I used to think that the Buddhist notion of renunciation meant giving up everything I loved and cared for in my life. Inspired (and confused) by the stories of Shakyamuni Buddha and Milarepa, I stitched together the belief that to be a Buddhist was to be entirely devoid of interests. So, in the pursuit of being a good Buddhist, I began to ruthlessly disown all the activities that gave my life substance. Naturally, my love for tennis was an easy target. I have been playing tennis since I was ten years old, and have devoted a tremendous amount of time, energy and (my parent’s) money towards the goal of mastering the sport. I never got close to the professional level but developed into an accomplished player worthy of competing at the college level. After pouring over the story of the Buddha’s departure from the palace, leaving his beloved wife and child behind, it felt all but obligatory for me to turn my back on tennis, and I tried to do just that. I viewed it as a waste of time, precious time that could be better spent towards the pursuit of enlightenment. Mind you I had no idea what pursuing enlightenment truly looked like, but I was just about certain it had nothing to do with chasing a yellow ball around a large rectangle for hours on end.
It’s funny to look back at the naïve young man I was, especially now that I have been coaching tennis for the past five years of my life. The drug of self-righteous striving was intoxicating enough to blind me to the hell realm I was inhabiting, a state of mind that rejected and attacked every bit of the abundant love that was available to itself. When I look back with a sober mind at how tennis has affected my life, I see a wealth of positive impacts. Tennis taught me how to be responsible for myself, how to regulate my emotions, how to overcome internal and external challenges, it provided me with many friendships, it offered me a wonderful source of income and fulfillment as a coach, it showed me heartbreak, joy…and so much more. In fact, without tennis I likely would never have found a home in the Dharma at all, as it was my sudden and miraculous loss of ability while competing in college that made me inquire about who I was. Eventually I realized it was a mistake to disown something that meant so much to me and I embraced it once more as an integral part of my life.
Upon coming back to the game, I felt I had to bring my meditation into my playing and coaching. Truth be told, I think my efforts made me worse at both. A contrived clinging to open and expansive experiences on the cushion provides no benefit in performing the instantaneous and instinctive reactions that are required to play tennis at a high level. Similarly, being soft-spoken and gentle is utterly useless in keeping six-year-old Justin from accidentally whacking five-year-old Rebecca in the face with his tennis racket.
Yet for a time I really did labor to be a ‘spiritual’ person in all aspects of my life, tennis included. Why did I feel the need to act that way? Why did I feel the need to renounce tennis in the first place? Because tennis represented a large piece of my humanity, and I thought the Buddhist path was one of becoming more than human. I thought dharma practice was a means for me to dispel my human vulnerabilities and transform into an extraordinary being. I am immensely grateful that I have come to see past that painful misunderstanding. I now understand that this path is about being completely human, with all the fallibility and uncertainty that comes with this birth. How to do just that seems to be the actual practice.
Nowadays while teaching tennis in the Colorado sun for eight hours or more, I don’t feel particularly mindful. In fact, I don’t feel as if I am spiritual at all. I do however feel like I am a good tennis coach. I am still trying to learn that this is okay, that normalcy is, well…normal. I do not have to be anything more than a tennis coach; I only need to completely be a tennis coach. Nobody will benefit from the weird guy who subtly tries to teach them about emptiness on a tennis court. The coach who really works, sweats, and aches to pass on the game of tennis though…he will have an impact. He will be of benefit. Unwittingly, he may open the door to a lifelong journey of physical, social, and mental development that centers around the tennis court. This was the case for me, and if it turns out to be the same for just one of my students then it is worth every drop of effort. I will try to remember this tomorrow when I glimpse the wonder in little Eli’s eyes after he hits a good forehand, right before I must be stern with him for intentionally blasting a ball into the parking lot.