What Would Buddha Play?

Michael O. Varhola

While doing some research recently into games played in ancient and medieval India, I stumbled across what I consider to be a very curious list of games that Gautama Buddha reportedly indicated he would not play! This is apparently the earliest known list of games, dating to the 5th or 6th century B.C. — making it a fascinating and invaluable glimpse into the history of game design — and has appeared in a number of Buddhist texts, including the Brahmajala Sutta and the Vinaya Pitaka.

Suffice it to say that Buddha evidently did not enjoy very many sorts of games and that, upon consideration of the list, it would be a challenge to find one he would have have found acceptable. Following is an 1899 English translation of the list by scholar Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843-1922).

1. "Games on boards with eight or 10 rows." This is generally thought to refer to the ancient Indian games of Ashtapada and Dasapada, respectively, and possibly also the proto-chess game Chaturaji . It would also rule out a number of modern games, notably Chess and Checkers.

2. "The same games played on imaginary boards." This apparently referred to Akasam Astapadam, "Astapadam played in the sky," a variant of Ashtapada that was played with no board. On some level this might seem to apply to games like Battleship, in which one must envision what the other player's board looks like. 

3. "Marking diagrams on the floor such that the player can only walk on certain places." This is believed to have been a reference to Parihâra-patham, a form of hop-scotch, and would therefore rule out not just games like it but presumably also extend to ones like Twister.

4. "Either remove pieces from a pile, or adding pieces to it, with the loser being the one who causes the heap to 'shake.'" This is believed to refer to games like pick-up sticks but would also clearly refer to games like Jenga and possibly even those like Operation.

5. "Throwing dice." Well, there goes everything from craps to just about every board and role-playing game.

6. "Dipping the hand with the fingers stretched out in lac, or red dye, or flour-water, and striking the wet hand on the ground or on a wall, calling out 'What shall it be?' and showing the form required — elephants, horses, etc." No, Buddha would apparently have not enjoyed game night activities like charades or Pictionary.

7. "Ball games." This would cover everything from jacks to football — and, presumably, if the Buddha would not have enjoyed a pickup softball game or touch football, he would also not have enjoyed watching spectator sports using balls.

8. "Blowing through a pat-kulal, a toy pipe made of leaves." Among other things, this would pretty clearly preclude modern variants on this theme like computer games Guitar Hero and Rock Band! One might well imagine that the Buddha would not even have been particularly amused by people playing air guitar.

9. "Plowing with a toy plow." Based on this, one can imagine that any child who enjoys playing with Tonka trucks or Matchbox cars would therefore not be a candidate for a reincarnation of the Buddha.

10. "Playing with toy windmills made from palm leaves." Like the item above and the two that follow, this would seem to rule out models of the sort used for miniature wargaming.

11. "Playing with toy measures made from palm leaves." Certainly this could also extend to LARP props of all sorts.

12. "Playing with toy carts." One can easily imagine that the referenced carts might also include things like toy chariots, an almost explicit prohibition against tanks and other fighting vehicles. And while models are invoked in this item, it would also be reasonable to conclude that games that use counters representing such things would also be prohibited.

13. "Playing with toy bows." This would seem to preclude in principal two large classes of games, namely live-action role-playing games and first-person shooter computer games (Buddha could not have specifically precluded use of the BFG9000 but one presume that a proscription against toy bows would extent to any simulated weapons).

14. "Guessing at letters traced with the finger in the air or on a friend's back."

15. "Guessing a friend's thoughts." Card games are not explicitly listed among those Buddha would not play, presumably because they simply did not exist in his time and place. In that such games are generally predicated on trying to figure out what other's are thinking, however, this item would presumably rule them out.

16. "Imitating deformities." Agh! Well, this sounds just hideous anyway and not like the sort of thing decent people would do anyway, and presumably Buddha was prompted here by a desire to not be cruel to others. I am not sure if there are any modern games that have something like this as a primary characteristic ...

So what games would have been acceptable to the Buddha? When dealing with the teachings of spiritual leaders, I believe it is probably important to be guided by their intent more so than their letter. A board game with nine or 12 squares on a side, for example, would not be any more acceptable than ones with eight or 10 squares; there were just no games of these sorts for the Buddha to refer to. And a prohibition against rolling dice could, presumably, not legitimately be skirted by using an online random number generator.

My sense is, in short, that Buddha was just not a gamer and that if one could come up with a game that dodged all the exclusions on his list that he would not enjoy playing it —  and would probably add its relevant new characteristics to the list. But it bears mentioning that these appear to have been Buddha's personal preferences and not a prohibition against what others should do for fun. And, with his infinite compassion and love for humanity, it is hard to imagine he would begrudge anyone from doing so.