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The twenty-first century will be the century of play
Brian Sutton-Smith
Choose Essay:
Zen and the Art of Playing
By Ernst Lurker
From Play & Culture, Feb. 1991 (the journal of The Association for the Study of Play, TASP)

This essay establishes a link between the principles of enlightenment in Eastern thought and the playful approach to life that at times has been advocated in our Western society. In terms of narrowing down a definition of play, the playful attitude is contrasted with the survival attitude. These underlying dispositions determine whether a given activity is play or its opposite. The difference is not always clear, which suggests that play requires skill and discipline to prevent its deteriorating into something else. Therefore, it is justified to speak of the art of playing.

By what earthly path could you entice the Buddha who, enjoying all, can wander through the pathless ways of the Infinite? - the Buddha who is awake, whom the net of poisonous desire cannot allure?
(The Dhammapada, 3rd century B.C./1973, p. 62)

In a previous essay (Lurker, 1990) I showed that Puritanism still exerts a heavy burden on our Western society. Puritan and Calvinistic thinking played a significant role in the phenomenal success of this society, but we paid a dear price: We are a very driven and compulsive society. Fortunately, this kind of fervor is by no means a universal phenomenon. Eastern religions contain totally different approaches to life and play. In ancient Hindu scriptures the game of knowledge, called leela, is nothing less than the game of life and a method of enlightenment. According to the Hindu sages, who designed the game over two thousand years ago, it helps the players attain a sense of philosophical detachment and cosmic consciousness. Leela is also equated with the "universal play of cosmic energy" and the "playful nature of the Divine" (Johari, 1980). In Sanskrit, even lovemaking is called kridaratnam, which in the English translation means "jewel of games" (kridati = play; Huizinga, 1950). What a contrast to Puritan thinking!

Similar ideas, especially the principles of enlightenment, are also very prominent features of Buddhism. (The term enlightenment of Eastern thought must not be confused with the 18th-century European philosophy of reason and rationalism.) The following quote probably expresses the substance of Buddhism most succinctly: "The myth of the Buddha’s enlightenment . . . is the story of a mere mortal, completely without divine aid, undertaking successfully a spiritual quest for release from all forms of bondage, including the need to report this release to others" (Carse, 1986, p. 147).

The last phrase of this quote is critical to the understanding of enlightenment. If Buddha had attached any significance to his accomplishment, if he would have been proud of it, and if he wanted to hold on to it, he would have lost it at that very instant because wants and desires, so-called attachments, are mutually exclusive of enlightenment. Another parable illustrates this point in a striking manner:

It is said that when Buddha first had his enlightenment he was asked, "Are you a God?" "No," he replied. "Are you a saint?" "No." "Then what are you?" And he answered, "I am awake." (Blyth, 1976)

This also explains the reference to the waking state in the introductory aphorism. It is actually a central theme, especially in Zen, the Japanese version of Buddhism. Zen also makes clear that man can only become the true master of his circumstances when he transcends his needs and wants, when he rises above the greed and desires of a lowly existence. If man is at the level of survival, he really is not in control: The circumstances control him, man becomes their powerless victim and the plaything of other forces, human relations tend to become aggressive and belligerent, and life tends to deteriorate into a barbaric and brutish existence.

Our present societies seek to keep these dangers at bay through law, ethics, and religion, yet the individual often wavers between happiness and desperation, between idealistic and realistic thinking. What does all this have to do with play? The answer is, a great deal! The transcendental state of enlightenment is very much akin to the playful attitude. With it, we keep things in perspective and we maintain a sense of humor; without it, we get bogged down by our problems and our daily struggle for existence. It is the central principle of detachment, which produces the elusive liberation and which is common to both spiritual enlighten-ment and playful attitude. And it is our attachments, our desires and addictions, that create discontent and disappointment, anger and frustration, sorrow and unhappiness.

Whether we talk about Buddha, Hindu, or Zen enlightenment, we all know that it is not an easy thing to attain. It takes rigorous discipline and single-minded determination. Progress on the steep path is slow and painful. Buddhist monks practice spiritual rituals, meditation, and ascetic self-denial on isolated mountain- tops to seek enlightenment. Zen masters play mind games with paradoxes, or koans, to numb the restless, greedy, and disturbing mind into submission. Gurus practice various kinds of yoga to attain higher consciousness and liberation. Even we in the Western world have begun to explore many of these promising disciplines, but to a large degree they remain too alien and time consuming for us to produce noticeable results.

I propose that we cultivate our play spirit, and I dare say we can reap benefits similar to those had we meditated for years on top of a mountain. I know this sounds like an outlandish claim, but I am prepared to explain this assertion. First let me repeat the statement that Huizinga (1950) and others made before:

The opposite of play is neither seriousness nor work. Both of these can be part of play. Also, play cannot be defined by its outward manifestations, by observed behavior, or by time and space. Almost any activity can be play. The decisive factor that determines whether an activity (or even a thought process, for that matter) is play or not is the underlying attitude. This I call the play attitude 1. In the same vein, I would characterize the opposite as the survival attitude. The most obvious conclusion drawn from this construction is that an activity that may outwardly look like play can actually not be play at all simply by originating from the survival attitude. Professional sports seem to have that tendency.

