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[appeared in: Maya Burger, Philippe Bornet. eds. Religions in Play.

Games, Rituals, and

Virtual Worlds. Zuerich: Pano, 2012: 93-116]

Simulating Liberation: The Tibetan Buddhist Game

Ascending the [Spiritual] Levels
Jens Schlieter
This contribution examines the soteriological conception of the Tibetan/N
epali 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 respective 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 contribution discusses the question of whether the structure of the game can be described 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 possible 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


Jens Schlieter

1. The Game Ascending the [Spiritual] Levelsor, Simulating

I will focus on the soteriological conception of the Tibetan/Nepali Buddhist 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/N
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 soteriological paths, e.g., the Jain variant Game of Wisdom, Gyan Chaupar/j n
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 (hearers, 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 management 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 Neubert for helpful comments.
2 See Topsfield 2006a: Instant karma, 79.

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whether the structure of the game can be described by the logic of simulation, 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 nothing 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 Buddhist 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 windmills, [] 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 Schlieter

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 living 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 Commentary, 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.

Simulating Liberation


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. Understanding karma and rebirth in terms of the good fortune or bad
luck of dice throws seem, therefore, not to be an extraordinary or distorted interpretation. In the later developments of the Buddhist traditions,
which I will not be able to outline here, playing and entertainment with
games (but not: gambling) seem to have gained a positive rehabilitation.10
I will now proceed with a methodological remark; after that I will turn to
a description of the family of games of snake and ladders, to which the
Tibetan board game belongs.

3. Methodological Approach: Ludology/Simulation Versus

Recent studies of digital games have proposed to distinguish between
ludological and narratological approaches. According to the narratological view, games are understood as forms of narrative such as a novel. In this
scenario, games tell a story with different sequences, situations, and some
kind of ending. Thus, games can be studied by analyzing their recounted
text using theories of narrative. Conversely, the ludological study focuses
on the specific internal structure, i.e., the abstract and formal systems
inherent in the structure of games. These rules, usually not to be altered
in a running game, limit the number of players; they regulate the tempo
of a game, the possible moves, and so on. In short: Narrative approaches
intend to analyze games as some kind of fictional representation, while
ludological approaches in their stricter sense analyze games as particular
way[s] of structuring simulation.11 To simulate, Frasca defines, is to
model a (source) system through a different system which maintains to
somebody some of the behaviors of the original system.12 In simulation
10 For example in the Lotus-Sutra (Saddharmapuarika-stra), chapter II, 81:
The little boys even, who in playing erected here and there heaps of sand with
the intention of dedicating them as Stpas to the Jinas, they have all of them
reached enlightenment (Kern 2002: The Saddharma-Puarka, 50).
11 Frasca 2003: Simulation versus Narrative, 223.
12 Frasca 2003: 223.


Jens Schlieter

theory, therefore, the major interest of the observer pertains to the rules
and the internal design of the game, not on the representational elements.
The latter can be changed easily and are, therefore, quite often only incidental. Digital games, however, may offer some kind of reaction by
simulating different scenarios which lead the player in different worlds.
In my view, those two approaches are not contradictory but highlight
different dimensions of certain games. As I will try to show in the subsequent analysis, a combination of the two approaches makes sense, at least
for the Game of Liberation.
The difference of analyzing games in terms of narratology or ludology is
mirrored in different procedures in developing a game. There are authors
of game narrations, but designers of game rules.13 By adapting a certain
framework of rules for the liberation game, the designer displayed his
beliefs of the probability and rank of certain eventse.g., how likely
it will be for adherents of the Mahayana paths to reach final liberation
(in terms of necessary moves). This assumption about the probability of
certain events in the game is well hidden inside the model not as a piece
of information but as a rule.14
The hermeneutical model of simulation allows a more accurate analysis of the specific structure of digital games which are (1) not bound to a
fixed serial sequence of events; (2) players, therefore, could go through
several different versions and iterations of the story; (3) players are often enabled by the game rules to decide where to interrupt, depart, or
restart the game (to name just some specifics). Certainly, these elements
of modern digital games are not to be found in the Buddhist board game.
From Frascas perspective, all traditional board games might be described
as representational, since they do not have the specific input-outputloop of computer games. Yet, one may stick to the creative moment of
representation as mentioned by Parlett: How representational a game
13 Examples of the adaptability of game narratives could be given by various
attempts of game designers to subvert the free-market ideology of games such
as Monopoly simply by changing the designation of certain squares, but not
the internal structure of the game. A well-known example for such an attempt
to use an existent game for a new ideological purpose is the French revolution
game (Jeu de la Rvolution Franaise) that used goose games (Jeux de lOie) as
prototype model (compare Leith 1996: La Pdagogie travers les jeux; Mohn
2004: Kunst als Medium der Zeit).
14 Frasca 2003: 228.

