Tampa, Fla: When Fox News analyst Brit Hume suggested last weekend that Tiger Woods turn to Jesus to deal with his sins, critics argued that Hume showed little knowledge about Buddhism, the faith that has been a major influence in the golfer’s life.
“I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith,” Hume said. “So my message to Tiger would be, “Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”
That rankled many American Buddhists, who say Hume is missing the point of the 2,500-year-old Eastern faith.
“I think it’s ridiculous to make those statements,” said Robert Thurman, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University. “It is insulting to Buddhism to indicate that Buddhism doesn’t take care of its own believers and followers. But I think he will discover that Buddhists are very forgiving about his stupid statements.”
Woods, a married father of two, hasn’t been seen since a bizarre Thanksgiving weekend car crash outside his Florida home unleashed a torrent of reports about his numerous alleged mistresses.
On Monday during an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, Hume addressed the topic again, but didn’t apologize to Buddhists: “My sense about Tiger is that he needs something that Christianity, especially, provides and gives and offers. And that is redemption and forgiveness.”
Woods’ spokesman declined comment for this story. But in past interviews Woods credited his mother and her Thai Buddhism with giving him the focus needed on the golf course and throughout his life, about how it teaches that people have to work out their own problems.
“I believe in Buddhism. Not every aspect, but most of it,” Woods told Sports Illustrated in 1996. “So I take bits and pieces. I don’t believe that human beings can achieve ultimate enlightenment, because humans have flaws.”
Sex scandals in American society are nothing new, of course, and the Christian faith of many of the fallen is mentioned with their revelations. In the last couple years, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, former presidential candidate John Edwards and Nevada Sen. John Ensign are a few of the recent examples of men who have cheated on their wives. All spoke of their faith in God and Jesus and finding forgiveness in the wake of the affairs.
So how do the world’s 350 million Buddhists deal with infidelity, marital strife and sin?
They follow the example of Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—a wealthy prince they believe became enlightened in the sixth century B.C.
“Buddhism starts with the premise that we suffer,” said James Shaheen, editor and publisher of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine. “At the foundation of Buddhism is ethics. An ethical life leads to a life of less suffering.”
Buddhism’s code of personal conduct is just as strong as other major religions: followers should not kill, steal, gossip, use intoxicants like drugs or alcohol or commit sexual misconduct.
“Adultery is as much of a sin in Buddhism as it is in Christianity,” Thurman said. “The ethics are the same in both traditions. Adultery is a sin and causes the kinds of problems that Tiger Woods is in.”
Where many Westerners stumble is that Buddhists’ definition of sin—and what happens after it—differs from the Judeo-Christian tradition, as the consequences of Buddhists’ actions are a result of a person’s thoughts and deeds rather than divine punishment. Believers have to look to themselves and turn to an ethical way of life for redemption, although there are savior figures within the faith who do their best to help a Buddhist in need. There is no one, omnipotent “creator god” to bestow redemption as in Christianity.
Said Stephen Prothero, a Boston University professor on Buddhism and the author of “Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know:”
“You have the law of karma, so no matter what Woods says or does, he is going to have to pay for whatever wrongs he’s done,” said Prothero. “There’s no accountant in the sky wiping sins off your balance sheet, like there is in Christianity.”
Certain Buddhist traditions believe that if a person misbehaves, he or she will be reborn into various realms of hell. Others believe the justice is much swifter, that the penalties will be suffered in this life.
“What causes you to do what Tiger Woods did is ignorance,” said James William Coleman, a professor of Buddhist studies at Cal Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “If you do what he’s done, it comes back and hurts you. You wouldn’t do that if you weren’t ignorant.”
Brad Warner, a California-based Zen priest and the author of the book “Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate” suggests that Woods return to his Buddhism roots and become introspective.
“I would first tell him to sit with the problem, look into himself and try to see clearly for himself what he needs to do,” Warner said. “The problem is something he’s got to work out for himself.”