Phil Jackson, the Zen Master of the NBA
The Last Dance, ESPN’s docuseries that chronicled Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls, is fascinating in every aspect. People who surrounded Michael Jordan are also fascinating, and one of the most impressive people is obviously coach Phil Jackson, who seemed to have understood everything/everyone, and handled difficult situations unbelievably prudently. As the “Zen Master” of the NBA, his basketball acumen was influenced by Zen. Sacrament Kings coach Luke Walton, who played for Jackson’s LA Lakers from 2003 to 11, happened to have had a media day that coincided with the show. He mentioned that he was encouraging his players to meditate (and read books) during the coronavirus hiatus, and it’s because he was influenced by Phil Jackson. According to NBC Sports California, Walton is encouraging his players to read books, watch/listen to podcasts and meditate. The team even has yoga sessions through Zoom.
“We can’t, and we won’t force them, but it’s highly encouraged that our players are taking their time to continue to challenge themselves and grow in different areas,” Walton said.
According to Walton, he was turned on to meditation when he played for Phil Jackson. The six-time NBA championship coach was known as the NBA’s “Zen Master” and his alternative coaching methods.
“At first I thought it was crazy, but as I got older and grew and embraced it, I could see the benefits that it had,” Walton said. “There was so much that he understood about the game as a whole and how one thing affects the next and momentum and staying calm and collective, for the most part, through a competition being an effective way of winning, are things that I continue to work on myself and traits that I continue to pass on to the players I coach.”
Jackson was notorious for handing out books specifically tailored to his players. He found ways to connect well beyond the game on the floor, and his motivational techniques were legendary.
“Zen Master” was much more than Jackson’s nickname. According to “Buddha and the Bulls – An interview with Phil Jackson” in TRICYCLE, he is the son of strict, fundamentalist Pentecostal ministers. He studied religion alongside philosophy and psychology at the University of North Dakota, and thought about going into the ministry. But as he got drafted by the New York Knicks, he became a professional athlete instead. Then he was introduced to Buddhism in his thirties, when his was having a difficult time as an NBA player. “It was good to go through it with the support of a belief system and a form of meditation, to come to grips with myself as a person.” Jackson considers himself as a “Zen Christian,” as his faith is on the fundamentals of Christianity, but he leverages Zen to “bring the now into it,” as Christianity “most of the time was focused on heaven and hell.”
In Zen, meditation is what brings the “now” element into a religious practice, and you achieve it by using your own body. He continued: “Sitting with a relaxed mind and soft focus on life is the thing that helped take some of the edge off my hard fundamentalist background. It [Pentecostal teaching] was judgmental, right and wrong, positive and negative—looking at life in dualities. Being a coach in the NBA, where everything is measured in wins and losses, pluses and minuses, it’s been a gift for me to have a sitting background.”
Professional sports are purely black and white. Winning is everything and your value is determined based on your ability to compete and win. In “How Phil Jackson is influencing today’s NBA coaches,” an article on ESPN, Lakers coach Frank Vogel remembered how he developed his career: “I was raised in the Bobby Knight era of coaches. You know, MF-this. MF-that.” But Phil Jackson was different, Vogel continues. ” Phil never did that. I just felt like his approach was — and I’m by no means a Zen guy — but the calm mental adjustment is something that I try to always carry with any conflict or any adversity my team faces.
“I always admired that approach, letting guys play in. Not bailing teams with timeouts, letting them play through things, figure things out themselves.”
And Luke Walton is on the same page on how Jackson’s calm demeanor under pressure influenced his own coaching philosophy.
“One of the main things that I try to take with me, from what Phil has taught,” Walton said, “is training yourself and your players to always try to be able to stay level-headed throughout and not get too emotionally high or too emotionally low.
“He would talk about The Peaceful Warrior, and say, that’s where you’re at your most dangerous, if you can stay in that area.”
