Zen and the Perfect Game

Found my hard drive from third year in college, and on it was an essay I wrote comparing Buddhist enlightenment to pitching a perfect game. Figured I'd share it...

Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants is well known for being an active practitioner of Zen Buddhism, believing it helps him avoid distraction and concentrate only on the task of pitching. While few baseball players are Zen Buddhists, many of baseball’s traditions and superstitions could fit well into Zen philosophy. More than most, the superstitions and attitudes of pitchers who are pitching great games, and specifically perfect games, are very Zen like. If you consider the act of pitching a perfect game as the baseball version of achieving enlightenment, which is not far from the truth, the beliefs on what will help you achieve your goal and what can hold you back, specifically thinking about or desiring your goal, are remarkably similar in Zen and baseball. From the actions of other players, to the statements and superstitions used by the pitchers themselves, the similarities with Zen are numerous. Through analyzing specific Zen teachings and then comparing them to various statements made by players about their perfect game as well as baseball’s "unwritten" rules of player conduct, this will make clear how similar these two unrelated things truly are.

One of the fundamental teachings in Zen Buddhism is the seemingly paradoxical thought that in order to become enlightened, you must not desire to become enlightened. In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, "If you are trying to attain enlightenment, you are creating and being driven by karma, and you are wasting your time on the black cushion," (Suzuki, 117). This idea is heard over and over again in the writings of Zen Buddhist monks. While obviously the goal of Buddhism as a whole is to become enlightened, you will only get there if you no longer desire to get there. If you start to practice the way of Buddhism thinking about your goal, you will fail. No matter how much you practice, study and meditate, it is all a waste if you are doing it only to become enlightened. While it is true one practices Buddhism in order to become enlightened, you must become no longer concerned with enlightenment if you ever want to succeed. Only when it no longer matters will you be successful.

Baseball has an almost identical paradox that says if you step on the mound with the goal of pitching a perfect game, you have already lost. The perfect game is baseball’s own version of enlightenment, no matter who or what that player was before this event they will forever be remembered. However, it is well known around baseball that going on the field with this goal in mind is asking for a disaster. In his memoir The Bullpen Gospels, career minor-league journeyman pitcher Dirk Hayhurst says, "sure, we all dreamed of throwing a no-hitter, but we knew even thinking about it during warm-ups would send you to the showers before the 5th inning," (Hayhurst, 72). Just like enlightenment, the perfect game will only happen if you go out on the field without it as the goal. However, baseball is distinct from Buddhism in that Buddhist’s don’t believe disaster will result from thinking about achieving enlightenment, you just won’t.

Many pitchers have claimed they threw their perfect game when some outside circumstance made them think they’d be lucky to pitch at all, making them unconcerned with perfection just like the enlightened monks. Pitcher Doc Ellis claims to have been under the influence of LSD when he threw his (another pitchers injury forced him into the lineup) and David Wells wrote in his autobiography titled Perfect I'm Not! Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball, "As of this writing, 15 men in the history of organized baseball have ever thrown a perfect game. Only one of those men did it half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath and a raging, skull-rattling hangover. That would be me," (Wells, 23). He goes on to say how he had all but given up on pitching that day but figured the team needed him to throw just a few innings to get other guys some rest. Mark Buerhle’s perfect game came the first time he had ever worked with the team’s new catcher when it can often take several weeks for a pitcher and catcher to get on the same page (Chicago Tribune). There are several other examples of pitchers who’s circumstances would make them not even consider a perfect game who went out and achieved the ultimate greatness anyway. Don Larsen didn’t know he was supposed to pitch that day, David Cone’s game was interrupted by a 33 minute rain delay which would cause most pitchers to get cold, and Randy Johnson was just shy of his 41st birthday and well past the prime of his career (Coffey). Many of these stories are thought to be part, or all, legend, but many Buddhist monk’s are thought to be somewhat legend as well. Just like the people who achieved enlightenment, these men finally achieved the ultimate goal of every pitcher when they no longer were concerned at all with it, and probably even thought it was an impossible feat considering the circumstances.

Another similarity is related to Zazen, Buddhist meditation, where the goal is to be totally in the moment, without any thoughts and desires, and only when you successfully dispel all desire will you successfully become enlightened. Buddhist monk Hui-neng writes, "if you stop thinking of the myriad things, and cast aside all thoughts, as soon as one instant of thought is cut off, you will be reborn in another realm," (Foster and Schumacher 18). This is the goal of Buddhist meditation, which will help you understand your true mind, and your own internal Buddha-nature. Successful zazen is non-conscious and thinking only disrupts the process.

Some Buddhist monks held the belief that talking or thinking too much about Buddhism would only hold you back from enlightenment. The Buddhist monk Seng Ts’an wrote, "the more people talk and ponder, the further they spin out of accord" (Foster and Schumacher, 12). As well, many later monks would argue that many monks were spending too much time reading and writing poetry instead or practicing. Some thought that all the poems were holding many back from achieving true enlightenment through meditation. Thinking too much, or using your mind to try to understand your "true-mind," or Buddha nature, is not going to make you successful in your quest for enlightenment. As Seng Ts’an said "to get a hold of the mind by using the mind, …that is a gross error" (Foster and Schumacher, 13).

Once again, baseball, a sport filled with superstition, has many similar "unwritten rules" about perfect games that all are designed to make sure the pitcher remains unaware they are on the verge of greatness, or at least not thinking about it, for as long as possible. Baseball players go so far as to prohibit anyone on the field from even talking about what is happening when a player is nearing a perfect game, all to ensure the player is not conscious of the fact. In the age of radio and television commentators, even they are prohibited from mentioning it. In Paul Dickson’s book The Unwritten Rules of Baseball, the author details several rules relating to perfect games, many saying that no one should ever mention a no-hitter or perfect game in progress. Rule 1.17.2, in an almost replication of Buddhist thought, states that "a pitcher closing in on a no-hitter should not acknowledge the fact by talking or even thinking about it," (Dickson, 71). This is almost exactly what Seng Ts’an wrote about losing control when you talk and ponder too much.

In one of baseball’s most followed superstitions, it is believed that mentioning or thinking about a perfect game will cause the streak to be immediately broken, just as thinking about Buddha-nature only hurts you. In a long held tradition, as players become aware of what might happen, they routinely avoid any contact with the pitcher, often leaving them alone on the bench for fear of accidentally bringing it to the attention of the pitcher. It is the belief that once they become aware, they will overthink the situation, and overthinking is disastrous in baseball. As catcher Crash Davis said to young pitcher Ebby Laloosh in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham, "You just learned rule number one: Don’t think, it can only hurt the ballclub," (MGM) Just as monks believed too much thought and poetry was detrimental to a monk’s progression, ballplayers believe too much thinking is detrimental to your success.

The perfect game, it could be argued, is baseball’s version of enlightenment. It is the single greatest achievement a pitcher can accomplish in baseball. As evident from these examples, the beliefs surrounding Zen’s enlightenment experience and baseball’s perfect game have many similarities. While these two things are vastly different, they are similar in that they believe having the desire for greatness, and even thinking about it, will hold you back from your goals. Perhaps more players than just Barry Zito should consider becoming Buddhists.

This FanPost is reader-generated, and it does not necessarily reflect the views of McCovey Chronicles. If the author uses filler to achieve the minimum word requirement, a moderator may edit the FanPost for his or her own amusement.

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