Simulating Liberation


is depends on the level at which it is being played and the extent of the
players imagination.15
In the special case of the Tibetan board game, the players simulate
(according to the definition above) the workings of good and bad karma,
i.e., the cycle of rebirth and final liberation. The first move of the players
entering the game is, no doubt, an act of simulated reincarnation: The
players piece is born into the six realms. However, not every square is
reached through reincarnation. Some moves seem to be more appropriately
described as self-transformative training (such as the uppermost row,
consisting of life events of the historical Buddha). Nevertheless, a certain
combination of rebirths leads to the final liberation, which makes the name
game of liberation plausible.

4. Games of Liberation: History and General Description

Today, the games of the Chutes and Ladders-type (like the Leiterli
game played in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland) form a type of
childrens game played with two or more players on a numbered, grid-like
game board with squares. Originally, the game came from India to Europe
and the West (in the United States as Chutes and Ladders, marketed by
Milton Bradley since 1943). In the 1890s, the game appeared in Victorian
In his studies of the original Indian versions of the game, Andrew Topsfield arrived at the conclusion that almost all religious traditions in India
had their version of the game, which he describes thus:
The surviving Vaiava, Jain, and Muslim versions of gyn chaupar are all
of an elaborate and fully evolved character, and in the first two cases at
least can be presumed to have undergone a lengthy period of development
which is now obscure. All these versions are fundamentally similar. In each
case the player embarks on a kind of Pilgrims Progress, in which, according
to the throw of a die (or dice) or cowries, his piece ascends from the lower
squares, inscribed with the names of hellish states and earthly vices, to the
higher, representing more advanced spiritual states and heavenly realms,
and thus ultimately to the winning square, the abode of the supreme Deity
or final Liberation.16

Most forms of the game consist of 72 squares (e.g., the Tibetan Buddhist
block-print variant), some have 84 (Jain) or even more (104, or up to 360
15 Parlett 1999: Board Games, 6.
16 Topsfield 1985: The Indian Game of Snakes, 203.


Jens Schlieter

squares). Usingin further developed variantsChutes and Ladders, they

allow on these squares a contingent rise or downfall: Landing on a square
with a ladder, the player can progress up the board to the top of the ladder, skipping the squares in between. A square with a snake head, on the
contrary, forces the player to slide down the snake to its tail (or even worse:
to get swallowed by the snake) and to repeat certain rows of the board.
The player who first reaches the top square (mostly in the middle of the
utmost row) of the board wins.
In the Indian versions, snakes symbolize vices and the ladders virtues.
Negative, selfish behaviorssuch as greed, disobedience, deceit, anger,
pride, ignoranceserve as roadblocks to the progress toward final liberation. Virtues, on the other hand, include charity, compassion, devotion,
knowledge. Played with a four-sided die, the board represents the karmic
progress in a series of subsequent lives, ultimately leading to liberation.
In the lower realms, the players are threatened by a possible downfall to
different hells represented by certain squares of lower rungs.17 It may be
added that in China, Korea and Japan, a rather secular variant of a game
belonging to this game family is known as the promotion game, simulating the complex promotion system in state officials.18 The historical
relationships between these different games are not clear. According to
Topsfield, very few surviving boards of the Indian variant date from prior
to the 18th century; none seems to date from prior to the 16th century.19
It seems highly probable that these games are forerunners of the Tibetan
Buddhist game:
The Vaiava versions in particular [] have assimilated many disparate
strands of Hindu social, religious, and philosophical thought in their nomenclatures. It is also not unlikely that a Buddhist form of the game may
have existed in northern India during the Pala-Sena period. The still popular Tibetan Buddhist game of Determination of the Ascension of Stages,
which originally used a 72-square (89) board, could have been derived
from an Indian form of the game.20