In Jackson’s own word, peaceful warrior is a warrior attitude, without having to be violent. “When I came into the NBA as a coach five years ago, basketball was all about power—who had the biggest guys, who played the roughest game, who could intimidate who. Our system moves away from that. The whole concept is to defy pressures, to work against the other team’s force. Basically we try to get the other team to overload in one area and then work with their energy [to defeat them].”
He went on to an example how he used his Zen-minded tactic to achieve his goal as a coach, specifically to face the Bad Boys Pistons (which, by the way, was portrayed as the opposite character of his ideal team in “The Last Dance“.)
“It has taken a lot of videos, and a lot of humor. The most famous example was a few years back when we were playing the Detroit Pistons [then the NBA champions]. I interspliced clips from The Wizard of Oz into the fame film to show all the mistakes we made against Detroit’s strengths. It was a softer way of conveying correct behavior without a lot of criticism.”
It seems that Phil Jackson leveraged two very important concepts of Buddhism to thrive in the world of basketball: middle way and awareness.
Middle way is one of Buddha’s main teaching that denies everything that is extreme, biased or judged (which is basically a lot of things, if not everything!). Buddha taught that nothing was absolute, permanent and 100% reliable in this universe because things people saw, said or defined were ultimately relative and subjective. Instead of trying to prove that you are on the right side, he encouraged people to stay away from any judgement and remain neutral – middle way. And he perfectly mastered it: his lecture never sided one theory or perspective, but still arrived at the truth that would convince or comfort people who were desperate to hear an answer. In Buddha’s world, there is no black nor white, no right nor wrong, hence no win nor lose. But things made sense at a profound level. The concept of middle way gave a whole new perspective to Jackson, who was struggling in the world of strict dualities – right and wrong in Christianity, and win or lose in sports. Maybe that’s how he embraced Dennis Rodman – instead of avoiding judging him whether his behaviors were right or wrong, Jackson probably accepted Rodman’s complex personality as is, and focused on finding the middle ground that was best for the entire team.
Then there is awareness, which is the whole purpose of meditation. During meditation, you loosen your concentration to a moderate level so that you can avoid focusing on any particular thoughts, sights or parts of your body. That’s the state Jackson calls “soft” – it has nothing to with the lack of grit as basketball players use it. When you were able to loosen your concentration at the right level and sustain it, all parts of your body becomes moderately relaxed, neutralized and vacated. Then you start seeing the truth that you couldn’t notice when your body and mind was preoccupied. Jackson let his players try meditation, but not everyone arrived at the level. However, the most serene person he have ever seen was Michael Jordan. According to Jackson, Jordan had a great sense of awareness – he loved the feeling of being calm in the midst of a storm of activity. He’d like to have that feeling every waking hour. Jackson maintained that the impacts on the court was significant when he could get a couple of players achieve that kind of calmness during the game.
The concept of middle way, awareness and the essence of meditation is not easy to grasp. If you want to dig deeper, here are some aids.
The book that got Phil Jackson into Zen is Zen mind, Beginner’s Mind written by Shunryu Suzuki (1904 – 1971). Suzuki was a priest who belonged to the Sōtō sect, which is one of the Japanese Zen schools that focuses on meditation. Just for your information, Steve Jobs also practiced Sōtō sect, whose mentor was Kōbun Otogawa (1938 – 2002). It was actually Shunryu Suzuki who invited Otagawa to come to the US (San Francisco Bay Area). It should also be noted that there is also D.T. Suzuki (1894-1966). He was the pioneer to introduce Zen to the Western world, and Shunryu Suzuki helped promote Zen in the US.
Zen is a school of mahayana Buddhism that focuses on meditation (it’s called zazen in Japanese). It was brought to Japan from China sometime around the 11th century. There are two major Japanese Zen sects: Sōtō and Rinzai. Sōtō puts strong emphasis on zazen and became popular among ordinary people. Rinzai leveraged koan (Zen riddles) in addition ot zazen, and was very powerful in the Middle Ages as samurai leaders supported it. Most of the old temples in Kyoto, which are popular tourist destinations, are Rinzai temples.