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Swing and a bliss – ‘Buddha Takes the Mound’

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Baseball is a sport of interlocking contradictions. It is a team sport built on a foundation of individual battles. It is rigidly structurally defined initially – three outs, nine innings, nine players – while also being utterly open-ended – there’s no clock and extra innings could technically extend to infinity. It is many things in one and one thing among many.

And so, obviously, the game makes for a wonderful framework in which to discuss Buddhism.

That discussion is at the center of Donald S. Lopez’s new book “Buddha Takes the Mound: Enlightenment in 9 Innings” (St. Martin’s Essentials, $19.99). Dr. Lopez is considered by many to be this country’s preeminent public Buddhism scholar, having published a number of books exploring Buddhist concepts in accessible ways. However, this latest offering might be the most accessible yet.

Lopez has been entangled with the study of Buddhism, first as a student and then as a professor, for half a century. However, his connection to baseball – specifically, his beloved New York Yankees – extends even long, all the way back to his childhood. By bringing his two passions together, Lopez is able to use each to build upon the other, creating a thoughtful and wryly funny book that entertains even as it enlightens.

The thematic center of “Buddha Takes the Mound” is the Baseball Sutra, an allegorical tale in nine parts that Lopez crafts to illustrate the idea that the Buddha created baseball as a tool for bringing the true tenets of Buddhism into the world.

In the prologue, the Buddha, in the midst of the green mandala in the center of the pure land known as Yankee Stadium, stands upon a mountain topped by a slab of alabaster and brings forth a gathering of immortals – gods and demigods – to occupy the 10 directions. The first square in the east, the second in the north, the third in the west – as well as the space between the second and third squares. The place called the household. The left in the northwest, the center in the north, the right in the northeast. The foot of the mountain and the cave dug in on the left and the rows upon rows of laypeople reaching to the heavens. These are the places where the immortals stand, bodhisattvas with names like The Baby and The Horse of Iron and Seven.

In the eight parts that follow, various aspects of Buddhism are explored through the lens of baseball experience. Some of the roles are filled by players famous and familiar, reading like a who’s who of the game’s legendary figures. Others by unnamed representations of those who love the game while existing outside of it. But each section offers a brief allegorical look at a Buddhist tenet.

Interspersed with these parts are authorial commentaries, where Lopez himself steps in with explanations and clarifications regarding how these stories fit with the concepts that are being addressed. It’s accessible, but not simplistic – there’s a lot of complexity in Buddhist thought, but to his credit, Lopez refuses to condescend, trusting that his combination of allegory and explanation will be more than enough to allow understanding.

“Buddha Takes the Mound” is an interesting read. It’s short and sweet, coming in at just under 200 pages; the back-and-forth of the Sutra and the commentary propels the reader at a nice, brisk pace. The Baseball Sutra itself is actually quite an engaging construction, a strange and engaging bit of philosophical alternate history created by someone uniquely qualified to bring it to life. And Lopez’s commentary is an ideal blend of professorial and casual, offering a good deal of insight on some potentially complicated ideas.

None of this works without Lopez’s passion for baseball, by the way. His love for the game – for the Yankees – is omnipresent, making it an ideal lens through which he can project his scholarly ideas. While the Yankees are definitely front and center, plenty of other players – all-timers or otherwise – make appearances. Jackie Robinson and Jim Kaat, for starters. Part Three of the Baseball Sutra – titled “Impermanence” – is led by a conversation with legendary journeyman John Lindsey. Carlton Fisk turns up, incidentally giving Lopez yet another opportunity for a gentle dig at the Red Sox; his dislike of his team’s Boston rivals is a through thread – a commitment I respect, even as a fan of said Red Sox, I admire and understand the passion.

“Buddha Takes the Mound” is an engaging work of popular philosophy, thoughtfully exploring Buddhist tenets by way of a contemporary institution. Baseball’s combination of rigidity, fluidity and history make it the ideal delivery vehicle for these ideas. With Lopez bringing his considerable intellect and passion to the conversation, it was inevitable that it would be thought-provoking, but it’s the joyfulness that pushes it over the top.

Baseball and Buddhism – an unlikely double play, but a well-turned one nevertheless.

Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2020 13:39

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