Deepak Shimkada argued that the origin of the game may be Buddhist,
because the number of 72 squares fits well with its cosmological and
17 A lively impression of the Jain version of the game can be found at the digitalized
version of the Victoria and Albert Museum:
microsites/1414_jain/snakesandladders/ (25.10. 2010).
18 Finkel 1995: Notes on two Tibetan Dice Games, 34 (and further references).
19 Topsfield 1985: 212.
20 Topsfield 1985: 212213.

Simulating Liberation


numerological meaning in Indian Buddhism.21 This hypothesis of a Buddhist

origin is not very convincing, since it lacks additional evidence. Micaela
Soar recently showed that similar board games were well known in medieval
and classical Hindu- and Jain-traditions. Illustrating depictions of games
in sculptural art, Soar cites the Jain work abhapaikh of Dhanapla,
composed in the late 10th century. It contains the following description
of a game: Like gamesmen, the living beings on the gaming board (Skt.
phalaka/Prkt. phalaya) of the cycle of births (sasra), although they are
carried away by the dice/s enses (Skt. aka/P
rkt. akkha has both meanings),
when they see you, O Jina, the place of refuge/square on a game board
(pai is the Prkrit for Sanskrit pada), they become free from possession
by prison (bandha), slaughter (Skt. vadha/P
rkt. vaha) and death (maraa).22
Soar points out that the author uses here a figurative style that allows
for different interpretations. Unfortunately, no details of the board or
pieces are given in the description. We can conclude that the pieces in the
game are men (players), and the squares signify sasra. A very interesting
point is the implication of a safe place the players may arrive at. Does
this refer to the final quarter of Backgammon, as she suggests? Or does it
point to the final liberation in some variant or forerunner of a Chutes and
Ladders game after the point of no return (see below)?23
The average number of necessary moves of any version of Chutes and
Ladders can be calculated by the Markov chain. A Markov chain, named
after the mathematician Andrei A.Markov (18561922), concerns about a
sequence of random variables, which correspond to the states of a certain
system, in such a way that the state at one time epoch depends only on the
one in the previous time epoch.24 In the game of liberation the odds of
moving from any square to any other square are fixed and, moreover, independent in relation to previous moves. In the modern popular American
version of Chutes and Ladders with its 100 squares and 19 chutes and
ladders, a player can win the game with 7 rolls; however, an average of 39.6
spins will be needed in order to move from the starting point to square 100.25
21 Shimkada 1983: A Preliminary Study of the Game of Karma, 321322.
22 Soar 2007: Board Games and Backgammon, 208. Prakrit: srviva bandhavahamaraa-bhio jia na huti pai dithe akkhe hi vi hrant jv sasraphalayammi (cited according to Soar).
23 Similar Topsfield 2006b: Snakes and ladders, 89, Note 2.
24 Ching/M
ichael 2006: Markov Chains, 1.
25 Althoen/K
ing/S chilling 1993: How Long Is a Game, 7176.


Jens Schlieter

More precisely, the Tibetan Game of Liberation can be represented

as a state-absorbing Markov chain: the next state of the game depends
only on the current status (the given square), independently from the
future and past states. At each turn, the player starts from a given state
on a certain square; and, since the players do not interact (e.g., they do
not kick out pieces of others), they have fixed odds of moving from there
to certain other squares.

