James Wallis levels with you

Buddha buddha buddha

When I first read this list of the games that Gautama Buddha apparently said he wouldn’t play (via Ludologist) I reckoned it was 40% likely to turn out to be an elegant practical joke on Buddhists, games theorists and historians, and those who take Wikipedia entries at face value. Well, it turns out it’s the real deal, it’s from the Samaaphala Sutta (‘The Fruits of the Contemplative Life’), the second sutta of the Digha Nikaya, or ‘Collection of Long Discourses’.

Either that or it’s a really impressive bit of meme-seeding for a new ARG.

Assuming it’s real, does it tell us anything of actual interest about either Buddha or the state of games and play 2500 years ago? It really doesn’t translate well to contemporary games. Number three in the list (‘Marking diagrams on the floor such that the player can only walk on certain places’) covers both hopscotch and Dance Dance Revolution, while number six (‘Hitting a short stick with a long stick’) means that Buddha frowns on pretending to be Luke Skywalker. And what are we to make of 9 (‘Playing with toy pipes made of leaves’) and 10 (‘Ploughing with toy plough’)?

If you want to read the piece in its context, it’s in the Intermediate Section on Virtue, almost exactly half-way down this page amidst a list of the things that the Buddha, or at least one of his virtuous followers, should not do. (The Buddha is describing the path to virtue to King Ajatasattu. Read the whole thing, it’s good and there’s a sucker-punch twist in the penultimate line.) Mostly it’s a very long list of things you shouldn’t do if you want to be virtuous. What the whole thing doesn’t say is why playing games is antithetical to the path to virtue.

My guess is that the rest of the Sutta explains how to remove distractions and temptations from one’s existence, and then from one’s life, and childish things like throwing dice or hitting a stick with another stick are easy and early steps to suggest that people give up, before they get onto the harder bits. That’s not necessarily an insult to games: the first thing the potential devotee is instructed to drop is sex.

However, if you read on a bit, you get to step four on the way to enlightenment, the Four Jhanas, the first two of which involve trying to reach a form of bliss derived from the absence of directed thought and concentration. Call me big-headed, but I know that bliss. Think to those rare but memorable moments of gameplay where you’re not just in the zone, in a conventional flow-state, but you’re so completely in the game that you’re not thinking about your actions, there’s no conscious process of control, not even any conscious process of play, your mind is completely at rest, you’re totally inhabiting your avatar and your avatar has the power of God….

So don’t blame Buddha for not knowing how games were going to evolve over two and a half millenniums. I reckon that if he was here today, sitting in the mango-grove of Jivaka Komarabhacca with his 1250 followers, they’d be having one heck of a LAN party.

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  1. David Dunham says:

    It also said wargames were to be avoided..

  2. james says:

    Yes, wargames are specifically mentioned in the paragraph above the one that breaks the games down into the list I describe. But they’re mentioned in the context of shows and entertainments that the virtuous should avoid watching. Traditional table-top wargamers are, I think, okay in that context though re-enactors and LARPers are damned along with the rest of us.

    The one that fascinates me is “chess in the air”, a game on a board of eight or ten squares, but played in the mind. Admittedly there’s argument about the translation, and I’ve listened to rare friends play mental chess, but it’s an extraordinary thing to appear second on the Buddha’s list.

  3. dok says:

    No toy windmills or quail fights? That’s buddhism spoiled forever as far as I’m concerned.

  4. RDL says:

    Dang. There goes my totally rad idea for a German-style board game in which you imitate deformities.

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