Saturday, February 20, 2010

Beating It to Death With a Golf Club

Buddhists are all about letting go, not clinging to things, it is true. But we're also all about understanding things, which we believe is what leads us to be able to give up clinging. If you don't really take the time to understand something, you can't really expect to give up clinging it. So, it shouldn't come as a really big surprise to see the Buddhist blogverse seeming to beat this story to death. And I'm not about to give up, of course. Here's some more in the way of understanding Tiger Woods.

Q. Why is what Tiger Woods did wrong from a Buddhist point of view?

One of my readers comments that "there are many stories of male and female Boddhisattvas who made many people happy by similar means." I am unaware of one true (niyata) Bodhisattva who acted in such a foolish way, but I suppose there could be many self-acclaimed (aniyata) Bodhisattvas who did. Why is it wrong? It's important to start off understanding that a single mental instance of greed is "wrong" from a Buddhist point of view, since it has suffering as its fruit. What Mr. Woods, and people like him, have done with their acts is not bring happiness to anyone - they bring, rather, greed and addiction, two things that are of no use to anyone and of great harm besides. I was just reading one of the great Buddhist suttas on this very difficult (only because we are so mired in our greed) subject, the Discourse on the Great Mass of Suffering (MN 13):

"Again, with sensual pleasures as the cause, sensual pleasures as the source, sensual pleasures as the basis, the cause being simply sensual pleasures, kings quarrel with kings, nobles with nobles, brahmins with brahmins, householders with householders; mother quarrels with child, child with mother, father with child, child with father; brother quarrels with brother, brother with sister, sister with brother, friend with friend. And here in their quarrels, brawls, and disputes they attack each other with fists, clods, sticks, or knives, whereby they incur death or deadly suffering. Now this too is a danger in the case of sensual pleasures, a mass of suffering visible here and now, having sensual pleasures as its cause, sensual pleasures as its source, sensual pleasures as its basis, the cause being simply sensual pleasures."

(Bodhi, trans. Full translation (Thanissaro) here)

There is nothing to be gained from sensual pleasure in the first place, except for the great sorrow that can be attributed to addiction. As for infidelity, the suffering caused is invariably worse, and I find it quite difficult to understand from where the confusion on this matter might come. Mr. Woods' mother and children have certainly suffered terribly as a result of this affair, not to mention his wife. Can someone really be so insensitive as to suggest that such a thing as this actually brings happiness? Or that the ephemeral pleasure afforded to Mr. Woods and his mistress(es) can somehow weigh against the lifetime of shame to be born both by Mr. Woods and his family?

Many of my students, mostly Thai women to begin with, have suffered this sort of affair at some point in their lives. Many Thai men seem to think it a cause for boasting that one has many "junior wives" - a euphemism for mistress. There would really be no problem if one were open and honest about such things, giving all parties involved equal footing and opportunity to engage or detach as they choose. Doing this behind someone's back is worse than improper, it is downright sinister. Marriage is a promise, a reassurance, a moral endeavour, if you will, taken on by two individuals as a guarantee of a stable and peaceful life together. If one wishes to engage in such affairs as these, there is no reasonable stance to take apart from the requirement that one break any previous engagement first.

Q. How can Buddhism help someone in this situation?

It is really incredible that Buddhism seems to have received some of the flack for Tiger Woods' infidelity, as though, at the least, Buddhism has nothing to say about this subject or any teachings to offer as a means to avoid or address this sort of thing. The first thing anyone, anywhere, learns about Buddhism is the four noble truths; that craving leads to suffering, and that the only way out of suffering lies in giving up craving. The fourth noble truth in Buddhism is not just a statement of fact, it is a systematic breakdown of the entire eight-step program to freedom from craving and freedom from the suffering it brings. EVERYTHING we teach in Buddhism is aimed at dealing with these sorts of problems. The only criticism one might have of Buddhism in this regard is not that it doesn't teach a way out of this sort of mess, but rather that it is, or has been in this instance, ineffective.

I think Mr. Woods' earlier quote (July 2000) that "I believe in Buddhism. Not every aspect, but most of it. So I take bits and pieces. I don't believe that human beings can achieve ultimate enlightenment, because humans have flaws." really answers this question. As I've said before, he seems to have thought at the time that it is impossible to become free from such addiction, and so it should be of little surprise to Buddhists that he acted out on his personal addictions. He seems to have changed his mind, though, having entered into addiction therapy - let's hope it's not just to appease the Christian public.

