Saturday, October 08, 2005

Baseball & The Bardo of Becoming

Last week, I took refuge with the Venerable Lama Norlha Rinpoche at Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond, VA, officially voicing my deep aspiration to follow the teachings of the Buddhist path. In a very moving and joyous ceremony, I publicly took refuge in the Buddha (The 'One who is Awake') The Dharma (His teachings for the benefit of all sentient beings) and the Sangha (The community of practice).

As a means of thanks for the opportunity to learn and share in the teachings, I gave Rinpoche a baseball.

You read that right. A baseball.

I thought it would be viewed as a strange gift-- That is, until I saw another practitioner give a few bags of Fritos to one of Rinpoche's Attendant Students, obviously for his consumption. I snickered to myself Imagining Rinpoche singing the old fritos commercial jingle "Muncha-Buncha-muncha-buncha..."

When I got home from Ekoji and told her what I had done, my wife Jennifer smiled and said "You know, you just gave the Lama a part of yourself."

Looking back over the week, I think it's true.

I'm a lifelong, Diehard Boston Red Sox fan, a Baseball-Crazed Mutant, and I just recently started playing organized hardball again, in the Virginia Baseball Congress, a local 28+ men's league. My wednesday night softball league team is tied for first with two games left. I can find a Red Sox connection in anything-- Literature, Film, Music, Art, Politics, you name it. It's annoying.
ask my wife.

It seems kind of corny, I know, but I see Baseball as more than just a game-- I see it as a way of life. Play hard, play fair, be disciplined and have joy in your heart... all of that stuff has transferable value to daily life. Baseball also places a focus and value on coming back home-- to get back to where you started from. Amazingly, that is one of the aspirations of Buddhist practice. There are other amusing, more superficial similarities.

In Buddhism, there is a Diamond Sutra and four guideposts on the journey to enlightenment (The Four Noble Truths) -- In baseball, there are four bases on the path, which is shaped like a Diamond. Buddhism also espouses an eightfold path of conduct which leads to the extinction of suffering, which includes:

Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

This year in the VBC, I play Right Field. Go figure. I also wore the number 3 in a conscious decision to 'take refuge' in the triple jewel while I was on the field. Good thing my teammates didn't know, or they would think I was crazy.

I pointed out to Lama Norhla Rinpoche that there are 108 stitches on a baseball, there are 108 beads on a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 beads on a Tibetan mala-- An auspicious number!!

Rinpoche smiled, looked deeply at the ball, looked back up at me, smiled again, and said-- quietly, simply, and sincerely, 'Thank you.' I said 'You're welcome-- and thank you!!' as I shook the hand of this wonderful, radiant man, and I left him to attend to others who needed to speak with him. I put a spring in my step to get home before the Yankees-Red Sox game was over.

On wednesday night, my softball team lost the first game of a double-header 10-0. Down 9-3 in the second game, we roared back in the last inning, exploding for seven runs, then held on for a character-revealing 10-9 win. We were down, then, all of a sudden, we were up. Life is like that.

As I write this, I am trying to filter the 2005 Red Sox season through a Buddhist perspective. I think the perfect words come from Kevin Costner's character, Crash Davis, in the baseball movie Bull Durham:

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes-- it rains."

In the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the space between 'Falling' and 'Arising' is known as a Bardo. There are Bardos throughout our lives, everywhere-- In the space between our exhalation and the next in-breath; In the gap between thoughts, or chapters in a book; And especially in the gap between death and re-birth. In fact, this life itself, is, in effect, a Bardo-- a 'gap' between birth and death.

A remarkable Three-year Chapter in the age-old story of the Boston Red Sox came to a close yesterday with a 5-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park, plunging the franchise into the off-season... the Bardo of becoming-- And what they'll look like next year is anyone's guess.

We have likely said our last goodbye to Centerfielder Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar (The white M.L. Carr) , Third Baseman Billy 'Big Hit' Mueller, and, unthinkably, Left-Field Folk Legend 'Moonshot Manny' Ramirez, the 'Hitting Savant,' who could be traded in the offseason (for reasons which I will never understand.)

Last year at this time, I was riding the crest of a wave of excitement and energy that these guys generated-- A once-in-lifetime magical mystery tour into baseball history-- as the Red Sox erased an 86-year Championship drought, bringing pure joy to the six new England states and to pockets of 'Red Sox Nation' all over the world. It was an experience which I will never forget. I received calls from family members and congratulations from friends & colleagues, as though I actually did something on the field. it was pure joy, bliss, ecstasy, and it tied me to one-hundred and five-years' worth of something larger than myself. What a feeling.

But, as the title of the Jack Kornfield book states, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Sox fans want to hold onto 2004, but we can't, because change is a part of everything. For me, the dissatisfaction, or Dukha, started last year--in the very December after the Sox won-- when my favorite player, pitcher Pedro Martinez, signed with the Mets. Pedro exemplified the Sox scrappy underdog persona. He was the centerpiece of the pitching rotation. He was Elvis. He was Sinatra. He was the maestro, able to make hitters look foolish even with a torn right rotator cuff. My 'fixed' sense of how I would like the world to be rebelled against the idea of seeing Pedro in a blue-and-orange uniform. No, no, NO!!! After all, I named my dog, Petey, after him!! He was supposed to retire as a member of the Red Sox!!! How could this be???

Eventually I accepted it (as corny & unimportant as it is to the overall state of the world, a world rife with starvation, war, famine, corruption & misery) but I still wanted to hold onto the idea of him pitching for the Sox; His defiant competive fire exemplified by his 'Hit-me-with-your-best-shot' glare, and his penchant for putting a fastball under the chin of anyone who got too comfortable digging in against him. (see: Matsui, Hideki, Yankees- game five, 2004 ALCS)

But the world changes all the time-- That is the nature of everything. And though I am a little depressed that another baseball seaon is over (at least for Red Sox fans) I can take solace in the fact that I was there to experience the totality of it: The anticipation and the heartbreak of the 2003 postseason; followed by the Hollywood-scripted 2004 Championship year; Even the exhausting 2005 campaign, which had some really great moments.

And for the record, David Ortiz' Bat is the sword of Manjushri, which cuts through all confusion & obstruction with fierce compassion.

MVP!!! MVP!!! MVP!!!

But, things will be different next year. They already are different-- they're always different.

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes-- it rains."

So I just want to say thanks to all of the Red Sox fans, players and front office members who made this incredible run possible. We will all move on in our own way. I have a game tomorrow in the VBC fall league, where I'm playing for the Black Sox. (Okay, that's weird. and kind of funereal) My softball team is on the verge of the postseason... And thanks to Llama Norlha Rinpoche, The Buddhadharma, and the sangha, I go with all beings into the 'Bardo' of the MLB offseason with a newfound sense of warm, compassionate equanimity.

...But I swear, Red Sox Management-- if you trade Manny I'll be so pissed....