THE BLOG

Buddhism Means Always Having To Say You're Sorry: Tiger Woods Edition

04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Apart from the Dalai Lama, who reportedly had never heard of him until earlier this week, Tiger Woods is the most famous Buddhist on the planet.
But until Woods invoked his Buddhist identity during a televised mea culpa for cheating on his wife and a spectacular fall from grace, like most of his fans, I had no idea the golfer was a follower of the Eight Fold Path.
"I was raised a Buddhist and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years," Woods said. "Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught."
To me, Woods' lengthy apology felt true and complete. But I am not a Buddhist.
I wanted to know what his mea culpa sounded like to Buddhist ears, so I checked with a few Buddhist friends to gauge their reaction.
"His apology was sincere, humble and brave," according to Robert Joshin Althouse, head of the Zen Life & Meditation Center in Oak Park, Ill. "It went a long way to redeeming him in the eyes of his fans. Now he needs to follow his words with actions, and Buddhism has plenty of teachings for helping him do that.
"One of the central teachings of Buddhism is compassion. The moral foundation of this religion is based on the elimination of suffering. All Mahayana Buddhists take a vow to live their lives for the sake of liberating others from suffering. This kind of bravery and compassion never gives up on anyone or anything. That would seem to be the very nature of redemption itself."
My friend Carolyn Reyes, a lawyer and Buddhist convert from Christianity who practices at the Zen Center in San Francisco, thought Woods sounded "robotic" and that his comments about his Buddhist "faith" were an opportunistic attempt to appeal to fans with religious convictions.
That said, Reyes went on to say that Buddhism has taught her that, "We are all addicts. Drugs, sex, etc., are some sexy addictions that I don't struggle with, but mine are just as destructive. My addiction to wanting to be liked is high on my list of countless habitual patterns. How often do I really greet the moment with fresh eyes, a wide-open heart, free of preconceived ideas, expectations and prejudices?"
Robert Inchausti, a professor at California Polytechnic State University who has written widely about Thomas Merton and Buddhism, said Woods' apology reminded him of Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur, which recounts the beat poet's "lost" weeks at a friends cabin in Big Sur struggling to overcome a debauched lifestyle and the effects of crushing celebrity. Like Woods, Kerouac -- at least for a period of his life -- practiced Buddhism.
"Compared to Kerouac's cry from the heart, Tiger Woods' 'apology' is pale and seems a bit cagey," Inchausti said. "If he is wrestling himself free from a false sense of entitlement, as he put it, it's clear he hasn't even begun to wrestle himself free from the protocols of celebrity. This is probably as much our fault as it is his."
For Stephen Asma, a professor at Columbia College in Chicago and author of the new book Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey, thought Woods' explanation of how Buddhism will help him get his life back on track was helpful and accurate.
"Craving is what causes suffering and he was really stepping in it," Asma said. "That was what he was sorry about and that is what's on everyone's map of his unethical activities...Those things that enslave you -- your own craving -- is basically how we define a sin in Buddhism."
Woods' mother, Kultida, who taught her son about Buddhism, is from Thailand -- a "cultural Buddhist," Asma explained. "Cultural Buddhists' attitudes toward their religion are very different from Western Buddhists. They wear the cloak loosely. They're not strung up by it.
"They take a charitable approach to themselves and the moral life. In other words, they sin, they recognize it, they know they'll have to pay for it, but then they get back on the horse and try again."
Many people, Buddhist or not, have been harshly critical of Woods' apology, calling it too little too late, a publicity stunt, disingenuous and hollow.
Asma disagrees.
"I think that tells us more about ourselves as an audience than it does him and his moral infractions," he said. "We have moral outrage toward celebrities and people can't get enough of that. No matter what his apology would have been, some people would not have been satisfied."