The Zen of Sports and Athletics

(Zazen music plays in the background.)

Zen Master Rama here. Today—sports! Athletics. The agony of victory, the thrill of defeat. In the background, Zazen. “LA Digital Mindscape” from their Urban Destruction album.

Zen of sports and athletics. How to make the body and soul one. Running those miles, shooting those arrows, working out, getting strong, getting stronger.

That point of intersection when there’s no separation between the dancer and the dance. Between the ball and the player.

Sports! Teamwork. One unit, one mind, one body out there on the court.

Preparation of the mind. All athletics, and success in sports and athletics, from the Zen point of view, comes from the mind. If your mind isn’t disciplined, integrated, free and one-pointed, how can you possibly do well in athletics? No matter what kind of shape your body is in, if your mind is out of shape, there’s disharmony in the being. So in Zen we strive to bring both the mind and the body into perfect condition and integrate the two, so that there is no intrinsic difference between ’em. That’s right—Zen.

Sports and athletics are zazen, they’re meditation—moving meditation. As you are running down that field or shooting that basket, putting that golf ball, taking down your opponent in martial arts or just competing with yourself, there are moments of timelessness and ecstasy and challenge and emptiness.

Zen is the way of emptiness—and fullness! So for the next little while, we’re going to discuss the Zen of sports and athletics, emptiness and fullness, beginning and ending.

Sports. (Rama laughs.)

(Zazen music ends.)

Like all things, sports and athletics mean different things to different people. In America and many countries of the world today, sports and athletics mean that on Sunday afternoon you get together with your friends, with a lot of beer and pretzels, and you sit around in front of the TV and watch a lot of people knock each other down, shoot the baskets, shoot the moon. For the individual players, those super athletes everyone watches, it means what? Money? The chance to do advertisements? That’s Western sports. Oh, there are exceptions, of course.

Today I’d like to take you to the world of the Zen mind, in which all things are equal and nothing is the same. Zen, of course, has had a certain influence on sports, at least in the Far East, in Japan. The samurais, the warriors, were very interested in Zen because they admired the tremendous precision that the Zen masters had, and, of course, their lack of fear of pain and their absolute lack of fear of death. The samurais lived with death constantly. They wore a short dagger along with their other weapons on their belt, and that was to take their own life if need be. At any moment they might have to do that—that was part of their code—rather than live with dishonor and disgrace. They lived with death all the time, as we all do. It’s just most of us aren’t too aware of it. We don’t think about it. They did.

Zen, of course, and Buddhism have really produced, strangely enough, martial arts. Because of the Buddhist injunction against the use of weapons, we’ve found that the martial arts have developed, and today they are popularized by movies like The Karate Kid and Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris and other people who we see up on the screen demonstrating these arts. We’ve all seen Ninja movies, and we all love to watch their acrobatics and the incredible things they can do. But of course missing from most of this, although we certainly get a little bit of it in The Karate Kid, is the sense of the discipline and the state of mind involved in martial arts. The same is true of Zen in archery or any other aspect.

Today I would like to talk a little bit about these things, and I’d like to use a particular example or two. I myself have participated in a number of different types of athletics and sports throughout the course of my life and still do—swimming, martial arts, running, yoga, shooting and many other types of pursuits—hiking, Frisbee, soccer, what the Europeans call football, and on and on, dance.

Let’s start with Frisbee, a popular game played with a very slim disc. Now the theory of Zen is non-competition. But that’s not really true at all. People who practice Zen are very, very competitive, highly competitive. But they are competing against emptiness, not against an opponent. And they see their opponent—if there is one, or their object, if it’s the Frisbee in the case of Frisbee, if it’s a basketball, if it’s a football—as emptiness. What one seeks to do is blend one’s self with that emptiness in order to gain control over it.

So there’s definitely a sense of competition in Zen. You’re competing with your thoughts and trying to overcome them. You’re competing with unnecessary emotions and trying to will them down, as you would any opponent in any match. But there’s also a sense of blending, of stepping out of your body and mind and gaining access to powers and abilities that are (Rama imitates a television announcer) “far beyond the minds of mortal men.”

