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. The link below takes you to game rules and  PDF files of the game board. (Update Aug., 2019: revised link.)

Moksha Patam game at my curriculum Web site

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….

Updates: 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.

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 “How to have transcendental experiences”

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.

Drums in springtime

When you hear the sound of drums and cymbals outside your apartment coming from somewhere down the street, of course you go out and find out where they’re coming from. It was the West Coast Lion Dance Troupe performing in the small parking lot of the hardware store near us. It was fun to watch the brightly-colored lions dancing in the warm February sunshine:

West Coast Lion Dance Troupe

This hardware store, formerly independent, was bought out by a small locally-owned chain of hardware stores. Since they were bought out, they’ve been doing things to attract the attention of passers-by. In addition to the lion dancers, the local animal shelter had a tent set up and was promoting adoptions of small pets. Not a lot of people came, but we were all smiling.

After I watched the dancers, and glanced at the terrarium with a lizard or something in it, I started walking home — and as I walked I wondered why our UU congregation doesn’t do things like this to attract the attention of passers-by. I know what you’re going to say: “Most UU congregations try to hide from passers-by.” Well, I’m not feeling that cynical today, when it’s so warm and sunny and the faint smell of perfumed flowers permeates the air and makes my eyes itch. I think we’ve just never thought about inviting a lion dance troupe, or (honk!) an activist street band, or or some other community arts organization, to perform in front of our building. Maybe if we had sales goals to meet, as retail establishments do, we’d be thinking more along those lines. Not that I think we should have sales goals per se, but you know what I mean.

Making labels

Yesterday, my friend Lewis came over to our apartment. Lewis is a luthier who makes (among other things) Celtic bouzoukis, and he wanted me to make some labels for them.

He brought a bouzouki to show me where the labels would go. I talked to him about light-fast pigments and archival papers, while for his part he told me about the instruments he makes:— His Celtic bouzoukis are beautiful instruments, and each one differs slightly in small details from the others — a slightly different bracing pattern, an inlaid piece of ebony inside the sound box with the number of the instrument. When you look at one of his bouzoukis, he wants you to know that it was made by hand, not by a machine. And he wanted each label to look hand-made, beautiful but with small imperfections.

So we sat at the kitchen table, eating home-made soup Lewis brought, and we made labels. I had some 100% rag vellum which I cut into 1-1/2 by 2-1/2 inch rectangles. Lewis signed each one using a magic marker with light-fat archival ink. I carefully wrote the serial number and “CELTIC BOUZOUKI / Oak. CA” under his signature, and then put a band of red watercolor paint along the top edge of the label. I don’t make many things like this any more; most of the things I make are text or photos or videos meant to go on Web sites, things you cannot touch. Real papers have different textures; they feel good under your fingers and hands, the pen moves over them in different ways, the ink soaks in or adheres to the surface differently. Paints are incredibly sensuous: the pigments finely ground into some luscious medium — linseed oil, gum arabic, casein, beeswax, whatever — and you dip a brush or knife into that vivid blob of color, and as you spread it the color changes as it interacts with whatever you’re painting, and you can smell it, and feel it when you use your fingers to smooth or blend.

The tools you use to make things have their own sensuality. To put the paint on the labels, I used a red sable watercolor brush, a gorgeous tiny little cluster of perfect animal hairs at the end of a delightfully balanced wooden handle. I remember one painting teacher, years ago, who used to insist a good watercolor brush should be as firm as a partially tumescent penis (yes, he was a man). The subject of art is always love or sex or death, but making things is all about sex, all about the act of creation. Creating things to be viewed on a screen is very satisfying — I love the way the completed image or text glows with that faintly blue light that comes out of your screen — but you can’t touch it or smell it while you’re making it. If making things is like sex, then making things for the screen is like reading about sex; it all happens in your mind and eyes, not in your body.

But the metaphor has overwhelmed the subject, because all I was doing was making labels. What amazes me is that the labels I made yesterday — cutting out a rectangle of paper, adding some lettering and a spot of color — will wind up inside musical instruments which are works of art and which may well outlive me. Far fewer people will see the labels I made than will see this blog post, but making the labels was far more satisfying.


The battle isn’t between science and religion, not any more. (Sometimes I wonder how there ever was such a battle; it must have arisen from very narrow definitions of both science and religion.)

The battle is between religion and … soccer, celebrity worship, rock concerts, tarot card readings, what’s left of the human potential movement, yoga classes, art museums and art classes, spoken word performances and hip hop, the cult of personality in politics, the Web (smartphones are the icons before which we worship the Web) … and it’s not a battle, for these are all manifestations of the same human impulse to join with other human beings to celebrate and mourn and have festivals and pretend death doesn’t end everything, and to try to make sense of the world.

An expression

This past weekend I spent the day singing shape note music, and there was a moment when I was sitting on the front bench of the bass section, and I looked up as the leader brought us in on a fuguing tune: the leader’s facial expression caught my eye — eyes rolled slightly upward, lids slightly lowered, cheeks slack, head tilted slightly back — it was subtle, but I recognized that facial expression. It was the expression that comes at peak experiences, at moments of religious ecstasy.

And it occurred to me that I had never seen that particular facial expression in a Sunday service of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Helen Frankenthaler died today

I remember first seeing Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings, and not quite getting them. Pollock and de Kooning were macho men, and they flaunted their machismo in physical, almost violent paintings. Having spent a good deal of time looking at Pollock and de Kooning (and David Smith, and other first generation abstractionists), I had gotten the mistaken idea that American abstract artists had to put on a tough-guy attitude in order to succeed.

Frankenthaler just painted. After I got over my mistaken idea that abstract painting had to be macho, I came to appreciate the subtleties of her washes of color, and her supple drawing style. I never came to love Frankenthaler’s work, but looking at her paintings opened me up to better understand the quiet paintings of artists like Agnes Martin and Richard Diebenkorn, and the Southern Song painter Chen Rong who most famously painted the “Nine Dragons” scroll. No macho posturing, just deeply insightful painting.

Large-scale paintings like Frankenthaler’s — reflective paintings with emotional subtlety and nuanced color, often paintings that are of, or resemble, landscapes — provoke a profound mystical response in me. They take me beyond human concerns to transcendent plane. Maybe Frankenthaler was never one of my favorite painters, but she would make my short list of painters whose work you’d want to have dominating a worship space.

Obituary at Art in America.