Coach Dot and the Nuns at BatGampo Abbey
photos by Mel Sweetnam and Peter Gross
From grades one through twelve, I was the one who was always picked last on any team sport in P.E. class. I couldn’t catch a ball, I couldn’t swing a tennis racket properly, I didn’t know a foul ball from a ball in play, I didn’t know which way to run on the soccer field, the puck in floor hockey frightened me when it raced across the floor, I traveled in basketball, and in duck-duck-goose I could never catch anyone. Flash–forward about 30 years. I am living at Gampo Abbey, where things are very quiet, and typical extra-curricular activities are limited, such as the annual softball game every summer. This became one of the only opportunities in my adult life where I would engage in a team sport.
Before arriving at the Abbey, I, like many, enjoyed endless social activities – dining out with friends, rock-concerts, and so on. Living at the Abbey put an end to those activities and other social enjoyments, although many Fridays at 8pm there is movie night, which is one of the most indulgent things done at the Abbey.
The annual softball game between the Pleasant Bay Volunteer Fire Department (PBVFD) and the Abbey occurs on Canada Day. This is a time of year that both Abbey residents and the entire town of Pleasant Bay interact, enjoy, and strengthen community bonds.At first, I was very excited about the game. It was a chance to do something social outside the Abbey and could involve regular practice for the month leading up to the game. I was in! I expressed interest in leading efforts for the game. And then it hit me — I hate playing softball! Childhood memories started flooding back. At this time a new nun, Ani Drolkar, who had played softball before, arrived at the Abbey. It was determined that she would make the best coach to lead these efforts. Some days I enjoyed practice and other days habitual fears that I had not experienced in over 30 years would flood back at an irrational level — fears of letting a team down with my challenging athletic skills or failure. The difference with the Abbey team was that everyone was enjoying themselves and wanted each other to enjoy the game. The idea of winning was not completely ingrained in the collective psyche.
Then there is the folklore of the game. A documentary movie was made in 2004 about the annual softball game called “Monks at Bat.” The game of PBVFD vs. Gampo Abbey began sometime in the ‘90s. Year after year, Gampo Abbey lost to PBVFD. Some years, with new blood at the Abbey, there were false hopes of winning.
This year’s team lineup included Kalsang, who has been a monk at the Abbey for over 7 years and played 1st base, but most team players were new this year. Three university students, who were at the Abbey for the week participating in the first religious/cultural exchange program, which the Abbey and St. Francis Xavier University initiated, helped to cover outfield positions. The Abbey also had friends and neighbors who wanted to play and provided a healthy back-up team. The Abbey had a strong team and many were thinking this was the year to have a definitive win!
The In-House Retreat, where Buddhist practitioners come to the Abbey to deepen their practice every summer, brings in new guests. The Abbey was pleasantly surprised in the first week of the In-House Retreat to find that one of the guests, Dot, had been a softball coach for many years. One Saturday we went to the Pleasant Bay softball field to practice, where she was our guest coach for the week. We had heard the PBVFD had had a hard time fielding a team the last couple of years, so rumor around town was that this may be a year that the Abbey could win.
The Gampo Abbey (GA) Team practiced almost every day for a month. Coach Dot entitled a new resident named Susanne as MVP (Most Virtuous Player), as she always had a positive attitude for everyone on the team. For anyone playing with Susanne, one worries less about how good or bad one is at practice and more if everyone is enjoying themselves. Coach Ani Drolkar and Susanne encouraged all of us not only to enjoy the game, but to also enjoy the activity in proper form along with supporting one another and playing the best we could. Some of us had balls rolling under gloves in the outfield and swinging at far off pitches. Then there were the others, who were very good with little practice needed.
Game Day, July 1st, begins with a parade and picnic. The whole town participates in the parade. Everyone eats and then at 3pm it’s time to play ball. The PBVFD scored their first run in the top of the 1st. GA scored four runs in the bottom of the 1st starting with Susanne getting on base and Kalsang hitting an RBI (run batted in) that brought Susanne in for the team’s first run. In the 6th inning the PBVFD scored three more runs and GA scored four more runs. The student contingent did very well in this inning and put the score 12-10 for the Abbey.
The PBVFD were squirming on their bench and there was a last minute huddle for both teams to discuss strategy. Although the PBVFD players were seasoned and some new young players showed great talent, they had not practiced as a team, so they had struggled through the game. At the top of the 7th the PBVFD was up to bat. The bat swung and all could hear the ball hit and see it fly to an open spot in the outfield again, and again, and again. We could tell the PBVFD was serious about winning. In a long and painful top 7th inning for the Abbey, the PBVFD scored twelve runs. Ten runs were needed for GA in the bottom of the 7th. We got none and then the game was called over at 22-12 for the PBVFD. Maybe the PBVFD just needed the six innings for a warm-up. We all congratulated one another on a game well played. We laughed, took photos, and watched as the other team enjoyed their win.
The game was clearly a team effort, not only in the statistics, but also in the knowledge of a shared effort. Regardless of winning or losing, there was no doubt that the team and fans had a good time. Many of us were happy that the PBVFD won, as they were happy and relieved of another victorious win.
Yet some of our Gampo Abbey fans pondered “What happened?” or “Why were we playing so well and then not?”. Sure, we lost the game in addition to a little lost pride, but the community was happy. Basic goodness was shining everywhere around us. And in the midst of errors, strikeouts, and a loss, we could sense that we were also surrounded by everyone’s happiness. It seemed to be the only thing that truly mattered at that moment.
The softball game that the Abbey plays with Pleasant Bay every year could be a template on a path towards the concept of an enlightened society: we come into practice and the game with our fears and neuroses. We work with others’ fears in similar situations. We accept others’ generosity. We offer generosity. We apply skillful means whenever possible. We engage in our community. We embrace others’ joy. We appreciate all that life offers and then the next moment another situation arises where we get the opportunity to do the same practice all over again.
To learn more about Gampo Abbey, please visit their website by clicking here.