Q. Why doesn't Tiger Woods undergo Buddhist practice as a means to overcome his addiction?

This is my own question. Here Mr. Woods has the finest system of addiction therapy known to the history of humankind. It has proven so effective as to produce a celibate monastic lineage which, though full of examples of failure and simple fraud, is also full of examples of human perseverance where human beings have managed to separate physical hormonal systems from the mental reaction to them and totally overcome all craving and addiction. And instead, he's in Mississippi? What gives? If Tiger really wanted to find answers to his life's problems, lust and anger inclusive, my advice, and it's only a drop in a very large barrel of advice, is to go to Wat Metta in San Diego where his mother is already one of the biggest sponsors, and ordain under Ajaan Thanissaro. Spend a month meditating in solitude and actually find some answers to these questions. Man, that would really show he was sincere.

And it would certainly beat these silly Christians who seem to think that somehow God is going to come down and help this man with his temptations if only he accepts Jesus Christ into his heart... oh, wait, I forgot... to Christians, these sort of things are inconsequential, as long as you're Christian. Sorry, Elin.

Finally, here's another Tiger Woods quote I posted some two years ago:

"I can see now how some of the pivotal points of Buddhism are applying to my life," says Woods, who wears a gold Buddha around his neck. "Staying balanced and calm and internally strong. The key thing is that you meditate to discover and rectify the faults within yourself, and not rely on others to bail you out. In my position, that's very important."


If only he had taken himself seriously.


  1. "One should speak only that word by which one would not torment oneself nor harm others. That word is indeed well spoken.

    "One should speak only pleasant words, words which are acceptable (to others). What one speaks without bringing evils to others is pleasant."

    — Thag 21

    the more i read about this story, the more i'm wondering. What's the sense in all this chattering about the life of a man who sees himself as a laybuddhist?
    Does anyone think this is a good idea? Talking about the private life of a person one doesn't even know personally ? Even judging someone elses deeds?

    Maybe some buddhists should ask Fox news for an invitation to an live-battle Christianity vs Buddhism. Many christians would definately be interested and as it sadly looks like - quite a few buddhists, too.

  2. Because he is a public figure whose actions will potentially influence a large body of followers. Because Buddhists are confused about how a "laybuddhist" can possibly do such a thing. Because non-Buddhists are using this as an example of how Buddhist practice is ineffective as a means of dealing with such affairs.

    It is certainly no one's intention to use words to torment others in this affair; I think that is not a proper accusation. There is simply a desire to clear up many points in regards to Buddhist practice that have been brought into question. I believe I was clear about that in this post.

    And anyway, sometimes tormenting wrong-doers is quite useful. Even the Buddha, when one of his followers went astray, would use the words "moghapurisa" - "useless person" to describe them, as a means of making them feel ashamed of their wrong-doing. Certainly no harm comes from making someone realize their wrong-doings; I think you are misusing that quote from the Theragatha. For anyone to try to ignore this issue and not let be known the wrongness of such deeds would, in my mind, be far more harmful in the long run.

    The Buddha's teaching on this matter is quite clear: if words are beneficial and true, one should know the appropriate time to speak them, even if they are unpleasant. On the other hand, words that are pleasant and even true, but unbeneficial, should not ever be spoken at all. (MN 58)

  3. This is a topic worthy of discussion, because, as Yuttadhammo mentioned, Tiger Woods is a public figure and he has an enormous influence on how some people will perceive Buddhism. Yesterday, Tiger's name was making the top headlines in Google News in regards to his comments about Buddhism. For many Westerners, this is the most they may read about Buddhism in years so there is a responsibility to clarify or hit home certain points about what the tradition represents and what it doesn't. I have been reading some comments left by readers of the Woods news articles, and their ignorance regarding Buddhism is often astounding. One reader left a comment that showed that he didn't even understand the concept of a lay buddhist. He ridiculed the idea of Tiger Woods calling himself a Buddhist simply because, in his mind, all Buddhists shave their heads and renounce the material world completely. And that may be an example of just a relatively harmless misunderstanding; it could get much worse.

