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Similarities and Differences Between Eastern and Western Sport

This is an excerpt from History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity 2nd Edition With HKPropel Access by R. Scott Kretchmar,Mark Dyreson,Matt Llewellyn & John Gleaves.

One of this chapter’s major themes is the tension between the similarities and the differences in the development of sport and other physical activities around the world. As you have seen, much sport is rooted in martial or military activity. In addition, many sporting activities test common abilities, such as speed, strength, power, ability to ride and control horses, or ability to throw a spear or shoot an arrow. You have also seen that sport has served similar functions in different cultures—for example, to promote certain religious world views, to highlight and celebrate a culture’s values, and to promote cultural cohesion.

At the same time, sport was organized, promoted, and experienced differently in different cultures. Indeed, in some ways, the purposes served by sport were notably different. This section of the chapter highlights some fundamental distinctions between the purposes, qualities, and conceptualizations of sport based on Eastern influences and of sport based on Western influences.

This is a dangerous exercise because geographically tethered influences are uneven and complex. For instance, Eastern cultures are themselves diverse; thus, they cannot be captured accurately with broad-brush generalizations. The same is true for the Western world; no particular size or influence fits all. Moreover, Eastern and Western influences intermingled to some degree. Even so, it is useful to examine differences at the extremes and notice factors that influenced diverse cultural traditions. Thus, for purposes of simplicity and clarity, we examine on one hand sporting traditions influenced by Eastern world views, particularly those of Zen Buddhism, and, on the other hand, traditions influenced by Western world views, particularly those based on Platonic dualism as found both in some versions of Christianity and in secular culture.

More specifically, we consider four aspects of competitive sport in order to notice differences in how sport is understood and experienced.

  1. Purposes of sport
  2. Relationships between strategies and actions
  3. Views of the opponent
  4. Meanings related to winning and losing

Purposes of Sport

If you asked people influenced by Western cultural traditions about the goal or purpose of competitive sport, most would describe it in terms of victory, being recognized as the best, or seeking a championship ring. In fact, one of the typical ethical tenets of Western sport calls for “trying one’s hardest”; after all, victory does not mean as much if an opponent is not trying to do his or her best. This view of sport assumes a zero-sum relationship between adversaries. That is, to the extent that my opponent succeeds, I fail, and vice versa. We each try to get more so that our opponent has less. Only one person or team wins.

Thus, winning and losing stand as contraries, opposites, mutually exclusive alternatives for sporting outcomes. In this paradigm, no one begins a game by trying to “sort of win”; in fact, there is no “sort of winning.” One either wins or loses. This dichotomy frames our understanding of competition. It defines our purposes. We want to win, not lose. Because of this, ego is noticeably present, and part of the joy of competition comes with the attribution of merit: “I did it,” says the victor. “We did it,” reports the winning team.

In this view, ties are regarded by many as nonevents, even as failed contests. Logically speaking, a tie is a valid and entirely comprehensible outcome; it simply means that two teams scored the same, even though it was not the intention of either one to do so. Perfectly matched teams, in fact, would be expected to produce more ties and fewer blowouts than poorly matched teams. Yet in most sports, ties are not allowed to stand. Instead, extra periods, shootouts, and all other manner of tiebreakers are used to reach what is considered a “real” verdict in our dichotomous understanding of competition. Games apparently do not count unless they culminate in a victory for one side—and a defeat for the other.

This is not the case in many Eastern cultures. If you asked a person in the Zen Buddhist tradition about the goal of sport, the answer might surprise you. It would likely not be framed in dichotomous terms. Eugen Herrigel, author of the delightful book Zen in the Art of Archery, studied his subject for years in Japan, where he was told that the target in spiritual archery was not the object at the far end of the range but rather himself. In other words, Herrigel was supposed to develop new insights, a kind of enlightenment, with the assistance of the archery discipline. Of course, he had to develop techniques that produced good shots, but, more importantly, he was also taught to breathe, concentrate, and respect the equipment. Thus, archery was framed not as a sport but as an art. Although victories might accompany perfection in the art, they were by-products of the mystical relationship between archer, bow, and target. Thus, after a successful competition, the archer would likely say, “The arrow shot itself.” No ego. Just harmony. Therefore, Herrigel would be more likely to bow to “it” rather than pat himself on the back.

