Monthly Archives: May 2014

Moksha Patam

Moksha Patam is the classic board game from India (on which “Chutes and Ladders” is based). This game symbolizes the journey through life, and presents Hindu ideas of reincarnation, various virtues, etc.

Back in 2010, Sudha, a blogger living in Mumbai, wrote an excellent post on “Param Pada Sopanam,” another name for the same basic game, saying in part:

“Traditionally, Parama Pada Sopanam is played on the night of Vaikuntha Ekadashi (the 11th day after the new moon in the Tamil month of Margazhi). Many Hindus believe that the door to Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu, will be wide open to welcome the devout and the faithful. Hindus also believe that dying on Vaikuntha Ekadashi will take them directly to the abode of Vishnu, liberating them from the cycle of rebirth. On this day, the devout stay up all night fasting and praying and playing the game helps them pass the time till dawn, when the fast is broken.”

For more cultural background on the game, read the entire post here.

I first ran across Moksha Patam in the old Holidays and Holy Days curriculum. However, that was in another UU congregation, and in my current congregation, the Holidays and Holy Days curriculum is missing Moksha Patam. So I went looking for a version online.

I found that you can play online with up to four players here. I discovered that Kreeda, a games company based in India, makes a version under the name of “Param Pada Sopanam” (scroll down). However, as of this writing, they do not ship to the U.S.

So I made my own version, which we will use in the Sunday school here in Palo Alto. Below are two PDF files that can be printed out, trimmed, and made into a Moksha Patam playing surface.

Moksha Patam game board thumbnail 2

Moksha Patam game board umbnail 1

(N.B.: These links go to my curriculum Web site.)

The rules are the same as for “Chutes and Ladders,” or “Snakes and Ladders.”

Note that the squares at the heads of the snakes have the name of a Hindu demon — or the name of a person who is, in Hindu stories, bad or evil — these squares also have the name of a vice, or bad quality, in parentheses. Traditionally, landing on one of these squares would provide an opportunity to tell a little something about the demon or person — thus incorporating Hindu stories into the playing of the game.

I particularly like the fact that no skill is involved in playing this game — only random chance. Perhaps this implies that there is nothing we can do to escape the endless cycle of rebirths; it is all chance….

Update: After reading Erp’s comment below, I checked on Wikipedia, and discovered that game boards do vary in size. Wikipedia also points out that this game (under the name “Snakes and Ladders”) appears in Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children. Here’s what Rushdie says about the game, in the chapter titled “Snakes and Ladders”:

“The moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with Snakes and Ladders. O perfect balance of rewards and penalties! O seemingly random choices made by tumbling dice! Clambering up ladders, slithering down snakes, I spent some of the happiest days of my life. …

“All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother; here is the war of Mary and Musa, and the polarities of knees and nose … [ellipsis in original] but I found very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity — because as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph of the venom of a snake …” — Midnight’s Children (New York: Random House, 2006), p. 160.

Developing online curriculum

Over the past few years, I’ve slowly been developing UU religious education curriculum that are meant to be published online. This past week, I finally put together a new Web site to publish them: Yet Another UU Curriculum Site.

At present, three curriculum are published on this site: “Beginnings,” an 8-session course for upper elementary grades; “Coming of Age,” a 9 month, 17 session, program for gr. 8-9; and “Greek Myths,” an 8-week course for upper elementary grades that’s still in development. In addition, I’ve included a selection of games that are appropriate for Sunday school classes and youth groups.

Why publish curriculum online?

First and foremost, I wanted to have the complete curriculum available in a format so that a teacher can access it with their smartphone or tablet.

This is good for teachers because all lesson plans and associated resources are easily accessible, and teachers don’t have to worry about leaving their curriculum book or binder at home. Long term, I will convert at least some of the curricula to epub format, and/or to printed books available as print-on-demand copies, so teachers can use whatever format they prefer.

View: Smartphone

Above: The site as it would be seen on a smartphone.

