Basketball, Postcolonial Theory, and the Mystic East
A wise man once asked, “What purpose is Phil Jackson serving?”
Phil Jackson is known in the basketball world as the “Zen Master,” but what does this really mean? Naturally, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Zen. Rather, the nickname is derived from Jackson’s consumption of popular culture: Jackson claims to draw inspiration from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a bestselling New Age self-help manual named after an older and even more fraudulent work of orientalist trash. Jackson even offered his own trite contribution to the genre with the publication of his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior in 1995, profiting handsomely from his association with a legacy of dubious scholarship stemming from the likes of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts.
So what is this “Zen,” and how/why did it come to be commodified by cantankerous basketball coaches? My friend, grab a cup of matcha, settle down on the dirt floor of your elegantly austere hut, and I will dispense satori.
Our story begins in the seventeenth century, at the dawn of the political and ideological project known as the European Enlightenment. It was at this time that significant changes occurred in the way that religion and science were understood in Europe: challenges emerged—both for Christian theologians and for secular scholars of religion—in the form of empiricism and cultural pluralism. For the theologians, empiricism introduced the problem of verifying all truth claims with empirical evidence, while cultural pluralism made it impossible for them to ignore non-Christian traditions, or to blithely assert the superiority of their faith. Scholars of religion, on the other hand, had to come to grips with the knowledge that “religion” as a category was itself a cultural product. Furthermore, they found themselves having to field challenges from experts in other academic disciplines claiming to possess the necessary tools to analyse religion (a threat to their job security). And so it was in the hastily constructed category of “mysticism” that European intellectuals found a refuge from the distressing verities of historical contingency and cultural pluralism.
The adjective “mystical”—derived from the Greek root mūo, meaning “to close”—can be used in everyday language to describe any object, person, event, or belief that has a vaguely mysterious aspect to it (such as LeBron James’ hairline, the Sacramento Kings’ front office, Bruno Caboclo), to religious experiences, the supernatural, the magical, and the occult. “Mysticism” is, of course, a term which arose in a specific cultural and historical context. Like “religion,” it has no ready equivalent in many foreign languages. But no matter!
Modern conceptions of mysticism place an emphasis on so-called “mystical experience.” William James and Rudolph Otto both provided influential definitions should you care to read about them. Another important component of mysticism as we’ve come to understand it is the theological position known as perennialism, according to which all religious traditions, regardless of where or when they occur, share a common essence, invariably described by its advocates—such as Aldous Huxley—as “mystical.”
In contemporary academic usage, “the mystical” can, on the one hand, be understood to denote certain experiences that transcend the range and scope of ordinary sensory experience (the hot hand, for example). On the other hand, it can be taken to refer to the ineffable—that about which one should not and cannot speak. Proponents of mysticism thus sought to reframe popular conceptions of the religious, such that a core of spiritual and moral values would survive the inevitable headlong clash with secular philosophy, science, and technological progress. They were led, conveniently, to posit an “essential core” of religion, conceived of as a private, veridical, ineffable experience inaccessible to empirical scientific analysis.
And so it was Zen that came to the rescue of counter-Enlightenment scholars, appearing on the scene at precisely the right historical moment. The allure of Zen, as it was presented to its Western audience, lay in the fact that it appeared to confirm the fashionable theories of mysticism propounded by Otto, James, Huxley, and their intellectual descendants: here was an authentic mystical tradition of considerable antiquity that clearly articulated the crucial distinction between unmediated mystical experience per se and the culturally determined symbols used to express it. The purported anti-intellectualism, anti-ritualism, and iconoclasm of Zen were ample evidence that it had not lost touch with its mystical and experiential roots. Zen, it was declared, is immune to Enlightenment critiques of religion precisely because it is not a religion in the institutional sense at all; it is, on the contrary, an uncompromisingly empirical, rational, and scientific mode of inquiry into the nature of things.
Zen was not introduced to the Western imagination in the usual way, by the efforts of orientalist scholars, but rather through the activities of an elite circle of internationally-minded Japanese intellectuals and globe-trotting Zen priests, whose missionary zeal was second only to their vexed fascination with Western culture. These Japanese Zen apologists emerged, in turn, out of the profound social and political turmoil engendered by the rapid Westernisation and modernisation undertaken by Japan during the Meiji period (1868–1912). With new ideas and technologies flooding the country and the Meiji government tasked with constructing a coherent national identity for Japanese people, Buddhism became caught in the crossfire, cast as both a foreign “Other” and as a corrupt and superstitious creed incompatible with modern scientific and technological advancements. The influence of the late nineteenth-century European zeitgeist had permeated university campuses in Meiji Japan, and Japanese scholars, seeking to bring their nation into the modern world, were naturally drawn to European critiques of institutional religion, to the rationalism and empiricism of the Enlightenment.
