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Tiger Woods' apology brings new attention to Buddhism

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN
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'I had affairs, I cheated'
  • Woods: "People probably don't realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist"
  • Golf great, addressing controversy on Friday, says he had "drifted" from his faith
  • "Woods was quite accurate" in his summation of Buddhism, one scholar says
  • After affairs made news, Fox's Brit Hume publicly urged Woods to embrace Christianity

(CNN) -- When Tiger Woods invoked his religious faith during his public apology on Friday, he readily acknowledged that a lot of people would be surprised.

"People probably don't realize it," he said, "but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years."

But Woods said his Buddhist faith would be a key part of his quest to put his life back together after revelations of his marital infidelity, which he admitted for the first time. Buddhist experts said Woods' summation of the tradition's beliefs was accurate -- and that his remarks likely will bring more attention to the faith in a week when its highest profile leader, the Dalai Lama, is visiting the United States.

"I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it," Woods said, reading a statement from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. "Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age."

"Buddhism teaches that a craving of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security," he continued. "It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught."

A handful of Buddhist scholars said Woods' description of Buddhist teaching was spot on. "Woods was quite accurate," said Janet Gyatso, a professor of Buddhist studies at Harvard University. "Craving causes unhappiness. That's a fundamental Buddhist idea."

A 1996 Sports Illustrated profile suggested that Woods -- then in his early 20s -- took his faith seriously. He visited a Buddhist temple with his mother each year around his birthday, slept near a mother-of-pearl Buddha from his Thai grandfather, and wore a gold Buddha around his neck, according to the profile. Woods' mother, Kultilda, is a Thai-born Buddhist.

"I like Buddhism because it's a whole way of being and living," Tiger Woods told Sports Illustrated. "It's based on discipline and respect and personal responsibility. I like Asian culture better than ours because of that."

When allegations of Woods' infidelity began emerging after a November 27 car accident, Fox News Channel host Brit Hume stirred controversy by publicly advising the golf pro to become a Christian.

Introduction to Buddhism
  • Tiger Woods
  • Buddhism
  • Dalai Lama

"He's said to be a Buddhist -- 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."

But Buddhist scholars say that forgiveness and redemption are core components of the faith. "You're always beginning again in the Buddhist tradition," said John Kornfield, a prominent Buddhist teacher based in California. "You see that you're causing harm, you repent and ask forgiveness in some formal or informal way, and you start again."

Some Buddhism experts said that's what Woods appeared to be trying to do today. Many Buddhists applauded Woods' statement. "The fact that people could see this kind of behavior causes suffering is an incredibly important message for all kinds of people who respect Woods," said Kornfield.

Buddhism was in the spotlight this week before Woods' remarks, with the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama -- a Buddhist -- meeting with President Obama in Washington on Thursday.

Buddhism is among the world's largest religions, with about 350 million adherents, including about 1.2 million in the United States, according to a 2009 report by Trinity College. The faith began in India about 2,500 years ago.