(Back to normal voice.) Naturally, people who go into advanced states of mind through the practice of Zen have access to powers that most people are completely unaware of. The very advanced practitioners of martial arts never had to raise a hand. They could knock an opponent down without physically touching them, just with chi, with energy, with pure power. We don’t see too many of them anymore.

It is possible to exert a power over all things, all beings. And one who studies the art of mind control —which is Zen—gains control of their time, life, mind, body, spirit, and of certain powers that are very useful. But we begin with intent, always.

The Frisbee is the disc—round, shiny, comes in different colors, in different weights. But what is the intent? Is the intent to impress others? To become famous? To be on the cover of Frisbee Magazine? Or is the intent to throw the disc perfectly?

Perfection. Now, what is perfection? Well, of course, different people see perfection in different ways. From the Zen mind, perfection is not being there. If you have the sense of participation in sports or athletics, if you have the sense of being a player, then you’re not really in the Zen mind. In Zen mind, in enlightened states of mind, there is no sense of self in the play.

The reason you trip, make a mistake, miss the ball, don’t throw the Frisbee properly, fall down when you’re skiing—aside from just lack of experience, which one gets through practice—is because your mind is not centered. No matter how good an athlete you are, you can strike out if your mind isn’t centered.

Naturally, first one must become a good athlete, and to do so can even be a Zen practice. Each time you practice—each time you throw the Frisbee, hit the golf ball, run down the field, throw your opponent, swim those extra laps, each time you’re practicing—you can practice in an ordinary state of mind or in a Zen state of mind. In a Zen state of mind, you do not worry, you don’t give your thoughts to your opponent, you don’t give your power or thoughts to success or failure. You don’t care about the crowd that’s watching you or the fact that no one is watching you. There is only one thought, one feeling, and that is becoming one with the play, with the move, with the action, with the sequence, with the team.

Power comes from the navel center. There are seven primary chakras or energy centers in our bodies. You probably have heard of people meditating on their navel. One doesn’t actually meditate on the navel. The chakra is located about two or three inches below the navel, and at that point there’s an energy access sphere. By concentrating for many hours in meditation upon that sphere, if you meditate for an hour or so a day and you focus on that sphere, you will release a tremendous power that will enter your body, and in moments of intensive competitive play, when you’re practicing the arts of sports and athletics, that power—we call it the chi —will flow smoothly through your body and through your mind and through your spirit and direct the play perfectly.

However, in order to succeed on the athletic field, it is necessary to succeed in daily life. Your spirit and your life and your body must be perfectly trimmed for the chi to flow properly. Naturally, step one is working out and building your body up, gaining reflexes and learning as much about the sport that you have undertaken as possible.

When I began to play Frisbee, a long, long time ago, I would play with my friends for many, many hours, and we used to do very difficult things. We would stand in front of lines of trees that were parallel, with tiny spaces in between them, and we would spend hours just throwing the Frisbees back and forth between these tight little spots. There might be two rows of parallel trees that were several hundred yards long and we would have to throw through all the spaces in them perfectly, and we would just practice again and again and again. Why would anybody do anything so crazy? Because we liked it, because we enjoyed the feeling of bringing about synchronization of our body movements and our minds. Because it’s fun to be outside, it’s good to move your body and there’s just a joy in sports and athletics.

There’s a joy in moving the body—when you seek perfection. In other words, physical perfection, working out, adds to your spiritual perfection if that’s your intent. There are lots of people who work out and aren’t at all powerful in terms of their mind or their spirits. That’s because they’re just working out for vanity or because they’ve got excess energy or whatever. But if you decide, if your intent is that your athletics and your sports are not simply athletics and sports, but they are tools or devices to reach higher levels of mind, to bring you into a state of empowerment and knowledge, then your workout sessions become meditations. Then you can spend hours and hours working out the most ridiculous little moves and enjoying it completely because each time you move that body and you get closer to perfection, there is something similar happening inside your mind.

