The first time I played the Samurai Game, I died before the War even began. What happened was that our Daimyo had chosen me Second in Command. I was very honored and gave my allegiance willingly, eagerly, and with a complete sense of authenticity. I was ready to play the Game. What in the world I was supposed to do was another issue.
The Samurai Game was invented by George Leonard, writer, Aikido sensei extraordinaire, and co-founder of ITP — Integral Transformative Practice, with Michael Murphy. George is the one who coined that term “human potential movement” when he was an editor for Life Magazine. George was all about human potential. And he thought the best way to explore it (and test it) was through games.
I think of his games as ordeals. They weren’t fun. But they were instructive.
The Samurai Game was by far his most extraordinary gaming accomplishment. No matter how many times you play it, it takes you to that place you need to go. I know that sounds a bit California, really I know. But George taught that ‘just’ playing a game could be transformative. And more than that, it could be a grand teacher.
This was my first game.
“Train the troops,” was all my Daimyo had said.
And so, I had lined my warriors up, straightened out their backs, and was about to have them prepare for the Challenge, when I felt something brush against my leg. The War God (that would be George, of course) had stormed right up behind me and killed me out. Threw a sherikan at me. I looked up at him in disbelief and fell down dead.
Really. I did.
In that war, I never even got to see the first one-on-one combat. How could the War God do this to me?
I was, it turned out, the only one playing the Game who had actually ever been in a real war. Besides George, that is. And I had been so eager to play. Had been thinking about it for weeks. Heart pounding with anticipation. Yeah, I know, it’s just a game, but I couldn’t believe I could die so fast.
Such a meaningless, worthless death, too. Not even on the battlefield. I was lying there in the camp of my own Army, safe behind the vigilant guard of our own Sentry. Safe! Killed out by an Act of God.
How could he have done this to me? The son of a bitch.
I could see nothing. The position I had fallen in was awkward, uncomfortable. Of course, I could still hear the booming disembodied voice of the War God ruling somewhere high and far above me. There were troop movements. People falling. Dying. I heard sobs from a distance, coming from the other Army. It sounded like Lacey. Oh, my God, Lacey was out there dead! Lacey, in real time was about to get a bone marrow transplant for her matasticized cancer the very next week. Why would she want to play a game now in which she was bound to die? Her chance of survival was slim either way. Later, I heard that she was the first warrior to die in the other Army. Her own Daimyo had killed her for disobeying orders.
Lacey learned a lot from playing the Samurai Game. She took what she learned quite literally to the grave. But she felt prepared. She had a beautiful funeral at the Zen Center. I still can’t believe that Lacey had played the Game.
That first Game had been psychologically brutal. Dreadful. After Lacey’s death, her Army had no stomach for War. But still, the battles were waged. Compulsively. Demanded by will of the Gods. Now I know why the Maya sacrificed to the Gods for the return of the sun each day. Some Gods cannot be denied.
The War God’s voice became the only thing I was conscious of as I lay dead, safe behind my own Army’s lines. I went back in time and found myself in that pitch black bomb shelter in Jerusalem again. It was 1967 all over again. That disembodied War God voice changed languages on me. And I realized I must be having some kind of war time replay. I was having a flashback. I was no longer in Marin County at George Leonard’s dojo. It was the Middle East outside. Iraqi bombers. MiGs and Mirage jets. It was Jerusalem outside. My Machon was right on the border of the divided city. I could hear them overhead. I could hear them through the streets. We were underground. Had locked ourselves in. Mattresses lined the floor and shelves. We’d taped up the windows so they wouldn’t shatter. We had brought the neighbors into our Bomb Shelter. They were crying. We weren’t. We were young. North Americans. South Americans. What did we know of war?
Someone was poisoning our water supply. Again.
Post-traumatic shock. How could a game do this?
In the darkness, everything became clear. We too, had had a War God in 1967. And any attempt to disobey orders had been lethal. You would die a real life death. During the Six Day War, the voice of authority had been one of crackling static over our transistor radio. And that disembodied voice of sobriety had been our only lifeline in the underground bomb shelter on the Jerusalem border. Lying on the tatami mats at the dojo — lying there dead — I started to think about the parallels between the Samurai Game and Real War when suddenly a truce was called in order to bury the dead. How much time had passed? Minutes or hours? It felt like days. Maybe months. My body needed burial before decay set in.
I was jostled gently. Lifted, and brought to the dank smelling Tomb, where I lay for another interminable amount of time. Even the voice of God was out of reach. I was simply a body, surrounded by an unknowable number of the dead from my own Army. I felt as if I had been embalmed, which was ridiculous. All I could think of is why I wasn’t warmer surrounded by all these bodies. It was too cold. Then I realized that I was indeed dead. So of course it was cold.
I stayed dead until the following week, when I was reborn as a Ronin and taken by the opposing Daimyo as a samurai warrior. I found, however, that I could not fight for this Army. When I was sent out to battle in a Rock, Paper, Scissors mind game. I’m an academic. Is there any question that I would live or die with anything but Paper in my hand? And so I died again.
I had contempt for my new Daimyo. My original oath of loyalty remained, and for no reason I can fathom, remains to this day, in tact. I would give anything to be able to follow my own Daimyo’s orders once more and go out there and do battle in his name.
You know, I’ve never thought of myself as particularly loyal. But it turns out that I am. That was one of the things I learned playing the Samurai Game. Oaths must somehow be magically binding. But they’ve lost some of their power over the millennia. Can you imagine the magnitude of breaking an ancient vow? In the days before contracts. When your word was backed up by lineage. Think of the consequences.
But I learned more than that I had honor and loyalty, and wartime flashbacks. I learned that I wasn’t going to take dying lying down. The next Samurai Game I played, I played to win. That time, I prepared for months. That time I was the Daimyo, leading her Samurai to success. And in that Game I learned that nobody wins. That victory, like defeat, in warfare is tragic and obscene.
And in my third Samurai Game … I got to play God.
And that was the most obscene of all.
George, I miss you, you and your terrible games too. And when we play them, we still think about you.