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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(Nov 11, 2007)

ZEN, GOLF and the 82nd AIRBORNE
by Abbot John

I have always been uncomfortable with the literary habit of coupling Zen Buddhism with every sport known to man. There's a Zen of tennis and a Zen of running, a Zen of baseball, and so on, ad infinitum. We never find the Judaism of skiing, the Catholicism of volley ball, the Sufism of curling. Why Zen, I have repeatedly asked myself. Are we sports' psychologists?

And then. as I've previously admitted, I took up golf.

Despite all these misgivings, when I learned that there were zen-of-golf books, I was sorely tempted to buy one. My performance on the course had remained at a somewhat less than sterling level, and I was getting desperate. I mentioned it to my Zen-caddie, Vic. We had not reached the Watson/Edwards or Nicklaus/Argea stage of relationship on the links; but I figured I knew him well enough to ask his advice about buying the book. Vic said, "Anything would help."

My wife had a different take. "You're a Zen abbot, for God's sake. You should be writing books about Zen golf - not buying them. Have you no shame?"

"I have shame out the wazoo," I countered. "Needing at least 112 strokes to complete the course doesn't make a man..." - I groped my mind for the right word - "...cavalier."

My wife gave me that wife's look: "Get your brain out of that saddle and you won't need a book."

Mentally, I sent up a white flag and retreated to my other problems. At the time, my offices were in the midst of being moved from the Jersey side of the Delaware River to the Pennsylvania side - taking more or less the same route that Washington famously took. I was inundated with papers from architects, designers, and contractors. If I wanted the new building to have plumbing and windows, I had to study plans and specs at least enough to be able to pretend I understood them.

At home, things were worse. We would also be moving our residence to the other side of the river and my wife flatly refused to move. She groused about this non-stop - until our son announced that he had left college to join the Army and then my wife no longer gave a damn where we lived. She walked around the house like Lady MacBeth, "How can he fight in Iraq? In twenty years he's never picked up his socks... not once. This is all your fault." I accepted the blame and consoled her. "He won't make it to Iraq. He can't change a channel without the remote. He's never seen the sun rise. I give him two days of basic training." He wanted to be an Army Ranger. I began drafting my consolation speech for when he washed out.

Maybe it was because I wasn't sleeping well after his announcement, I found myself getting up at 4AM one morning. I made my own breakfast, put on my Payne Stewart cap (I don't have the guts to wear the knickers) and carried my clubs over to the public course. At the first tee, I looked directly at the rising sun, and it spoke to me. "We do need another book... The Duffer's Guide to Zen. You're uniquely qualified to write it." That was a nasty slice and my ego bounced into the rough.

Humbled, I whacked the little white ball straight and far - right down the middle of the fairway. In Zen we use archery metaphors. Don't loose the arrow until there is only the bow, the arrow, and the target - i.e., until there is no "archer" in the picture. In the glare of the morning sun the "golfer" in me disappeared. He didn't come back. After work, when Vic met me at the course, he carried the bag of a ghost. I was in the Zone. I shot 92. Vic didn't speak for fear of breaking the spell.

At home it was the other way. It was only the golfer in me that sat down to dinner. The rest of me became invisible; and being so, wasn't missed when I went to the course and got into the Zone.

And then things went wrong... very wrong... by way of going right. The son I supposed couldn't take two days of regimented life, had lasted two months and the phone call that I thought would be a rationale for failure was instead a request for some paternal insight. He wanted to know how to deal with the constant repetition of meaningless chores he had to perform. I suggested he try a Zen technique of staying focussed on simple tasks. "If you can find joy in what you're doing, grab the joy and don't let it go. The attitude you want to cultivate is in the lines, "How wonderful! How mysterious! I chop wood! I carry water!" And if you can't find joy in the moment, accept your work with as much grace as you can muster. Try to fit the task into the larger scheme of things - the good that will later come from it. There's an old Zen story about a young monk who kept complaining about the monotonous jobs he had to do in the kitchen. The Tenzo - he's the master of the kitchen who is also 2nd in command of the monastery, grew tired of the young monk's constant bitching. So he asked, "Do you find it monotonous to eat? You eat regularly yet you don't complain about that. Vegetables must be washed or else we'll eat dirt and grit. Do you want to eat meals cooked in a filthy kitchen? No, then the floor must be swept. If you don't want to eat from dirty bowls, then the dishes must be washed. Think of that. Think of the result of your efforts. Know why you do the dishes and you won't mind doing them. Keep your mind on what you're doing. Just say, 'I'm doing the dishes. I'm doing the dishes.' Recite it as you would recite a mantra." So that's my advice, if you can't find the joy at the moment, keep looking for it. You'll find it. You'll solve the mystery of chopping wood and carrying water. That's all. Just, do the dishes... do the dishes."