5. Description of Two Versions of the Tibetan Game

Older versions of the Tibetan game of Liberation seem to be lost.26 Mark
Tatz and Jody Kent present in their book RebirthThe Tibetan Game of
Liberation (1978) a block-print which they take to be the oldest surviving
example of the Buddhist version.27

Figure 1 Block print of Ascending the Levels, ascribed to Sa skya paita28

This version is made of 98 squares; the highest square to be reached in the

game is the Field of the Dharmakya (chos skui zhing). Rather than being
indicated by Chutes and Ladders, the moves connected to more distant
squares are indicated by numbers, signifying the destinations, on each
respective square.
Above and below the game, on the board of Sa skya paitas blockprinted version, some verses ascribed to him explain the purpose of the
26 I am not convinced of Finkels assumption (Finkel 1995: 43) that the first Western
description of some variant of this game might be the one by Schlagintweit
[1863] 1999: Buddhism in Tibet, 293298. The tables for indicating lucky and
unlucky periods discussed in Schlagintweit fail to have important features
such as the liberation paths; they seem to be divination tables more accurately.
A short description of a game named Wheel of [cyclic] Existence (srid pai
khor lo), obviously belonging to the games of liberation, is described in Norbu/
Harrer 1960: Tibet, verlorene Heimat, 95; compare Hummel/Brewster 1963: Games
of the Tibetans, 8.
27 Judged from its printing technique, it appears to be rather recentfrom the
19th century? The arrangement on the board, however, seems to represent a
simpler, possibly older variant of the game.
28 Plate reproduced in Tatz/Kent 1978: Rebirth 11 (courtesy of Sakya Jigdal Dagchen Rinpoche, Seattle, USA).

Simulating Liberation


game. After paying homage to Majur, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, Sa skya

paita describes the situation of being in the world as amassing karma.
Very interesting are his explanations in regard to the workings of karma
symbolized by the game, which will be discussed below.
The second version of the game depicted here, which will be analyzed
in detail, was painted on a Thangka by a young artist in Nepal in 1971.
With its original size of around 4750cm, this version of the game has 104
squares (13 rows of 8 squares). The way through the game board is determined by rolling a six-sided die. Depending on which of the six values of
the Tibetan die (sa, a, ga, da, ra, ya)29 is obtainedthe best throw being the
sa (one), then a etc.the player figures out his next destination. In an
emic description of the game the mere chance of the die may nevertheless
be interpreted as the workings of karma, and the travel of the [players]
piece as the sign/symbol of the players individual karmic deeds (so soi
las rtags rdeu rdzas), as the explanation on the printed board reads. This
identification is substantiated by the rule that each player should use as
his pawn a small item of his personal belongings, e.g., a ring.

Figure 2 Modern Version of the Game (Thangka Painting; Nepal, 1971)30

The single squares of the board consist of heterogeneous representations of:

(a) Cosmological landscapes and mythical topoi (the mount Meru, the
four continents, Urgyan, the formless realm; or the eight different
hells, heavens, ambhala etc.);
(b) States of liberation paths of the Hinayana and the Mahayana (including different aspects of gaining Buddhahood);
(c) Certain gods (e.g., the heaven of the 33 gods; Yama, the god of death;
Rudra, or Mahkla)
(d) Other religious traditions (Hindu-tradition; barbarians; Bon);
(e) Certain meditational and other states of advanced practitioners
(Hindu-knowledge-holder; Arhatship; etc.).31
29 Different versions of Tibetan dice are reproduced in Finkel 1995: 3537; 40; 42;
Tibetan dice games (sho rgyab pa) are described in Hummel/Brewster 1963.
30 Plate reproduced in Tatz/Kent 1978 (inclosure).
31 The heterogeneity of the fields (compare Hummel/Brewster 1963: 8) seems
to be a didactic necessity of these gamesa comparable mixture of historic


