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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(July 18, 2010)

Letter To A Zen Golf Beginner
by Abbot John

Rev Yin,

Ohhh mannnn... As they used to say on my block, "The first one's for free."

I took a peek at the photo you sent. Nice lag in the club shaft, but your spine angle needs work, head is too far down and over the ball, and combined with the slightly open stance will cause too many balls to fly to the right. Yes, yes I know, as you mentioned, you thought the club was too short but still, after studying the picture I would have to say that your initial approach is too concerned with power. Finesse is the secret key. Grace is what we seek. Your approach, here in the beginning, is a common problem best compared to the approach differences between the Japanese and Chinese as it pertains to meditation.

The Japanese will have a man stationed behind you with a kyosaku "warning stick" and after asking politely if you want to be whacked, will, of course, whack you. The Chinese, on the other hand, will ask you if you would like some tea and a little time to stretch.

Rev. Yin Cai Shakya, attempting to put all 250 pounds of himself behind the club in an effort to "Smash that ball into the upper stratusphere."

I'll keep my eyes open for some clubs for you. Sadly, when Nanci and I were thinking of moving to Indiana one of the conditions she set was that I had to rid myself of all my old golf clubs. A somewhat vindictive request, I thought; but I assumed she thought I wouldn't be up to the sacrifice. I was. There are times in a man's life in which he is ready to sacrifice anything for peace. I had it all carefully planned in my mind. I would meditate indoors and out, sitting up on my zafu and lying down with my elbow planted in the earth and my hand supporting my head in that neat "Buddha viewing infinity" posture. A shakuhachi flute would be playing, "When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash...." If all I had to lose to bring that plan to fruition was a bunch of old golf clubs, well... there was no contest. I handed them over. Life, being what it is, we're still in Jersey but sans clubs. However, I know where she took them... to her hairdresser and nails person. He's either Korean or Vietnamese and they are as fanatical about golf as you will become. But...I may be able to rescue the strays. Perhaps enough to start you on the path of grace and finesse. The "power stick" I will leave to your own devices. It's a personal thing, as you will discover.

It might serve you well to keep in mind the differences we've had, historically, in the naming of certain clubs. In the present day western world we now call aforementioned "power stick" a DRIVER. Long ago it was called the "in-play" club. That subtle difference in nomenclature will serve you very well if you can penetrate its meaning, which, like meditation, is not hard to do intellectually, but extremely difficult in practice. Remember Phil Mickelson a few years ago, standing on the 18th tee of the US Open with a one shot lead? Johnny Miller's voice, a crescendo coming out of the TV, "Don't hit the Driver, Phil just put it in play." Phil, of course, could not master his emotions and pulled out the driver and put the ball in the sponsor's tents and lost the Open by one stroke.

At the press conference afterwards Phil said, "I'm an idiot. But that's who I am, at least I was true to myself." I thought then, and still think now, that feigning humility while being proud of a detriment is not always the best policy. Every time I try that excuse my wife tells me to get off my ass and mow the lawn.

Back to the "oh man"... shooting a 45 over nine holes is not just good - it borders on great - for a first timer. And while we're on this ego smashing game of golf let me interject and make an announcement. This Saturday I am playing in the semi-finals of the club championship. It is a "match play" tourney and I've chased down my first two opponents after trailing them the entire match. The first one I pulled even on 17 and made par at the 18th for the match. The second one was truly historic. I was down 2 holes with 3 to play. I made birdie (from 25 feet) on 16 to go one down and holed a 15 foot par putt on 18 to tie the match, he missed an almost identical putt, to force extra holes. Here is where legends are made.

As we trudged to the first tee to start the play-off there happened to be an "outing" that was beginning to play. The club pro came out of the pro-shop and asked all of them to stand aside while Pete (my opponent and friend) and I played through.

All those people - plus the faces that were glued to the pro-shop window - watched me as I strode to the tee. Even a new Buddhist convert could have told me to do whatever was necessary to keep The Middle Way in mind when I looked down that fairway. But egoism does strange things to a man. I brashly pulled my DRIVER, intent on the merciful destruction of my friend. Alas! the least I could have done was remember Johnny Miller's advice to Phil. I should have thought "in play".

