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Simulating Liberation: The Tibetan Buddhist Game “Ascending the [Spiritual] Levels”Jens Schlieter

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  • Simulating Liberation: The Tibetan Buddhist Game Ascending the [Spiritual] Levels

    Jens Schlieter

    This contribution examines the soteriological conception of the Tibetan/ Ne-pali Buddhist game ascending the [spiritual] levels (sa gnon rnam bzhags), a game that belongs to the group of Chutes and Ladders board games. Already in medieval India, these games were used by various traditions for the purpose of demonstrating soteriological paths. The Tibetan game visualizes the respec-tive characteristics (including the effectiveness and the dangers) of different Buddhist spiritual paths. By applying ludological and narrative approaches taken from recent methodological discussions of digital games, the contribu-tion discusses the question of whether the structure of the game can be de-scribed by the logic of simulation, narration, or both. Given that the game induces that its Buddhist players identify themselves with their individual way through the game (with the workings of karma?), and that karma in this game is determined by throwing a cubic die (so, by mere chanceat least from an etic perspective), the game may modify or even subversively undermine a certain conception of karma. Finally, the soteriological nature of the game can be taken as a hermeneutic tool for a broader perspective, namely, the pos-sible analysis of the religious ludology of other primarily non-religious board games.

    Every Game is its Rules.

    David Parlett, The Oxford History of Board Games

    The differentiation of levels and paths, And even the attainment of Buddhahoodall these

    Are of conventional reality and are not ultimate.

    Having understood this kind of distinction, If you are going to practice rites, practice them all

    Otherwise, forgo them all.

    Sakya Paita, A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes

    AXMaschinengeschriebenen Text[appeared in: Maya Burger, Philippe Bornet. eds. Religions in Play. Games, Rituals, and Virtual Worlds. Zuerich: Pano, 2012: 93-116]

  • Jens Schlieter07*2

    1. The Game Ascending the [Spiritual] Levels or, Simulating Liberation

    I will focus on the soteriological conception of the Tibetan/ Nepali Bud-dhist game ascending the [spiritual] levels (sa gnon rnam bzhags).1 This game, supposedly designed by the famous Tibetan scholar-monk Sa skya paita Kun dga rgyal mtshan (11821251) on the basis of an Indian/ Nepali

    game called ngapa (Ngas [snakes] and dice, or: Nga-traps), belongs to the group of Chutes and Ladders board games. Already in medieval India, these games were used for the purpose of demonstrating soterio-logical paths, e.g., the Jain variant Game of Wisdom, Gyan Chaupar/ jn chaupr, or the Hindu Bhakti variant board of liberation, moka-paa.2 At first view, this soteriological dimension has been lost in the journey of the game to the West.

    The Tibetan Buddhist game board with its up to 104 squares simulates the spiritual paths not only of the three major Buddhist vehicles (hear-ers, bodhisattvas, and Tantric adepts), but also of Hindu, Bon, and Muslim traditions. Each move in the game, determined by casting a die, symbolizes the karma of the player, taking him up or down, and, finally, propels him to reach nirvana. Combining fun with didactics, the game demonstrates how final liberation can be achieved only by the two Mahayana Buddhist paths (bodhisattva- and vajra-yna). All other paths, including the Buddhist Hinayana vehicle, end in blind alleys. Scrutinized more thoroughly, the game visualizes a specific interpretation of the effectiveness, as well as the risks and dangers, of the two Mahayana paths. In the initial phase of the game, players are confronted with asynchronous, highly contingent ups and downs; later in the game, safer moves show how advanced Mahayana Buddhists canin this worldenjoy the fruits of their practice as well

    as the certainty of final liberation in the future.More specifically, I will try to answer the following questions:(1) Focusing on the soteriological time schedule, or time manage-

    ment offered for the different liberation paths, I will try to show how the design of this game fulfils its task.

    (2) Applying ludological and narrative approaches taken from recent methodological discussions of digital games, I will discuss the question of

    1 I would like to thank my colleagues Karnina Kollmar-Paulenz and Frank Neu-bert for helpful comments.

    2 See Topsfield 2006a: Instant karma, 79.

  • Simulating Liberation 07*3

    whether the structure of the game can be described by the logic of simu-lation, or the logic of narration, or both.