It was in response to this intellectual climate that a vanguard of Buddhist intellectuals, drawing upon popular Darwinian evolutionary models of religion, argued the case for Japanese Buddhism, suggesting that it represented the most spiritually pure and evolutionarily advanced form of Buddhism in Asia, and painting Japan as the sole heir to the spiritual and ethical heritage of the East precisely at a time of heightened imperial ambitions and military adventurism. This successful discourse was subsequently adopted and further refined by adherents of Japanese Zen. It is crucial to understand that these Japanese representatives of Zen abroad were invariably products of European-style educations, formulating their understandings of Zen and of mysticism in a European intellectual context: when D. T. Suzuki or Nishida Kitarō emphasised experience as the central feature of Zen, it was as a result of their exposure to the works of Western scholars of religion like James and Otto.
Suzuki, the most influential and well-known of these Zen proselytisers, was also quite the nationalist. Theories purporting the uniqueness—and, by implication, the superiority—of the Japanese were referred to as nihonjinron. Famous examples of nihonjinron literature include Nitobe Inazō’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan and Okakura Kakuzō’s Book of Tea, both of which were published in English around the turn of the century. Thus, a generation of unsuspecting Europeans and Americans were subjected to Meiji caricatures of the lofty spirituality, the selflessness, and the refined aesthetic sensibilities of the Japanese race.
Phil Jackson and D. T. Suzuki share more than a pathological conviction that Zen consists of pure and unmediated (except by them) experience; they also possess surprisingly questionable credentials. Jackson famously stole his entire coaching philosophy from Tex Winter and fraudulently portrayed it as something mysterious and undecipherable. Dennis Rodman let the cat out of the bag a couple of years ago when he said of Jackson’s triangle offence that it could be learned in just fifteen minutes. “It’s not that difficult,” he continued. “It’s a triangle.”
As for Suzuki, he was never ordained, and his formal monastic education was desultory at best. He never received institutional sanction as a Zen teacher, and, despite emphasising the importance of Zen in the sphere of Japanese arts, conceded that he had absolutely no business talking about such things: “To speak the truth, I am not qualified to say anything at all about the arts, because I have no artistic instincts, no artistic education, and have not had many opportunities to appreciate good works of art.”
Throughout his career, Suzuki exhibited a preoccupation with nationalistic nihonjinron ideology and the dichotomy of Occident and Orient, authoring book after book with titles like Zen and the Character of the Japanese People (1935), Zen and Japanese Culture (1940), More on Zen and Japanese Culture (1942), East and West (1948), The Revival of the East (1954), The Oriental Outlook (1963), and so on and so on. Suzuki’s lifelong project of exporting Zen to the West was bound inextricably to a studied contempt for his new audience, whose cultural arrogance and imperialistic inclinations Suzuki had come to know all too well. Having lived through the military humiliation of Japan at the hands of the culturally inferior United States, Suzuki would make it his mission to prove that Zen is mystically superior to Christianity—indeed, that it constitutes the highest form of mysticism! This strategy had the felicitous result of thwarting the Enlightenment critique of religion on the one hand and the threat of Western cultural hegemony on the other.
Despite making no attempt to disguise his distaste for the West, Suzuki’s Zen proved to be an ideal export to the disaffected but spiritually inclined Westerner searching for an exotic alternative to institutional Christianity in the religions of the “Mystic East.” Suzuki’s jingoistic propaganda thus served both to bolster Japan’s prestige abroad and to tantalise a legion of disenchanted Western intellectuals with the dream of an Oriental enlightenment they would ultimately never grasp. You can’t help but admire him, really.
One such disenchanted Western intellectual was German philosopher and Nazi sympathiser Eugen Herrigel, whose 1953 book Zen in the Art of Archery (based on his 1948 essay Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens, or The Knightly Art of Archery) set the gold standard for derivative orientalist writing, and, rather worryingly, remains one of the most widely read studies of Japanese culture. Before its Japanese translation and publication in 1956, Japanese archery (kyūdō) had not been associated with Zen at all; it was only after Herrigel’s book, in which he recounts his experiences learning archery in Japan as a means of spiritual training, that such a connection was assumed to exist.
This was by no means the first example of such mischief: so-called “Zen gardens,” to give another example, are essentially Japanese versions of the Chinese landscape gardens that were popular among the Song aristocracy. The earliest reference to the notion that the dry-landscape gardens associated with Zen temples are manifestations of Zen realisation is found in an English-language guide to Kyoto gardens written in 1935 by Loraine Kuck (oddly enough, a one-time neighbour of D. T. Suzuki).