You’re using the practice of mind and body to make the mind stronger and the body stronger. In order to make those moves perfectly, you have to engage your attention, you have to pull your mind out of its mundane thoughts and awareness and bring it into the body movement. The more completely you concentrate—which is the key word here, at least in the beginning—the more completely you concentrate on the practice, the stronger your mind becomes.

It is also necessary to meditate, to practice zazen, for an hour or two a day broken up into a couple of sessions. You need to learn the art of meditation. It’s easiest to master the mind exclusively, initially. That is to say, while a certain degree of mental mastery will come as you practice sports and athletics, if you use your mind completely and interface it with your moves, you will also gain much, much more from pure meditation.

People who practice martial arts have learned a little meditation. But if, in addition, you meditate for an added hour or two a day and learn to shape and develop your mind, then you will find that when you practice—whatever type of sports or athletics you’re engaged in—you will in all probability reach much higher levels of efficiency in your practice because your mind is strong and focused.

In other words, it’s easier to develop the mind independently through meditation than it is just through athletic practice. As you sit and practice meditation, your mind will become awesomely powerful. If, at the same time, you’re also working out at different times of the day, working on your body, and you put the two together—a strong mind and a strong body—it will be unbelievable.

You have to become a master of self-discipline, and this is done through practice. And you have to learn to live with athletic injuries. In Frisbee, of course, it’s usually the finger injury unless you’re running after one and jumping crazily and showing off and you land on your ear, which teaches you, don’t be a show off. Keep your mind on business. Keep your mind on perfection. Watch what you’re doing. Follow through. In Frisbee, the finger injury is a powerful injury because when you throw the Frisbee and release it, very often you can scrape the skin, particularly if you are throwing very hard. In running and in many sports, it’s the knees and the ankles. It can be the elbows in tennis. It can be the back; it can be anything and everything sometimes.

One of the advantages of practicing meditation, of course, is that it’s quite possible—if you are a very good meditator—to speed up the healing process by directing energy to the part of the body that’s injured. Now, all of this has to do with the release of the chi. The chi is the central energy or power that we use in physical expression, and when the chi is flowing smoothly and properly in our lives, we can be very adept athletically. If the chi is blocked—if it isn’t flowing properly or if it’s being wasted by useless activities in our lives, by useless emotions that drain us, by associations with individuals that drain us, by purposeless activities, by boredom and so on—then we don’t have enough chi, enough power when it comes time to perform.

Any good athlete is always in a state of perpetual training, as is the Zen student. The Zen student sees themself as an athlete. Their competitive sport is enlightenment. They’re not competitive with anyone else, only with enlightenment do we compete.

So in the game of Frisbee what you do is, you throw the disk, usually to someone else—unless you just want to run after it all the time—and they throw it back. It’s a non-competitive game. Oh, any game can become competitive. You can try and out-throw the person you’re throwing to, but you’re missing the point. The point of Frisbee is perfect communication. Perfect communication. That person at the other end of the field is receiving an impression or a vibration from you. You’re yin, they’re yang. You’re throwing the Frisbee to them. They catch it, hopefully. They throw it back to you; hopefully you catch it. The more perfectly you can throw and refine the process of Frisbee, the more perfectly you can throw that disk, the more perfectly they can catch that disk, the tighter your energy is and the more you become one with nothingness, the nothingness of the Frisbee, the nothingness of the play.

Your ego interferes, your sense of self, your worries, your tensions, your doubts, your limited ideas about what you can do and not do. When you can let go of your mind, the Frisbee will go perfectly on its own. The Frisbee will take its own path. But if you interfere by trying to direct the Frisbee, even if it looks perfect, it’s not.

