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Posts Tagged ‘Zen people’

Phil Jackson made a name for himself as head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, but another frequent title of his is “Zen master.” In this screenshot, Sports Illustrated dispenses with his name completely in asking how much the Zen master would cost New York if he came out of retirement to coach the Knicks. Just last year, Audi referenced his Zen master persona in this commercial:

The ad presents Jackson as a Zen sage, advising the irate head chef, “You know, I’ve found that anger is the enemy of instruction.” Jackson also thanks the valet by name after the valet says, “Nice wheels, Zen master!” Jackson’s image is one of calmness and humility: he may be a championship-winning coach, but he cares about service staff.

There’s no question that Jackson is a Zen Buddhist — in his autobiography Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior he describes his zazen (seated meditation) practice and his reading of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — but what does it mean to call him a Zen master?

One of the key elements of Zen Buddhism is lineage. Masters are those who have received confirmation of their awakening from their teachers, and who then have the authority to confirm their students’ awakening. Traditionally (i.e. in premodern Asian Buddhism), these masters were monks who renounced family life for religious training.

Jackson does not recount having studied with a Zen master, nor does he identify as a Zen monk or priest. His understanding of Zen comes from the modern conception of Zen as more of a philosophy than a religion, which allows him to combine Zen with Christianity and Native American spirituality. If Phil Jackson is a Zen master, he is a Zen master in the broadest sense of the term.

There are ways in which Jackson’s experiences in the NBA might overlap with a Zen master’s (as his chapter, “If You Meet the Buddha in the Lane, Feed Him the Ball” implies): both are in charge of all-male communities that champion macho ideals, and both encourage their students to reach a level where they can act spontaneously and achieve their desired goals.

Some might see his role in the Audi ad as anti-Zen. Would a Zen master shill for a luxury car company, and even use his own image as a “Zen master” to do so? Anyone familiar with Zen economic history would say, “well, yeah.” Contrary to the view that Zen Buddhists are free from greed, or financial concerns in general, Zen history is full of monks who relied on lay patrons, and even used those patrons to accumulate considerable wealth. In this sense, Phil Jackson is indeed a “Zen master.”

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