October 11, 2006

Kicking Enlightenment

Andrew Merz

From time to time, we'll be posting short reviews and descriptions of some of the books and films, etc., that we get here in the Tricycle office but just don't have space for in the magazine. There are so many worthwhile but low-budget projects out there, hopefully a little exposure here will help some of them out...

Today's film: Mystic Ball
Directed by Greg Hamilton
Produced by Matthew London and Greg Hamilton
Black Rice Productions
view the trailer

As a soccer fanatic, I thought I knew just about every obscure form of sport, ancient or modern, that involved kicking a ball around (there are more than you might think). I must admit to being a little ashamed that I knew nothing at all about the topic of this elegant and humble film, a 1500-year-old traditional sport from Myanmar called Chinlone. This film is the story of a Canadian man's unlikely love-affair with the sport and the people who play it. Chinlone, meaning "cane-ball," is a non-competitive team sport that at first glance resembles a hackey-sack circle, or soccer players juggling a ball: six players walk in a tight circle while keeping a woven-cane ball about the size of a cantaloupe up in the air with their feet. Each player takes a turn in the center of the circle as the soloist, displaying their finest acrobatic kicks while their teammates support them, keeping the ball from hitting the ground and serving it back to the soloist. Take my word for it, the skill these players have with the ball is nothing short of astounding. I can't begin to describe the no-look behind-the-back knee taps and flying round-house bicycle-ankle kicks. They have moves I have simply never seen before, which is saying a lot for someone who occasionally finds himself watching highlights of Ronaldinho and Zidane on youtube.com at one a.m. on a school night (this film is a must-see for such fanatics).

More obsessive than yours truly, however, is Greg Hamilton, the director and star of the film; starting with a chance encounter, we watch this soft-spoken martial artist become a chinlone fanatic, traveling to Myanmar again and again to watch and learn and play with the masters of the sport. You might be asking, what, then, does this have to do with Buddhism? Myanmar, being a Buddhist country, has a Buddhist understanding of this sport. First of all, it is non-competitive--no winners, no losers, no harm. next, the players describe entering a jhanic state, or deep meditative absorption (the word Zen came from the Pali jhana, via the Chinese transliteration chan). Upon getting a taste of that, Hamilton, or "Mr. Greg," as he becomes popularly known in Myanmar, pursues the sport as one pursues a spiritual journey. There is no end goal, no championship, just ever deepening absorption in the practice of the sport and the bonds he forms with the people he plays with in Myanmar. While Hamilton's devotion is beyond reproach, I have to think that the state they describe can't be too different from what many athletes in other sports call "The Zone." I think chinlone players, coming from a Buddhist country, just might have a better framework for understanding it than Westerners do. The lack of a competitive goal probably contributes as well, softening the mindstate somehow, loosening things up upstairs, but I am hesitant to put chinlone in a mystical realm all its own. There are many athletes out there who aren't competing for any championships but just doing it for the love of the game. I can't say that I get into a sustained jhanic state when I hobble around Prospect Park in a pick-up soccer game, but there is usually a taste of it here or there, and, like the supporting players in a chinlone circle, I delight in the accomplishments of the others on the field, whichever team they're on. You'd be surprised how much beauty can come out of our rag-tag group on a tuesday evening. Chinlone is a unique and beautiful sport, but the sappy message I took away from it is that mystic ball is less a sport confined to a far-off place than it is an approach to whatever sport you might be playing. This film is an artful portrait of the sport and the people who love it, and a touching portrayal of Hamilton's ultimately spiritual journey. (and it is definitely a must-see for soccer fans!)

Andrew Merz, Associate Editor

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