Monday, November 5, 2007

Yogi Berra must have been a Zen Buddhist

When we are asked what we think of "The Wise Man", many of us have a visual of an old man with a long beard sitting on top of a mountain. There are many jokes and comics about this image, with various people going to this all knowing person and asking them some "ultimate question". In these comics, the answers are almost never straight forward, and are many times surprising, or funny. This image that we percieve is the image of a Zen Buddhist.

Zen Buddhism was founded, historically, by a successor of Buddha who spent nine years in silent meditation at a monastery in northern China. It was originally called Ch'an Buddhism, the "yogic stage of meditation". It was re-named when the form of Buddhism found its way into Japan. Zen Buddhists rebuff all scriptures, in fact almost all things that link it to Buddhism. They instead focus on "mind-to mind transmission of the dharma". The previous quotes were taken from Living Religions by Mary Fisher.

Zen Buddhist hopefuls undergo vigorous exercises. Buddhists will sit outside Zen monasteries for weeks hoping to be recognized and allowed inside. Once inside, they must sit for even longer in silent meditation. If they begin to fall asleep, or are observed to, they are hit across the shoulders with a wooden "Kyosaku" bat.

The most interesting aspect of this form of Buddhism is that of "koans". A koan is a statement made by a Zen master, usually an answer to a question. In Zen Buddhism, younger Buddhists ask the question, and this question is prepared over years of training. Ideally this Buddhist only asks one question, and the belief is that "to know the question is to know the answer". This in itself could be taken as a koan, because normally these statements make no sense to someone who is not practiced in the religion. These koans are sometimes meant to funny, sometimes they are meant to be surprising, but always they are meant to bring awakening to the questioner. If the person who asked the question can understand the answer, then they are enlightened by Zen terms.

An Anthology of Living Religions gives some examples of koans given by famous Zen masters.

For an example, the question asked was "Is there Buddha-nature in a dog?"
The answer given by the master was simply "Wu".

A monk asked what the meaning was of the First Patriarch's visit to China. The answer by the master was "The cypress tree in the front courtyard."

It is mind boggling to think that these answers could ever make sense. It almost seems that this master pulled the answer out of thin air, but that would have no romance. The answer has a meaning, and somewhere in the vigorous meditation done by these Buddhists lies the answer to understanding, and apparently to enlightenment.

Yogi Berra is a famous baseball player who is known for the strange things he has said as much as he is for his baseball career. The title of this blog was a joke, because there is no way that Yogi Berra went through everything that Zen Buddhists go through, but phrases he has made can be related to koans. Some of his more famous quotes are:

"You can't think and hit at the same time."

"This is like Deja Vu all over again."

"You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

"I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early."

"If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."

And probably my favorite of all time:

"Baseball is 90% mental -- the other half is physical."

1 comment:

Scott said...

I have said that Yogi was a Zen Master for a long time. The point is not that Yogi never spent any time in a Zen monastary, although countless hours sitting in a dug-out watching inning after inning of baseball probably serves as a good proxy. But to quote Suzuki Roshi, "When Zen is Zen, you are you" (from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind). And Yogi was a true living example of someone who was simply nothing more than who he was, always. No pretense, no facade. Yogi was Yogi. And to that extent Yogi embodied a basic principal of Zen -- just be, now.

One Yogi-ism you left out that I always try to live by and pass on to others is -- "You can observe a lot by just looking." Another Zen hallmark -- mindfulness. Yes, Yogi was a Zen Buddhist!

Thanks for the great post.