In other words, you can simulate perfection, but it’s not the same. Someone can do a copy of a Rembrandt, but it’s not a Rembrandt. It doesn’t have the vibration or the power, even though to the uninitiated, it may look like one—but it doesn’t feel like one. You can hit a perfect home run, but it’s not perfect. If you’re honest, you’ll know when it’s perfect because if it’s perfect, you didn’t hit it. At that critical moment of connection, there was no sense of you being there. Suddenly you found yourself on home plate. You don’t even know how it happened. That’s perfect play. There’s no self involved.

So in the Zen of sports and athletics, we seek to bring discipline and control into our physical movements, but at the same time to eliminate the self, the messy old self that gets in the way of perfect play. The emptiness of play, or we could call it the fullness, is when there is no self present. There is no one playing; there is only play itself taking place, perfect fluid motion.

The same thing occurs in team play. If a team is playing, if the members have synchronized their energy and they have all subordinated their egos and their selves to success of the team, then we have a functioning unit. The same is true in an army, in a business office. If we have a lot of hotshots who want a lot of attention, we don’t have success. We have a lot of hotshots and mavericks who want attention. That may be fine if you work all by yourself, except that you won’t be happy or play really that well. But in the team spirit, we all plunge our individuality into a pool and we become one, and the play is perfect.

In the West, we think of sports and athletics as individual achievement—the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. In other words, it all revolves around you and the ego. The whole reason you’re doing it, is so you can be a winner. You can beat someone else. You can be the hero. (Rama imitates a woman’s excited voice) “Oh Bob, you’re so wonderful!” (Back to normal voice.) This has nothing to do with the Zen of sports and athletics. It’s inefficient and you don’t play that well. You might be a hotshot; you might do OK for a while, but you could have done much better, and you could have been a lot happier with your play and with your life.

It’s necessary then to undertake the “discipline of spirit.” It’s not for everyone—the path of self-discovery. But if you are serious about sports and athletics, if that is your life, then you need to begin the discipline of spirit, and that’s what the Zen master shows you, the discipline of mind. With the power of mind, almost anything can be accomplished. And just as you developed your body, now you have to develop your mind. If you’ve been engaging in the discipline of mind and neglecting sports and athletics, then it’s time.

I recommend, literally for everyone—unless there’s some medical reason or other personal reason—who practices mind control, who practices Zen, to engage in the study of some type of sports or athletics, particularly martial arts, be it from Tai Chi on to karate, whatever it is, where you are using your body and working out very hard—again, within the normal limitations of your body’s abilities and under sound medical advice. You’re not undertaking a sport that you’re not physically prepared for. Always check with your doctor first, naturally. But then, if you get the green light and if your body is capable of it, go for it because it will do much to enhance your study of Zen.

There are moments of mindlessness in meditation. When I meditate, I stop all thought, and the world as you know it goes away and I enter into other realms. There are feelings and scenes that cannot be described in words. And the universe spills through me; it dances through me. This happens to anyone who can enter into the Zen mind, into enlightened states of consciousness. We are no longer our selves. We become the universe and the universal powers flow through us.

A person who practices sports and athletics, who is able to stop their thoughts during the play and allow the universe to spill through them, is capable of great magic. And as I said, sports and athletics can be a path in Zen. They can be a way to develop your consciousness and your mind, in concordance with daily practice of zazen meditation. To just practice sports exclusively is not enough. It’s necessary to set aside time for meditation sessions in which there is no physical movement at all. You need to learn to move with your spirit, not just with your body, to move into other realms of mind. Then, when the spirit is free and the body is well developed, magic occurs. You are able to let go and become the play.

You see, everything has a nothingness. This may be hard to follow, but try, meditate on this. Everything has a nothingness—a Frisbee, a football, a baseball, a team, an opponent. Everything has a nothingness. In other words, there’s a physical form that you perceive with your senses—eyes, touch, smell, feel and so on. But on the other side of sound and sight, on the other side of the physical reality, there is another world, and in that world, everything is something else. When you can journey into that world, when you can take your mind into the other side of reality and see there and be there, it’s another dimension you can walk into. There the ball is quite different; the player, the opponent is quite different. The play is quite different. I can’t possibly describe what it’s like. You have to make that journey yourself, as have I, and as I continue to. But let us say that it’s the nothingness.