He later wrote that he often used the mantra and that it did the job. He also wrote about tasks that were not boring.. the gas mask tests, the weapons, the martial arts, and those parachutes. My wife was radiantly proud of him as, of course, was I.

Thinking about him must have inspired me. I got up early every day. I stopped eating junk food. I played in the rain, setting course records - not for low scores but for the speed in which I could navigate the ocean of grass. I got my work done and left the office early every day, heading for the course. My clubs were hot. I was shooting 88, sometimes for even two days in a row.

I learned fast from my mistakes. I never asked Vic for advice about a club or an approach. Once, when I made a poor choice I saw him wince; and when the inevitable disaster followed, Vic shrugged and said, "Hey, I get paid the same whether I'm a pack mule or a caddie." I couldn't involve him in "my" decisions. They really weren't mine. Since "I" wasn't "there" no time and energy had to be wasted on being self-conscious, much less on being caddie-conscious. I was in a kind of twilight time of spontaneity and instinct. It is a great place to be. Any place in which a man can be free of himself is a great place to be.

Vic's stoicism began to develop cracks. On the day I shot an 84, he could not restrain his emotion. He asked, or rather accused, "You got one of those Zen-of-Golf books, didn't you?"

I answered truthfully. "No."

"What then? Michael Murphy?"

"No. Why do you ask?"

"You've been acting very mystical or hypnotic - as if you're in a trance."

I was startled. It's one thing when God called me a duffer, but quite another when a Zen man wonders how a man who's as deeply involved in his religion as I am can be mystical. "Vic!" I asked, "Why does this surprise you? I'm Abbot of the oldest Zen Buddhist ministry on the Internet."

He looked at me increduously. "You know Zen?"

At dinner, I told my wife about this disconcerting conversation. She listened and replied, "Have you noticed how Annika Sorenson and Nancy Lopez have kept their figures?" A sense of dread came over me. Like that famous haiku verse, I saw the water and heard the ball go "ker-plunk."

When my wife and I were finally able to go and visit our son, I realized that the word "Ranger" had been a shibboleth for a rite of passage. He had pronounced the word and went from being a boy to a man. Probably because he was standing up straight, he looked five inches taller. He was trim and immaculately groomed. I could actually see his ears. At first, I didn't know how to speak to him. A few months before our conversations consisted of grunts, anti-grunts, snide comments and sarcastic responses. Now, between the drifts of time, we began to talk like old friends. "So..." I asked him, "are you still 'doing dishes'?" He laughed. "You wouldn't believe the last time I used it." I wanted to hear about it right then, but he gestured that he didn't want to talk while his mother was there. When she went to the ladies' room, he told me.

