One of Zen’s essential koans — those paradoxical, mind-bending teaching tools, like pondering the sound of one hand clapping — counsels, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
And isn’t that what Korea’s Y.E. Yang did to Tiger Woods at Hazeltine? He killed the Buddha — or at least the invincibility and inevitability ascribed to the world’s most recognizable symbol of golf enlightenment. How does the 110th-ranked player in the world (a Buddhist himself, not coincidentally) grab Tiger by the tail in the final round of a major?
Look to the koan and the culture he comes from. Look to the yin and, yes, the Yang.
While I’m no expert on Eastern culture or religion, I am a golfer ever searching for an edge. I certainly can’t swing like Woods, but I can aspire to the kind of golfing mind he has, a mind evolved through his familiarity with meditation and Buddhism’s unending journey toward enlightenment. (Woods was introduced to Buddhism by his Thai-born mother, Kultida.) The trek includes the embrace of the proper balance of heart and intellect, the promotion of perspective over ego and the acceptance that the path itself is the goal. Buddhism emphasizes staying in the moment and remaining focused, an objective aided by consciously using breathing to release tension and negativity. Buddhists assert that you can’t control life’s ebb and flow — Tao’s yin and yang — you can only accept and respond to it. That’s a simplification, of course, but when all is in harmony, the formula works pretty well for Woods.
I asked sports psychologist Joe Parent, author of Zen Golf and a devoted practitioner, why. “Buddhists see life as more of a dance with the universe than a battle against it,” he says. “This is the culture that talks about having an outward intensity with an inward calm, like a hurricane, and that’s what Tiger got from his mother. He plays golf like it’s a martial art.”
So, on the best golfing day of his life, did Yang. He put no pressure on himself because he carried no expectations. He was who he was, emblematized by the white he wore; yang is the symbol of light, action, creativity and positivity. But without yin — coolness, darkness and acceptance — there is no yang. To exist, yin and yang must work together. For Yang at Hazeltine, that harmony existed.
Y.E. Yang could kill the Buddha because to meet the Buddha is to end the journey. In the wake of Hazeltine much has been written about the door Yang has opened for male Asian golfers, the way Se Ri Pak once opened a door for women. But Yang may actually have opened a door for all of us. The Buddha is waiting.