Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls, photographed in 1973 when he played for the New York Knicks. © NBA Photo Library.
Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls, photographed in 1973 when he played for the New York Knicks. © NBA Photo Library.

Big time sports is not normally viewed as a path to enlightenment. Most coaches are spiritual disciples of Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, who is reputed to have coined the phrase “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Not so Phil Jackson. A Buddhist practitioner for twenty years, he has revolutionized coaching by leading the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive National Basketball Association championships with a Zen approach to the sport that centers on awareness training, selfless teamwork, and “aggressiveness without anger.” Through meditation practice and other techniques, he teaches players to experience the joy of being in the moment and to blend their individual talents with the consciousness of the group. As he puts it, “Being aware is more important than being smart.”

Born in Deer Lodge, Montana, Jackson, 48, is the son of strict, fundamentalist Pentecostal ministers. While studying philosophy, psychology, and religion at the University of North Dakota, he flirted with the idea of going into the ministry himself. But his athletic gifts took over: he was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1967 and starred as a forward for them until 1978. His interest in spiritual matters resurfaced in his early thirties when his playing career was winding down. During the 1974 off-season, some friends in Montana who had studied at the Mount Shasta Abbey introduced him to Zen practice. “It helped me get through a difficult time in my life,” he says. “For me, the loss of playing basketball was tremendous. It was a death—a process very few people go through, except professional athletes. It was good to go through it with the support of a belief system and a form of meditation, to come to grips with myself as a person.”

Jackson, who carries Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind with him everywhere, continued to practice Zen meditation and yoga after he retired in 1980 (after two years with the New Jersey Nets) and discovered that the knowledge he had learned on the cushion could be useful in his next career: coaching. I caught up with him on the road earlier in the season. A few months earlier, the Bulls’ star Michael Jordan, had retired from the game, and Jackson was trying to formulate a vision for his new team. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Hugh Delehanty, a senior editor at People Magazine.

Tricycle: How would you describe your spiritual practice?

Jackson: I use the term “Zen Christian” to describe my personal beliefs, because I still like to think of the Christian precepts I learned as a child as the basis of how I live. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—what I call the dispensation of grace, the idea that love is an all conquering force. The Zen part is living in the moment—that brings the now into Christianity, which most of the time is focused on heaven and hell. A combination of the two makes sense to me, because I think practice is what Christ was doing when he stepped away from his disciples and became one with the Father.

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