If we examine this survival attitude further, we also notice that it is characterized by those notorious attachments that are the source of all evil in Eastern thought; whereas the play attitude shows the same detachment, disengagement, or disinterestedness that is characteristic of enlightenment. I maintain that a chess player who truly gets upset about the game has lost the play spirit and reverted to the survival attitude. And the reversion becomes glaringly obvious when violence breaks out during hockey or soccer games. An element that frequently interferes with the play attitude is the phenomenon of nationalism, which is nothing but the survival instinct of a large group of people, a nation.

So it seems that true play is often just as elusive as enlightenment. As soon as the survival attitude with its insidious attachments crops up, the blessings disappear. Too often, we lose sight of the meaning and the mechanism of play; we let the game, against our better knowledge, run away with us and with our emotions, and the activity becomes a farce, a caricature and a perversion of the real thing.

The cause of such deficient and unworthy behavior is, in the Zen master’s view, that we are not "awake" at that time. Of course, this is figurative speech. An even more drastic expression, which is frequently used to describe this state, is unconscious. Since Zen masters know the tricks the mind plays to avoid an uncomfortable situation or responsibility, they are not known to be gentle with their students. In our Western world, some might say when they lose control, "The devil made me do it!" In my view, the situation is largely due to the fact that we simply stumble through our play. We are still confused about the nature of play, and we treat it quite carelessly until it becomes unrecognizable. Such problems suggest that play may be more of an art than is commonly recognized. I am sure we can cultivate the proper approach more easily once we become aware of the pitfalls that play can hold in store for us. The underlying attitude is certainly one key element to watch.

But what exactly is an attitude? It is the frame of mind, the disposition or mental outlook, that colors a person’s action or behavior. This frame of mind may also determine the type of action a person wants to choose, such as friendly or hostile. Related concepts are opinion, feeling, orientation, and position. All these concepts are closely related to free will. In other words, an attitude is not a God-given feature like hair color. We have a choice in the matter. Consequently, whether we want to play or not is entirely up to us. We have accepted that animals are controlled by instincts; their survival behavior (obtaining food, shelter, mate) is basically involuntary. The same is true for their play. Animals have a play instinct that seems to alternate with their survival instincts. Only when survival is taken care of is there room for play. The fact that human beings have mostly outgrown their instincts and can determine their actions through their own free will is quite remarkable. It is still more remarkable that we can choose our basic attitude toward any action and even toward life in general.

The meaning of this is nothing short of fantastic and wonderful. If we can choose to approach life with either a survival or a playful attitude, we have the power to transform our life at an instant. All the tooth-grinding and stomach-churning frustrations, the anger and unhappiness, can drop away through an act of thinking. We only need to understand that we can play with life - that life is a game - and act accordingly. Simple! As the Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler (1897) said almost a hundred years ago (and I translate):

What isn’t play that we do here on earth,
no matter how great or profound it may be!
We always play, and he who knows this is wise.2

Of course, we don’t want to accept such heresy. It goes entirely against the grain. We have been taught that play is frivolous and trivial. How should anything like that be equated with the meaning of life? I suspect, in the back of our minds we actually know that the purpose of life is to play, but we deny it to ourselves. Just as we suspend the knowledge that "it is only a movie" when we watch the silver screen, so we dramatize our lives by purposefully disregarding our subconscious knowledge that life is a game. Well, this philosophy represents one more choice: We can accept or reject it. But when we bear in mind that the playful approach to life promises more creativity, art, humor, joy, and happiness than the survival approach, some of us could be tempted, unless we are Buddha.

One of the enlightenment gurus of the Western world, Werner Erhard, who travels in a business suit instead of a long robe, used to yell at his audiences he had assembled in large ballrooms of hotels, "Wake up!" or "Lighten up!"

(Do you see the parallel?) In Zen-speak, it is more or less the same. For your contemplation, here is an aphorism he wrote:

Life is a game.

In order to have a game
something has to be more important than something else.

If what already is,
is more important than what isn’t, the game is over.

So life is a game in which what isn’t,
is more important than what is.

Let the good times roll.

(Erhard, 1973)


1 For the sake of variety, I am using the expressions play attitude and playful attitude interchangeably; also the expressions attitude, spirit, instinct, and mode in conjunction with play or survival are used in a loose fashion.

2 I am quite aware of the faulty logic here. If everything is play, then our activities in the survival mode would be play as well, and that is where I draw the line. Survival activities can be play, however, when the underlying attitude is playful. The quote should only be viewed as an inspirational remark and as proof that others thought in these terms before.


Blyth, R.H. (1976). Games Zen masters play. New York: Mentor.
Carse, J . (1986). Finite and infinite games. New York: Free Press.
The Dhammapada. (1973). (J. Mascaro, Trans.) New York: Viking Penguin. (Original work, 3rd century, B.C.)
Erhard, W. (1973). Aphorisms. San Francisco: Werner Erhard.
Huizinga, J. (1950). Homo ludens. Boston: Beason.
Johari, H. (1980). Leela, game of knowledge. London: Routledge.
Lurker, E. (1990). PlayArt: Evolution or trivialization of art? Play & Culture, 3 (2),146-167.
Schnitzler, A. (1897). Paracelsus. Frankfurt: Fischer.

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