Friday, September 25, 2009

Buddhist Sports Coverage! (WQ)

Dharmachari, Larsen, Eccles, Wells, Chi (WQ)

Wisdom Quarterly investigates. Buddhists, like most people around the world, love sports. It's a natural, human way to gain coordination and social cohesion and cardiovascular health. While some may take it too far in the West, there can be no denying that sporting activities are popular worldwide. When one ordains (particular for Buddhist novices), those advantages continue.

Bhutanese Buddhist monks play volleyball at Rabdey Dratsang in the southeastern district of Samdrup Jongkhar, Bhutan, 9/3/09. Five decades ago, Bhutan -- the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom -- was a feudal, medieval place with no roads, proper schools, or hospitals and scarcely any contact with the outside world. Today education and healthcare are free and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40. Rather than GDP, it is unique as a nation in measuring GDH ("gross domestic happiness") as its main indicator of progress (Reuters/Singye Wangchuk).

Few people seem to be aware that Buddhist monks invented chess. Who? When? Where? Chess is a Chinese invention. Modern Chinese are sometimes surprised to realize that modern the game of chess -- as well as agriculture, shipping, astronomical observatories, decimal mathematics, paper money, umbrellas, wheelbarrows, multi-stage rockets, brandy and whiskey, and much more -- all came from China (

That's not to say that other cultures didn't aid in its development and give it those great medieval game pieces for example. Pastimes are that way, subject to regional embellishment.

A famous sporting tradition from India, which is still practiced vigorously in Tibet, is the sport of debating. Far from an intellectual exercise in calm reasoned argument, it's more oratory and style with inextricable paradoxes and showmanship, stereotype texts and logical hoop jumping. Players (who are all in training) slap their hands together as if to say, "Ha, try to get out of that one!" to which the other player either admits defeat or shoots back: "Ha ha, burn, now let's see you try to wriggle out of that answer!"

Then there's the famous performance art of Tibetan tradition (still extant at Hemis Gompa, Ladakh, in Buddhist northern India) near the Tibetan/Chinese border.

Not only in mountainous regions, but throughout the plains, silk route, frontier lands, and cities, hiking and walkabouts are a favorite undertaking of monastics. The monk Huan Tsang famously went from China by foot throughout the Buddhist world of his time and brought back one of the few written records of what he found. Perhaps engaged in more out of necessity and need of exercise than enjoyment and show, trekking is still widely practiced.

The Buddha often undertook arduous journeysin the company of many monks. He travelled by foot throughout the Middle Country of northeast India.

Equestrian pursuits are still popular in rural areas. Young novices (samaneras, who may look like monks, are only bound by ten precepts, rather than 227 Vinaya rules) are seen here in Laos going horseback for almsround. It's not about galloping and showing off, but more about noble Sakyan (who were from the warrior caste) dignity and good sportsmanship. In areas with few roads and many hazards, the equines can be of great help. Siddhartha Gotama (who became the Buddha) had a horse, a gorgeous white stallion named Kanthaka.

The Sakyan (the name of his extended family or ruling clan) was very much caught up in warrior training activities (not unlike the modern American practices in Shambhala's version of Vajrayana, which try to capture the same sense, bringing "Tibetan mysteries" to these shores). They included archery, feats of strength and bravery, horseback riding, and games of skill performed to win the affection of young women. Siddhartha often bested Devadatta, whose poor sportsmanship is legendary.

With great care, one may sneak up on monastics engaged in sporting activities that do not at first blush appear staid and sedentary. Here novices are seen enjoying the most popular sport in England and Asia, cricket. Most time is spent engaged in spiritual pursuits, it's true, but the body is a vehicle to spirituality, not an obstacle. Meditation is torture without yoga, which makes the body flexible and limber and was originally invented in order to enable and prolong sitting.

There are, of course, martial arts. These sporting diversions were invented in Asia and refined in monasteries throughout China, Japan, and Korea. In medieval times, they were necessary to protect the teachings and lineages. Many monasteries (famously Shaolin) would certainly have been ransacked and ruined had the incumbents not developed the "skillful means" (upaya) to repel, avoid, and outmaneuver attackers.

There's longhorn blowing, cooking, sewing, levitating, water gathering... Believe it or not, there are even "blood sports." These are usually played with young soldiers whose coaches yell instructions from inside parliamentary buildings and paramilitary barracks. The soldiers themselves, well armed and in proper game attire, are almost never hurt.

The lightly clad Buddhist monks, nuns, and novices however are not so lucky. With scores frequently in the 100:nil range, matches are increasingly viewed around the world but growing less fair by the day.

Images (widely available on the Net) are too gruesome to show here, but may be hinted at in this cartoon about a 100-yard dash with live rounds in Burma and Tibet (both prompted by government-sponsored Chinese League opponents).

Fresco at Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet showing men with "nine skills," traditional sports including horseracing, archery, wrestling, carrying stones, tug of war, yak racing, acrobatics, and so on, 17th century (Tibetdaily/
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