This is also good for parents, because parents can ask which lesson their child did on a given Sunday, and then look up that lesson online. Then they will can go over the material with their child if they want to. Some of the curricula I’m developing have a story associated with each lesson, and long term I’m planning to create storybooks in both epub and affordable print-on-demand print editions.

View: Laptop

Above: The site as it would be seen on a laptop or home computer.

Second, I wanted to have curricula online side-by-side with supporting resources. Thus, one of the first resources I’ve put up on this site are lots of games. That way, if a lesson plan fails, a teacher will have immediate access to back-up activities. Long term, I’m working on an online how-to-teach resource, with tips and techniques for adapting printed lesson plans for your own needs.

Finally, I want to see where this leads me, and I suspect I’ll start thinking differently about curriculum development. With cheap, easily accessible online publishing, it won’t just be teachers who are accessing curricula — parents and even kids will be able to do so as well. I’m going to start allowing people to add comments (which I will carefully curate), and that will enrich the curriculum. Finally, I’m contemplating adding some sort of assessment section to some of the curriculum, by developing fun ways for learners to show what they’ve learned.

This is very much a project that’s in development. I would value your thoughts and comments. To view “Yet Another UU Curriculum Site,” click here.

How to have transcendental experiences

Someone asked how to have transcendental experiences, so I’ll summarize what I know about the subject from my own personal experience.

Background: Thoreau’s approach
A basic method for having mystical experiences
A few warnings


First, definitions: I would define a transcendental experience as a variety of mystical experience that does not require belief in anything supernatural; the “transcendental” refers back to the Transcendentalists, like Thoreau and Emerson. A transcendental experience is intense and possibly life-changing, and the person having the experience gains a direct knowledge of the ultimate unity of everything and the insignificance of the individual.

Second, a caveat: it seems that only some people can have transcendental experiences — William James estimated that three in four people cannot have them. Perhaps this is because some people simply aren’t able to have such experiences. But I’m inclined to believe that many people either don’t want to go through the trouble of preparing themselves to have transcendental experiences, or if they do have them manage to convince themselves that they didn’t.

Third, mystical experiences seem to have been part of every human culture, and there’s no great secret about how to have one. The classic method to prepare yourself to have mystical experiences is to practice some kind of mental/spiritual discipline. In the Western tradition, this involved some combination of prayer, study of sacred texts and lectio divina (disciplined spiritual reading), and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In the Eastern tradition, this involved some combination of meditation, study of sacred texts, submission to and study under a guru or spiritual master, and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In both the East and the West, the usual interpretation of mystical experiences involved some element of the supernatural: these were experiences of God, or would lead to release from the endless cycle of rebirth, etc.

But I’d like to outline an approach to having mystical experiences that requires no belief in the supernatural (although it can also accommodate a belief in the supernatural quite comfortably). This flexible approach was developed and used by the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, many of whom were Unitarians.

Continue reading

Feminist musical spirituality

Anonymous 4 has announced that the 2015-2016 season will be their last. This may not mean anything to you, so I had better explain who the Anonymous 4 are.

Back in the late 1980s, I was living near Boston and listening to a lot of early music. The Boston area at that time was one of the centers of the early music revival in the United States. There was lots of live music, including a renowned early music festival, record stores with entire sections for early music, and a dedicated fan base.

I shared this passion for early music with Joel, one of my housemates at that time. Joel was an amateur musician, a member of the American Recorder Society who got into a master class with internationally-famous recorder virtuoso Marian Verbruggen, and a singer who eventually wound up in a choir that specialized in 13th century Flemish choral music. I was merely a fan, and Carol and I became groupies of that 13th century Flemish music choir (not as risque as it might sound; we just sold tickets at their performances). I tell you this to give you an idea of the early music scene at that time: Marion Verbruggen gave master classes! There was an entire choir devoted to 13th century Flemish music! Early music choirs had groupies!