We see the something-ness of something, a football, a Frisbee. The Frisbee is a round disk; that’s the something-ness. You touch it, you feel it, you throw it. But it has another side; it has a nothing-ness, which you cannot perceive with your physical mind or your physical senses.

But there is a part of you, there’s a place within your mind that understands this, if you can get to it. When you stop your thoughts completely, you enter into the nothing-ness of your mind, and at that point you can perceive the nothing-ness of the Frisbee or of anything. When you unite the nothing-ness of your mind with the nothing-ness of the Frisbee, then the Frisbee is not a Frisbee, and you are not you. Then there is perfect play, and that is the goal—if we wish to call it that—of Zen, in reference to sports and athletics. It’s not to win; it’s not to lose. It’s to realize the nothing-ness of things and of yourself.

Your athletic and sports training can be an adjunct or a tool to that. You’re always trying to pierce the veil, to break through, to break through the Frisbee so that it doesn’t exist, to break through the football so it doesn’t exist, to break through your opponent so they don’t exist. But to do that, you must transform yourself. It’s not the opponent that will change, or the Frisbee. They will change in relation to your change, but you must change.

You must change. And it is only by taking the disciplined will and directing it both inwardly and outwardly to the development of your sports and athletics, into the development of your meditation practice, and by straightening out your life and putting it in complete order so that the energy of your life supports you, that you will be able to do this.

Your life either takes your energy or gives you energy, and you need to set up your life so that it gives you energy. If your relationships are draining you and not empowering you, you must sever them if you wish the chi to flow properly. If your career is draining you and not adding to you, then you have to drop it and develop another one that adds to you. The way you spend your time, the place you live, the way you dress, the way you think of yourself—you must constantly raise yourself to higher and higher levels of energy efficiency, and of course, then happiness will be a result of this.

The reason one enters into lower mental states—depression, delusion, frustration, anger, hostility, trivial emotions that waste tremendous amounts of energy—is because you don’t have enough power or chi flowing through you.

Chi is developed through meditation. Through studying with one who has a great deal of it, one who is a master of the chi, a teacher of enlightenment—and by taking their structured recommendations and placing those that seem sensible to you into your daily life so that you can turn your life into a field of power and energy to draw from—you can develop your mind through zazen meditation and the practice of mindfulness to be efficient and sharp and clear. You can unlock the power of the will, learn balance and gain the knowledge and wisdom necessary to govern the power that you are unleashing to succeed in sports and athletics. And of course, you’ve got to get out there and play, and throw that Frisbee or throw that ball, throw that opponent or throw yourself. That’s what you’re really trying to do—throw yourself. You’re trying to realize your own emptiness. When you realize your own emptiness, that will be something, won’t it?

There are two types of athletes, good athletes. There are athletes who power up. They work hard and they use their will to a certain extent to accomplish something. I can remember when I was first learning to play a little bit of tennis, I was out knocking the ball around and this guy who was pretty good came by. He was a powerful man, and he took that tennis ball and he smashed it over to me a few times. I was almost knocked over, not by the ball, but by the energy that was coming out of this guy. It was very aggressive; it was real tough, masculine energy (Rama imitates a tough guy)—“That’s right guys, I’m tougher than you.” (Back to normal voice.) A guy like this will be playing tennis, and some days he’ll be really good and some days he won’t because that’s not a reliable source of energy. If he had learned—he was doing well, he was very good—but if he had learned to be completely impassive, he would have been unpredictable.

In other words, people who use the mind and aggressive energy to blow their opponent away and intimidate them, can be figured out. Anybody you can figure out you can defeat, and you can figure out anybody unless they’re enlightened. You can’t figure out someone who’s enlightened and in enlightened states of mind because they don’t make any sense—because they don’t operate from the plane of mind.

