ballplaying: Etc.: Prostrations trip
If Buddhist thought has meaning for you,
  then it also must apply to your athletic life
                                                                                                                                           Information, July 17, 1987

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© 2005-2020 Interplay
Torben Ulrich is undertaking a trip stretching some 150 kilometers
by literally covering the distance with his body

Text: Poul Albret
Photos: Ernst Nielsen
Translated from Danish

- - - - - - - -

When hitting the ball
has become nothing special
that's the time
to stop

When hitting the ball
has become nothing special
that's the time
to really hit it
The above lines – written by Torben Ulrich – describe in their double meaning at least one aspect of that journey in both body and mind sense, which he is in the course of making between two destinations with distance of about 150 kilometers.

We're talking about the Center for Tibetan Buddhism on Svanemøllevej in Copenhagen and a similar center near Rødby — and the journey takes place not in a train, by car, upon bicycle, running or walking, but as a long chain of so-called prostrations – a bowing and onwards gliding movement – where you so-to-speak "do the stretch" by letting your body quite literally cover the distance in question.

Many aspects
Thus what is involved here – also physiologically speaking – is something extremely demanding, which also is included in the above verse: If it ceases to have any meaning (*Torben says he wouldn't translate "nothing special" as "meaning" at this point.), then by all means stop – and: If it ceases to have any meaning, then it's really important to continue.

Because only in this way can it amount to something one truly absorbs – that it becomes a part of one's marrow and bones. And this doubleness applies – it should be noted – not only to prostrations, but also, for instance, to ball play, which the introductory lines refer to.

For Torben Ulrich, it is important to underline that this trip on the road for him is athletics, but also contains a long string of other aspects. Which already is implied in the fact that the choice of beginning and end points has to do with that it was on the stairs leading up to the Svanemøllen center – as it's called in daily talk – that Torben Ulrich met his Tibetan teacher, Tenga Rinpoche, and that same Tenga Rinpoche at the Rødby center has built a so-called stupa, which is a sculptured symbol for that, which in Buddhism, is known as the enlightened-enlightening mind.

A mind which at the same time realizes appearances and their emptiness. Or, to say it another way: It is first when you see things as they are – without adding anything, subtracting anything, or being indifferent – that you see them at all. As it is expressed in the following verse:

Watch the ball
Remove the opponent

Watch the ball
Remove the umpire

Watch the ball
Remove the court

Watch the ball
Remove Wimbledon

Watch the ball
Remove your parents

Watch the ball
Remove yourself

Watch the ball
Remove the ball

And from this understanding, says Torben Ulrich, things become much more precise and rich – in the same way as the understanding of phenomena and one's own emptiness makes it possible to make oneself spontaneously and truly available. Which covers that concept which in Buddhism is named compassion.

That is the goal, but in Buddhism the goal is also the path – in that sense that all – at the very least – have a tiny seed of that enlightened-enlightening mind.

Torben Ulrich: "If these thoughts make some sense for you, then they also have to apply to your athletic life. And as most thinking in the athletic field goes in a completely different direction – that others have to bite the dust facing one's incredible-ness – then that practice is a very important athletic practice in order to get closer to a greater compassion and a larger understanding of one's fellow men as athletic people."

The idea itself to undertake this journey on the road, Torben Ulrich characterizes as a kind of a thought that could not be turned away but which also involved a certain preparation, because there – to say the least – is no tradition (and immediate space) for that kind of event in our culture.

As broadly as possible
Prostrations are a traditional part of the Buddhist (tantric) practice, where they may function as a movement on the spot, but also as a forthgoing action, for instance between one's birthplace and a "holy" place. The one that one bows for is in the first sense Buddha, the teachings and the assembly of those who go the same way. But it depends on where on that Buddhist path one finds oneself.

Torben Ulrich: "It has been natural for me, who is raised in athletics, to also see a connection with athletics. Which also has to do with that my definition of athletics always has been as broad as possible. We tend to divide everything up like a layer cake, where each piece – for instance, to get up, to eat breakfast, to go to work, to do athletics – is considered as quite different things. Whereas one – if you divided the cake horizontally – would see that all the layers are the same all the way around – irrespective of what one is doing for oneself. So if one makes that practice, you end up with that you do that practice all 24 hours – also when you sleep. There is no division between eating, sleeping, going to the john or doing athletics. It's all the same.

"Having said that, however, it's of course also completely different. In that spaciousness in which it is the same, it also becomes completely different. Therefore it also becomes quite easy for me to see that this practice is also an athletic practice."

When Torben Ulrich talks about prostrations as athletics, it should not necessarily be seen in this way, that the prostration itself is the athletic (event) – and yet:

Out of breath
"That's the same as with those pictures that I have made with, for example, skipping rope, where there also are some people who cannot see that this has anything to do with athletics. But if I got out of breath while I was doing them, and if I furthermore become less and less out of breath by doing those pictures – because I got into better shape – would you not say, in a quite conventional way, that this was athletics?

"That same quite concrete element one can see in the prostration – by the fact alone that one also becomes out of breath by that. And one could, for example, ask oneself if it could not quite concretely substitute for other training, if one for instance played tennis. One didn't get to play ball, but maybe that didn't matter. In any case, I am quite certain that anybody who would get into prostrations a little bit would find out that they quickly would get into surprisingly good shape, if they were not already – or if they were, they could keep it up, more or less. The fact is, it's a very full movement

"But if you could isolate, on the other hand, the prostration – without that original context, I would see that as more problematic.

"Another side of this larger context is the repeating of the prostrations, the continuous looking into the same movement. And that this awareness also gives insight into impermanence, that bodily aspect that takes place while on the way. An observation that we often do not become aware of in traditional athletics. And that understanding gives a fearlessness, which also contains laughter."

And the score
is the song of impermanence

And the opponent
is the sign of impermanence

And the game
is the electricity of impermanence

Now it rains, however

And the whole thing's
Called off