Recently, I’ve consumed some video about the 1970s–the decade of my coming of age, more or less. I watched the thrilling documentary Man on Wire, Saturday Night Fever (whatever you want to say about John Travolta, his dancing was amazing for this film), and the American Masters portrait of Billie Jean King.
I may review Man on Wire in a different post. Philpe Petit’s great feat begs the question of whether he was mindful when he was walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center and that would depend on how we define mindfulness.
I certainly don’t want to relive the disco era of the 70s, but I do want to talk about Billie Jean King (BJK). I was ten years old when she played Bobby Riggs in the historic Battle of the Sexes. I have a recollection of that event but at that young age I did not appreciate the significance of that event. The American Masters documentary of BJK was fascinating, touching, and inspiring. I did not realize what a great leader she has been for the Women’s Movement, for Title 9, and the LBGT community.
I don’t know whether BJK has any interest in mindfulness or the Buddha’s teachings. What I do know is that her life embodies the path the Buddha taught and since this path is universal, one doesn’t need to have an interest in Buddhism to be a Buddha.
We can look at the features of the Noble Eight Fold Path and how BJK has embodied these.
Right View: Her view of humanity is that everyone deserves equal treatment and opportunity and she has fought for this and succeeded in bringing this about for her entire life.
Right Thought: Since the age of twelve, she has been on a mission to include everyone based on the belief that everyone deserves it. Her life has embodied that mission. She recently received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, as a testament to her efforts. She aimed to keep her game on her side of the court, meaning she focused on “Getting my own act together and accepting responsibility for it.”
Right Speech: When she was outed in 1981, she held a news conference to tell her truth. She did this against the advice of her agent and family members and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsement money by acknowledging publicly that she had been in a lesbian relationship.
Right Action: Her life has been comprised of selfless actions aimed at furthering the goals of equality and opportunity. She formed the Women’s Tennis Association, advocated for equal pay for women in tennis, and many other projects.
Right Livelihood: Her life in tennis is a shining example of how one’s profession can be harnessed to do good in the world. She used her status as world’s number one tennis player to become the visible and active presence of the Women’s movement.
Right Effort: She has worked tirelessly towards her causes. She describes the events of 1973–a huge year in the women’s movement. During Wimbledon the WTA was formed and she says she only got three of four hours of sleep each night. Playing her matches was the only place she had respite from her activism. She beat Chris Evert for the title.
Right Mindfulness: Presumably BJK is very mindful when she played tennis. Her 21 Wimbledon titles are a testament to this. She says, “Once I tossed the ball up to serve, I had to be in the now. I had to be really present to what I was doing. Not thinking ahead or behind …”
Right Concentration: She was able to concentrate on beating Bobby Riggs during the circus that was the Battle of the Sexes. While Bobby Riggs made a spectacle of himself, BJK trained and prepared. She was able to focus on what was most important in the moment–playing tennis. She was playing for more than $100,000. The progress of the women’s movement hinged on this match. It would be a devastating setback if she could not beat her 55-year old male opponent.
BJK’s life is a great example of how life consistent with the teachings of the Buddha leads to a good life. Her ability to transcend her own needs to serve larger humanitarian goals and her ability to take responsibility for herself make her a true hero.
The documentary is currently available PBS and the American Masters website. You can also listen to a recent interview on Fresh Air .