Is Tiger Woods a Real Buddhist?

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Tiger Woods makes a statement from the Sunset Room on the second floor of the TPC Sawgrass, home of the PGA Tour on February 19, 2010 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

In his public apology to the nation on Friday, Tiger Woods invoked his Buddhist upbringing, as he vowed to mend his ways. There are about 350 million Buddhists around the world and Takeaway co-host Celeste Headlee is one of them. She writes about her reaction to Woods' comments and why he must change his ways if he is to call himself a true Buddhist.

“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. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught.” —Tiger Woods, speaking on Feb. 19, 2010.

At this point, we're all pretty accustomed to hearing celebrities apologize for bad behavior and vow that they are going to move forward into a closer relationship with God. It's almost de riguer now in the busy apology scene. But the Buddhist part adds a new twist to the notion of "becoming a better and more spiritual person." So for those who have no idea what it means to be a good Buddhist, allow me to enlighten you. (And forgive the pun.)

There are about 350 million Buddhist worldwide. I am one of them. Tiger Woods may be one now, but I doubt that he has been a Buddhist for the past few years. Unlike many other religions, Buddhism is an active practice. That doesn't mean you don't have to work at being a good Christian or Jew, it simply means that if you aren't actively practicing Buddhism, you're not really a Buddhist. You can be a non-practicing Catholic, I'm told, but the same is not true for Buddhists.

Why does it matter whether or not Tiger Woods was a practicing Buddhist? Because if he had been, he would never have had to stand in front of that podium and apologize to his wife, his children, his fans, his colleagues and his staff. Many think that Buddhists don't believe in sin; that's absolutely true. But there's also a common misconception that anything is okay in the Buddhist practice; that is not true. The moral core of the practice is outlined in Buddha's five precepts:

  1. Do not destroy life.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not lie.
  4. Avoid intoxication (practice mindfulness).
  5. Do not engage in sexual misconduct.

Clearly, Tiger violated numbers three and five in spectacular ways. So, that's one reason why he would have avoided this whole mess if he'd been a practicing Buddhist. But there's a much more significant reason: The Second Noble Truth.

Buddhists don't have a holy book; we have a library. Thousands upon thousands of texts written by any number of philosophers who inform us and open your minds. But we do have the original teachings of Buddha and his description of The Four Noble Truths.

  1. Life is suffering (this is realism, not pessimism – we don't expect things to be bad, but we acknowledge that life is hard and ends in death).
  2. SUFFERING IS CAUSED BY WANTING (I added the caps because this is the noble truth that Tiger forgot about during all that time that he was traveling the world and sleeping with hordes of women).
  3. You can find happiness if you stop wanting.
  4. The Eight-Fold Path is the way to find happiness.

So let's delve for just a moment into the "suffering that is caused by wanting." If you have children, you see this every birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, (insert a holiday on which children are showered with gifts). You buy the kid the Bionicle Lego figure that he wanted, and he is very excited. He plays with it for two days, perhaps three, and then begins to say things like, "This would be better if I had the vehicle that he drives," or "What I really want now is the figure that has all the flames on his weapon." (Pardon me for using an example from my own family.)

In this case, the child is unable to truly enjoy the toy, because he's already focused on something else he wants. And this is true in relationships as well. You like someone for a very long time, you start to date them and everything is wonderful. Then, you start to notice that that other guy makes more money and reads books, or that woman lets her boyfriend watch football all weekend. Suddenly, you are unable to enjoy the person you are with, because you want someone else. This is suffering. And this causes suffering, as was clearly demonstrated by Tiger's extended apology and his description of what his wife and children are now enduring. 

And that is the answer to questions like, "Why on earth would he mess that up? He had everything." The Second Noble Truth, baby. We cause suffering by endless craving. Getting what you want does not guarantee happiness, you have to stop wanting all the time.

So, I apologize for the theology lesson, but the point of it was simply to say that Buddhism may be the perfect solution for Tiger Woods. You had everything, Tiger, and if Elin doesn't leave your sorry butt, you may have it all again. Be present with your wife and your children. Enjoy them. And take heart: there are only eight steps in the Buddhist path, not 12.