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“You can get more air in your lungs when you have an open heart,” says Soten Lynch with a soft smile on his face, while giving me a firm handshake you would expect from an athlete. He would know precisely how to open his heart spiritually while experiencing the physical aspects of long distance running. He is a Zen Buddhist priest, who recently completed a 100 miler. Besides his spiritual side, he is a garden-variety ultra runner – he likes Topo Runverture 2 and New Balance Fresh Foam for his trail and road shoes; for food, he prefers brown rice and miso at race aid stations.

 

Soten (pronounced as in “that runner is SO TAN from training out in the sun!”) started running in grade school, when he took on the President’s Fitness Challenge while growing up in Sunnyvale, CA, near the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay. Back then, before discovering Buddhism, he went by Danney. As he raced across the finish line of the fitness challenge’s mile run, his classmates’ encouraging cheers sparked a passion for running, that proved to be life-long.

 

Soten has lived and practiced at the Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon since 2010. He trains for ultramarathons on the roads and trails around the area, including a one-mile trail loop on the monastery grounds. Balancing training and monastery duties can be a challenge – sometimes, he has to wake up before dawn, in order to squeeze in a run before the 5 AM meditation. The weekly day off, his “weekend”,  usually includes a long slow distance run, the bread-and-butter of any ultramarathon training program.

His decision to try completing a 100 miler came after running a 50-mile race near Corvallis, Oregon. At first, those around him were skeptical of his decision to train for such a long race. The skepticism was nothing new – Soten experienced a similar reaction when he made the commitment of becoming a Buddhist priest earlier in his life. All the running, the stress on his joints, tendons and other tissues, much like all the meditation and ceremonies was “overdoing it” and “taking it too far”, according to the naysay.

Priesthood and running ended up working out just fine. Soten feels that Zen Buddhism emphasizes coming in contact with the aspects of the mind that show where the individual ends and the rest of the universe begins, while attempting to provide freedom from suffering, thru practices like meditation, in order to cut out the negative, while enhancing the positive in all sides of life. Which brings us to what the question – what is Buddhism exactly?

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Here is a crash course, in case you are a spiritual neanderthal like me. Some people see it as more of a philosophy than a religion. Whatever the definition, Buddhism is the fourth-largest spiritual practice on our planet, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It must also be noted that irreligion, like atheism, shares a spot in this order with Hinduism. Buddhism originated in ancient India and is centered around the teachings of  Siddhartha Gautama, a prince, who chose to forsake wealth and pleasure, in order to get spiritual enlightenment. Soten’s practice, Zen Buddhism, comes from Japan. It strongly emphasizes concentration and meditation, in order to gain insight into one’s true nature, to find a path to liberated living, free of discomfort and suffering.

Buddhism offers a way to get rid of this suffering, through following the four noble truths. In a nutshell, those state that we crave and cling to impermanent things, a product of our own thoughts and beliefs.  We are incapable of satisfying, these ephemeral cravings, making the process a painful experience. This keeps us stuck in a cycle of reincarnation, seeking a way out of it. This path exists, it is “the middle path”, a spiritual and philosophical journey of abandoning those cravings on your way to nirvana, a release from repeating reincarnation, finally achieving freedom from suffering and craving the impermanent. Zen Buddhism emphasizes that through long hours of stillness and investigation, like meditation, the thoughts and beliefs that cause our suffering can be seen for what they are, and abandoned.

In Soten’s case, running fits into that scheme by complementing the usual approach to spirituality and philosophy of Buddhism with a physical aspect. Soten does not think that running is meditation, but rather an activity, which can have meditative properties. Running has brought new depths of meditation into his functional life, helping him bridge the gap between stillness and activity, in a way, integrating those states. He paraphrases a Buddhist scholar, who said that “to call running meditation is as silly as to say that you meditate for exercise.”

He completed the Pine to Palm 100 miler earlier this year.  The race, which took place in the Siskiyou mountains of Southern Oregon, ended up being a major test for his physical ability and mental fortitude, requiring strong efforts and reaching deep into the mental fuel bank. Physically, he experienced only minor setbacks, such as iliotibial band tightness around 40 miles into the run. Compression with an ACE bandage resolved that problem. The initial thought that his experience with meditation and concentration would give him a leg up on the mental demands of completing an ultra did not exactly pan out. Soten. was humbled by the how hard he had to work mentally. After receiving some encouragement from fellow runners towards the end of the race, he ended up getting his “tenth wind” around mile 95, to finish in 28 hours.

 

There is a relationship between every runner, from winner to the last finisher, as we pull one another forward, even through mere inspiration. Soten feels that taking part in running and races produced a positive effect. He recalls something Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Buddhist scholar, monk, and peace activist, wrote, “if I reduce my own suffering, I reduce the suffering of the world.” Soten is looking forward to training for another 100-mile race in the future.  That is his middle way when it comes to running nirvana. Say what you will, but to me, nirvana sounds like “runner’s high”, something we all have experienced at the end of a race or a good training run.