As sports fans know, the New York Yankees lost in the first round of the American League Championship Series. They had won the American League East Division, beating out that other team to the northeast, but fell to the Anaheim Angels, the winners of the American League West Division. So, no World Series for the Yankees this year. There is some consolation in a good end to the season, but an emptiness of sorts, knowing that the script just above home plate in Yankee Stadium that reads "26 time world champions," will not be revised upward to "27." Not this year, at least.
As readers of this blog know, I am a Yankees fan. I have also said that I have Taoist tendencies. So, how do I square these two apparently contradictory things?
To get at this question we need to break it into two: what would a Taoist see in sports? And why would a Taoist root for any particular team? The first is easier to answer than the second and both, together, will tell you how I can be a Taoist Yankee fan.
A Taoist would see much beauty in sports. The competition - who wins and who loses - is not important. Rather, the play itself, especially the most skillful and mature play, is what matters. When an athlete is "in the zone," moving perfectly to match the demands of the game, he or she has found a channel of Way (Tao), a wordless understanding of what the moment makes possible. Here is a rather long excerpt from Chuang Tzu (taken from an on-line translation by Lin Yutang) that illustrates this appreciation:
Prince Huei's cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every chhk of the chopper, was in perfect rhythm, --like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, like the harmonious chords of Ching Shou.
"Well done!" cried the Prince. "Yours is skill indeed!"
"Sire," replied the cook laying down his chopper, "I have always devoted myself to Tao, which is higher than mere skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me whole bullocks. After three years' practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. My mind works along without the control of the senses. Falling back upon eternal principles, I glide through such great joints or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not even touch the convolutions of muscle and tendon, still less attempt to cut through large bones.
"A good cook changes his chopper once a year, -- because he cuts. An ordinary cook, one a month, -- because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. Indeed there is plenty of room for the blade to move about. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the whetstone.
"Nevertheless, when I come upon a knotty part which is difficult to tackle, I am all caution. Fixing my eye on it, I stay my hand, and gently apply my blade, until with a hwah the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper and stand up, and look around, and pause with an air of triumph. Then wiping my chopper, I put it carefully away."
"Bravo!" cried the Prince. "From the words of this cook I have learned how to take care of my life."
An athlete is just like that cook: he or she has taken years and years to master the movements of a sport. A great player's "mind works along without the control of the senses," reacting instinctively to the ball. When I see flawless and flowing double plays - Jeter lunging to his right to snare the ball, pivoting effortlessly and throwing on to Cano at second, who also perfectly catches, leaps, turns and throw to first for the second out - I think of Prince Huei's cook.
But while sports can be beautiful and Way-like, it is less evident why a Taoist would root for any particular team.
My first defense of Taoist Yankee fan-dom is to point out that Chuang Tzu and the Tao Te Ching do not expect the average person to always and everywhere live up to Way. Indeed, the Way of mankind is imperfect: we "adore twisty paths," as the Tao Te Ching says. And Chuang Tzu would just laugh if someone pointed out a person's inconsistencies. "Of course," he might reply,"Who is as simple as the uncarved block." In short, Taoism presents us with an ideal toward which we can move in our everyday behavior (do not be acquisitive; do not hold tight to expectation; etc.) . But we are not going to go to Hell if we fall short (for philosophic Taoists, there is no Hell). Indeed, falling short is a part of being human.
But that is really evading the question.
My second line of defense is to say that I can find the most beauty in the play of the Yankees. This is not to say (however much I may want to say) that they are always the most excellent team or that there is no beauty to be found in others. Rather, by following a particular team, one is able to see more deeply into the game, appreciate the finer moments and moves, apprehend more of the human drama involved. Here's an example:
I took my 11 year-old daughter to the Stadium this year, as I have done each year for the past four, and we watched an embarrassing Yankee loss. By the fifth inning it was evident that they were going to lose. Many people started to leave. We took advantage of this and moved down to the best seats we have ever had. By the bottom of the ninth, only the most fervent fans were left. We were down in the guts of Yankee-land. Only a truly extraordinary turn of events would salvage a victory, but, in a way, that hardly mattered. What was important was each moment as it unfolded. And the most remarkable moment came when Bernie Williams strode to the plate with two out and one on.
Now, Williams has been with the Yankees for 15 years. He was a centerpiece of the great World Series winners in the late nineties. This season, however, his skill has declined noticeably. He is at the end of his career. Yet when he stepped up to the plate, the crowd, now perhaps only 1/3 of its original size, brought forth a thunderous cheer: "Bernie, Bernie, Bernie..." The air was electric. It felt like a playoff game, even though it was likely a meaningless mid-season loss. The crowd was willing Bernie to hit a home run.
And Bernie was right there in the moment. On the third pitch, he swung and torqued his body sharply from left to right. The solid sound of bat on ball ripped into the night. From where we were sitting we could see perfectly as the ball arched high up along the right field foul line, drifting out into the field of play and, then, back toward foul territory, but never threatening to drop out of play. The long, high flight of the ball took it up into the lights and down into the right field seats. Home run. The stadium exploded, people jumped for joy as Bernie trotted around the bases.
Now, if I had not been a Yankee fan, I would never have seen in this moment the full beauty and meaning that it held. Being a Yankee fan allowed me to take in the totality of Way in that time and place. A particular attachment, in this case, brought me closer to Way.
Chuang Tzu warns us that these sorts of attachments will bring sorrow as well as joy. If we want to transcend the former, we need to sacrifice some of the latter as we give up on ephemeral connections. He is right. Being a fan does bring its sorrows (though rather small ones in the larger scheme of things). But, for me, my affinity for the Yankees showed me how the last inning of an apparently ignominious defeat could be the most stirring baseball moment I had ever experienced.
Wait 'til next year....