Relationships Between Strategies and Actions

In Western traditions, we often think of sporting success as the result of another dichotomy or dualism, this one involving thinking and doing. In other words, we make plans mentally then carry them out physically. Mind first, body second. The mind is the pilot, and the body is the ship. Thus, in learning a skill, we think that we have to conceptualize proper technique first; imagine what a good movement looks like; and then try to act it out, practice it, and hopefully make it more automatic. Likewise, in competition, we assess the strengths of our opponent, put them up against our own abilities, formulate a rational strategy, and then (and only then) try to implement the strategy in the contest. This brand of sport is very cognitive. It posits that theory comes first and practice comes second. Moreover, it holds that the fastest route to good practice consists of sound insight, good propositions, and knowledge of how to play the game. In this schema, then, mind is superior to body.

In Eastern approaches, however, thinking and acting are not two distinct things. Instead, playing and competing well are all of one piece. You have already learned about complementation as an alternative to dichotomy in this book’s introduction. Under the rubric of complementation, a martial arts practitioner would experience learning and competition as “thinkingdoing” and “bodymind” or (returning to our earlier use of the tilde, or squiggle) as thinking~doing and body~mind. Thus, apprentice learning would take precedence over cognitive understanding. More specifically, emulation, repetition, breathing exercises, work on concentration, and the development of “feel” would replace the two-part pedagogical strategy of planning and then doing. Intuition would take precedence over explanation. Words and theory could be used to explain fine performances, but in this tradition, they are no substitute for the concrete know-how of the intuitively insightful athlete.

Views of the Opponent

Another set of dichotomies is also at work in Western versions of sport—self versus other, me versus you, our team versus their team, and the “good guys” versus the “bad guys.” Drama is added to the sporting experience by objectifying and sometimes demonizing one’s opponents. They are not just opponents—they are enemies! They stand between us and the coveted championship. The fact that meaningful competition requires an opponent—as well as collaboration and cooperation with that opponent—is either overlooked by, or lost on, many Western athletes who are focused on winning at any cost. In their view, the opponent is not a collaborator but a hindrance. As in war, the opponent is seen as someone who wants to get exactly what I want to get. One of us will live; the other will die. This is hardly an exaggerated characterization of competition in the West. As a result, in many of our sporting venues, we have to work hard to promote civility—between opposing players, between fans and officials, and between fans of one team and fans of another. We are told to behave decently, but we know that our opponents are not us. They are the “other.”

In contrast, the cosmology of Eastern thought is characterized less by difference and opposition and more by continuity. Moreover, the Eastern athlete strives to gain an enlightened experience of continuity. For Herrigel, this continuity occurred between himself, his bow and arrow, and the target—one harmonious whole. For those in judo, it includes oneself and one’s opponent. Paradoxically, the opponent and his or her energy are encountered as continuous with one’s own actions. Thus, competition is not so much done against as done with. The movements of the opponent are incorporated seamlessly and harmoniously into one’s own actions. It is a kind of mutual dance, a moving together. Such descriptions may not make sense to those of us from the West. They are, after all, not intellectual propositions to be accepted but rather spiritual or mystical truths to be encountered and experienced. This is why Herrigel spent years in Japan learning his art; it is also why many people today engage in Zen meditation and other spiritual practices for years on end. The eradication of ego-dominated living and dichotomous ways of thinking comes slowly.

Meanings Related to Winning and Losing

As noted, those of us raised in Western cultures are typically socialized to think of competitive outcomes in dualistic terms—as winning and losing. However, we all know intellectually that winning and losing occur by degrees. We can win and play well, or we can win and play poorly. We can win with an improved performance or without showing any improvement. We can win on the basis of luck, a referee’s errant call, or a display of superior skill. We can win easily or win a very close game. Yet, despite these differences of degree, these variations in performance, the “successful outcome” is still identified as a “W.” In short, we largely ignore one way of seeing or experiencing competition in favor of another way. We largely ignore the complexity of competitive experiences in favor of a dichotomous and more simplistic metric.

Those who compete from a Zen Buddhist stance might ask, “What is winning? What is losing?” It is their way of saying, “Who cares about this gross and misleading dichotomy?” Indeed, reality is far richer than that! For the Zen practitioner, no two victories and no two defeats are the same. Rather, they are intuited as the precise mixture of achievement and failure, of yin and yang, that they are. Because victory and defeat are continuous, there is no thing, no reified object, to fear. The Zen question of “What is defeat?” is not merely a rhetorical device or a glib response. It emanates from a different way of seeing the world.