Jens Schlieter

The goal of the game is to leave the suffering of samsara, which is to reach
final nirvana, depicted in the game as square No. 104 (in the upper left
corner). Conversely, the most horrific square is No. 1 (baseline row, in the
right corner). This, the Vajra hell, is indeed a trap, because to leave this hell
one has to repeat all numbers of the cube according to its value, i.e., three
times three, six times six, etc. A player with bad luck may indeed stay for
the whole game in this hell.32
The game starts with square No. 24, the great heavenly road (lhai lam
chen). In the case of the square No. 24 the possible destinations of the next
rebirth are: 1. the Realm of the four celestial kings (27); 2. = the Southern
Continent (17); 3. = become an Asura (15); 4. = become an Animal (11); 5. =
become a Hungry Ghost (10); 6. = go to the Reviving Hell (6). A player able
to roll ten times the 2 will proceed via the Tantric path to the Dharmakya
(square No. 92); with 19 throws, talented lucky ones can enter final nirvana.
However, playing this game usually takes a long time; some players spend
hours in a round trip through a variety of hells.
More or less consistent, the game board follows the logic of the three different realms (of sensual desire, of pure form, and formlessness). The four
lowermost rows are devoted to the six karmic destinations (kmadhtu):
first, eight hells; in the second row, asuras, animals, hungry ghosts etc.; in
the third, the four continents and other areas of human existence (including the non-Buddhist religions); and in the fourth row, gods and heavenly
The fifth row consists of squares with states of the path of the hearers,
the ravakayna, but, to the right, one can enter already the more advanced
Tantric paths (the small path of accumulation). Further rows on the right
side show the higher steps of the Tantric paths, whereas on the left side
the Mahayana path (the Sutra-path) is depicted.33 Some further squares
in the middle show the highest states of Hinayana paths, and mythical or
heavenly topoi such as ambhala, the Potala, or Buddha-fields.
events, virtues etc. can be found in the French Revolution Game (compare
Reichardt 1989: Das Revolutionsspiel).
32 The possibly long duration of the game is confirmed by the description in
arrer 1960: 95.
33 This three-partite model of Buddhist traditions can be found in various doxographical texts, not to mention the systematization of the Tibetan Buddhist
canon collection of the word (bka gyur) with its three major divisions Vinaya (dul ba), Stra (mdo) and Tantra (rgyud).

Simulating Liberation


Beginning with row 10, some squares eliminate the risk to fall back in
lower states. At these places only one value of the die is given, and if this
number occurs, the player moves to the next higher square. In row 12,
the peak states of the Bodhisattva- and the Tantra-paths are located, and
aspects of Buddhahood, such as the Dharmakya. Row 13, finally, comprises
some important topoi of the hagiography of Buddha kyamuni (to enter
a physical form, sprul sku; the great leave; extreme asceticism; defeating
Mra; awakening; turning the wheel of the law; to work wonders, and
finally, entering nirvana). In this row, the player has to move one-by-one
through every square. Since the narrated events are taken from Gautama
Siddhrthas hagiography, one may interpret this whole row as consisting
of one single life. Entering nirvana is only possible for those who took the
physical form of a Buddha and went through the significant steps of his

6. Simulating Liberation
In accordance with Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, the game illustrates to
its players that final liberation is just a matter of time. Therefore, from a
point of view of absolute truth or definite meaning, the cycle of rebirth
simulated in the game is to be characterized as emptiness; or, to put it
in other words, every player may be able to experience liberation right
from the start of the game.34
The wit of the game is simulated karma, that is, simulation of the
soteriological future. The attractiveness of this simulation could lie, more
precisely, in its contrast to the convictions shared by the players about
each others karmic qualities. Quite often, I assume, the game may send
the good guy in hell and the bad guy in heaven. The wit of the game,
therefore, seems to depend on the interaction among the players. Absorbed
in their pleasure and thrill, they get (without reserve) involved in the
pedagogical purpose of the liberation gameto allude to the Buddhist
concept: a well-composed skill in means.35
34 If the world is characterized as a cosmic play (as in certain Hindu traditions),
the game of liberation might well represent a play of a play, a simulation of
a simulation.
35 Many games have their roots in educational technologies, and their pedagogical
value was only recently emphasized, for example in Miller 2008: Games. Purpose
and Potential in Education, 512.


Jens Schlieter

Looking at the two winning Buddhist paths more thoroughly, one can
detect highly interesting features.
Figure 3 Important rule structures in a Tibetan Game of Liberation

