The practice of Zen can be applied to many different activities. Popularised in the west, ‘Zen and the art of Archery’, ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and many other applications of the practice have been presented. It has had applications to the tea ceremony, flower arranging, painting, ceramic manufacture and other activities in Japan and other Eastern countries.
It should come as no surprise then to find Zen associated with the art of hurling, as suggested here. Seeking to understand this Zen ‘practice’, the usual starting point is to seek the wisdom of the Master, the noted exponent. And the master that readily comes to mind in this context is one Brian Cody of Kilkenny. Brian has indeed often been asked for his ‘secret’ or the meaning of hurling to him and always the answers are similar and simple. “Shure,” he would say, “it’s just a game of fifteen fellas enjoying themselves hurling.” It’s the simple type of enigmatic answer that every seeker after the understanding of Zen has traditionally received from the master. The answer tells you everything while telling you nothing. Hurling is of course only fifteen fellas enjoying their skills, but its zennic reality is of a different and higher order than just those fifteen hurlers. This reality is in fact exactly the reality of Zen as epitomised in Kilkenny hurling at its best. Such a reality cannot be encapsulated in words as indeed Cody’s answers all illustrate.
The prowess of the Kilkenny teams we have witnessed in recent years does relate to the fifteen hurlers, but it is their combined and higher awareness welding those fifteen into the oneness of a team that constitutes this zen-like reality. No longer are they just fifteen individuals, because these team members are elevated into a greater and higher reality, the team. How often have we seen and marvelled at this reality on the field of play where each exists for the others. This is most notable perhaps when you witness the best exponents of their individual art sacrificing their individual glory to augment that of their team, by their uncanny ability to find other team members who are in a more advantageous position, for the team’s sake. This is because of each individual’s awareness of the greater team reality over the individual exponent. It all seems effortless in expression because of each member’s awareness of this higher team reality.
Of course, every team outing doesn’t necessarily exemplify this to perfection. Individuals may have an off day due to a multitude of factors, in which case the Zen reality is adulterated and the team probably doesn’t achieve its aim of winning, painful examples of which, though rare, are indelibly etched on the memory of followers of this great Kilkenny team. Opposing teams may also interfere with the team’s desired drive for the perfection of winning, exemplified in the 2010 All Ireland Final when their Tipperary rivals were victors. Vanquished team members and coaches will often hint at the loss of team cohesion as the reason for their failure on occasions, thus pointing to an absence of Zen reality.
The glory teams of Kilkenny’s recent years are good examples of Zen practice. Zen and Kilkenny’s hurling prowess cannot be encapsulated in words. The Zen of hurling is greater than any words or concepts, just indeed as it is in other traditional areas of practice. In this hurling context, the reality of Zen may not be understood by either coach or individual hurlers. Certainly it cannot be explained, it is after all “only fifteen fellas enjoying hurling”.
Michael O’Halloran ©