Black-robed figures file toward the Dharma Hall on their way to Maezumi Roshi’s weekly lecture at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Not all of them make it there, however. Looking over his shoulder one of them ducks into a side hall. He pauses at a closed door, listens to the murmur on the other side, and knocks. The door opens and he enters a small room packed with others also in their meditation garb, all facing one direction. On a television screen two boxers face each other across an empty ring. A bell sounds and they close in on each other. With each punch the excitement in the room builds, until one of the men falls back on the ropes and the crowd in the room roars. Back in the Dharma Hall, Maezumi pauses in midsentence of his commentary on the Genjokoan. Hearing the distant rumble he wonders, Why are there so many empty seats tonight?
This scene is adapted from Andrew Cooper’s Playing in the Zone, and the figure who diverted from the Dharma Hall to the prizefight is the author himself. It’s 1983, and on such occasions he and other closet jocks indulged their love of sports secretively. For in the rarefied atmosphere of dharma centers of the day, athletic enthusiasm was still spiritually incorrect—and may yet be, for whereas in the last fifteen years the Western sangha in general has given more attention to lay practice, including livelihood, relationship, children and education, sports continue to be marginalized to a stuffy community room. With Playing in the Zone, Cooper doesn’t just open the door, he enlarges the room to encompass art and war, myth and religion, baseball and judo. Whether you’re a sports fan or sports shunner, prepare for a vigorous workout of your notions about body and spirit, the exoteric and the esoteric, popular culture and Buddhism.
Personally, I’ve been bouncing off the walls of these ideas for most of my life. My reflexes and character have been as formed on the playing field as on the meditation cushion. Inheriting my father’s baseball mitt was as significant a life passage as later receiving the Buddhist precepts would be. My main metaphor for living on the edge of the unknowable is being at bat, waiting for the unpredictable pitch. How is it then that since taking up Zen thirty years ago, I’ve scarcely swung a bat or a golf club, shot a basket or made a goal of any kind? Why is it that every January, automatically, I find myself meditating at a retreat rather than watching the Superbowl?
Cooper offers some answers, not just for me as a Buddhist but for me as an American. Tracing Western sports traditions back to classical Greek culture, he shows how what was the original goal of sports—joining the individual to the larger life of the polis, of the cosmos—has been all but lost. The modern sports fan rarely understands the sacred source of her or his enthusiasm (etymologically, to be “possessed by the gods”). Enthusiasts will still be possessed but without knowing by whom.
Likewise, athletes, out of touch with the sacred sources of sport, are handicapped. While privy to extraordinary powers of body and spirit, few have the language or concepts to articulate their experience. The so-called “zone” from which the book takes its title refers to an altered state in which time slows down, the flow of events is intuited in advance, and powers emanating from a source beyond the ego are accessed. These experiences will be recognizable to meditators, but whereas spiritual traditions deliberately cultivate self-transcendence and have developed language for it, the modern athlete fumbles in silence. Basketball legend Bill Russell was an exception, articulating the “mystical feeling” that would on occasion lift the action on the court to the level of magic: “I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.… I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me.”
Russell’s words, however, were written retrospectively; during his active playing years he avoided talking about his mystical experiences as though to do so would be to give away a secret no one wanted to, or could, hear. That’s the very secret Cooper draws forth again and again, whether interviewing a football player or a sports psychologist. In so doing, he outlines an intellectual playing field on which the secret can be openly divulged and consciously cultivated.
In the process, Cooper displays an especially rare dimension of sport: the sport of the intellect. In the narrow space of 150 pages he plays a tight game indeed, running the zone between spiritual practitioners and sports fans, Western and Eastern traditions. He manages a fine balance between universals and particulars, illuminating the commonalties of sport, religion, art and war, while distinguishing their particular features. Like any authentic athlete he rarely calls attention to himself, rather conducting the reader to the game: the game—no less, of life. It’s a game that’s been playing for a long time. Cooper tips his cap to the Thirteenth Century Zen spiritual athlete Eihei Dogen, quoting his Genjokoan:
To study the buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
Updating Dogen’s game, Cooper comments: “When we operate in an integral fashion—with the whole body and the whole mind—we cease to be aware of the sense of self. And greater freedom from the self means greater freedom for the self.” He invites us out of the bleachers and onto the field of our own spiritual life, continuing: “Negotiating this paradox of selfhood is a defining feature of the secret life in all its forms. The point yields itself to an endless play of expression.”
To put down Playing in the Zone, then, is just to begin another game. I’m pumping up my slightly flat basketball and heading down to the court.