Very clearly the path of the Tantra vehicle is faster than the Sutra vehicle;
it allows for large jumps on the board (e.g., one may get from square No.
25 directly to square No. 72, knowledge holder of the eight siddhis). In
the words of Sa skya paita: The seeds planted through the Mantra system ripen to harvest within a single day.36 At the same time it is more
dangerous, because if at the square No. 33 (Small Path of accumulation,
sngags tsogs lam chung ba) a players die shows a 6, he will descend to the
vajra hell (No. 1, rdo dmyal pa [sic]). Symbolized by this downfall are the
consequences of breaking Tantric vows. Again Sa skya paita, citing the
Mahmudrtilakatantra: Whosoever, out of pride, explains tantras and
precepts to the uninitiated/c auses both master and pupil to be reborn in
hell immediately upon their deaths.37 A very interesting detail of the game
design, however, is hidden in the following rule structure:
(1) If someone descends to the Vajra-hell, which is only possible from
square No. 33, one must first execute the full number of throws as
described above, but after that one is able to proceed to square No.
9 (Yama, lord of Death). From there one gets with a chance of 50%
directly back to a higher square within the Tantric path (No. 42);
however, one may have to divert to square No. 34, Mahkla, and
from there on via a Buddha field (No. 70) to the Sutra Path (e.g., No.
71). And, again from square No. 33, a second possible downfall leads
to Rudra (16); a square from where a departure is only possible with
a 2, but yet again this leads with a high probability back to the
Tantric path (via Mahkla, No. 34). On the whole, this rule structure
follows the idea once a Tantric practitioner(nearly) for ever a
Tantric practitioner.
(2) The point of no return, where it is no longer possible to leave the
Tantric path, is reached by entering No. 66 (the first Tantra level,
sngags sa dang po). This square signifies the reception of an initiation
36 Sakya Paita 2002: 111 (from verse 121).
37 Sakya Paita 2002: 100 (from verses 3940).

Simulating Liberation


necessary for progressing on the Tantric path as a teacher (and concomitantly to leave the status as a novice). By this ruleattributing no return to this squarethe importance of this initiation is
stressed, too.
The 14 usual Tantric vows (Skt. samaya, Tib. dam tshig) require receiving
empowerment from a Tantric masterand to hold the guru in highest
esteem. The Tantric master guides his students through difficult practices;
however, if a practitioner is not able to hold or fulfill a vow, a breach of the
vow in question is implied, which is reflected in every field by the downfall to another field.38 Tantric practice is indeed understood as dangerous.
Consequently, the downfalls are deeper: Breaking tantric samaya is
more harmful than breaking other vows. It is like falling from an airplane
compared to falling from a horse.39 According to Buddhist historiography,
Sa skya paita admonished his contemporaries to act according to the
vows. This impetus can be seen in his work A Clear Differentiation of the
Three Codes (sdom gsum rab gye) as well: it explains in detail the different
vows of the individual path of the Vinaya, the Bodhisattva and the Vajra
vows.40 Roughly speaking, the individual path consists of Vinaya vows or
traditional monastic morality, its ideal of individual liberation leading to
a certain state of perfection; the Bodhisattva or Mahyna path consists
of vows which emphasize the cultivation of boddhicitta, or the compassionate thought of bringing happiness and enlightenment to all sentient
beings. Compared to the Tantric path, the ordinary Mahyna Buddhist
Path depicted on the upper left side of the game board is indeed slower, yet
more secure, because it does not imply the possible downfall in traps.
38 Compare Sakya Paita 2002; Sparham 2000: Fulfillment of All Hopes. Guru Devotion
in Tibetan Buddhism; Sparham (trans.) 2005: Tso-kha pa (esp. 4562 [the vows];
79113 [the downfalls]). The 14 vows are usually: (1) disparaging ones guru(s);
(2) intentionally breaking a promise related to the Prtimoka, Mahayana, or
Tantric ethics; (3) to hate a spiritual friend or vajra brother/sister as adepts
of the same guru; (4) abandoning love for sentient beings; (5) give up bodhicitta;
(6) cynical or ironical attitudes toward the spiritual doctrine; (7) indiscretion
about secrets; (8) to despise the five aggregates; (9) disbelief in the central
importance of emptiness; (10) not to use violence if required to have sympathy
for malicious persons; (11) to give up the belief in emptiness; (12) to cause
regret in the minds of beings who have faith; (13) not to rely on samaya; (14) to
disrespect women.
39 Thondup 1996: Preface, x.
40 Compare Sakya Paita 2002: 95.


