Judaism, Zen, and Basketball
Three topics that at first sight probably do not seem to belong together, but it is possible to connect them, and perhaps even interesting - just watch me.
Judaism and Basketball
The connection between Judaism and basketball may be more understandable, seeing as the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern is Jewish, and Jews had no small part in NBA history. You can read about the history of Jews in American basketball in this excellent article from JewishMag, and if you are interested in The State of Jews in the NBA then NBA blog Give Me The Rock will bring you up to date.(For a great general site about Jews in sports visit JewishSports)
Zen and Judaism
A quick google search of "Zen and Judaism" brings up two main references - first a popular humor book "Zen Judaism: For You, a Little Enlightenment by David M. Bader",and another book "Letters To A Buddhist Jew" documenting an exchange of letters between a Rabbi and a Jewish Zen practitioner.The first chapter of the book is available to read at the link.I haven't read either of them so I have no opinion , although the first chapter seems very promising.I also found an interesting article about two Jewish friends who are both Jewish Buddhists. One of them found his way back to Judaism through meditation:
At one point he had to sew an ornamental item for a priestly garment."I absolutely couldn't do it," Lew recalled. "And after awhile I realized there was some resistance. I began to explore that in my meditation and I realized it had something to do with my being Jewish.It is true for me that there was some sense of conflict between my being ordained as a Buddhist with my being Jewish."As he explored the tension in meditation, he found "a level of Jewish background noise," Lew said. But probing deeper, he realized "this kind of buzz was going on at all times."Realizing this Jewish identity "was the beginning of my turning in that direction."
This is very similar to the way I reached Judaism - through Zen Buddhism - although this man went on to become a Rabbi and I don't think that is in my future. In any case, the connection between Judaism and Zen is very intriguing and I intend to explore it in this blog - starting with this post (I'm getting there)
Zen and Basketball
Zen is the art of living, and therefore can be applied to any endeavor, in any field. Still, basketball is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Zen , unless of course, you have followed the NBA in the past decade and a half. If you did, then you could not help hearing about legendary coach Phil Jackson, who consciously applied his knowledge of Zen on his way to coaching two different teams to an astounding nine NBA titles,( a feat accomplished, by the way, by only one other coach in NBA history,the late, great, Red Auerbach, who, apropos Jews in sports, happened to be Jewish.)
For years I have been fascinated by group dynamics and team sports is a great place to study this subject - enormous pressure coupled with great talent and forceful personalities makes for some very interesting situations. Not all team sports are so dependent on the quality of the group dynamics in order to succeed but apparently in basketball a close knit team is imperative.This is one reason why I started watching basketball, (the other one being Michael Jordan), and Phil's amazing success with the Chicago Bulls, (led by the unearthly talent of said Jordan), where others failed before him, really caught my attention. I also read Jackson's book Sacred Hoops about his time with the Bulls where he explains how he used his knowledge of Zen (and his very good instincts) to shape the group dynamics, and help the players realize their full potential, and it is with this book that I am going to finally complete the connection between Judaism, Zen, and basketball.
Connecting Judaism, Zen, and basketball
The very first thing I learned in my first Judaism lesson was that the essence of the Jew is that he gives thanks all the time to the Creator for everything. Jews are supposed to give thanks to God when they wake up - for waking up, when they go to the bathroom - for the ability to go to the bathroom, for food and water and basically - all of Gods creation, from morning till night.What I understand from this is that for Jews, nothing in this world should be taken for granted - everything is temporary, and exists only at the whim of our Master and Creator.This attitude reminded me of a story I read in Phil Jackson's book Sacred Hoops:
"You see this Goblet?" asked Chaa, holding up a glass "For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say "Of course.""When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious."
(for the record, Jackson is quoting from the book Thoughts Without a Thinker, about psychology and Buddhism, which I haven't read, but seems worth it)
Isn't this remarkably similar to the Jewish philosophy underlying the incessant prayers of thanks?Don't both religions clearly recognize the impermanence of this world and how necessary it is for our health - our spiritual health to live in such a state of mind? Doesn't Judaism as well as Zen Buddhism exhort us to adhere not to worldly things, to lean on nothing - not money, or people or ideas even - but the one and only God (or Tao) who cannot be seen, or touched or even named? To me it seems to be so. But if this is true, then what is the difference between the two? Well, there are a lot of differences, but I think there are a few important, basic differences between Zen and Judaism, which can be demonstrated using this example.
