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Zen Of Baseball, Part 3

Author: Ellen Sekreta, Issue: November 1997, Topic: Sports

People who do not play baseball may find it hard to understand the relationship between Zen and Baseball. However, when you play baseball in Japan, it is easy to realize the strong connection, and in fact, several books have been written on this very subject (see two books by Robert Whiting, "You Got To Have Wa", and "The Chrysanthemum And The Bat".) I would like to specifically report about what I learned from the Bushitsuken Giants who happen to be 80% Buddhist. What drives so many Buddhists to play baseball? Some people seem to think this is because the population in Japan is approximately 80% Buddhist, but I think the situation is slightly more complicated. I should know, having spent several years living in Japan. In fact, I've conducted all of my research about baseball in Japanese in order to get a true feeling as to what is really going on. Unlike many things that were imported into the Japanese culture from other countries, baseball developed entirely in Japan during a period of isolationism when people did not have much to do. Baseball was later exported to the United States in 1873 by an English teacher, Horace Wilson, who returned home after becoming tired of teaching at the University of Tokyo.

The baseball in those past days was very different from today. In the old days, there was great discussion about beauty and symmetry which naturally included the subject of baseball. The main question concerned what was the most beautiful. Was it the perfect symmetry of a melon, for example, or the slightly asymmetric shape of Mount Fuji? From this discussion evolved two different types of baseball fields. The first type was similar to what exists today, having the perfect diamond shape. The second, less known field was also basically the same except that 3rd base extended approximately 2 meters past the foul line. Although it is hard to believe, symmetric baseball fields existed in places that sold a lot of melon, and asymmetric fields existed in places near the Mt Fuji area and other places that designed pottery.

These two differences developed into two different baseball leagues, the Central and the Pacific. Later, for the sake of consistency and "harmony" it was decided that symmetric fields would be the norm. In ancient times the fields consisted mostly of sand without grass because this was easier to care for during times of drought. The bases represented the islands of Japan and players would run from one base to another seeking shelter. Because of all the action taking place, the fields would be diligently raked before and after each game just like today. All kinds of patterns would be raked in the sand so that the ball would bounce in certain strategic directions after being hit. Later baseball became very competitive and no one had time to make such beautiful patterns. However, upon retiring, many baseball players became gardeners and designed special sand gardens reflective of the sport of baseball, perfect for meditating about past games and triumphs.

In Kyoto, the ancient baseball capital of Japan, there are many of these gardens. There is a strong connection between baseball and nature, evident from the names of the teams in Japan: the Kobe Blue Waves, the Hiroshima Carp, the Kintetsu Buffaloes, etc. Also, a strong work ethic exists and can be understood from the famous story about Daruma, who played 1st base for the Hiroshima Carp. He practiced so hard that his arms and legs fell off, and later retired early to become a coach. You can still buy statues of this guy in many souvenir shops, his body being somewhat ball like and enclosed in a red uniform.

The old days were interesting times, but this is now. I recently asked Nsan, our shortstop, to teach me a little bit about Zen and Baseball. This is what he said to me: Although many people in Japan are Buddhist, true Buddhists are very few. Buddhism is a type of spirit of the mind, a point of view about life, and Zen is an expression of Buddhism. How are Zen and Baseball related? One example may be seen during baseball practice where skill is utilized. The practice itself, no matter how hard, is the most important. You must face the difficulty and hang in there, the same spirit as with Zen. Practice is a picture of life and with this thinking you can connect with the Buddhism spirit.

During life we compete because we are alive. All creatures do this in order to survive. It is a very serious, strict situation. We must win - a natural status of everyone, including those who play baseball. However, if this were everything, life would be very sad and miserable. Truly, it is not everything. A very important aspect of Buddhism is happiness. When you throw the ball well, this brings joy. Furthermore, even after you lose, there is hope. There will always be future games and practices. Thus life is competitive but other things exist - hope, joy and the acknowledgment of what we can study, do and live. We can play baseball!

Editor's note: ZOB and ZOB2 from previous issues received very good reviews and are still available for those who missed them. "I laughed, I cried. I can't wait to see the movie." - Dianesan from Kyoto University

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