1 jumper.jpg

"Dad, It was my first night jump. We're all standing in full gear along the fuselage of the C-130 and it was like being inside a huge drum the sound was so deafening. The jump master called for a volunteer and I did what you told me never to do – I stepped forward. He hitched me up to the line and I stood there smiling, trying to convince myself that this wasn't going to be a problem. Then he opened the jump doors and the sound and wind came at me like a hurricane. I took a half step back from the door. I looked at the jump master who just wagged his finger at me to step towards him. It was the hardest step I ever took. Lights were flashing inside the plane signaling the jump time, and the wind was fierce, and then, at the top of his voice he yelled “GO! GO! GO!" and I jumped into the chaos and all I could think of was “Do the dishes. Do the dishes. Do the dishes.” It was unbelievably intense and then.. nothing…it was just me floating in the darkness and I could see the stars. It was so serene. Then I heard something like a muffled bump, bump, bump and a voice yelling, 'Goddam!. Son of a bitch!'. My jump sarge had somehow come right down on top of me and was actually walking on top of my chute trying to get off to the side so we wouldn’t get tangled. Then it was quiet again. I can’t even tell you how long a time that was, but when I saw the tree line in the distance, I said to myself, "Do the dishes, brother," and pulled the rip cord on the rucksack line. The line ran out - it’s fifteen feet long - and I waited to hear the thump that meant it had hit the ground. 'Thump.' I bent my knees, hit the ground, rolled over, stood up, looked around, unbuttoned my pants and took a piss. I heard a couple of guys chuckling and looked over at the tree line where I saw two guys with night vision goggles watching all of us hit the ground. One of them lit a cigarette lighter and gave me a thumbs up. That’s it dad. It didn’t last too long but I know for a fact that I’ll never forget this night as long as I live."

(Neither, my son, will I.)

When I got back home I went to the course. Some golfers I had never met were talking to Vic as I entered the parking area. They greeted me like a hero, a celebrity. What was my secret, they wanted to know, because anybody who could advance as quickly as I had surely had a trick or two up his sleeve. Flattered, I began to pontificate. "Golf is a strange game. I can't overstate the requirement to be empty of yourself if you want to play it well. How do you become empty of yourself? Just take a minute to get into the Zone. Stare at your watch's second hand sweep. Inhale for 4 seconds - really filling your chest to the maximum. Hold your breath for 16 seconds, then gently exhale for 8 seconds, contracting your abdomen to squeeze out the last of the air. Then use a trigger.. a name... a phrase.. to initiate concentration. Keep it simple. But don'tt pray. This is a golf game not a triage decision." And then I found myself adding, "For example, my son, he's in training... Army Rangers, says "Do the dishes!" every time he parachutes. He says it works every time."

Now fully armed and with Vic beside me I strolled to the first Tee and shot the first of the 97 strokes it would take me to complete the course.

The golfer-ego in me no longer cared to leave when I addressed the ball. The golfer-ego was also the father-ego - and if given the choice between winning the Masters or seeing your boy become a man such as the man mine had become, you'd let the golfer-ego back, too.

Yes, I know, training sticks; and playing golf achieves more than sitting in a zendo can possibly achieve. It is not a stretch to say that if your attention is complete, golf is a meditation. Athletes often speak of penetrating that empty space so necessary in meditation. Hunters also enter sacred precincts when they transcend their egos to the point of being oblivious to danger and discomfort. Their focus on the prey is intense, their concentration so commanding that their ego-self dissolves into the universe. When a golfer says he "brought his A Game," he is saying that he was in this zone. He stood in the place where no man was standing. But he didn't snap his fingers and effortlessly attain this state. He excluded from his life all that wasn't needed for the goal, and then work, dedication, discipline, and ethical behavior were blended into his daily routine. In this zone, when he's egoless and free of all attachments, he arrives at the edge of immortality; and it surprises only onlookers that his six iron lets loose a 260 yard shot that travels over trees and water and lands three feet from the cup.

Naturally, it is an easy matter to discuss. Teachers talk; but only the student's experience teaches him anything.

It turned out that I was still a student. My home was now part of a global village. It shared space with neighbors that had threatening names. I had to learn to live with terrible possibilities and immeasurable pride.

The cold weather set in. It got light later and dark earlier. I hoped that things would be sufficiently accommodating for the golfing buddha to return next spring. I read scripture, finding comfort in it that I hadn't imagined was there.

And then, it came to me one night.... Why not a Zen of Parachuting?

Ah, I'll mention it to my son. We shall see. We shall see.

Gaté gaté paragaté parasamgaté bodhi svaha.

Humming Bird