Phil Jackson: How Can Athletes Take Inspiration From the Zen Master's Ideas?

Mitch DrofstobCorrespondent INovember 15, 2010

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 03:  Head coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers coaches his team against the Sacramento Kings at ARCO Arena on November 3, 2010 in Sacramento, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

While one might usually seek baby names from Gwyneth Paltrow before asking for philosophical advice from a professional athlete, one individual, Phil Jackson, coach of the LA Lakers, has shown that they can have a place together.

Nicknamed the Zen master because of his approach to the game and his players, he is the most successful coach in NBA history, having won a combined 11 Championships with the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers.

So how can other athletes and students of sport learn from Zen, part of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, and apply it to their own game?

A wise start would be with karma, probably the best known element of Buddhism, although not exclusive to the Buddha’s teachings. A simple definition is that an individual will be punished or rewarded for all their actions, dependant on whether they have negative or positive motivation.

From this, athletes can learn that taking negative actions onto the field of play will eventually lead to negativity biting them in the derriere. What separates karma from the "what goes around, comes around" mind set is that it isn’t that simple. Just because you sneak in a sly elbow, you won’t necessarily be elbowed back.

But when the individual is sitting in the locker room after the game and his team has won, and he can’t feel happy because his conscience is telling him he shouldn’t have done it, you might call that karma.

So taking positivity into a game, and not setting out to hurt the opponent is definitely something that athletes should do anyway, and Buddhism reinforces it.

Buddhism’s four noble truths focus on the existence of suffering as a constant theme of life, and the ways in which humans beings can work past it. Often, as a people, we are obsessed by more.

More pleasure, more possessions, more everything; often these wishes are not fulfilled. And always we are aging, becoming ill, dying. Even the process of birth is full of suffering.

It sounds wholly sombre, but the Buddha created the Noble Eightfold Path: a series of things like speech, action, intention, view, etc., that can all be done "right".

While athletes may have access to the funds that mean they are able to obtain more, nobody can ever be truly satisfied. Not even the best meal in the world will keep you full for more than a day.

And every athlete will have experienced the suffering of injury, or losing. To know that this is part of life, and not think "Why does this keep happening to me?" could be very beneficial. Furthermore, following the Path—which isn’t as extreme as you might presume—will help any individual, athlete or not.

The Five Precepts of Buddhism are a little similar to the Christian Ten Commandments. They state that one should not murder, steal, take part in sexual misconduct, lie or drink alcohol. There are almost unlimited instances of athletes taking part in sexual misconduct and drinking alcohol (or drugs), generally all having a negative effect on their career.

Finally, one of the Buddha’s key teachings was the nature of impermanence. Nothing lasts forever, including the careers and the resulting high and low times they bring. If the Buddha were alive today, he would say that athletes should undoubtedly appreciate how desirable a profession they have, and while they are young and able to enjoy it, they should do exactly that.

Similarly, sports is a game of form, and while Kobe Bryant might miss the occasional open look, there is no way you should leave him unguarded, even if he is having a bad day.