The twin stresses of being an Uber driver in a busy city and living in the New York and New Jersey area, which were hit hard in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, have brought Bhutanese Buddhists together in a return to their national pastime: archery. The New York Times reports this week that around two dozen Bhutanese immigrants have begun weekly archery tournaments in recent weeks to relax, enjoy comradery, and to honor both the tradition of archery and their national religion, Buddhism.
The group travels to practice in an open expanse in the woodlands near the township of Shamong, New Jersey (pop. 6,490), a 90-minute drive from New York City. There they meet every weekend to enjoy ceremonial games on land rented from a local Buddhist temple.
“Especially in these pandemic times, everybody was alone at home,” said Tshelthrim Dorji, a 36-year-old Uber driver from New York City. “That’s why we created these tournaments to see each other again, to recover.” (The New York Times)
The pastime had been maintained before the coronavirus, but only monthly, as the group worked long hours and the commute was difficult. But with the pandemic, work has dried up for the men, most of whom are drivers for Lyft and Uber, enabling the weekly journey. Once they arrive at the site, the men brew tea and eat rice together and most don the traditional gho, a distinctive knee-length robe for Bhutanese men that dates to the 17th century.
The men break into two teams of 12, and before each match begins, they say Buddhist mantras and pour an offering of beer on the ground. With this, the teams set out to opposite ends of a field, setting up targets 145 meters apart. From there, with the opposing team safely hidden behind a blind, the archers take aim.
“You must concentrate entirely on your breathing, as if you had nothing else to do,” said Dorji. “Then you brace yourself for failure.” (The New York Times)
The scoring follows the tradition inherited from Bhutan: “You score one point when the arrow is very close to the target, at an arrow’s distance. You score two points when it’s a hit. You score three points if you hit the bull’s-eye,” archer Yeshey Norbu told NPR’s Julie McCarthy in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu in 2018. (NPR)
Also following the tradition in Bhutan, there is no referee. Each player tracks his points on an honor system. “We are all Buddhist, so it is not competitive,” said Thukten Jamtsho, 43, one of the archers who works as an Uber driver. “We come to see each other, meet new friends, and bring the community together.” (The New York Times)
The game is mostly played as a way of building community, another factor inherited from the Bhutanese’ home country. In Bhutan, people form teams from their villages, “And when we assemble a team it is a social exercise of getting to know each other, [and] meet new people. And it’s much more than a game of archery,” said Norbu. (NPR)
While the tournaments help build community and strengthen their bonds with fellow Bhutanese back home, the archers face an uncertain future. The New York City area has recovered well from the pandemic. New York State, which had more than 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases per day several times in March and April, has been averaging between 500 and 800 new cases daily since mid-June. While hospitals have been able to cope with the new numbers, life as normal is still far off.
“Little by little we are going to return, but it will be difficult,” said Sonam Ugyen, 28, an Uber driver and one of the group’s youngest archers. “We are thinking of changing our profession or looking for new opportunities.” (The New York Times)
According to Pew Research Center statistics, some 24,000 Bhutanese were living in the United States as of 2015, mostly in Ohio and Rochester, New York, an industrial city on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Bhutan’s tradition of archery is believed to date to the mid-19th century, when the father of the nation’s first king is said to have shot an arrow from a mountain at invading British forces after offering prayers to Yeshey Gonpo, the guardian deity of Bhutan, hitting the British General in the head and killing him. Today in the Buddhist kingdom of some 750,000, people continue a more peaceful version of the sport.
These Uber Drivers Are Stressed. Archery Soothes Them (The New York Times)
Bhutan’s Alcohol-Fueled Archery: It’s Nothing Like The Olympics (NPR)
Bhutan Archery Culture (World Traditional Archery Organization)