I hit the single most terrifyingly bad tee shot of my life. The ball went right at approximately a 60o angle (from vertical) and barely covered 70 yards. That should have been enough to insure ignominy, but it got worse. The ball landed between two huge hardwood trees and settled directly behind a small pine that was about 15 feet tall. Pete hit his tee shot straight down that vaunted Middle Way, leaving 111 yds to the pin. There were congratulations all around for Pete; and when we got to my ball we both giggled, albeit nervously. Not only could I not see the pin, I couldn't even see the green from my position. Yes, I had erred; but greater than action is faith. Inwardly, I acknowledged my error and expressed regret to the only One that ultimately matters. Many men will curse themselves or blame a distraction of one kind or another. But I was sincere and kept the faith. strangely, I found myself telling Pete he was screwed now because the Buddha would be watching out for me. I could now take my favorite shot in golf. I could not see the destination; and neither the gallery nor I had any expectations regarding this outcome. (The trick to having faith is to expect nothing.) With the most cursory glance greensward and no practice swing I took a 4 iron and whacked it. Somehow the ball went under the oaks and over the pine before disappearing from view. As we strode to Pete's next shot, my ball suddenly made its appearance. It was about 15 yards in front of the green, in perfect position for a chip shot and putt. Pete looked at me with a sad smile and immediately hit his 2nd shot into the greenside bunker. I got up and down. Pete did not. The legend began to swirl and lo' these two weeks later I've come to know that I am suspected of using what is being called "Buddha voodoo". Now, you may wonder who is spreading all these stories and you may even guess that I've had some hand this. Well, every legend needs fuel in its early stages of growth and, after all, it is who I am and I'm merely being true to myself.

Only the coming days will tell whether this legend matures and becomes a story of the times or whether this strange feeling I have between my toes is an early indicator of feet made of clay.

We're (Nanci and I) are still waiting for the call that tells us Michael's on his way home. Last night we attended a fund raiser that raised some money for the shipping expenses incurred when Nanci's group ships "stuff" to the boys and girls in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a horrible weather day. It rained (poured) until noon, a half hour before the schedules tee-time starts then it was like a stifling sauna. One of the odd little quirks of the day occurred when the High Sheriff of Somerset County read an email he just got from his son (who is in Iraq on his second tour). The golf was finished and everyone was sitting around the air-conditioned rooms having beers and iced tea. Each and every person was complaining about the weather as we "cooled down".

The note from the Sheriff's son began, I want to thank all of you for keeping us in your thoughts and sending us these little packages from home. Sometimes the guys laugh at the ridiculous things that come in the packages but they all jump at opening the boxes. I'm not going to list them in this note but you would amazed at how many things a soldier can do with a box of tampons. Just to let you know a little of what Iraq is like these days, the temperature today was 141o Etc.

After hearing that most of the complaining about the weather stopped.

When I heard that temperature I was absolutely startled. Just a week ago Michael said it got to 138o but I thought he must be exaggerating somewhat so I looked into the most trusted of sources (internet) and found that, hell, they might be right. I found this nugget from Iran:

This is the highest recorded air temperature. The highest surface temperature ever recorded is 70.7 degrees Celsius (159.3 degrees Farenheit) and was observed in 2004 and 2005 in the Lut desert, Iran

I never really thought about it before but most of the highest temps were recorded in that part of the world, around the Dead Sea and eastward into Iraq and Iran.

Em took me to Death Valley once and the heat there was, I assume, something like the middle east deserts. It sort of "stuns" you. Like leaning down to pull a pan of brownies out of the oven.

How those kids put on all that gear and walk around over there is beyond me. An interesting by-product of that is a bit humorous. Michael sent us a picture the other day of him and his buds sitting around a big fan in a tent like building. They were all stripped down to their skivvies and Michael was a sight for sore eyes. His face and arms were like a well tanned beach comber but his torso was as white as alabaster. He could have blended into the tent background. We, blue eyed blonde hair types can really look like something out of a horror movie if we get a bit too much sun. His pearly white skin looks almost too fragile to be fighting in a war. I know that sounds stupid but you should see the picture. It's almost like the skin is translucent and barely able to hold his insides, inside.

I was thinking of those old stories when the Romans would go fight the barbarians and the warriors from the northern places, I believe it was the Celts in particular, would strip completely naked and charge into battle with everything they got wagging every which way. Damn, you gotta hand to those Romans. I think wither I would have been scared shitless seeing hundreds of ghost-like, probably hairy kooks, with faces painted blue charging straight into our fine bronzed Roman lines, OR, I would have fell down laughing at the absurdity of the whole damn thing. Those are the days that I'm grateful for being born in the later stages of human history.

I'm late for a meeting - gotta go. What was it you said about brevity. If brevity is the soul of wit what the hell is this email.

In the Dharma,

Abbot John