Those who know me know that I am a pretty avid comic book reader. One of the series I started reading late last year was Lone Wolf & Cub. I picked up all the omnibus volumes released by Dark Horse Comics over the past few years but never got around to reading them all.
After finally picking up the first volume, I learned just why this series is so popular. It's fast moving and quick to read but incredibly dense and filled with lots of philosophical references pulled from Japanese culture. Much of it is based on Buddhist teachings, which I have found to be quite influential to my approach to cycling.
The Gateless Barrier
One of the stories that truly hit the mark for me was this one in the first Dark Horse omnibus volume, a story called The Gateless Barrier. The introduction of this story starts with a quote, which is actually taken from an old collection of koans by the same name dating back to the 13th century.
The story starts with the main character, Ogami Ittō, sitting quietly in a rickety hut, meditating.
Outside a pack of wolves arrive and break into the hut. Ogami instantly picks up his dōtanuki, a Japanese sword that is wider and thicker than a traditional katana. It is described as "a sword that cuts through torsos". Ogami kills the wolves and goes back into the hut to continue his meditation.
Later than night, more wolves arrive. But rather than attacking Ogami, the wolves instead feed off the dead bodies of the other wolves Ogami killed. While all this is going on, Ogami makes a vow to not pickup his sword again until he is able to reach a state of Mu. Since a lot of these stories are rooted in Buddhism, what is referred as “the emptiness of Mu” is pretty synonymous with the concept of Zen. Basically, Ogami feels that he is allowing the wolves to interrupt his meditation and ability to be in the present moment. His emotions and sense of self take over and keep him from being in a Zen state.
As such, he throws his sword out the window. But one wolf still comes in and attempts to attack him. Ogami uses his bare hands to kill the wolf. He then acknowledges the nature of the present moment, the wolf, and the cycle of life. The wolf isn’t good or evil; it just is. So, for Ogami, reaching “the ultimate of Mu” is about going beyond his own preconceived ideas about the nature of humans and realizing that, like the wolf, he too is just a part of the cycle of life.
Time passes as Ogami continues in deep meditation. He feels everything within the present moment and embraces the presence of everything around him: the mountainside, the trees, a cliff, as well as the hut that surrounds him.
Once again, the wolves return with a couple of them walking into the hut. But this time they do not attack. Ogami halts his meditation and opens his eyes as the wolves leave.
He walks out of his hut and picked up his sword. More wolves appear and gather around as Ogami walks past them and back to the village where his son resides.
There’s more to the story but the start of it is a beautiful metaphor about the nature of the relationship we have with certain objects. In Ogami’s case, his sword is a part of him. When he wields it, it becomes an extension of himself. But he realized that the sword is just a tool. To wield it responsibly requires that he detach emotion from its use.
Ogami was reacting to wolves who were just doing what wolves do. He attached a human emotion to this and used his sword in a visceral, reactive way. He killed the first wolves with his sword, which kept the next wolves at bay by the bodies of the dead wolves. But this was only temporary. You could say that his emotional state is feeding the wolves. So long as the wolves sensed his fear and lack of oneness with his surroundings, the wolves will eventually attack.
But, as we learned after a period of deep meditation, Ogami was able to detach himself from his emotions and simply become a part of nature. I think this is what the wolves sensed in him. They no longer sensed he was a treat. That’s when Ogami knew he could then pickup his sword and wield it again without fear of his emotions controlling the actions he takes with said sword.
How It Relates To Cycling
Now, you might be wondering right now: What the hell does this have to do with riding a bike? Quite a bit actually.
Think about the relationship you have with your bike. Think back to times when you became angry or frustrated with a moment that involved your bike. Maybe you got a flat. Your chain came off the front chainring. It rained. Or you totally bonked in the middle of a big ride. All of these things happen and yet you have limited control over them. Maybe you could have done something different to avoid them but the fact of the matter is that, when they happen, you respond to them emotionally in ways that might not lead to anything positive.
Just like the story of Ogami and the wolves, your bike is your sword and the wolves are the things that happen for which you have no control over. The nature of bicycling is that certain things happen that you might attach a label as being bad. When they happen, you might be tempted to take it out on the bike, “kill the wolves” as it were. Thing is, it isn’t the bike’s fault. It just is. Only way we can get through these moments is to acknowledge that and be in the present moment when they happen. Take it all in and allow ourselves to become just a natural part of it and “walk with the wolves”.
I’m not saying I’ve reached this state of Zen with my own bike. I’m definitely aspiring to get there though. And I’ve certainly had my fair share of moments where I let the wolves win. But I’ve also had moments where I took it all in and simply accepted the nature of things. In those moments, I can say that I gained a lot of appreciation in what I learned about myself. It’s these experiences where I truly gain a much better understanding of the relationship I have with my bike.
My bike, in many ways, is my dōtanuki. And, while it might not be a weapon, like a sword it is just a tool. Unlike many other road bikes, it’s not super light or aero. It’s not a fast bike. But it’s shown to be reliable and comfortable to ride. It’s also versatile and capable of riding on different types of terrain. And, like Ogami’s dōtanuki, when I wield my bike I must do so without attachment and emotion. I just need to ride and be in the present moment. In the times I’m able to maintain this state, the satisfaction of my rides are exponential.
Troubled Times Require A Centered Mind
All that said, what is talked about in this story is more relevant now than ever. In this present moment, myself and many others are in lockdown due to the Coronavirus. This is one time where awareness of one’s mind and emotions is super critical.
The Coronavirus is the big, bad, ever elusive Wolf right now. That’s how it feels for most of us I think. And it’s having a profound effect on everyone.
In fact, just the other day I wrote about a trip to my local bike shop where I learned first hand the effect the virus is having on my community. The Wolf busted down the doors of this bike shop. The people inside responded with their swords, keeping it at bay as best as they can. The Wolf will pass...eventually. It’s only a matter of time. But in the meantime the stress of battling the Wolf continues.
But in the meantime, we as individuals still have to deal with this Wolf. And if your purpose in riding right now is to escape the Wolf then you’re doing it wrong. Your bike should not be wielded as a means of escape. Instead, think of your bike as a way of being one with nature, to be one with the Wolf as it were.
When we ride, we do so in the present moment. We don’t ride to escape our emotions or avoid what’s on our mind. We ride to embrace our thoughts and emotions, to understand them, and allow ourselves to become one with our environment. Doing so allows us to be in a place where we don’t have to fight the Wolf. The Wolf will still be there but our state of mind allows us to ride and not have to worry so much about the Wolf.
Ride but do so mindfully. Be aware of yourself and your surroundings. And be aware of the Wolf and its presence. If you’re troubled and stressed, take some time to work through it before hopping on your bike. Maybe consider taking up meditation. When you’re ready, get on your bike and allow it to be a tool that enhances your state of mindfulness.
Your bike is merely a tool, not a weapon to use to battle your own fears. Use it to create better balance between you and nature. Let it be your dōtanuki!