Jens Schlieter

Moreover, only the 9th and 10th square of the Mahyna-path (Nos 94 and
95) allow to move to square No. 84, which implies in the next step to realize
the dharmakya body of the Buddhas, whereas this can be reached from
four squares of the Tantric path.
The point of no return of the Mahyna Paths is reached by entering
the first Stra level (mdo sa dang po), which is in fact the first level of the
Bodhisattva path (bodhisattvabhmi). This level, called great pleasure,
is intended for the practitioner to train the perfection of giving (dnapramit). It is, however, not exclusively leading to a Bodhisattva career:
From this first Sutra level, one may depart with a 3 to the third Tantric
level (No. 74).
Nevertheless, if two players enter simultaneously the two different
paths, for the reasons that we have seen, the adepts of the Tantric path
will definitely be faster.
On the lower levels of the Mahayana depicted in the game, i.e., the entrance to the Mahayana in square No. 51, there are even more diversions
to lower squares.

7. Conclusion
As could be seen, players of the game will experience by their individual
progression through the game an asynchronous soteriological time
schedule. By its rules determining the plausibilities of progression and
downfalls, the game carries out certain inter- and inner-religious discourses
on the efficacy, dangers and goals of liberation paths. According to the
narrative approach of describing games, one could interpret the players
individual liberation pathsformed by playing the gameas hypothetic
spiritual biographies. Moreover, every square could be interpreted as triggering (in religious specialists) certain narratives (e.g., what does it mean
to achieve an Arhat status?).
Yet does this narrative description alone suffice? An important factor
is the interpretation of the individual paths as an outcome of personal
karma. This interpretation transforms the several rebirth-movements
in the game to some kind of conditioned fate experienced by the piece
of the player.41
41 One is tempted to call the pieces, which simulate the fate of persons, avatarsyet not as the manifestation of a deity, but like in digital games, as a
users symbolic representation in a digital world.

Simulating Liberation


According to my interpretation, the structure of the game is pre-determined by its rules which are governed by pure chance. From an emic
understanding (and the respective verses of Sa skya paita can be taken as
a clue here), the outcome of dicing could be seen by at least some players as
actively influenced by the players own karma. One of the poems ascribed
to the Sixth Dalai Lama summarizes this interpretation of karma nicely:
Good and bad deeds seeds/ even though they are sown secretly/ it is not
possible to conceal the ripened fruit of each single [deed].42 Yet: Can this
karmic interpretation of the game claim plausibility? On the one hand,
dicing as a means of divination was a common practice in pre-modern Tibet.
An attitude toward the game that combines the fate of the pieces with the
players own karma would therefore not be too extraordinary. On the other
hand, Buddhist philosophers emphasized that the karmic influence on the
future cannot be figured out; even to know ones current total amount of
positive or negative karma is not possible for ordinary beings. Moreover,
throwing dice by itself should, according to the theoretical descriptions
of karma (as a quality of certain deeds; Tibetan las rgyu bras, fruits of action), be more or less neutralan exception could be a combination with
intense negative feelings.
Another argument against the view that the individual paths through
the game could be interpreted as determined by karma can be seen in the
fact that it is possible to repeat the game immediatelywith, we assume,
a different result. Although this seems plausible, we have to characterize
this as a hypothetical assumption, as we are not informed about which
unwritten rules were in use in pre-modern times. In practice, it could
be the case that rules did not allow the immediate repetition. However, I
would follow Tatz and Kent in maintaining that this game was rarely used
for predictive divination in pre-Modern Tibet or Nepal.43
So if the personal way through the game is not (generally) seen as determined by personal karma at work in a stricter sense, how do players
deal with this simulation of karma? Did players on winning pathsafter
passing the point of no returnfeel obliged to dedicate their merit (according to the Bodhisattva ideal) to those takers experiencing rebirths
in the lower realms of the game? Or, do they see every single match as a
42 Tibetan text (poem 86 of the larger collection) in Srensen 1990: Divinity Secularized, 295: [86] dkar nag las kyi sa bon/ de lta lkog tub tab kyang/ bras bus bas
pas mi thub/ rang rang so sor smin gis.
43 Tatz/K
ent 1978: 16, against Waddell (cited there).


