Book Review: Buddha Plays 18

by Roy M. Barineau, Ph. D. on December 26, 2012

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

Book Review: Buddha Plays 18

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Seated Buddha, C.E. 200 Seated Buddha, C.E. 200

Edward Sarkis Balian, Buddha Plays 18, Second Edition, Silver Sky Publishing, Encinitas, California, 2011.

The Buddha Plays 18 is an interesting book which, to some degree, resembles part of my own book, Roybob’s Book on Golf. Dr. Balian’s book and the third part of my book attempt to relate religious philosophy to the game of golf, and both books utilize golf as a metaphor for life. Dr. Balian, though, is devoted to Buddhism; and while I draw from Indian philosophy in general, I do not advocate a philosophy of religion that can be identified with a specific religious tradition. Also, Dr. Balian is much more interested in golf instruction, with a focus on the mental aspect of the game. I am much less concerned with golf instruction and much more concerned with using golf as a vehicle to understand reality.

Readers are introduced to a fictitious golf club, the Enlightenment Golf and Country Club located somewhere in California. The narrator, Balian, will be the Buddha’s caddy for the day. The Buddha is dressed “in his loose-fitting traditional orange monk’s robe. His sandals are specially fitted with golf spikes secured by Super Glue.” (p. 14). We are informed that there is a “respectful five-deep gallery” following the Buddha (p. 21). The Buddha plays eighteen holes of golf; and, as it happens, the Buddha is a good player. He gets to ten under through thirteen holes without any bogeys. From there he has a hole-in-one, a couple of bogeys, and a birdie on the last to finish evelven under for the day. He sets a course record of sixty-one at the Enlightenment Club.

Along the way, the Buddha engages in conversation with his caddy, and readers learn, in particular, about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. As a religious philosophy, Buddhism revolves around the problem of suffering; and, as Dr. Balian notes, golf involves a lot of suffering. Consequently, Dr. Balian relates, “Two little words comprise the load-bearing pillars of this book: Suffering and Golf” (p. 6). “Buddhist philosophy is about eliminating suffering from life…” (p. 8), and Balian’s book attempts to help players eliminate suffering from their game. The First of the Four Noble Truths indicates that “Life is suffering (or Dukkha)” (p. 21). I appreciate the Indian Pali term, “dukkha,” because even in English it sounds like something one would want to avoid. “Don’t step in the dukkha!” The Second Noble Truth indicates that dukkha or suffering is the result of selfish desire. The Third Noble Truth indicates that suffering will cease with the cessation of selfish desire, and the Fourth Noble Truth points readers in the direction of the Eightfold Path which is designed to assist in the elimination of selfish desire and the suffering that follows thereupon.

The problem in Indian philosophy in general (including Hinduism, Buddhism Jainism and, to some degree, Sikhism) is that selfish desire (expectation or attachment) places one in a continuous cycle of suffering. When someone experiences selfish desire, one of two effects are produced, and neither effect ends the pains of existence. One either acquires what one wants, or does not acquire what one wants. In the latter case, one remains frustrated. In the former case, when one’s desire is temporarily satisfied, other desires emerge or resurface. Selfish desire keeps one entrapped in a continuous cycle of frustration.

The attachments or expectations which produce dukkha arise from the mistaken notion that humans are independent selves or atmans that endure from one moment to the next. As seemingly enduring and independent souls (atmans), people desire that of which they are seemingly not a part. The key, then, to putting an end to selfish desire is the realization of the dharma or “teaching” of anatman (“no self” or “no soul”) and anitya (“impermanence”). When humans realize that they are not enduring, independent selves, they will cease to experience selfish desire and, consequently, cease to experience dukkha. As Balian states “the things around you, your sensations, perception, mental state, and responses are always in flux. We are made up of these ‘five aggregates’ and nothing more. Once you realize that the perception of a fixed “I” is an illusion and as such is just another attachment that you need to remove, you will be shooting aces, eagles, and birdies on your road to enlightenment.” (p. 62).

