The NBA And The Buddha: Discourse On The Loving Kindness Of The Player Formerly Known As Ron Artest

by Bob Schwartz

Just yesterday on an NBA broadcast, former Los Angeles Laker superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson stumbled over the name of current Laker star Ron “Metta World Peace” Artest. Those quote marks for Artest are imprecise. Magic is not Johnson’s real name; it is simply the nickname accorded to him for his achievements on the court. Metta World Peace is Artest’s legal name, since he changed it in September 2011.

Over the course of his career, the adjective most often used to describe Mr. World Peace is “eccentric.” Whether or not people keep track of these things, he may have had more different numbers than anyone in NBA history; his current number 37 is the number of weeks that Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was at the top of the charts.

Beyond eccentric, he has been involved in a number of infamous altercations. In April, his elbow to the head of Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden caused a concussion, and resulted in World Peace’s seven-game suspension. (The speculation that Harden’s beard, which is one of the most splendid in all of sports, may have set World Peace off is unsupported.)

Earvin was dubbed “Magic” for his abilities, following a high school game that featured his triple-double of 36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists. NBA player Lloyd Free got the nickname “World” growing up in Brooklyn, because of his skills going to the basket, including his 360-degree turns. In 1981 he made it official by changing his name to World B. Free.

Metta World Peace did not get his name by acclamation. It was presumably chosen to reflect something about the man and the player. World Peace seems pretty obvious. But what about Metta?

Metta is a Pali word used in Buddhism. It means kindness, friendliness or compassion. The text known as the Metta Sutta (The Buddha’s Discourse on Loving-Kindness) is one of the oldest in the Buddhist canon, and is recited daily by many Buddhist monks and lay people. Here is one of many translations of this beautiful and essential work, by Sharon Salzberg:

This is what should be done
By those who are skilled in goodness,
And who know the path of peace:

Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.

Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: in gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.

Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.

Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upward to the skies,
And downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.

By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

To move from one branch of Buddhism to another (the Metta Sutta belonging mainly to the Theravada, Zen being part of the Mahayana), it seems we are faced with a Zen koan, a paradox aimed at confounding our thinking into beyond thinking:

How and why would a man known for fits of violent confrontation take the names Metta and World Peace? Is it aspirational, a reminder to him of an ideal to reach or not reach, even as he was inflicting pain? Is it instructional, forcing people to look up and find the Metta Sutta, for the benefit of themselves and all beings? Or is it, as with all koans, never meant or able to be solved, by Ron Artest, Metta World Peace, or anyone?

May all beings be at ease!