main practice of Jodo Shinshu is a sacred chant known as nembutsu: “Namu-Amida-Butsu” (“I entrust myself to the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life”).

This focus on gratitude toward all as essential to our awakening, and the ideal of equality of all beings without distinction, were powerful parts of Jodo Shinshu’s appeal for me. Jodo Shinshu seems to lack the arrogance and self-centeredness I’ve encountered in other Buddhist traditions. Too often people seek to meditate their way into enlightenment, and harbor pride — in their ability to adhere to codes of morality, or because they’d received the most powerful initiations from the most famous gurus. After years of practice in Zen I found these very attitudes developing within myself. But in Jodo Shinshu there are no spiritual elites, just fellow practitioners, all equal in the embrace of Amida’s compassion and wisdom. And chanting nembutsu is a practice available to all people in any situation, not just those who can afford to sit on a cushion for hours on end or pay for expensive retreats.

Whenever I fly, I say the nembutsu quietly under my breath. I probably sound like one of the hijackers, who recited Koranic verses softly to themselves as the planes climbed toward their normal cruising altitudes. But nembutsu isn’t a type of prayer — ideally it’s supposed to be a statement of thanksgiving. But for me in the air it is more a sort of desperate distraction. Namu-Amida-Butsu, Namu-Amida-Butsu — oh god what was that sound?!? — Namu-Amida- Butsu, Namu-Amida-Butsu, Namu-Amida-Butsu — I really hope they sell alcohol on this flight — Namu-Amida-Butsu. . . .


There’s a famous passage in the Tannisho, a basic scripture of Jodo Shinshu, in which the founder, Shinran, addresses pilgrims who have braved a war-torn countryside to reach him: “Each of you has come to see me, crossing the borders of more than ten provinces at the risk of your life, solely with the intent of asking about the path to birth in the land of bliss.” This passage replays in my head whenever I go to the airport. I steel myself to travel hundreds of miles through the freezing atmosphere, helpless before the power of weather, mechanics, and terrorism, in order to listen to the Dharma. Every time the pilot turns on the seatbelt light, I realize that, against all odds, I have found a sort of faith.

And yet, if it was true faith, I wouldn’t worry about the plane falling. At the end Amida would catch me. I would close my eyes and open them to find myself seated on a lotus in the Pure Land. Or so the ancient scriptures say. But in the air I’d trade eternal Buddhahood for a soft landing.

Pure Land Buddhism teaches that the source of our suffering is clinging to egocentricity, accepting the belief that one’s own power is sufficient to overcome the deep anger, greed, and ignorance that mark human life. We are counseled to rely wholly on Other Power, the natural activity of all things to reveal our inner state of enlightenment. Flying plays right into this in a nastily direct way: Unless you’re the pilot, flying is a complete surrender, which is why so many Americans prefer to drive even though it’s a far more dangerous manner of travel. Truly giving up self-power is virtually impossible, especially for pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Americans. But on a plane you have to relinquish that power — relinquish it, or go crazy.

This release is aided by the eventual realization that even on the ground our ideas of power and control are really illusions. I was in the World Trade Center two months before the towers fell, attending a three-day conference on Buddhism in America. The plaza was filled with Buddhists from different sects and states. Together we traveled to the top of the towers to gaze out over the city and crawled through the subway systems clutching books by the Dalai Lama. From Raleigh-Durham to LaGuardia, I’d felt intense fear on the plane trip to get there, and again on the trip home. But during the conference itself I felt safe perusing the vendors’ selection of expensive skull-bone bead bracelets and teakwood scripture stands, never worrying that the ceiling would collapse in the middle of a meditation session. Anywhere on the ground seemed preferable to being in the air at the time–but now I’m not so sure.


In October, I was on a plane headed to New York. I read Buddhist scriptures to occupy myself, but my mind kept wandering to terrorism. What would I do if someone tried to hijack the plane? Putting down an ancient text that exhorted compassion for all sentient beings, I mulled my options. I decided that if someone tried to force his way into the cockpit, I’d leap up, rush down the aisle, and knock the hijacker over. Then, I’d take my pen and shove it into his eye, hopefully with sufficient force to push it all the way back into the brain.

After I mentally practiced this exercise a couple times, I went back to reading about Shinran’s address to the pilgrims from far provinces: “If you imagine in me some special knowledge of a path to birth other than the nembutsu or of scriptural writings that teach it, you are greatly mistaken.” In other words, to these travelers who risked everything to meet him and listen to the deepest truth of life, Shinran told them that the nembutsu was enough. All they had to do was give up their self-attachment and everything would work out. It sounds so easy, but I’ve learned that it’s a wrenching requirement to fulfill. With the sharp point of my pen in hand, my faith must be very much in doubt.

You have to just let whatever comes come, be it pleasure or fear. “Please discontinue the use of all portable electronic devices” — Namu-Amida-Butsu. “Your seat cushion also acts as a flotation device” — Namu-Amida-Butsu. “Please return to your seat and stow your tray table to an upright and locked position” — Namu-Amida-Butsu.

Although it’s the most difficult of all difficulties, acceptance is the only option. I fly again on Friday.

Jeff Wilson is an assistant professor of religious
studies and East Asian studies in Ontario. His most recent books include: Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (Oxford University Press 2009) and Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications 2009). His next book, with University of North Carolina Press, will examine Buddhism in the American South.