Saturday, December 3, 2011
You may have read the phrase 'Zen cricket' on this blog. I had a go at explaining what Zen is in my second or third ever post; so now here's a shot at explaining cricket, prompted by someone asking me about it the other night. Cricket is a sport played by men in white trousers with red balls (and green knees). The pitch is a circle or ovoid of whatever spatial extent happens to be available on your local green; it may include holes, hillocks, or trees. At the centre of the pitch is a wicket, which is a rectangle of flattened grass, and also refers very confusingly to the two wooden constructions set up at each end of the wicket: yes, at each end of the wicket (rectangle of grass) there are two wickets (wooden things). The wooden things actually consist of three sticks called stumps and two twig-sized bobbins called bails. If a red ball knocks the bails off the stumps while you're standing nearby with pads on your legs and a bat in your hand, you're out.
This usually happens after a chap at the other end of the wicket (grass) propels the ball towards you at high speeds. He does not throw it; this is strictly forbidden. Instead he must sling it down onto the wicket (grass) with a rigorously straight arm after going through what looks like an attempt at doing trikonasana (triangle pose) in the middle of a forty-yard dash. You make runs by smacking the ball back at him as hard as you can, or by politely stopping the ball in its tracks and running away. If you successfully abscond to the other wicket (wood), that is one run, but be careful where you hit the ball! There are men in white trousers cunningly placed all around you at positions known as slip and gulley and silly mid-off. A friend of mine at silly mid-off once took a ball smack in the forehead. It left a red dot that made him look as if he'd experienced a sudden conversion to Hiduism. He was standing about two feet away from the batsman; hence the silliness.
The first cricket match I ever played ended with 137 runs for us and 4 points for them. It was a draw (a tie). This is one of the central ways in which cricket is like meditation: you never really win, but then, you never really lose either. You'll doubtless be dismayed to learn at this point (after slogging through two paragraphs) that the phrase 'Zen cricket' you've seen in this blog really has nothing to do with a fusion of Japanese spiritual rigour and English sporting eccentricity, interesting though that particular combination would no doubt be. Instead, the Zen cricket is simply a green plastic bug that hops around from student to student as we speak our minds in the green green field of our Wind in Grass zendo. Why then did I just give you a delightfully unhelpful description of the English sport of cricket? Two reasons. The first is because I've realized that Zen is the last refuge for authentic Englishness; but more on that in a later post. The second is to introduce a post on our Zen games.
You see, one of the things I've been up to on this blog is giving you the lowdown on what we get up to at Wind in Grass. We do something different every week of the month: so far I've covered the dharma talk, interviews with a teacher, and community night, and our Zen game nights are the only regular event left. (Not counting what we get up to on the fifth Wednesday of months with five weeks, when all hell breaks lose, anything goes, and we meditate and walk and drink tea.) Dharma talks and dokusan are venerable Zen and Chan traditions, and community night is our way of honouring the sangha, but how Zen games fit into the tradition is anybody's guess. I'm told our teachers approve of our experiments (and this is partly why we like them). But I must confess I can't really tell you what Zen games are. I don't think Michael could either, and he runs them most nights.
We've already established on this blog that Wittgenstein was a Zen master (along with Socrates). In the Philosophical Investigations there's a lot about games, because the word 'game' was a good example in the master's mind of how words meant: there's no essential quality that chess and tennis and manipulation share that makes them all games; rather, they're all linked to each other at different points, the way members of a family resemble each other through different features. Our games are also like that, though like many things that change a lot they tend to have the same form every month. After we meditate for half an hour, Michael invites us to meditate again for two or three minutes on something in particular: complaints we have, for example, or why we're here. Then the Zen cricket does its innocent grasshoppery rounds through the tall grasses of the half-light we sit in.
If I'd been called into construct a religious group a few years ago, the last thing I'd have done would be to put a businessman with a law degree in charge of organizing it. And that, it turns out, would have been an enormous mistake, since one of the best things about Wind in Grass is that it's so well-organized despite all the informality, and most of that is Michael's fault. Everbody gets to speak one at a time, for as long as the Zen bug is with them. As Michael says, this isn't to put anybody on the spot; it's just because we want to hear what everyone has to say, and because we suspect that extroverted people don't have a monopoly on wisdom. A- fucking -men. People comment on what they came up for them in the experimental supplemental meditation party. And more times than not, that somehow hands the rest of us, and them, a shiny reflective fragment of their entire lives.
Once there was a game about complaints; I thought I would win, since I thought I had some pretty solid complaints about my life. Naturally I was aghast when it turned out that other people were also bloody good at suffering; half of them at least had more heartbreaking misfortunes than my own, damn them. Once there was a mind game about the Buddha; I talked about killing him, Chris told us all he did was wake up, Mick discussed his hairstyle. Everybody said something completely different about the same bloke; it was like watching Citizen Kane. Once Toby led a Zen game which was apparently a well-known mindfulness exercise. Not well-known to me; she gave us raisins and I immediately asked her whether I could eat mine. It turned out that was the game; we were meant to look at the raisin, smell it, listen to it, sense it and undress it and snort its pheromones. At some point I'd realized I'd eaten one of mine before she'd told me I could, which I meekly confessed to later.
I'm not sure who told us to play games like this, to conduct these trailblazing experiments, to muck about in the sandbox; but it's always a new enough joke to feel like an ancient practice. We are all, we working young of San Francisco on winter nights, Englishmen on village greens in high summer. Somehow we've figured out that the best way of making use of the space and time we have is to play a careful, bizarre, and elaborate game with each other. At the centre of it is a red ball that means pain; it will hit you in the head in no time if you're silly and stand too close. We launch it at other with stiff arms after cartwheels, swing at it wildly with bats, or wait in the outfield watching affectionately its suprising career. Sometimes we can see it, high in the blue sky, hurtling towards us. It looks very much like a fearful thing from underneath; but all of us are shouting out to catch it, because we know that there's nothing more joyful than to catch it in your smarting palms and to hurl it up again sky-high.