During the late 1980s, I began to hear about this innovative quartet of women singers called Anonymous 4, who were making recordings of medieval music. Everyone I knew talked about it as kind of feminist endeavor. They explored feminine aspects of medieval sacred music: music by women composers, positive images of women in medieval music. And as progressive as the early music scene tended to be, it was considered mildly radical for women to sing medieval sacred music; there was a common misconception that only medieval men really sang sacred music, but Anonymous 4 helped make it widely known that medieval women also sang sophisticated and beautiful sacred music.

I have to admit I never went to an Anonymous 4 concert until a few years ago. In the late 1980s, when they were singing medieval music, I was more interested in 16th century polyphony and Baroque music. In the 1990s, I drifted away from early music and began listening to new music, and folk and trad music. Yet had I been paying attention, I would have found that Anonymous 4 had already explored these musics: among other projects, they premiered new work by composer Richard Einhorn, and performed with bluegrass fiddler Daryl Anger.

But though I missed their live music, I kept listening to their recordings, as did so many other music aficionados. Their sound is immediately recognizable: the lack of vibrato, the precise intonation, the fluid but disciplined sense of rhythm, the unity of musical purpose; and above all the transcendent beauty of their interpretations of sacred music. In our deeply secular age, not many musicians, not even many church choirs, make you feel that sacred music can be transcendent and holy. For me, Anonymous 4 represent the very best of the revolution in feminist spirituality: they may be a secular ensemble, but they sing sacred music as if it’s sacred; and that is a rare and wonderful thing.

They’re not done yet; they’re working on one more recording, and they’ll be performing for two more seasons. Nevertheless, it feels like the end of an era in feminist spirituality.


A couple of years ago, Carol discovered the Really, Really Free Market which meets on the first Sunday of the month in Redwood City. The first time she went there, she got some rubber stamps and a couple of potted succulents which bloom at the tail end of the winter wet season. The plants produce small vividly pink flowers on astonishingly long stalks — the plant is all of ten inches high, the stalk extends twenty-four inches from the nearest leaf to the farthest blossom, and each blossom is an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. The flower in the photo is one of sixteen buds or blossoms or seed pods on one of the stalks. Each blossom seems to last a day or two before it fades, and then another bud near it comes into bloom.

Close-up of flower

Today, the day after Mother’s Day, would have been my mother’s ninetieth birthday; I’m pretty sure the flower I photographed was in bloom yesterday, so its blooming will cover both these days.


The headlines on today’s newspaper screamed: “U.S.CLIMATE HAS ALREADY CHANGED, STUDY FINDS, CITING HEAT AND FLOODS” [New York Times, 7 May 2014, p. A1]. This is news because we didn’t already know what this report, the National Climate Assessment, is telling us. A related story tells us that “Polls Find Americans Skeptical On Climate” [ibid., p. A13]. And why? “Scientists predict that climate change will cause larger problems for poor countries than rich ones….” And the U.S. is way ahead of all other countries in per person emissions of climate-changing gasses.

Smokey the BearThis is human nature: the ones who are causing the problem are least likely to be affected by the problem, so they believe they are not causing the problem. The minority of U.S. citizens who are aware of the magnitude of the problem attempt to convince other U.S. citizens of the truth with rational arguments, but since when did humans change their behavior as a result of rational argument?

No, it is time to call on a higher power. One of the growing problems caused by climate change is the increased incidence of forest fires, and so we immediately know on whom we must call. We will follow the example set by poet Gary Snyder in 1969. Both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, both those who follow the circumpolar Bear cult and those who don’t, should call on the Boddhisattva of Compassion Avalokitesvara — who is also Kamui Kimun of the Ainu — who is also a consort of She Who Saves, Boddhisattva Tara, Mother of Liberation — who is he who carries the vajra-shovel.

Abandon rational argument, and chant together:

Smokey the Bear Sutra

Once in the Jurassic, about 150 million years ago, the Great Sun Buddha in this corner of the Infinite Void gave a Discourse to all the assembled elements and energies: to the standing beings, the walking beings, the flying beings, and the sitting beings—even grasses, to the number of thirteen billions, each one born from a seed—assembled there: a Discourse concerning Enlightenment on the planet Earth.

