The Buddha Does Not Play Dice

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Einstein, unhappy about claims of an uncertain universe, famously said 'God does not play dice.' The scientist, later proved wrong, was referring to dice as an aleatory game that he certainly could not see God playing. Moving over from monotheism to the Hindu pantheon, the story is different. Apparently, the universe and everything in it is the product of the divine game of dice that paintings all over India depict Shiva and his consort, Parvati, playing. Here's an extreme contrast, however: the Buddha not only does not play dice, he is against playing almost anything at all. A while ago now, Jesper Juul, who has been besides an authority on many aspects of game studies, a very perceptive thinker on the history of games, raised the question about why the Buddha took such a stand. Way back in 2007, Juul asked the following question in his blog, The Ludologist:
Why wouldn’t he play them? Without going into theology I know nothing about (and without offending anyone), my understanding is that Buddha could not have been a sore loser, so it must have to do with the more formal properties of the games themselves. Neither rules ( board games sized 8 or 10), fiction (toy windmills), nor ilinx escape criticism.
So this I’d like to know: which games would he play, and why?
I met Jesper for the second time shortly afterwards while I was presenting a paper on Indic philosophy's treatment of Karma and how it relates to videogames. He asked me about the roots of ancient Indian games and I realised that I knew very little about my own culture, courtesy my very  colonial education. The Buddha's attitude to games was something that I stumbled upon in Juul's blog and it has bothered me since. Today, after Paolo Pedercini tweeted the same question  nine years later, there are many posts on my Facebook feed about the Buddha and games. Some are flippant and some are genuinely curious. After all, it is difficult to imagine the 'cool' notion of the ever-tolerant Buddha (whether  depicted as laughing or sombre) to be against the very principle of play. Look on the discussion forums and you are certain to come across Buddhists asking whether it is wrong for them to play videogames because of the violence in some of them (that is against the Buddhist Ahimsa or non-violence). To stop play altogether, though? Now that's a tough one. 

[Buddhas Playing a Game by Willie Kendrick III,]

To answer Juul's question (and everyone else's), the key thing to consider the full import of what the Buddha says. The writer of an article on this in Wikipedia quotes the Brahmajjala Sutta (Sutras are the holy and philosophical texts of Buddhism - the  Heart Sutra is one of the more commonly discussed ones in the West). The Buddha states the following about boardgames:
"Or he might say: "Whereas some honorable recluses and brahmins, while living on food offered by the faithful, indulge in the following games that are a basis for negligence:[1]aṭṭhapada (a game played on an eight-row chess-board); dasapada (a game played on a ten-row chess-board); ākāsa (a game of the same type played by imagining a board in the air); parihārapatha ("hopscotch," a diagram is drawn on the ground and one has to jump in the allowable spaces avoiding the lines); santika ("spellicans," assembling the pieces in a pile, removing and returning them without disturbing the pile); khalika (dice games); ghaṭika(hitting a short stick with a long stick); salākahattha (a game played by dipping the hand in paint or dye, striking the ground or a wall, and requiring the participants to show the figure of an elephant, a horse etc.); akkha (ball games); paṅgacīra (blowing through toy pipes made of leaves); vaṅkaka (ploughing with miniature ploughs); mokkhacika (turning somersaults); ciṅgulika (playing with paper windmills); pattāḷaka (playing with toy measures); rathaka (playing with toy chariots); dhanuka (playing with toy bows); akkharika(guessing at letters written in the air or on one's back); manesika (guessing others' thoughts); yathāvajja (games involving mimicry of deformities) — the recluse Gotama abstains from such games and recreations.'
That's a long list of games, everyone has commented. So why does he not like them? The truth is that the Wikipedia list does a half-job of it all. What the Buddha says is more like this:

It is, monks, for elementary, inferior matters of moral practice   that the worldling would praise the Tathágata. And what are these elementary, inferior matters for which the worldling would praise him? [...] Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins … remain addicted to attending such shows as dancing,  singing,  music, displays, recitations, hand-music, cymbals and drums, fairy-shows,  acrobatic and conjuring tricks, combats of elephants, buffaloes, bulls, goats, rams, cocks and quail, fighting with staves, boxing, wrestling, sham-fights, parades, maneuvers and military reviews, the ascetic Gotama refrains from attending such displays. 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, 'hand-pictures', ball-games, blowing through toy pipes, playing with toy ploughs, turning somersaults, playing with toy windmills, measures, carriages, and bows, guessing letters,  guessing thoughts,  mimicking deformities, the ascetic Gotama refrains from such idle pursuits.
Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to high and wide beds and long chairs, couches adorned with animal figures,  fleecy or variegated coverlets, coverlets with hair on both sides or one side, silk coverlets, embroidered with gems or without, elephant-, horse- or chariot-rugs, choice spreads of antelope-hide, couches with awnings, or with red cushions at both ends, the ascetic Gotama refrains from such high and wide beds. [...] There are, monks, other matters, profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise, which the Tathágata, having realized them by his own super-knowledge, proclaims, and about which those who would truthfully praise the Tathágata would rightly speak. (My italics)
The full comment is often ignored. The Buddha isn't talking about hating a few games and listing them; he's saying that it is worldly people who praise him from abstaining from these games just as they praise him for not going to dances or boxing matches. Let's get one thing clear. The Buddha doesn't have a special grudge against board-games. As the prince Siddhartha in Kapilavastu (in modern Nepal), we know that he did let loose an arrow in an archery contest (something he has purportedly criticised in his list of games). What he is saying something very different. 

The world may think that the Buddha doesn't play games because they are immoral and cause people to neglect their work but the Buddha is not everyone else. That much we can agree to, certainly, right? In fact, the moral rectitude that the worldly people might praise him for is the least of their problems that the Buddha points out. They also wonder about the mutability of the self, the finiteness and the infiniteness of the world and things thought to be profounder than whether not playing games also means not neglecting your work and being morally correct. 

What the Buddha is all about is what he states at the end of the long and complex discourse in the sutra
There are, monks, other matters, profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise, which the Tathágata, having realized them by his own super-knowledge, proclaims, and about which those who would truthfully praise the Tathágata would rightly speak.
In the beginning of the text, he hears two of his monks defending him against the fierce criticism of someone who does not believe in his teachings. In this long and detailed answer, the Buddha expresses the nature of Buddhahood: something that is beyond thought and part of his own super-knowledge. The understanding of the Buddha or the Tathagata (literally 'he who has come' or 'he who has gone', the name the Buddha refers to himself by) transcends all of these. The Buddha is at perfect peace and 'having understood as they really are the origin and the passing away of feelings, their satisfaction, their unsatisfactoriness, and the escape from them, the Tathāgata, bhikkhus, is emancipated through non-clinging.'

The Buddha, or the Enlightened One, is beyond games but only because he is beyond anything worldly. There are accounts where boardgames are a major part of Buddhist learning. Consider, for example, the Buddhist monk Sakya Pandit's creation of the Tibetan Game of Liberation to teach the notion of karma to his co-religionists. Jens Schlieter has an essay on the game that I'd strongly recommend. 

In a recent talk that I plan to turn into a paper, I plan to explore this with a few discoveries that will potentially add to Schlieter's research and make clearer links with game studies. For that, I will have to tell you about my adventures in Rochester - in the next blog post, perhaps. 

* I've been a bit lazy with the citations but the quotes have been taken from the translation (from Pali) by Bhikkhu Bodhi (available here: and another translation that is available here;
** I am grateful to Annika Waern and Mohini Freya Dutta for raising this in their respective Facebook posts.

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