Analyzing Tiger Woods' Return to Buddhism

In what will certainly be one of the new decade's most dissected mea culpas, Tiger Woods did the expected things. He apologized to his wife, his fans, his sponsors, his friends, and his mother. He begged for privacy and time to work things out at home. And he found religion.

What was unexpected is the religion he found: Buddhism.

"Buddhism," said Woods in his awkward 13-minute address, "teaches that a creation of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught." Woods, looking shattered, vowed to lean on the religion of his childhood to aid in his recovery. 

Woods was following the boilerplate-celebrity addict script: Check into rehab, find God, make amends. The second step in any twelve-step program is to accept this: We "came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."  That 'power', in our public discourse, has most often been Jesus, and more occasionally a mystical brand of Judaism called Kabbalah. But Buddhism – though voguish among coastal elites and practiced by a growing numbers of Americans  – has not generally been regarded as sufficiently redemptive for a full-scale celebrity image renovation.

But Tiger was raised a Buddhist – and, it seems, identifies as one. In a 1996 Sports Illustrated article, Woods talked about going regularly with his mother, who was born in Thailand, to a Buddhist Temple where, in keeping with the basic tenets of the religion, he would give offerings of rice, sugar and salt to the monks and where he would vow to renounce all material goods. He wore a gold Buddha around his neck and cherished a mother-of-pearl statue of the Buddha given to him by his grandfather.

"I like Buddhism because it's a whole way of being and living," he told the reporter at the time.  "It's based on discipline and respect and personal responsibility."

Now one might legitimately question the depth of Woods's Buddhist commitment, since a renunciation of the self and selfish desires includes, of course,  lust and physical pleasure primary among them and lies at the heart of Buddhist teachings. Even in that 1996 interview, Woods was waffling over just how ego-less he found it necessary to be. "I don't want to get rid of all my wants and desires," he said. "I can enjoy material things, but that doesn't mean I need them."

But as any convicted believer will tell you, it's no sin to be lapsed – as long as you rededicate yourself to your redemption in earnest.  And, with its emphasis on disciplining thought and action to overcome base human desire, you could argue that no religion does redemption better than Buddhism. And despite Fox News commentator Brit Hume's calls for conversion, citing Christianity as the best way to recover from Tiger's particular vices,). neither Christianity nor Buddhism has cornered the market. As Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero put it so succinctly in an op-ed earlier this year, "Which of these two traditions [Christianity or Buddhism] offers more resources for adulterers on the mend is to me an open question."

The lingering question then is this: Is Woods embracing religion because in the vernacular of rehab, it's the expected thing, a mandatory stop in the narrative arc of celebrity flameouts? Or is he earnestly struggling to get back to some core of his self that was lost along the way? If the latter, then  Woods – a man who has everything, and is reeling from the possibility that it will be taken away --  can learn a great deal from his mother's religion. If the former, then he's in good company. Many people wrapped in religion prove themselves to be dirty dogs underneath.

Life is suffering, teaches the Buddha. The self is a transitory thing. Material comforts and selfish impulses have no value.  "The eradication of cravings," as the Perennial Dictionary of World Religions put it, can be achieved through following what in Buddhism is known as the eightfold path: "moral conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood); mental discipline (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration); intuitive wisdom (right views, right intentions)."  The eightfold path, like the Ten Commandments, is as useful a guide for living a moral life as any on earth. Along that path, Tiger clearly has a lot of renouncing to do.