Buddhism and Basketball? It Works for Phil Jackson


Blocks away from the triumphant Los Angeles Lakers victory parade Wednesday, the Buddhist priest pondered the win, the way and the sound of thousands of hands clapping.

Yes, said the Rev. Noriaki Ito, he expected the Lakers would ride to a world championship the moment he heard Coach Phil Jackson was coming to town. He had followed him for years, knew he practiced Zen meditation and knew he incorporated those concepts into his coaching.

Jackson, of course, practices more than Zen. The son of fundamentalist Christian preachers, he has told reporters he also believes in prayer, miracles and the laying on of hands. He employs yoga and believes in the power of spiritual symbolism--one reason he used to display a Native American headdress with eagle feathers in the Chicago Bulls team room.

But to Ito, Jackson embodies the perfect blend of the priest’s two great loves: Buddhism and basketball. The Buddhist minister has played the game since the age of 9 in youth leagues, and he became a true-blue Lakers fan the year after that--even before they were televised, even before they were winning (despite the best efforts of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor).


“I liken Phil Jackson to a true martial arts master who realizes that the spiritual, mental and physical have to be integrated into one,” said Ito, the 51-year-old head minister at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo. “I believe that’s what brought the Lakers over the hump.”

Ito and other Buddhist priests around the Southland say they recognized a Buddhist imprint on the Lakers game almost immediately:

The Middle Path. The whole time the Lakers were riding high and sinking low during the playoffs, even when they got blown out by 33 points in the fifth game in Indianapolis, Jackson never lost his cool, Ito said.

“The Buddhist thought in following the middle path is to take life’s ups and downs in a balanced and centered way,” said the Rev. Tom Kurai of the Sozenji Buddhist Temple in Montebello.


Interdependence of Life. Using the Buddhist idea of selflessness and interdependence, Jackson has managed to meld together a team of sometimes self-absorbed and competitive athletes. Rinban George T. Matsubashi of Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo notes that star center Shaquille O’Neal has significantly increased his assists. Ito sees fewer temper tantrums and more acceptance by bench players of their valuable roles in supporting the team overall.

“I notice more of a focus on denying individual egos for the benefit of the team,” Ito said. “In Buddhism, suppressing the ego is central to any kind of awakening.”

Go With the Flow. Ito said he sees Buddhist principles in Jackson’s patented triangle offense of players constantly flowing into formation. Even his tendency not to call timeouts if things aren’t going well, to let the players work it out themselves, seems to be a reflection of this principle, the priests say.

“The Buddha expects us to be like a body of water flowing downhill. When you reach a tree or boulder, you go around it rather than try to use force against it,” Ito said.


Ito also thinks Jackson has helped players mature by looking inward and knowing themselves better, including their limitations. And the coach seems to have helped them grasp a key Buddhist principle that the process is more important than the result.

“Somehow, you feel with Jackson that the ultimate goal isn’t winning, but how well the team grows together,” Ito said.