The Eightfold Path includes eight principles designed to lead one to enlightenment and the absolute peace or Nirvana that follows. (1) Right Speech, in golf, means no cursing, no wrongful advice, no arguing, no lying, no decept, and yelling “fore” when one’s shot threatens others. (2) Right Livelihood, in golf, means being “honest and of service in earning the money that pays for your golf,” no sandbagging “if you are making money be competing on the course,” and being a golf teacher (p. 128). (3)  Right Thought means creating a proper visualization of a positive outcome for one’s swing and thinking of the correct mechanical execution. (4) Right Effort means not swinging until one holds “only positive swing thoughts” (p. 129).  (5)  Right Concentration means envisioning with intense focus and precision the shot one is hitting. (6)  Right Action means no Mulligans, no illegal equipment, no foot wedges, or in short, “No cheating of any kind” (p. 129).  (7)  Right Mindfulnes means forgetting past shots and focusing on present opportunities. (8)  Lastly, Right Knowledge, the jumping off point of the Eightfold Path, means becoming “one with your golf game and the rest of the world” (p. 130). Right Knowledge is portrayed as the culmination of the Eightfold Path; all of the other seven paths lead to Right Knowledge.

Interspersed throughout the eighteen holes of golf and the explication of Buddhist philosophy are specific golf tips for the improvement of one’s game.  Balian writes, “…I don’t hold the expectation (or Buddhist ‘attachment’) that this little book alone will get you to the Masters at Augusta….  But I can tell you that if you consistently practice the mental tips, swing and putt techniques and course management behaviors within this book, you will see significant improvements in your game, regardless of your current level of play” (p. 133).

I enjoyed the book, and I am awarding Buddha Plays 18 a full sleeve of balls. I found it somewhat humorous. For example, readers do find an answer to the famous Zen koan regarding the sound of one hand clapping. After Balian puts himself in the position of offering bad advice, the banner of a flagstick slaps him “squarely across the face. Buddha smiles, turns … and says, ‘That, my dear caddy, is the sound of one hand clapping!” (p.97). Further, at the end of the round, when one is pondering both why the Buddha even desires to play golf and why he has not turned pro, Balian writes, “Of course, Buddha could currently hold every golf trophy in existence, but he has long since transcended his desire to do so.”

I do, however, have a few objections. Firstly, there is a visit to the Enlightenment Club’s nineteenth hole, but we do not learn what the Buddha drinks. I am guessing he drinks tea, but perhaps the Buddha prefers Scotch after a day on the links. Secondly, the book is a little too repetitive at times.

Thirdly, while Balian does mention the notion of becoming one with all things (which he associates with Zen Buddhism), he does not explain the rationale for such oneness. The notion of becoming one with one’s swing, putts, balls, clubs, golf course, et cetera is rooted in the notion of anatman or the impermanence of the self. Since there are no enduring independent selves, all things are aggregates of reality as a whole, so that one is the whole and the whole is one. In other words, the whole cannot be as it is without all of its dependent parts, and all of its dependent parts cannot be as they are without being linked together in the whole. The whole is one, and one is the whole. The reader is everything, and everything is the reader.

Fourthly, at one point Dr. Balian describes the Buddha as a “stout guy weighing in at over 275 pounds!” (p. 101), and the book includes numerous cartoon-like depictions of the Buddha as a chubby-to-fat figure. Truthfully, as with Jesus, the appearance of Buddha is a mystery; but, given his years of ascetic practice and his exaltation of the Middle Way, one would not expect the fat, jolly Buddha to be an accurate representation. It seems likely that such an image is the result of Buddhism mingling with native Chinese religion and its kitchen gods, not a result of historical insight. As Buddhism moved into China, the Buddha was envisioned according to the Chinese habit of portraying kitchen gods as prosperous, fat, and happy. I think the Buddha would appreciate a stealthier representation, such as the one I show above.

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

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