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Home / Articles / Columnists / Life 101 /  The Koans of the Yogi, Berra
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Monday, November 2,2015

The Koans of the Yogi, Berra

By Cary Bayer  

In the Japanese tradition, mindblowing koans were used by Zen roshis to help liberate their students. In the American baseball tradition mind-blowing koans came from a yogi, the great yogi known as Berra. Leave it to a mind-mystifying Missouriborn/New York Yankee/Italian American Catholic with a Hindu yogi-sounding name who invoked Japanese Zen koans to die recently on Yom Kippur, the highest holy day in the Jewish calendar. He was always outside the box.

The most famous koan -“What is the sound of one hand clapping?" like all others has no rational answer. They were designed to confound the mind, to snap it, as it were, into a higher realm of Being. Socrates said that, "You have to lose your mind to come to your senses.” Yogi Berra seemed to sense this when he spoke about the mind, saying: “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” His math certainly has us scratching our heads.

While his famous Yogi-isms sometimes make us lose our minds, he certainly helped the Yankees win. His 10 World Series rings are the most of any player in major league baseball history. From 1950 - 1956, he finished fourth or higher in the balloting for MVP in the American League. Three times he was named the A.L.’s most valuable player, but many times over, he’s been named the English language’s most valuable slayer.

Malaprops or Maya Busters?

On one level, Yogi was clearly a master of malaprops, a niche he shared with the daffy Gracie Allen and the zany Chico Marx. But perhaps he was baseball’s master of Maya busting, as well. Maya is the Sanskrit term for the illusion of the human condition - our higher nature asleep and somehow thinking we’re smaller than we are, like an amnesiac king who behaves like a beggar. While we laugh at the absurdity of Yogi’s malaprops, some of them aren’t so crazy after all.

The Journey

Yogis help their students on their spiritual journeys. So, it’s not surprising that this Yogi would say a few things about the nature of the journey, as well. To wit: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Or: “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.” On the journey there are often important decisions to be made, so “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And if you do take that fork, you feel secure that you’re moving swiftly along, but when a fellow traveler told Yogi that it seemed as if they were lost, Yogi replied: “Yeah, but we’re making great time!” It’s hard to argue with that. He also discourages the use of certain provisions for the journey. “Why buy good luggage?” he asked. “You only use it when you travel.”

The Now and the Future

Eckhart Tolle wrote about the power of now, but to Yogi the Now isn’t the Now everyone sees. When asked what time it was, his response was unforgettable: “You mean now?” He could be as obtuse about the future as he was about the present: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” It’s hard to argue with that kind of wisdom.


Any true yogi, who can be mystifying about life, can also be mystifying about death. The Yogi Berra was no exception: “You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t go to yours,” he advised. It makes good sense. He must have even confounded the Angel of Death as he, no doubt, confounded his wife Carmen when she asked him about burial plans if he should die before her, saying, “Yogi, you are from St. Louis, we live in New Jersey, and you played ball in New York. If you go before I do, where would you like me to have you buried?” Yogi replied, “Surprise me.”

It’s possible that as much as he blew the minds of the living, he might even blow the minds of the dead who he meets up with in the afterlife. Especially if you consider this famous Yogi-ism: “Are you dead yet?” This Lawrence Peter Berra may soon have St. Peter scratching his halo.


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