    (3) Finally, I would like to discuss how the attraction and fun of this game can be contextualized in relation to Buddhist practice. Should we conclude that this game primarily functions as a pedagogical means to visualize the different paths and their inner temporalitybeing noth-ing more than an illustration? The simulation approach may point to another aspect: Given that (a) the game induces that its Buddhist players (at least to a certain degree) identify themselves with their individual way through the game (with the workings of karma?), and that (b) the karma in this game is determined by throwing a cubic die (so, by mere chanceat

    least from an etic perspective), one may ask if this game modifies or even subversively undermines a certain conception of karma. If this holds true, we may conclude that this game simulates contingent workings of karma (traditionally, the wholesome or negative qualities of actions performed with the mind, mouth, or body), but, by simulating it incompletely, opens up the possibility of a less causal interpretation of karma. Finally, the apparent religious nature of the game can be taken as a hermeneutic tool for a broader perspective, namely, the possible analysis of the religious ludology of other well-known non-religious board games.

    2. Buddhism, Chance, and Board Games

    Generally speaking, games and plays do not score high in the Early Bud-dhist tradition. The most famous example seems to be the passage from the Brahmajla Sutta, D I:

    Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to such games and idle pursuits as eight- or ten-row chess, chess in the air, hopscotch,

    spillikins, dicing, hitting sticks, [] ball games [], playing with toy wind-mills, [] guessing letters, [] the ascetic Gotama refrains from such idle pursuits (D I.7).3

    A number of other passages in the Pali canon display a critical attitude toward games and play, focusing, for example, on the possible ruinous effect

    3 Walshe 1995: The Long Discourses, 70.

  • Jens Schlieter07*4

    of gambling,4 or the stereotype of the betraying dice-player.5 Even later, in a play of draka, Mcchakaika (Little Clay Cart, around 400 AD), a strong dichotomy between the teachings of the Buddha and the engagement in games can be observed. This play depicts a miserable, poor dice player who turns to the doctrine of the Buddha with the words Im fed up with

    the life of a gambler. Ive made up my mind to become a Buddhist monk!

    Please remember always when the wretched masseur-turned-gambler took to the life of religion (End of act II).6

    However, even Gautama the young Buddha-to-be seems to have enjoyed gaming and playing, as the hagiographical account of the Nidnakath narrates. Observing the activities of the sixteen-year old, people spread rumors in his family: Siddhatta is constantly absorbed in playing; he does not learn even one of the arts. What will he do if a violent conflict arises?7

    Important aspects for the questions raised here can be drawn from certain texts which bring together the fortune of the play with karma. A very interesting passage from the Aguttara-Nikya uses the metaphor of a dice game for the workings of karma:

    Just as a perfect throw of dice, when thrown upwards, will come to rest firmly wherever it falls, similarly, due to those tainted failures in liv-ing caused by unwholesome volition, beings will be reborn in the plane of misery, in a bad destination, in the lower world, in hell [8]. I declare, monks, that actions willed, performed and accumulated will not become extinct as long as their results have not been experienced, be it in this life, the next life or in subsequent future lives (A X. 206).9

    4 Compare SN 6.9 (S I.186), Tudu Brahm Sutta: Trifling the evil luck of one / Who by the dice doth lose his wealth. / But greater far his evil luck, / [] / Who gainst the Blessed Saints on earth / Doth set his heart at enmity (Rhys Davids 1993: The Book of Kindred Sayings, Part I, 188).

    5 See, for instance, Jtakas 62 and 91, or Dgha Nikya 23, where game, play (p. kana), and akkha (vedic ak, game; die) are described in that way; compare additionally Lders 1907: Das Wrfelspiel im alten Indien.

    6 Basham 1994: The Little Clay Cart, 52.7 My translation; Pali text in Fausbll 1990: The Jtaka Together with its Commen-

    tary, vol. I, 63: siddhattho kpasutova vicarati, na kici sippa sikkhati, sagme paccupahite ki karissat; compare Jayawickrama 1990: The Story of Gotama Buddha, 78, who translates he passes his days in the enjoyment of pleasures.

    8 This equation makes sensetraditional Indian dice had just four significant sides (a long-sided die).

    9 Tr. by Nyanaponika Thera 1990: Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, 267.

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    Although the simile of the perfect throw might eventually derive from non-Buddhist literature, it is used here to visualize the workings of karma. The simile compares the incalculable contingency of a throw arriving at a definite state with the (allegedly incalculable) failure of unwholesome human behavior resulting likewise in a definite staterebirth in hell. Un-derstanding karma and rebirth in terms of the good fortune or bad luck