Jens Schlieter

specific setting of the karma of the whole group? This approach, again,
would imply that workings of karma can be experienced in the game.
If we use simulation as an interpretive tool, we may assume that the
game by itself discloses a situation where the takers are able to discuss the
difference (or matching) of each players individual (assumed) karma and
his success in the game. This, in a way, may indeed undermine a certain
belief in karma; namely, the causal interpretation of immediate and
transparent retribution of those actions which are believed to have a strong
karmic quality. Interestingly, a critique of this causal understanding of
karma can be found in Sa skya paitas Three Vows, where he states:44
That teaching called the inevitable effectiveness of light and dark deeds
is widely hailed as a great wonder.
Yet it simply mistakes an interpretable sense for one that is definite.

Supposedly, this may imply a certain tendency to dislocate the workings

of karma into a more transcendental sphere, making karma if not more
invisible, then a bit more hypotheticalin particular to the end of the
gamefinal liberation, which will definitely be reached by all players (if
not in this game, it may happen in the next).45 This dislocation may finally
help to substantiate the view that all sufferings, all different hells, liberation paths, and even the very goal of the game are conceptualizations of
conventional reality; ultimately, there are no such things.
Furthermore, the apparent religious nature of the game can be taken as a
hermeneutic tool for a broader perspective. Taking the obviously religious
nature of the Indian and Tibetan forerunners of the Chutes and Ladders
games as a model for analyzing the religious implications of rules and
structures of traditional board games, one might propose the following
questions to guide an analysis of games:
(a) Do games have a finite or an infinite structure? Do players have
to abort the game intentionally, or does the game offer a definite end?46
(b) In case there is a definite end: (b1) Do these games represent a
goal as a secure place where the contingency of a world of rivalry, failure,
disappointment and suffering will be abandoned (as, e.g., the Indian
44 Sakya Paita 2002: 61 (verses 156157); the argument is followed by a discussion of the Buddhas karma referring to the three-body-theory.
45 Given that the game will not be aborted with the first reaching the goal, and
will be played long enough.
46 Compare the conceptualization in Carse 1986: Finite and Infinite Games.

Simulating Liberation


game Patchisi/P
accsi and its several Western versions, such as Ludo,
Parcheesi, Jeu des Petits Chevaux, Mensch rgere Dich nicht!, Eile
mit Weile)?47 Is this secure place represented somewhere on the game
board (as in Chutes and Ladders, or the Patchisi games), or do the pieces
leave the game board (as in Backgammon)? Interpreted soteriologically,
the retraction of all pieces or pawns from the board to a secure place outside of the game(-world) would imply a stricter division between an inner
worldly/immanent and a transcendent sphere.
Or, (b2) does a definite end always imply that the end will happen without entering a secure haven in the game? To take an example from the
early days of computer games, the famous single player game Pakkuman/
Pac-man: The game cannot be won; it is a constant struggle in an ever more
turbulent and continuously accelerated haunting; the restless moves of the
players PacMan end up always with the final extermination of PacMan
by one of the four life-consuming ghosts (since this game was invented in
Japan, it would be very tempting to analyze its mythological background,
its portrayal of an endless samsara, more deeply).
(c) How do games allow a player to identify with his piece(s) on the
board, e.g., by placing personal belongings as ones avatar in the gameor
do they encourage a more distant view?
There are, of course, games which seem to resist such an interpretation from a soteriological point of view. For example, chess seems to be
a more or less secular game.48
Even if certain of our results pertaining to the Tibetan Buddhist game
are conjecturesthere is always a difference between the games internal
structure and the ad-hoc, or home rules of the playersI do hope that
some ethnographic account of the recent use of the game in Nepal or
the Tibetan community will shed further light on the attitudes toward a
simulated soteriology.

47 Cf. Parlett 1999.

48 A religious dimensionon a narrative levelcan, however, be seen in the
portrayal of a given hierarchical order of powers. I thank Philippe Bornet for
pointing me to Jacques de Cessoles Les checs moraliss, a scripture of the 13th
century, portraying the whole game as an allegory of the Christian-medieval
social ethics and normative expectations; see Kliewer 1966: Die mittelalterliche


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Video Game
ac-man (Namco, Japan 1980)