Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Never Has the Tao Been More Tao

Following yesterday's post about shamanism and animism, I followed up with a game version of mantraism, on the wiki.  Mantras are the basis for most modern Asian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and so on - and believe me, that is a long, deep rabbit hole that the average reader does not want to go down.  Eastern theology gives headaches to people who spend their lives studying it.

Still, I want to write about my work on mantraism (which I'll refer to without posting here), since I found it a brain bender for about eight hours yesterday.  I'll write about the trials and about some of the serendipity that arose from the content.

Job one was to make the content as simple as possible.  It would do no good to attempt an accurate representation of the use of mantras for game play, first because I don't want to spend the next ten years sussing it out and second because if I did it wouldn't be any good to players who didn't want to spend a year learning how to play it.  Any game rule has to be something that can be grasped in one or two sessions of explanation - which means throwing out considerable amounts of theology and nuance.  On the whole, that doesn't matter - no one playing D&D is attempting to obtain enlightenment . . . we're not being honest to the source material, we're being honest to the world we're building.  Priorities matter.  Therefore, if something in the content doesn't match up with what a real Buddhist or Jain believe, fuck it.

That said, we do want it to be recognizable as mantraism.  Whenever possible, we want to ascribe the correct definitions to things, even as we simplify them or leave out details that give them more nuance.  Throughout the wiki page, when I describe what something is, such as japa, reincarnation or the paths of accumulation or joining, these are directly from the source material.  I'm not making this stuff up - the reader should feel free to do their own research.

The value in adapting source material is that we can exploit the originality of that material without having to invent something from whole cloth - and at the same time, people familiar with the material can identify touchstones that are familiar and pleasant. The only people likely to be annoyed are true believers - who, I will say, are unlikely to be role-playing.  An actual Buddhist role-playing would be something like a Islamist taking a job painting Mohammed characters on store windows for Ramadan.  This joke will be clearer to those who understand Buddhism.

This is a fine line to walk already - the third element in the mix is that the content must be made practical for gaming.  That is, it must have some kind of effect that players can identify.  Mantraism is different from the religions I posted yesterday because, though it is the primitive form of philosophy that preceded the enlightenment of the east some 2766 years ago (the actual origin is contested - some argue it began with Hinduism and others that it existed for thousands of years before Hinduism) in that mantraism remains a fundamental basis for later religions.  This means that if a player chooses to be a Buddhist in my game (and I've had two of them in the last 8 years), what I write about Mantraism now has to also apply to what the character believes later.

Why does that matter?  Well, to me it matters because I haven't had a strong fundamental basis for how a Buddhist cleric would function.  What would matter to a Buddhist?  How would adventuring fit into the mix and how would the cleric perceive the long game where it came to increasing in power, focus and purpose?  Two days ago, this would have been very hazy and difficult to describe.  After the work I did yesterday, however, I suddenly find it crystal clear.  Right now, I think it would be possible for a player with no comprehension at all about Buddhism to quickly master the principles I've laid out and feel consequentially different from believing in a western-based faith (and most religions in D&D, whether those of the real world are played or not, are based on western polytheism or monotheism).

Note that I keep talking about Buddhism and not Hinduism, which is also mantra based.  That is because my Hinduism rules is yet going to need work.  Buddhism is much more an offshoot of mantraism - and it was mantraism that I outlined yesterday, not full on Buddhism.  That advancement will come later - but for the moment, everything that I've written about mantraism also applies to Buddhism, so in a sense we are talking the same thing.

So, the mantraism page on the wiki describes three basic points: 1)  thoughts empower action; 2) japa enables right thought; and 3) right thought places the individual upon a path that creates character class and produces game abilities.

1) In D&D terms, thoughts empowering action is equivalent to saying that thoughts empower magic. That is what we are talking about, yes?  Mantraism isn't a religion, it is a magical format that has magical effects.  This is the fundamental purpose to having a religion in D&D, that it creates some sort of power that interests the fantasy role-playing motif.  Without a magical effect, religion is utterly useless to the game except as fluff.  We don't need fluff, we need a principle that the players can play - so religion must be a form of magic.

2) Japa is the repetition of mantras.  If you're looking for your keys, you're wandering around the house saying, "Where are they?  Where the fuck are they?  Where are they?  Where are they?" - over and over.  This is a pattern that every human betrays in times of stress and in every culture.  Mantraism recognizes this biological constant and attempts to ritualize it: screaming about the keys helps you find the keys (theoretically), so we only ask that you scream about the keys with these exact words in this exact tonality this number of times.  That is japa.

3) As I proceeded along in my research, I discovered a strange serendipity arising.  The number of mantra repetitions, for instance, being 108 according to the source material.  How curious it was that 108 repetitions would take 15 minutes, when 15 minutes has been established for literally decades as the time it takes for a cleric to relearn a 1st level spell in my very old Vancian-based system!  How interesting it was that I seemed to be establishing a logical basis for the monk character traits as well as a form of non-spellcasting cleric!  How marvelous it was that the actual description of the Buddhist stage of supreme attribute helped define what a monk's abilities ought to be, more accurately that the clumsy telling of the original AD&D handbook.  I'd never heard of the four stages of the Path of Joining until yesterday and yet they fit right into my game system like a glove.