The Basic Difference Between Judaism and Zen
The founder of Judaism and his subsequent followers recognized the desired mental and moral state for humanity in general, and specifically the Jewish people. They described this state and the way to get there - by doing the mitzvahs.In this case, the desired mental state is one of continually recognizing the impermanence of the world, and our utter dependence on God's will for every thing that exists.The way to achieve this state is to perform the appropriate prayers and blessings and other mitzvot throughout the day. As I understand it, the various prayers and blessings which give thanks are intended to not let us forget the fact that we are so dependent on the will of our Lord, lest our heads grow too big for our kippot, and we decide that we are self-sufficient. So in this case the mitzvot actually serve as reminders. Human beings are forgetful creatures and therefore need to be reminded - incessantly, all day, every day, for all of their lives. A Jew is not expected to reach a spiritual state in which he no longer needs to be reminded of God all the time. Not so in Zen.
Zen also describes a desired mental state and it has a way to get there.The ideal mental state can be described as one that recognizes, once and for all, with heart, and body and soul, the impermanence of this world, its inherent and constant changing, its basic unreliability.The way to achieve this state is through meditation, mental or physical (as in the martial arts or yoga), and unlike Judaism this state can be attained permanently.
So the first difference is that in Zen you are expected to reach a state of mind that, if attained in Judaism, would render all the incessant reminders/prayers of thanks unnecessary, because you would be mindful of God (or the Tao) all the time.
Freedom of Choice or Use of Force?
The second difference is in the use of external force to achieve this goal.
A Jew born into a Jewish family does not have a choice - he or she must act according to the laws that were given to us by God at Mount Sinai. You must pray because God said so, and if you don't He will disapprove and so will your parents, and teachers and maybe also your friends.Even if you accept this, you may still find yourself forcing yourself to do the appropriate prayers and blessings - if you are lucky. If not, you will get so used to it that they will become a barely noticeable habit.
I have only been to a few prayers sessions in my fledgling journey into Judaism, but I have already noticed that many people are not paying attention to their prayers - some play with their keys, one guy was tossing an orange up and down, another was gesturing to other people who answered him with contortions of the face and hand signals, and in the third synagogue, two people were reading the papers during the prayers. I have a feeling that this is a big problem in Jewish practice - it is repetitive and it can quickly become a habit that hinders spiritual development, instead of advancing it.
Of course this also occurs in Zen practice. There are so many ways in which our minds can fool us that inevitably we will fall into some of them.The difference is that a good Zen teacher will be there to get you out of the rut - in fact the whole system is designed to constantly keep you on your toes mentally, until you reach that state of mind that doesn't need to fall asleep into a habit, a mental state of alertness without undue tension. Can the same be said of Judaism? I do not have enough knowledge to determine this, but it sure doesn't look like it.
But most importantly, the clear state of mind that can be reached through Zen is absolutely impossible to achieve without the voluntary wish of the disciple.The Way is too hard, too frightening and overburdened with difficulties to be achieved without the courage that stems from the exercise of a free will. On the other hand, if I understand correctly, Judaism never allowed it's members to choose, and if Modernism had not descended upon it in a devastating rush, we would still have no choice.What I do not understand is how is this possible? How is spiritual growth possible under such constraining circumstances? Why is it necessary to use force, when every orthodox I have ever met tells me, in words and in behavior, that doing the mitzvot is the best thing possible, the only true road to happiness everlasting?
Conclusion - What, Why and How
Jewish society has traditionally socialized its members into a way of life and faith in God.
Zen is a demanding but practical spiritual discipline that, if it is to be meaningful, must be followed voluntarily by its adherents.
Judaism has an excellent sense of morals, and a set of values and ideals that are worthy of a human culture, but the tools that Judaism has developed over the years - the mitzvot and their continual adaptation, seem to be lacking. The fact is that society, including Jewish society, never seems to be able to realize its lofty ideals.I am wondering if Judaism has the goals, but Zen, perhaps, possesses the Way to achieve them.
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