Back in the 1950s one of the west’s most popular sayings about Zen Buddhism related to what are called “koans”. These are puzzles designed to help novices break through the confines of rational thinking to something more profound. The koan making the rounds back then was “you know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” It was even used by comedian Shelley Berman in his routine.
As a writer, and even as a human being I am very, very familiar with the sound of no hands clapping. The koan remains what it is.
Zen comes into my mind when I am playing golf. There is a state of mind, of consciousness, that is the key to good play. Yes, a bad hit is a bad hit and a good swing is a good one, and these are physical issues. There is a complex intellectual dimension to golf too. But avoiding the bad hits and making the good swings, and thinking the right approach, has something to do with what is going on in my head at the time.
In this sense golf is a game of temperament, and I am not always any good at it.
However, I am getting better at the course where I play and before long hope to enjoy the game completely instead of partially as now. When I am calm and focused, my play is better, and it is genuinely fun. When I am not, many interesting things may happen, but few of them are good things.
I want to play well partly because when I do it can be a great pleasure as well as good exercise, but also because it is a measure to me of shall we say spiritual maturity, and a reflection of my ethnic make-up.
Like many Americans, my ethnic make-up is a congeries. Where I live in New Zealand this is actually fairly odd. Most native-born Kiwis and those who are immigrants from Britain are at most of two or three cultures – say, English and Irish, or Scottish and Irish, or Welsh and English, possibly with indigenous Maori part of the mix etc. Despite my surname – which I adopted for personal reasons – I have no Welsh in me, but there is plenty of Celt.
My paternal half is Scots, possibly Irish, and some English.
My maternal part is Slavic. This region of the world is a kind of ethnological doormat, though not one people walked on to get into a home. They just kept on walking, usually after demolishing the structure, eating all the food, carting off the furniture, and impregnating the women. So while it would seem my mother’s parents were Polish as this is where they were born, at a time when Poland was a part of the Russian Empire, their actual ethnic makeup may very well be much more widely shared.
For my paternal half, I think of myself as Scots. The other bits may be there, but they don’t count. Scotland itself has a varied ethnic makeup and two “native” languages apart from English – one of these, Scots, is related to English. The other, Gaelic, is a Celtic tongue once confined to the Highlands though there are more Gaelic speakers in Glasgow than anywhere else.
It is the Scots in me that is attracted to golf. Golf was originally a Scottish game, presumably played with clubs and rocks in the glens running through the hills and the dunes along the shores. Today it is played all over the world, and my introduction to it, in the United States, was just one of those sports my friends were trying out during my teenage years.
Since then I have played fitfully – and mostly very badly. I not only had no skill, but my temperament was wrong. Those cartoons of men wrapping their clubs around trees in apocalyptic anger were based on me.
Somehow I improved, and today I actually enjoy playing, and am getting better, and am feeling that my nature meets this game in its essence. There is a long way to go before I can feel that I am really expressing the Celtic/Scottish part of me, that I am living up to my genetic code. Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled”. It can be that. But it can be a good walk and more. The courses of the world, their sweeping fairways among majestic forests, beautiful ponds, carpets of green and sandy expanses dotted here and there among the lushness, can be simply magic to experience, and wonderful to play.
Arnold Palmer, the great American golfer, once said that he didn’t understand poetry but that when he hit a good one, that was poetry to him. I understand that. It is the same when striking a billiard ball with a pool cue just so, knowing it will go into the pocket, or any of a number of other “bat sports”.
But there is more – the Zen of golf is real. Stepping through the contradictions and frustrations of this beautiful game is an expression of art, of humanity, of maturity and wisdom and for me in all my ethnic complexity, an existential account of how I came to be where I am today. This eludes me still, but I will know when I get there, the sound of one hand clapping.
Thanks for reading.