Should we cut Tiger some slack?

“Tiger Woods, you suck. God damn it!”

Those might have been the harshest public comments to date about the man who was making his much-anticipated comeback to golf from a self-imposed four-month leave of absence triggered by the eruption of a tawdry sex scandal. The source? Woods himself — the born-again Buddhist — on the sixth hole Saturday at the Masters.

Only five days earlier, when Woods faced the media for the first question-and-answer session since his shocking and swift fall from grace, he had pledged to try to “not get as hot when I play” and to “be more respectful of the game and show appreciation for the fans.”

His jarring outburst seemed to suggest Woods had failed to change and had acted contrary to what’s believed to represent Buddhist teachings. But did he?

“Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security,” Woods said during his Feb. 19 statement, his first public utterances since the scandal came to light. “It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.”

In his comments, Woods made it abundantly clear that recommitting to the religion of his childhood would be a crucial part of becoming a better person on and off the golf course. With more scrutiny on Tiger than ever before, critics were quick to dismiss the idea that Woods had changed, forgetting that breaking long-established habits doesn’t happen overnight.

So how might the journey to correct the error of his ways occur?

“Buddhism is a religion of experience that takes time to learn,” said Jonathan Bradley, the president of the New York Diamond Way Buddhist Center and a student of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism for 13 years. “It’s the development of our fullest human potential.

“Practicing Buddhism starts from understanding that we are responsible for our reactions and the causes that create the circumstances we experience in the future,” he said. “There’s a teaching called ‘karma cause and effect,’ which says that from this moment forward, we have the ability to change through becoming more aware of our minds in the present. But it’s a process. So if Tiger Woods is applying the teachings sincerely, he’ll get the results over time.”

Just minutes into the CBS broadcast of Saturday’s action, Woods’ unsettling outburst blared into the microphones surrounding the sixth tee box and, consequently, the televisions of the millions of viewers.

While many watching at home scrambled to rewind their DVRs to ensure Woods hadn’t uttered a much stronger word, CBS’ Jim Nantz scolded Woods for that thing-he-vowed-he-wouldn’t-do. (To be clear, Woods actually hedged in his Monday statements by saying he would “try” to limit his on-course tantrums.)

Surrounded by the intoxicating dogwoods along the hallowed fairways of Augusta National, Nantz expressed his “disappointment” and presented a flurry of biting questions to analyst Nick Faldo about what he perceived to be Woods’ breaking his word. Simultaneously, the Twitter-sphere exploded with 140-character sound bytes, ranging from outrage to jokes to snarky criticism that Woods’ language was contradicting Buddhist values.

Before Woods could stomp up the seventh fairway, where another, less pronounced “Dammit!” slipped, the now-infamous “Tiger Woods, you suck!” video had been posted on YouTube and was making its way around the blogosphere — along with fiery comments both defending and chastising him.

Would a Buddhist consider Woods’ outburst to be against the religion’s teachings? Not necessarily.

“People shouldn’t be too harsh on [Woods],” said the Venerable Dhammadipa Fa Yao, the abbot — or spiritual leader — of Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, N.Y. “If he wants to yell, it’s his way of expressing his emotions. It doesn’t mean he’s not Buddhist. As a human, we can’t expect him to be perfect.

“From a monk’s perspective, there are two thoughts, the first being that he shouldn’t have done that because it spoils the image of Buddhism. Another would say everyone has their own karma. He should do as they like as long as it doesn’t intentionally hurt anyone else.”

Another interpretation? Live and learn.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but it’s how we react to them,” Bradley added. “Buddhism leaves you with ways to reflect on them. When the outcome of our actions isn’t ideal, we’ll try to act differently the next time. It’s not a good idea to have temper tantrums. But it’s not a moralistic thing; it’s just a piece of advice.”

Raised as a Buddhist from childhood by his Thai mother, Kultida, Woods confessed to straying from his spiritual practices in recent years. “I’d gotten away from my core values,” he told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi on March 21 in his first interview since the scandal broke. “I’d gotten away from my Buddhism. And I quit meditating.”

A 1996 Sports Illustrated profile of the then-20-year-old Woods implied he practiced his religion seriously. The story went on to say that every year around his birthday, he visited a temple with his mother and wore a gold Buddha around his neck.

Of the millions in America who watched the Masters on Sunday, only a small percentage are Buddhists. As a first-generation Chinese-American, I grew up with my family practicing some Buddhist traditions. So I knew there was more to it than the “core values” statements Woods reiterated over and over through his public comments over the last two months. And I wasn’t going to grasp it by reading about it at home or listening to El Tigre.

My mother, who considers herself a Buddhist and meditates every once in a while, kept chiding me, saying I was being too critical of Woods and should forgive him. I tried to explain that wasn’t the point. He had disappointed and deceived so many people. How could we believe anything he said?

