ZEN FOOTBALL

Seeking the ultimate wholesome action...here's Brodie Smithers. 

It is a dreadful moment that every goalkeeper knows well. The moment when you realise the decision to either stay on your line or try and claim a cross has been a very wrong one.  Especially when the game is tied at three-all and it is ‘next-goal-the-winner’. Stretching helplessly, I miss the cross by a good foot or two as it sails over my flailing arms and straight towards the Buddhist monk charging in to score. The goal, crudely made out of hay bales, is gaping at his mercy and everyone is frozen to the spot. Thupten leaps like a beaded Nepalese salmon as his robes flap in the slight breeze. The ball arcs in a perfect trajectory, on course for his smoothly shaven head.  At the crucial moment, he reaches up and catches the ball in both hands and lands on the ground with a huge grin across his face. Turning to us all he bows, smiles again and walks off the field. It is a moment that indelibly educated me and my friends about the true message of Buddhism.

On saying that, we were no strangers to Buddhism. We had all grown up with it. Back in the winter of 1964 two Tibetan high Lamas, Dr Akong Tulku Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche had arrived in Dover via boat from exile in India to on a speculative mission to find a site for an inaugural Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in the UK. After being recommended Scotland, due to its perceived geographic similarities with Tibet, they set off by car for a meeting in Edinburgh. Short of arriving, their car broke down in the pitch black, bitter cold valleys of the small farming village of Eskdalemuir. Legend has it that they both turned to each other in the back of the stranded vehicle and decided they had been led to this destination by a higher reckoning and that this was the site upon which they would build the first Buddhist Temple in the Western world.

Over the years it had become a powerful magnet for delusional hippies, burnt out ravers, drug addled crusties, idealist nutters and of course Buddhists from all over the World. They all sought the pursuit of a higher state of consciousness, longing for an escape from Samsara amongst the stark isolation of the Scottish Borders.  With them they brought more baggage than Heathrow Airport and probably more contraband than customs too could handle.

Growing up in the midst of this oddly disparate community we were a strange group of kids. Some local farmers children, a fair few children of Buddhists and others, like myself, who happened to move to the area by chance. For kicks there was an unwelcoming pub, gruffly patrolled by uptight gamekeeper types, a tiny school with 20 pupils and a rubbish house-cum-shop that sold out of date crisps, faded Ziggy Stardust puffy stickers, flat bottles of Barrs Kola and mouldy cheese. Complete with a carrier bag full of unfriendliness. Free with every over-priced purchase.

Then there was Samye Ling, with its parade of interesting, colourful and frankly, quite often, mental people. Peacocks strutted around the big construction project of the main temple building (eventually completed in 1988) whilst a shanty town of log cabins, caravans, abandoned cars and workshops provided the accommodation for the workers and their families. The monks and nuns, some Western, some from Tibet or Nepal went through their prayer schedules and learned their teachings and tried to live a pure life despite the myriad of temptation on offer.

Somewhat inevitably, scandal followed scandal. Incidents that have long since passed into legend were blown up by idle gossip and folklore. They did however help in the development of a sizeable rift between the conservative local people and those at the Buddhist centre. The climate swiftly became perfect for the suggestion of an event that could bring the communities together. The global language of football was lazily proposed as a common bond and a game was hastily stapled onto the side of the village sports day event. Initially teams were mixed and games took place on the village green where the wooden goal posts were housed. However, a few years later the death knell came with the twin disaster of the Sports Day prematurely ending and the wooden goal posts falling down in a particularly violent storm.

Some years later we decided to resurrect the fixture and challenged various friendly Buddhist types to a game. This was to be a more competitive game with a clear distinction between ‘Lay’ (valley) people and the ‘Lingers’ (Samye Ling). The first attempt at a fixture took place in one of the gardens of Samye Ling but it was deemed too disruptive to the prayer sessions and meditation and was called off. We then migrated further out of Samye Ling down onto the freshly cropped hay field opposite the village hall. Neutral ground.

It was here that our epic game was to be staged. The Lay team consisted mostly of young teenage lads who, although not very skilful, were both fit and keen. We were reasonably confident in our ability to close down play and put pressure on their ball players. Basically, we had football boots and they did not. The Samye Ling team was a chaotic mixture of monks and workers from the temple and gardens who hadn’t played for years but had some very talented players in their midst.

Up front they had George the Gardener a jinky, Scottish hippy with a bad knee who knew his way to goal. The midfield enforcer was Mitmar, a Mancunian monk who was mad for all things Colin Bell and Man City and then in defence was the inimitable David Nivieski. A brutally dirty aggro merchant who would normally be found placidly serving herbal teas in the visitors’ café but threw himself around the football park like a hyper-aggressive gorilla recently strung by a wasp.  Their real star though was Jan. A Dutch winger who normally tended the cows at Samye Ling but this afternoon could be found playing barefoot on the left wing and providing barrage of perfect crosses and corners for us to not deal with very well. The rest of the side was a mish-mash of placid monks and distracted weekend visitors.

The game kicked off with the Lay team harrying the Buddhists all over the park. They responded with a litany of mistakes and before long our striker Dave, had charged beyond their shell-shocked defence, galloping through like a distressed race horse and shunting the ball past their stationary keeper. One–nil then quickly became two, as another mistake by their under pressure centre-half put Tom in on goal. The Lingers were now severely under the cosh and Tom went through again. This time he tried a nutmeg on their monk defender, Donde forgetting completely that he was wearing robes. Gathering the ball up in his long shawl Donde then played a quick ball up to Jan who put George through to easily round me and slot home. This counter-attacking goal suddenly galvanised the men from Samye Ling and they began to dominate in the centre of the field. Mitmar slowly imposing himself with some clever passes and after a few attempts one of Jans killer crosses was bundled over the line by Richard, a visitor up from Preston.

We were toiling now and fast running out of time.  Half-time had been and bid farewell. A long, desperate throw downfield by me saw Nivieski miss with an attempt at one of his trademark bone-crunchers on our winger Joseph. Slipping this fearsome shackle he grasped the opportunity to put us in the lead with mere minutes remaining. The Lingers then launched a classic barrage of pressure in response. Our tired legs eventually made fools of us as poor marking saw George in for the equaliser. The sound of the full-time whistle triggered a hastily convened centre-circle conference to decide on sudden death extra-time. It was shortly after the re-start that Thuptens moment of divine inspiration sent the game into the annals of local history as an exciting score draw.

One of the three key aspects to Buddhist practice (along with doing no harm to others and practicing meditation) is the concept of ‘performing wholesome actions’. In an entirely wholesome game of football, designed to unite a divided community and garner better understanding of each other, Thuptens act of mercy towards us was the ultimate wholesome action. Showing us that scoring the winning goal would had given him and his teammates some short-term ecstasy but his act of compassion would ultimately benefit us all.

Although we all knew we’d got away with it and all admitted, to a man, that we would have definitely buried that cross had it been at the other end, we all felt we’d learned something from the game. Never try to nutmeg a Buddhist monk…

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