Despite Herrigel’s emphasis on archery as a mode of Zen training, his archery instructor, Awa Kenzō, had no experience or interest in Zen at the time he and Herrigel trained together. This, of course, was but a minor inconvenience to Herrigel, who, having been introduced to Zen through the writings of Suzuki, arrived in Japan determined to undertake a mystical journey aided by the practise of a traditional Japanese art. This was a recipe for misunderstanding. We now know that the complex spiritual episodes recounted in the book were either the products of Herrigel’s fanciful misinterpretations (aided by his interpreter’s intentionally liberal translations), or the result of interactions for which no interpreter was present. Awa, for his part, was probably flattered to have a distinguished foreign scholar as a disciple, and would have been prepared to indulge Herrigel’s curiosity for all things Zen. Thus, while there may have been a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding throughout this collaboration, both parties got precisely what they wanted in the end.
I could go on, but by now I’m sure you get the picture.
The kind of orientalism I’ve been describing in this and the previous essay deviates somewhat from Edward Said’s original notion of “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The “European superiority over Oriental backwardness” is inverted in the case of Zen, producing what Bernard Faure has termed “secondary orientalism.” Orientalism, we must conclude, always involves a degree of intercultural mimesis and can therefore never represent a unilateral projection of the Western imagination onto a colonised and passive Orient.
Japan was never colonised (at least in the conventional sense; it remains littered with American military bases today), and Germany had no Eastern empire to manipulate and dominate. Popular discourses about Zen were concocted as much by the Japanese themselves as by Westerners, and ignoring the role played by Japanese scholars in the construction of orientalist discourses surrounding Zen and mysticism serves only to perpetuate the myth of the passive Oriental. By moving beyond the automatic association of Orientalist discourses with Western colonial aspirations, one avoids the tendency to deny agency to the colonial subject, as well as the tendency to see colonialism as a peculiarly Western disease (a view that is itself a form of Occidentalism). Ultimately, the seemingly felicitous convergence of Eastern and Western intellectual and spiritual agendas prevented those on both sides from recognising the historical mischief entailed in the radical decontextualisation of the Zen tradition.
Yet in all cases, whether the “Oriental” or “primitive Other” is caricatured or idealised, the ethnocentric and orientalist premises of Western discourse are similar. One signature of orientalist writing is a preoccupation with the past, usually grounded in an evolutionary history of humankind. “Oriental” cultures are conceived of as throw-backs to the childhood of civilisation; while Europe and the New World were undergoing enormous social and political changes during the Enlightenment period, other societies seemed—from the outside, at any rate—to have remained unchanged for thousands of years, representing a crucial example of static archaism with which the dynamic modernity of the West could be successfully contrasted. We can observe this habit even in the sympathetic writings of enthusiasts like Herrigel, who describes his beloved kyūdō as “a time-honoured and unbroken tradition,” and, later, Alan Watts, who portrayed Asian systems of thought as “very old, very wise.”
By choosing to concentrate, as Phil Jackson does, on a supposed mystical essence common to all religions, one endorses the globalising ideologies of a literary (and largely male) elite. Such ideologies might fit in well with the modern Western (and capitalistic) emphasis on internationalism and globalised interaction in the economic, cultural, and political spheres, but it is important to realise that the “world religions” as they are usually portrayed are idealised and largely theoretical constructs that bear some relationship to, but are by no means identical with, the actual religious expression of humankind.
And so we arrive in Silicon Valley once more, home of the “California Ideology,” a noxious combination of the myopic and culturally impoverished worldview of the nouveau riche tech nerd and the pompous faux-enlightenment of the Bay Area’s former New Left. This poisonous synthesis has given rise to, among other crimes, “Knightman,” a plastic robot that patrols the Sacramento Kings’ carpark so that Vivek Ranadivé doesn’t have to hire human beings and pay them a living wage. The California Ideology is a mix of cybernetics, free market economics, and counter-culture libertarianism, and if we don’t put a stop to it now we will all die under an avalanche of derivative self-help books penned by our magnanimous tech gods: The Tao of Capital; The I Ching of Things; The Smart of War; Zen and the Art of the Sharing Economy.
It is for the reasons outlined above that I will never call Phil Jackson “Zen Master”—not because I’m bitter about his success (I’m not especially impressed by all those rings; wake me up when he wins something without the aid of Michael Jordan or Derek Fisher), but because in cultivating this “Zen” persona he is, in a roundabout way, providing ideological sanction for the solutionist, neoliberal, and technofascist tendencies of Silicon Valley’s most dangerous villains.
This is worse than Allan Houston, potentially.