What can Buddhism teach Tiger Woods?

by Philippe Gohier on Friday, February 19, 2010

Woods says his redemption includes going back to his Buddhist roots

Miami, FL (USA) -- Tiger Woods isn’t in the habit of revealing much about his personal life. Even when he was apologizing for the string of affairs that landed him in “inpatient therapy,” the golf superstar let it be known he wouldn’t be going into the nitty-gritty of how he plans to make it up to his wife, Elin Nordegen, nor would he let everyone in on the extent of his romantic conquests.

“I understand the press wants to ask me for the details and the times I was unfaithful,” Woods said. “I understand people want to know whether Elin and I will remain together. Please know that as far as I’m concerned, every one of these questions and answers is a matter between Elin and me. These are issues between a husband and a wife.”

The one detail Tiger did want to share with the public is that his quest for redemption will follow the long American tradition of including a spiritual component. “Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age,” he said. “People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint.”

There are, of course, many traditions of Buddhism. But given his mother’s Thai background, the Buddhism to which Woods is likely referring is that of the Theravada school. (As many as 95 per cent of Thais are said to be Theravada Buddhists.) And insofar as his description of his newly rediscovered faith is concerned, according to Donald Williams, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University and the author of Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Tiger’s got it about right.

“That fits with the Theravada approach,” Williams says. “Although, one wonders how seriously he took it because Thai Buddhism is a monastic form of Buddhism, so most of the people who are really serious spend time in monasteries.”

Still, following the most elemental Buddhist values could have gone a long way in keeping Tiger out of trouble. Like the Ten Commandments are to Christianity, the “precepts” represent the core of Buddhism’s moral teachings. And whereas monks are expected to “take” hundreds of precepts, laypeople like Woods are bound by just five.

“The one that would relate to Tiger is the third precept—do not commit sexual misconduct,” Williams says, “If you’re married, it’s very clear that you’re faithful to your spouse.”

Thankfully for Tiger, Theravada Buddhism does have a tradition of atonement. There’s no specific ritual, but in Thailand, for instance, Buddhists will go to a local temple to light incense and offer alms to the monks to repent for their sins. However, Tiger should keep in mind the effectiveness of this process is contingent on following the principle of “right effort,” Williams says. For Woods, that means he will have to identify those behavioural patterns that led him to stray from the precepts and cut them out entirely.

“For example, if he gets into a certain situation with a lot of beautiful women,” he says, “that condition would make causes bubble up into his mind and lead to bad things.” In other words, the new-and-improved Tiger will simply have to avoid temptation altogether. Because while fame and celebrity aren’t inherently inconsistent with Buddhism, Williams says, Woods’s indulgence of the perks that come with them may very well be.

Given his predilection for Las Vegas nightclubs, perhaps Woods should consider the monastery after all.