In particular, I enjoyed the meaning behind the Path of Accumulation.  At first, I resisted the description, since I supposed we were talking about some form of religious acquisition - but in fact we are talking about exactly the sort of acquisition that murderhobos in D&D like to do.  Players can be Buddhist and hack-slash lords at the same time, because mantraism and Buddhism begin with admitting that most persons are going to be involved in material accumulation - says so right on the tin.  This puts everyone on the First Path - including non-believers like you and me, who are merely members of the lesser stage.  One has to love an all inclusive religion like this.  EVERYONE is a Buddhist.  So the next time some effete says that we don't 'understand' Buddhism, we can spit right into his face and answer, "I understand fine for someone on the first path."


I cut mantraism off at the end of the Path of Joining because I want it to remain primitive (it is designed for tech level 6, some readers will remember).  At a later time, I see that I will have to plunge into Buddhism again, completing a set of rules for the remaining three paths above the second - but later.  I'm resting for now.


  1. That bit about the monk abilities was some real gold. I've always struggled to interpret the powers of monks for my players, and understand how to reconcile their seemingly-magical powers that were somehow not-quite-magical.
    You've found a great source of material here. I look forward to seeing the progression.

  2. I get the impression that you're focusing on Vajrayana, which is only one of three major branches. There are huge swaths of Buddhist sects that don't use mantras at all, particularly in the Therevada tradition. The Buddha himself never mentioned them. That said, the religion changed over time and place so the variety of practices and beliefs is extremely diverse. Plus in some contexts multiple religions are practiced by the same people.

    I personally couldn't suspend disbelief in a campaign that involved being a practitioner or interacting with them. I can't imagine it not being reductive or distorting; it would just be too weird for me. I already find the popular distortion of certain terms to be extremely grating. This is not a dig on you. I don't think anyone could pull it off. Imagine a game in which players made "economics" checks to determine prices in new locations to get an idea of my visceral reaction.

    I acknowledge the irony of the fact that I just made another comment about realism not being essential on another post.

    As far as the viability of this kind of cleric as an adventurer, Buddhism in Japan (for example) has hardly been non- interventionist through history.

    Have you had religious players in your campaign that includes real world religions? Curious how that would go down.

  3. Hare,

    Correct about Vajrayana - but you'll notice that the title of the post is Mantraism, NOT Buddhism. I present it in the post as the beginning of Buddhism. I have no idea what the Buddha mentioned. He didn't write it down, granted, but then he probably didn't write anything down. Let's not get into the ridiculous sentiment that everything that religion says about what people said or meant is accurate. Buddha lived in India and tried almost everything before settling under that tree. He must have known all about mantraism, no matter what he said. In any case, I'm not really caring, because of what YOU said about not binding myself to "realism" - if anything about religion can be truly termed that. My concern is that I don't sound like I fell off the turnip truck where Mantraism, Vajrayana or Buddhism is concerned - that, I think, was a job accomplished.

    Regarding disbelief - you need to go back and read the post again. You haven't got a clear understanding yet that being on the Path of Accumulation IS practicing all these religions - that is, without needing to say a single mantra or meditate at all. A cleric on the 3rd path of Buddhism doesn't HAVE to meditate. Buddhism does not require NECESSITY, like western religions do. It's perfectly possible to "practice" Buddhism and slaughter helpless, innocent creatures. I'm fairly sure this is something that westerners will never get about any of these Eastern religions. It isn't that they're not "religions" (as western practitioners claim, as they still can't reconcile these ideas with their western upbringing), it is that they're differently religious.

    At any rate, at some point, I have to tackle proper Buddhism - that means the higher paths. Not going to be fun. But learning is always power.

  4. I run my world with REAL world religions. I've had two Buddhists, a very serious Catholic, a number of Celtic paganists, a Greek Orthodox, a Russian Orthodox and a Jew - along with a few who worshipped non-human deities. What I don't seem to get are Protestants. My world takes place in 1650 Earth. There ought to be plenty of Protestants, but no one is interested.

    It goes down just fine. Players know what to expect, they get to throw spells, I'm well versed in religion and religious practices and I'm a Neo-Paganistic Anarchist Gynosupremacist (Liberal) in my own belief systems so I don't care what players do when they're acting the part of ANY religion. They like it.

  5. Thanks for the clarification.

    I realize in retrospect that I was thinking too much in terms of my own experience with zen practice and imagining a problem that wouldn't be there in actuality. You make an excellent observation about perceptions of the religion. Some people can't wrap their head around descriptive precepts versus prescriptive commandments, for example.

  6. Well, the whole western religious concept relies upon a master-figure who says, "Do this or be punished." Hinduism has "You'll be punished anyway, ease your suffering" and Buddhism is "You are the master of yourself - when you're ready." It is very hard to get your mind around.


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