A lesson in meditation, she said, would help remove these negative feelings. My interest was surprisingly piqued.

Could understanding the power of meditation explain why, when Woods abandoned it, he turned into such a cad that he sent crude text messages to women not called Mrs. Woods? And what makes someone a Buddhist? Coincidentally, a meditation retreat taught by Fa Yao started the upcoming weekend. Sign me up! Gulp.

For three days, a before-dawn wakeup call came from the banging of a gong. With very little human contact and no food after noon, we listened to lectures about Buddhism and practiced (or tried) meditation for most of the waking hours. It’s not easy. My legs and back ached from sitting in the proper posture just 15 minutes into a 3-hour session. (It’s karmic suffering, and we have to train our minds to will it away, Fa Yao said.)

The first technique taught actually was applicable to my attempt to feel compassion for Woods: I first had to visualize myself being happy, then go through the same exercise with close family and friends. Eventually, I worked my way all the way to someone like Tiger Woods.

So what could Buddhism, and meditation, do for him?

“[Woods] can study morality, establish focus and avoid distractions, which will help him see everything in a clearer manner,” Fa Yao said. “With a clear mind, he can understand what he did to hurt others and learn more about himself through the Buddhist teachings. Then he will have less anxiety and concerns and be able to see reality more clearly in the present and make better decisions.”

So is there a specific type of meditation that helps recovering sex addicts cope?

“There’s a technique called ’32 Body Parts,'” Fa Yao said. “He needs to understand the body is a component of 32 different parts — the eyes are one part, the heart is one part, the nose [is] one part. Then when he visualizes them that way, he won’t be aroused and won’t think about the beautiful form.”

On Monday of the Masters, when he was asked whether he might have played even more brilliantly during his career had he not drifted from his principles, Woods replied: “I would like to say yes. I would be more centered, more balanced, and that’s what I’m headed toward. I just lost that and unfortunately lost my life in the process.”

As a Buddhist would acknowledge, Woods has made progress just by identifying his mistake, which is the first step on the journey to regaining his center. Interestingly, the word “meditation” in Tibetan is “gom,” which literally means “becoming familiar with” or “getting used to,” Bradley said.

When Woods made his way to the first tee in the opening round at Augusta National, he looked different — perhaps it was the small army shadowing him to deflect the slim possibility of unseemly disturbances, or perhaps it was the nervous smile on his face.

Throngs of spectators flocked to watch with tense anticipation, politely applauding. No one knew what to expect from the “new Tiger.” He had endured rehab (but won’t say for what), and seemed calmer and friendlier.

Moments before his 1:42 tee time Thursday, a slight disruption came from the skies. A small plane hovered above, carrying a banner that asked, “Tiger: Did you mean Bootyism?”

Woods denied ever seeing the plane and instead striped a perfect drive down the middle. He sauntered down the fairway and didn’t forget to acknowledge the crowd, smile and utter thank-yous.

In the final round, other than a “Jesus!” and a “Come on, Tiger!” comment, he stifled his notorious tantrums despite playing the first five holes in 3-over par.

Near the end of a tumultuous Sunday, Woods flew the pin on the 17th green. He scolded himself with an indignant “Tiger!” and turned away before passing off the club to his caddie.

Five months ago, that club might have gone flying into the gallery followed by a series of expletives. But this Tiger stopped himself and looked down — maybe at the Buddhist bracelet (which he said is for strength and protection) that he started wearing on his left wrist.

As the week progressed, the mental fatigue caught up with Woods. He showed less poise and composure, but he refrained from dropping f-bombs and chucking clubs. At times he let the club hit the ground with disgust, but certainly more delicately than “old Tiger.”

Sure, Woods blurted out some choice words over the weekend, but even his reactions to good shots didn’t have the same gusto. Even in the final round when he holed out for eagle on the seventh hole, he seemed subdued. There were no crazy fist pumps as in the past. He simply threw both arms in the air and smiled. Overall, he stayed relatively even-keeled.

Woods wasn’t flawless, but contrary to what some critics believe, he didn’t necessarily flout the pledge to tone down his emotions on both extremes. He promised he would “try” to hold back his negative outbursts.

When he slipped, he was reacting naturally to hitting poor tee shots. Do we want Woods to turn into someone he’s not? (Which, mind you, would probably be more offensive than the foul language.) We just don’t want him to be a jerk.

Tiger isn’t going to wake up and miraculously be rid of all his bad habits — ones that have been 34 years in the making. Perhaps we should remember that and give Woods a bit of a break.

Oh, wow. Did I just write that? The meditation retreat must be working.

[Stephanie Wei: ESPN]
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