    Having said that, I do find that Yuttadhammo generalizes about Christians too harshly in this article. When he states, "oh, wait, I forgot... to Christians, these sort of things are inconsequential, as long as you're Christian" this is really uncalled for. Yuttadhammo, please remember that saying "some" Christians goes a long way rather than referencing a huge group of millions as if they all believe that adultery is "inconsequential." That is a rather gross mischaracterization of the religion's complexity and myriad ways of being interpreted.

  4. But, oh, wait, I forgot… to Buddhists, these sort of things are inconsequential, as long as you’re Buddhist you can just say "namu amidha butsu" and be forgiven for everything.

    Just kidding, and yes I know the difference between Theravada and Pure Land, but I hope this makes the point that I'm after: Let's all respect each other's beliefs insofar as the theological points of when forgiveness can and does occur. :)

  5. Rain, okay, agreed that I was generalizing, but you have to admit you are fudging things a little... first of all, "the Christians" hit first with Brit Hume, starting the whole kerfuffle, and my Christian comments were obviously directed at that group of Christians that would agree with the man when he said that all Tiger needs is the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The problem, of course, is that that group is the majority of Christians. The group that thinks saying "namu amidha butsu" will cause your sins to be forgiven is hardly recognized as Buddhist, let alone regarded as a majority.

  6. leafdharma7:20 AM

    Tiger Woods is as Buddhist as George Bush is Christian. Both miss the real point of there Religions.

    I fail to see all the fuss over a man who hits tiny balls into holes. He's only sorry he got caught.

    PS. Like the Redesign.

  7. Well, his mother is a pretty devout Buddhist... I would like to think that the dedication needed to do silly things very well can be transformed into the dedication needed to do useful things very well... one of my students went to school with his mother and she is going to try to get him to watch the DVD on how to meditate. At the very least, it's a chance to put Buddhism in the spotlight and let people see how useful it is instead of swallowing all the misinformation that exists out there.

  8. Yuttadhammo, thanks for clarifying your intent.

    Not meaning to be difficult, but are you sure that Pure Land beliefs do not represent the majority of people who consider themselves Buddhists? Because I was always under the impression that they were the majority. According to Wikipedia, "Pure Land is, together with Chan (Zen), the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam." I know that there are tens of millions of Theravada followers in Southeast Asia, but it might be difficult to proclaim any one group of Buddhists as a clear world majority. And as we all know, there are a heck of a lot more people in China than in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, etc.

  9. But my last post isn't really of much importance to the issue at hand; it's more of an observation than anything else. I agree that you have the right to defend Buddhism against comments such as those made by Brit Hume.

  10. Most Chinese are only nominally Buddhist; they generally practice Taoism and Confucianism as well. Korea, Japan and Viet Nam are equally uncommitted, for their own reasons.

    But, nonetheless, most of the mainstream Buddhists in those countries would be able to tell you that they chant things like "namo amitafa" not because anyone will come down and forgive them, but because it helps to purify the mind, which of course it does. No teaching in any Buddhist school that I know of suggests that one can escape one's karma without working for one's own salvation. In the end, the one thing most Buddhists throughout the world agree on is that you have to do the work yourself, and no one's forgiveness will help. This is certainly a core teaching of Buddhism.

    Christianity is pretty clear that it is God, not man, who does the work deciding who is good and who is bad, based on his largely arbitrary rules of obedience and fidelity. I think it is at least fair to say that for most Christians, fidelity to God is more important than fidelity to one's partner. Or, to put it in a more Christian tone, the best way to overcome infidelity to one's partner is to become faithful to Christ. Sure, there is some benefit to doing so, since the teachings of Christ do put adultery as a sin, and faith can have a temporary calming effect on one's addictions, but in the end it is just another way to avoid dealing with the issues.

    This is really the problem with Christian practice in general; the solution (God) is a total non sequitur to the problem (addiction), and so the results are generally substandard to actually dealing with the issues. It is not that Christians don't think adultery is wicked, they just don't think you need to deal with that wickedness, as long as you are always on your knees praying to Christ to forgive your failure to overcome it. To me, that's a cop out, and I'm not afraid to say it.