Japanese monk invokes Goddess of Holes-in-One
Golfers, Lord knows, seem to need more spiritual guidance then practitioners of other sports. How else could you explain the almost-religious-like belief duffers will place in a Heaven Wood, or the way they mumble the mantra “Tetrachaidecohedron dimple pattern” in order to ensure that they will not slice their drives off the first tee during a tournament?
Which is why it is heartening to learn of the world’s first Zen shrine devoted to golf.
As reported in Sports Illustrated, the golf shrine is the brainchild of 56 year-old Seiko Omi, a “great monk” at the 430-year-old Zenshoji Zen temple at the base of Zuirin Mountain, about three hours northwest of Tokyo. The two-meter tall stone altar Omi designed features Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She holds a putter in her right hand, a golf ball in her left. Above 13 drivers radiating from her head are the Japanese words “hole in one.”
Omi, who plays to a modest 36 handicap, hails from a family which has produced monks for 20 generations. He is convinced of his unorthodox approach. “Practicing Buddhist meditation teaches you to calm down and increase your powers of concentration,” he says. “The power to concentrate is good for everything, especially golf.” Omi’s ultimate aim is that eventually young golfers who visit the shrine may be moved towards Buddhism.
This softly-softly approach might have aided US golfer Tommy Bolt, known for his graceful swing and terrible temper. Once, after lipping out six straight putts in a tournament, he shook his fist at the heavens and shouted, “Why don’t You come on down and fight like a man!”
Golfing legend Sam Snead tried another approach to obtain a golf benediction. Passing through Rome in 1961, Snead stopped for an audience with Pope John. The famous American golfer had been playing poorly and he confessed to one of the papal officials: “I brought along my putter, on the chance that the pope might bless it.” The monsignor nodded sympathetically. “I know, Mr. Snead,” he said. “My putting is absolutely hopeless too.” Snead looked at him in amazement. “If you live here and can’t putt,” he exclaimed, “what chance is there for me?”
Like most seekers of cosmic intervention, golfers seem more willing than other mortals to take advice from gurus. Swing thoughts shuffle through a golfer’s mind like a shaman’s rattle, all of them sensible. But try to remember them all and you’ll reach golfing schizophrenia faster than you can say “shift your weight.”
John Updike, whose Golf Dreams is a Bible for literate duffers, summed up the oft-perverse and vaguely ritualistic instructions offered by golf pros, whose status on the golfing hierarchy makes them High Priests of the Links.
“’Hit it with the back of your left hand’ was the first swing thought I ever heard,” Updike recalls.
He quickly became exposed to dozens of other paradoxical incantations proffered by the golfing sorcerers — “Hit down to make the ball rise. Swing easy to make it go far. Finish high to make it go straight.”
Increasingly confused by the seemingly contradictory and often arcane advice, Updike recalls “I read Arnold Palmer, who said to think of my feet and head as the three apexes of an immovable triangle; your feet should feel like bricks….Jack Nicklaus put great store in a little rightward cock of the head at takeaway, so his left eyeball and the golf ball were inexorably aligned. Gary Player preferred to think of a core of metal passing up through the middle of his body; he twisted around it like a barbecued chicken on an upright spit. Hale Irwin has lately said he thinks of his hands and the club handle riding down an imaginary flume of water. Sam Snead thinks of waltz time, or of spanking the ball on its backside; his arms, he says, feel like ropes as he swings. Lee Trevino said to accelerate the back of the left hand through the ball toward the target – which puts me back where I began thirty bedeviled years ago.”
Michael Murphy, who created California’s Esalen Institute and who is acknowledged as one of the founders of the contemporary “personal development” movement, wrote a wildly popular cult book called Golf in the Kingdom. In the book the imaginary pro Shivas Irons, who appears like a specter and offers eternal, sage advice, instructs his disciple to “Let the nothingness into yer shots.” One senses the wisdom of a philosophical rabbi, who suggested “He who would save his life must lose it.”
Ah, so in order to play well I must relinquish control. Trust the cosmos. It’s hard to do in life and even harder to accomplish when you’re facing a tricky five-iron over water with the match on the line. The message is clear and apparently simple – don’t try too hard, relax and become one with the swing, united with the ball. As Updike says, “Play each shot, not the last one, or the next one, but the one at your feet, in the poison ivy, where you put it.”
And so it comes full circle for me as well.
Unwilling to ask the Pope for help, and unable to make the pilgrimage to Japan whenever I play a competitive round at my golf club in France, I instead draw a crayon representation of Kannon. I place the representational teeity in a bunker at my home course that is so deep Sergei Bubka couldn’t pole-vault out. I light a joss stick while offering the golf-aiding Kannon a three-pack of new Titleists. “Just a little help with my short game,” I intone. “Oh hell, let’s go the whole hog.” I place a Pebble Beach visor near the altar and add: “And a birdie on that diabolical par five by the lake. Just once.”