   “In some future time, there will be a continent called America. It will have great centers of power called such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mt. Rainier, Big Sur, Everglades, and so forth, and powerful nerves and channels such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon. The human race in that era will get into troubles all over its head, and practically wreck everything in spite of its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature.”

   “The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth. My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain. In that future American Era I shall enter a new form, to cure the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger, and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it.”

   And he showed himself in his true form of


Continue reading

Diné bahané, part five

7. The Fifth World

First Man was not satisfied with the Fourth World. It was a small barren land; and the great water had soaked the earth and made the sowing of seeds impossible. He planted the big Female Reed and it grew up to the vaulted roof of this Fourth World. First Man sent the newcomer, the badger, up inside the reed, but before he reached the upper world water began to drip, so he returned and said that he was frightened.

At this time there came another strange being. First Man asked him where he had been formed, and he told him that he had come from the Earth itself. This was the locust. He said that it was now his turn to do something, and he offered to climb up the reed.

The locust made a headband of a little reed, and on his forehead he crossed two arrows. These arrows were dressed with yellow tail feathers. With this sacred headdress and the help of all the Holy Beings the locust climbed up to the Fifth World. He dug his way through the reed as he digs in the earth now. He then pushed through mud until he came to water. When he emerged he saw a black water bird, the Grebe, swimming toward him. The Grebe had arrows crossed on the back of his head and big eyes.

The bird said: “What are you doing here? This is not your country.” And continuing, he told the locust that unless he could make magic he would not allow him to remain. Continue reading

The other May Day

Around the world, except in the United States, May Day is International Workers Day. This is odd, because May Day commemorates something that happened in the United States.

On May 1, 1886, some 350,000 workers went out on strike across the U.S., although the strike was centered in Chicago, where 80,000 workers marched along Michigan Avenue. This May Day strike was the culmination of a movement to obtain an eight-hour day for workers. All the railroads that went into Chicago, the major rail center in the country, stopped running. Many industries through the U.S. were paralyzed.

Generally speaking, the May 1 strike was peaceful. But on May 3, there was violence at the McCormick Harvester plant in Chicago. The workers there had been shut out of the plant, and scabs brought in. The workers were holding a rally outside the plant when police charged them, shooting into the crowd and killing six.

Bilingual 1886 May Day posterThe violence escalated the next day, May 4, at rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago, that was called to protest the violence at the McCormick plant. The mayor of Chicago attended the rally, and there were hours of peaceful speeches by labor leaders. Late in the evening, the police decided to march into Haymarket Square and order the crowd to peaceably disperse. The leaders of the rally pointed out that were already peaceful. At this point, someone threw a bomb. Later, the newspapers and the city government, all of whom had an anti-labor bias, claimed that the rally’s organizers must must be held responsible for the bombing, though there was no evidence linking them to it.

Eight organizers of the labor rally, although seven of them weren’t even present at the time of the riot, were arrested on charges of murder. Civic leaders and the newspapers whipped up public sentiment against the eight organizers. Since many of the workers involved were immigrants, much of the media’s ire was directed at “foreigners.” No one seems to have mentioned the fact that the police marched on a peaceful political assembly, something that is supposedly protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

All eight organizers of the rally were convicted, and seven of them were condemned to death. One of these last committed suicide in his cell, and three more were hanged. Almost a decade later, then-governor of Illinois John Peter Altgeld issued pardons for the four dead organizers and the three still living, saying “The proceedings lost all semblance of a fair trial.”

In the years after the 1886 events, May Day came to be celebrated internationally as a day to celebrate workers’ rights. We still don’t celebrate International Worker’s Day in the United States, but as you dance around the Maypole dances, or sing your Beltane carols, or as you attend the occasional May 1st rally for immigrants’ rights — it’s worth remembering the other May Day.

(N.B.: In the image of the poster announcing the rally in Haymarket Square, notice that it is bilingual, in German and English, reflecting the fact that many workers were immigrants.)