Success in anything depends upon being smart, not just being strong. And winners are people who are smart. They work hard, but they use their minds, not just their bodies. When you can be completely impassive in play—in other words, you’re not trying to push it out, nor are you holding it back, and you are impassive and the whole universe is shining through your eyes—then you become fluid and completely unpredictable and no one knows, including yourself, what you will do next, how you will hit the ball, where you will run, what you will do, how you will move, how you did what you just did. You couldn’t even explain it.

When I play in sports or when I dance, which for me is a kind of sport, dancing on the stage in public, the things I do out in the desert, when I teach mysticism—I can’t explain, even to myself, how I do what I do.

There’s a moment when I come up to the end of the diving board, and that moment is reflected in every second in my life. I’ve lived my life a certain way, I’ve given some things up. I’ve done some things perhaps that I didn’t initially want to do. But I have lived my life a certain way, and everything in my life points to that point when I come up to the end of the diving board.

If I’ve made one mistake, if I haven’t done one thing right,

then when I come up to that diving board, if I’m not exactly at the pinnacle of my personal power, how can the dive be? How hot can it be?

It is the same thing in everyone’s life. If I’ve led my life totally deliberately and not omitted one thing that was necessary, nor done things that were unnecessary, then when I come to the end of that diving board, I don’t have to worry about how the dive is going to be. I’m not concerned. I can just fall off the board, and it will be perfect. I won’t even remember what happened.

The diving board is not just a physical diving board. It’s a diving board inside our minds. When I dance, when I play soccer, whatever it is, when the critical moment comes for the move, I can do things that are extraordinary from the normal, rational point of view because my life has been lived deliberately. My life is tight, my spirit is impeccable, I’m happy and free and I’ve mastered the mind so that at that moment I go off the diving board, as I said, I enter into the nothingness of things.

When I dive,

As I go off that board, I’m not in this world anymore. Someone might see the body, but my spirit has left the body and gone elsewhere. It’s gone everywhere or nowhere. And then what will happen? I can’t say; I won’t know about it until it’s over. I won’t know what the dance was like until it’s all over. I won’t know what the Frisbee throw was like until it connects perfectly with that other person. If the ego comes up, it’ll block it. If fears come up, they will block it. So you have to conquer these things in your daily life and in your practice. And you need to go off that diving board with all the power in your possession from leading a perfect life. That’s the Zen mind—perfect life—and then you’re free.

Then, at that point, you don’t have to try. There’s no exertion, there’s no sense of difficulty, of being up against anything. At that point, there’s one perfect motion that you’re not even aware of because you’re not even around. You’ve gone into the other world. And suddenly, to the surprise of everyone except you—because you weren’t even observing—the play is perfect. But in order to do that, you must lead your life deliberately—happily, in a balanced way, not fanatically—but very, very deliberately.

If you address every aspect of your life, from balancing your checkbook to the way you do your shopping, the way your clothes are in the closets, the way you work out, the way you sing, the way you think, the way you feel—if you address everything in your life properly, which you learn to do through the practice of Zen over a period of years, and you learn to meditate perfectly and you work out fully, then you will have those magic moments in every aspect of your life.

(Zazen music begins in the background.)

So this is Zen Master Rama talking about willpower and how you cannot divorce any aspect of your life from your play, as you can’t divorce your play from your life because it’s all one. Life is a play; we play in the world of life. If you bring the power of mind into play, into sports and athletics, and you bring the power sports and athletics into your daily life, then you’ve got teamwork, right? Teamwork. Everything is one. You can connect with the emptiness of all things. All things are empty. There’s nothing in some worlds; in some worlds there’s everythingness—balance between all of those worlds.

Life is a play, it’s a motion, and if you’re conscious of it, you can direct the play—by letting go. If you’re not conscious of it, you try and direct things, and of course they don’t come out quite as well. But in order to let go and not direct, you have to direct everything in your life to the point where you go off that diving board into nothingness, which is where, as I’m sure you know, we all start from.

So this is Zen Master Rama wishing you well. Get out there on that field and give ’em hell, tiger. Give ’em heaven, too.

(Zazen music ends.)