The Pure Land of Parkour

Take the leap, says An Tran. Discover that the cityscape is a place of bliss and wonder.

An Tran
20 May 2024
Photo by Derek Magsanay.

With a running start of long, powerful strides, he launched head-first at a slab of concrete jutting up from the ground. He threw his arms out in front of him, his body stretching into the air, looking like a lion leaping at prey. As his palms struck down on the slab, he gracefully folded his knees to his chest and pulled his body between his arms. Now he flung himself forward in a tight ball and soared several feet through the air, landing precisely crouched on another ledge, a surface no longer than his own shoes, from which he casually jumped off, dropping gently and gracefully to the ground, maybe eight feet below him, before springing away from the camera like a startled doe.

It was 2005. Several videos like this were starting to appear online, adorned with boisterous titles like Speed Air Man and Power Is Nothing Without Control, depicting young French and English athletes performing astonishing leaps across rooftops, swinging from railings, spinning, twisting, rolling across their cityscapes with seemingly superhuman agility. They moved with such freedom! Walls were nothing but footstools to the next ledge; fences were fulcrums to fling the body forward into a vault.

“At the very heart of parkour is a celebration of the preciousness of birth. ”

My jaw was agape. Never before had I ever seen a human move like this—no one had! I came from a background of traditional Vietnamese martial arts, but this was an approach to training the body that was altogether new to me. The athletes posting videos were calling it parkour, an acrobatic movement artform where practitioners use the environment to propel their bodies quickly and efficiently through space.

Though parkour is much more well known for its spectacle—young and phenomenally gifted athletes scaling and leaping off buildings, flipping and spinning off city structures—what attracted me to the nascent movement was how the early community spoke of the discipline as a philosophy of altruism, as a self-defense training that was a spiritual foil to martial arts, a self-defense of fleeing and escaping, rather than of confrontation and conflict. This idea was so novel to me, so completely enamoring: a movement discipline weaving itself to a humanistic spirituality, of cultivating virtue by means of bringing the mind back into the body and re-learning how the human body is meant to move and interact with the environment around it.

I plunged myself into the community, the training, the philosophy. Over the next twenty years, as parkour rose as a fad in popular culture and then fell again, I was organizing for local communities. I helped to open the first parkour gyms in the country and coached the next generation of traceurs (what parkour practitioners call ourselves).As I developed myself in parkour, I inadvertently found that the discipline supported and deepened my Buddhist practice in a multitude of surprising ways, eventually coming to see the practice of parkour as a physical expression of the Bodhisattva Way.

At the very heart of parkour is a celebration of the preciousness of birth. This is what I fell in love with—the discipline’s magical ability to inspire a deep gleefulness of simply existing in space. Moving the body in the world, physically touching the environment, feeling concrete on your skin, transmuting the walls and rails meant to barricade and guide your path in the world into playgrounds to climb and leap. These are the ritual practices of parkour that summon back that forgotten childlike joy of play through movement, which saturate the spirit with a deep and primal fulfillment.

Traceurs have a simple theory for why parkour is able to stoke such a seemingly universal experience: human beings are animals. Humans are at our happiest, our most connected with one another when we are in tune with how the body is meant to move and interact with our environment. Through reconnecting with the human body and its natural capacities for moving through the world, a sincere love for humanity arises and, consequently, so does an innate aspiration for social connection and altruism. In the early days, we would chant as our motto, “Be strong to be useful!”—with all the seriousness you could imagine from idealistic teenagers who believed they were doing something important for the world—and then we’d go jump and play on the concrete-jungle gyms of our college campuses. We believed that by spreading our discipline, by sharing this love for humanity expressed through movement and play, we were saving the world. We were bodhisattvas, encouraging others to fall back in love with the bliss of being human and all the natural wonders implicit in the human body just waiting to be revealed with the right guidance. With the simple encouragement to just… go. Move. Play.

When you’re jumping, the mind cannot be anywhere else but yoked to the experience of the body, focused on the moment, focused on the awareness of the body, on your posture gently compressing like a spring before the jump, on the swinging of your arms, on the flooding and draining of the breath from the bellows of your belly. Your awareness must tend to each and every moment as it arises and passes. When you leap, you feel the force of the earth below push back against your legs, the tense wave of that energy creeping up and uncoiling the muscles of your legs and flinging your body into the air. When you land, you feel the muscles of your legs tighten against your skin, how the frame of your body folds, yielding gently to gravity, to slow your descent as the ground reaches up to catch you in its gentle embrace. How marvelous it is to be a human in this world!

The human body is made to jump, climb, run, walk, crawl, swing. Parkour reminds us that we’re meant to touch the world and interact with it, instead of being sheltered from it. But the story of society tells us simply to stand or sit, to stay on these defined paths and let these concrete walls and asphalt trails guide us like livestock from home to work and back again. We’ve lost touch with our humanity! Not with the humanity of civilization, but with the humanity of the body. Take a moment to think. When was the last time you jumped just to feel what it’s like to jump? To experience the fleeting joy of being untethered for a brief moment? When was the last time the world scuffed your leg and left a scratch, or the last time you felt the coarseness of concrete or the roughness of tree bark on your palms? In modern adulthood, we’ve confined our bodies to simply walk along set paths, maintain schedules of sitting and standing, maybe engage in the occasional jogging or cycling. Parkour, despite its reputation for a spectacle of superhuman feats of athleticism, is at its heart a celebration of natural human movement, a meditation on the awe and wonder of this physical form as it interacts with the material environment.

Every person who begins a journey in parkour will experience an immediate and dramatic shift in experiencing the world—nothing will ever look the same again. We named this experience the “parkour eye,” when all the gray and grotesque angular structures of the urban landscape are magically transformed into wonders for adventure: ledges are now springboards; railings and poles become the bars of jungle gyms to climb and swing; every open space between flat surfaces becomes a dare to jump across. Whenever I see the parkour eye open up in new practitioners, I’m reminded of how this very world can transform into a Pure Land instantaneously when one has insight into emptiness and a purified mind, as Vimalakirti demonstrated to the Buddha’s assembly in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. But this transformation of vision does not rely on the wisdom power of a great bodhisattva. You can easily experience it right here, right now. The dull world of structure, consumerism, and commerce is purified. Suddenly, there are no stairs or walls or barricades, no rules that dictate one must go this way or that. There’s only a great big beautiful playground and the infinite capacity of human movement to produce happiness and wonder. All it takes is stepping outside and touching the world with your hands and your feet—run, jump, climb. Play. Step away from the realm of thoughts and ideas. Come back into your body. Be human. This world is a playground. This world is a Pure Land.

This article was published in the May 2024 issue of Bodhi Leaves: The Asian American Buddhist Monthly.

An Tran

An Tran is the author of the short story collection, Meditations on the Mother Tongue, and a practitioner in the Lieu Quan lineage of Vietnamese Zen.