June 14, 2011

The Spalding Sutra: A Buddhist priest talks NBA Finals, LeBron, and playing in "the zone"

Noriaki Ito is a Shin Buddhist priest at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Last year he was appointed as a bishop of his organization's North America District. Due to his new responsibilities, Ito retired from his position as a meditation teacher at Occidental College, which is where I met him as a student five years ago.

In addition to being a Buddhist priest, Ito is also a passionate sports fan. We recently exchanged emails about his take on the NBA Finals, and possible connections between Buddhism and basketball.


What did you think of the NBA Finals?
I thought that this year’s finals was excellent. The whole playoffs were exciting—San Antonio and Orlando getting knocked off in the first round, the Lakers going down in four straight, Memphis almost getting past Oklahoma City in the semis, and then finally the showdown between Dallas and Miami. In the finals, the momentum kept shifting with games being decided in the final minutes, until game five when Dallas finally started to show its superiority. Every game was hard fought, every game could have gone either way. The result showed that three stars do not make a team. Carlisle was surprisingly good. Dallas had the complete team and deserved to win.

Were you happy that Dallas won? I was happy with the result. A friend of mine rooted against Dallas because they swept our beloved Lakers. But Dallas was the underdog and I’d come to like and respect Dirk, Terry, Kidd, and the guys like Barea. They were on a mission. It seemed like Miami thought they could breeze through them. As a longtime Lakers fan, I was hoping for the second three-peat and therefore wasn’t happy with what LeBron and Riley orchestrated during the off-season. As many predicted, the Heat just didn’t have the supporting players to pull out a championship.

What did you think of the play of Dirk Nowitzki? I wish the Lakers could have Dirk. He was not going to lose this time around. Although he didn’t play well the first three quarters, he did what he needed to do in the fourth to ensure a victory. Miami played him so tough, and yet he kept making those impossible shots. There was no question about who would get the MVP trophy. I liked what he said about finally winning after 13 years. He said, if he had won a championship early in his career, maybe he wouldn’t have worked as hard as he did every off season to get himself ready, to become a better ballplayer and teammate as he did. That’s coming from the wisdom he picked up over the years.



One of the reasons I found myself rooting against the Heat is that I have been unimpressed with some of the things that LeBron James has said and done off the court. A friend of mine argues that by attaching myself to the narratives of the people playing the game I'm missing what matters most: the game itself. In your opinion, should off-the-court stuff influence how we watch the game?
A very good question. While I do agree that the media goes overboard in scrutinizing the personal lives of our pro—and even college—athletes, it makes the competition more exciting. Many Lakers fans don’t like the public persona of Kobe Bryant. They want him to be more friendly, to be more willing to share his life with everyone. We don’t expect that among people who aren’t in the spotlight and so I believe we should let them maintain personal privacy. If we didn’t have Barkley and others giving us their opinions about everybody and everything, it would make sports more dull. I agree, though, that LeBron says and does things that make him less popular. Last night, he did take the blame for the loss. But as one reporter noted, it was all about him. He lost in 2007 and he lost again this year. His comments about his critics was uncalled for—those who criticize him have to go back to their miserable lives while he with his millions can still enjoy the good life even if he’s a loser. What I feel, though, is sorry for him. At the beginning of this season, and I think again at the beginning of the Finals, people were crowning him as the next Kobe, the next MJ—the new era has arrived. But through his poor showing in all of the fourth quarters, it showed that he’s not ready. In general, what we—the sports public—want are superstars who rise above the game AND who are decent human beings who can be humble and practice self-evaluation. We want stars that can be good winners and good losers. I don’t know. Maybe it’s only me.

Is it wrong, from a Buddhist perspective, to root for one team over another? Isn’t that desire? I think it’s natural that we choose sides. There’s nothing wrong with it. It makes watching sports that much more interesting. Much of my family is in Northern California. So although we agree on most everything, I rarely bring up sports. If they’re Giants fans, then they hate the Dodgers. Fortunately, the Warriors haven’t been much of a threat to the Lakers, and so there’s no argument there—maybe just some envy. Sports, I believe, is a microcosm of life itself. We know as Buddhists that we should be loving and compassionate to all people, to all living things. But we can’t help but love some people more than others. We can’t help but choose a cute puppy over an ugly snake. As long as we know we’re guilty of such self-centered views, we can remember to open up our hearts to compassion for all. The original meaning of compassion, as we define it, is to feel the pain of another as if it’s our own—and to share the joy of another as if it’s our own. This time around, even though there was a lot of pain in the way the Lakers lost, I felt real joy for Nowitzki, Kidd and the rest of the Mavs—even for Mark Cuban.

Do you feel that basketball can be a samadhi experience? They often talk about the “zone.” I think that’s as close to a samadhi experience as any other. Buddhism says it manifests itself when we are totally one-hundred percent living in the moment. We don’t think about anything else—just doing whatever it is we’re doing. Actually, we don’t think at all, we live—or play—instinctively. Sometimes you see a player like D Wade or Kobe, or Dirk in this year’s playoffs in that proverbial zone.

You're a Lakers fan. Does this have anything to do with Phil Jackson being the "Zen Master" or have you always followed the Lakers? I’ve been a Lakers fan since I was a kid, back in the days when the games weren’t televised. I’d sit wherever I was with a transistor radio listening to the broadcasts of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Of course, I was thrilled when Phil Jackson came to coach the Lakers. I knew about how he incorporated Zen teachings in his coaching style and so I was even more excited about what he would bring. I was sad when he announced his retirement. But he gave us many good years and many great championships. I did think about trying to invite him to our temple. The other day, I found out that the Zen temple here in Little Tokyo sent him an invitation. But they never heard from him. We have an affiliate temple in Chicago, the Buddhist Temple of Chicago. When Jackson was coaching there, he showed up at a couple of their Sunday services. Unfortunately, though, I’ve never had the chance to meet him.

Playing and watching sports are not usually seen as enlightened activities. Do you see any connections or overlaps between playing basketball and practicing Buddhism? Well, perhaps this all goes to show you how far from enlightenment I am. Although I’m too old to play any ball anymore, I do enjoy watching sports. Sports gives us the opportunity to experience success and disappointment on an everyday basis. It has the ability to teach us that we’re not going to get what we want all the time. In fact, I would say the disappointments generally outweigh the successes. After all, only one team out of 30 is able to be crowned the champion. I think it can be an even more humbling experience if you happen to live in places like Minnesota or Cleveland—post-LeBron. I have so much respect for the diehard Chicago Cubs fans. As far as playing goes, it’s humbling because no matter how good you are, there’s always someone better. Even the best have bad games. The very best, the Michael Jordans and the Kobe Bryants are said to practice longer and harder than anyone else. They show us that in any endeavor, it takes hard work to succeed. They also have a fairly short sports lifespan. A Buddhist priest can continue to grow well into his or her 70s. An athlete, on the other hand, starts to understand the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, of the reality that aging brings suffering when they’re still in their early 30s. In our particular tradition, and I think most would agree, living everyday life is as much our Buddhist practice as any of the traditional practices associated with our tradition—and basketball is no exception.

Image 1: from SLAM online

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