4/13/2019 10:15PM and 4/14/2019 3:30am
“The glass bead game” was the last book by Herman Hesse, a masterful writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In his books he weaves together many strands from psychology (Jung), philosophy, and spirituality, often in an almost hypnotic rhythmical style. “The glass bead game,” at least to me, is his heritage to the world.
The book takes place in the future in some utopian society. It is about the life of a man who becomes a grand master of a game plaid by only the elite: the glass bead games.
But there is so much more to it.
The glass bead game
The name ‘glass bead game’ is a bit deceiving, as in the story glass beads were only when the game was first invented and soon abandoned. The game is never described in full, but only sketched in. And the book is really not about the game so much, as about its greatest player. And thereby, you!
But back to the game. It all starts with a theme or question, and then the payers must pull together analogies from all of the arts, music theory, mathematics, science, philosophies and religions, to illuminate the question from all possible angles, until a complete synthesis and understanding is achieved. To do so, they use a new world language of symbols, and as each new symbol is presented in exploring the question, they must contemplate and meditate on it.
So for the very best of them, it becomes almost a religious or spiritual experience, as the great mysteries of the universe are revealed to them.
I think, it is really an allegory for the process of living, and, if we choose to do so, illuminating a way of seeing a deeper working of reality. It tells us that it is not through ongoing specialization, but rather by illuminating the Mystery (capital M) from infinite ways.
I think, we all are glass bead players. Some more than others, but still, everybody can become a master.
To illustrate the process, I will take you on a little excursion, and try to demonstrate a bit how the game works, at least in “my mind.” Your game will be completely different. (I use the same technique also in this post).
Just remember that the game was not the focus of the book. The really important part for you and me and all of us, I will come back to below.
So just bear with me here, as I play with he game a bit myself, in the spirit of inspiring you to do the same. Because you, too, are a player of the glass bead game, if you know it or not.
The best example of somebody playing that game, I think, can be found in “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter. In the book, Hofstadter masterfully interweaves art (M.C. Escher), music (Bach’ s fugues ), and mathematics ( Gödel’s incompleteness theorem), and synthesis these into a great understanding of something that can otherwise not be stated in words. It is really quite remarkable. And well worth the effort -- if you have a few months to read it.
Having said that, let me spin my own little weave, just to show some connections.
Switching contexts #1: language
For once, when I saw the name ‘glass bead game,’ I immediately looked up the original German title: “Das Glasperlenspiel,” or ‘the game of glass pearls.’ This is a bit of a different connotation. A pearl is different than a glass bead, for it is grown organically. And I connected it with the article I wrote just yesterday in which I use an allegory of how a peal is created, to show how into a fertile womb of possibilities a seed is place that can grow.
Switching contexts #2: optics ( physics )
And I connected the glass-bead-game with this little blue glass ornament I have had on my work-desk for a few weeks. I wanted to write another blog post about it, how it is an analogy of looking differently at reality, seeing things from different angles, like a kaleidoscope.
Here is a picture of this, how it shows different facets all at once:
Switching context #3: science - a hologram
But the strange thing is the image on the cover of the book itself. It also has such a kaleidoscope effect. And it right away reminded me of that little glass ornament, “the glass bead.” Most strangely, when I hold my little glass bead over the image on the cover, it refocuses it into something more whole again.
The image, thus, is not unlike a hologram, something that contains all at once, from any viewpoints.
( And as another side trail, that which contains all can also be thought of as a “crystal,” which I wrote about before. A crystal is also a “sort of” glass bead, or glass pearl ).
So there are all these connections. The Hologram is a wonderful modern analogy. But it is a bit wrong (I plan to write on it an show the flaw).
Switching context #4: ancient myth and religion
Another ancient analogy that expresses the same thing, in my opinion better, is called “the net of Indra:” In the Heaven’s above the palace of the god Indra there was a net of pearls ( or jewels, or glass beads) where each bead was placed so perfectly as to reflect all other pearls. And likewise, each other pearl would reflect the first pearl. So each part contains all others, and thereby formed a coherent whole: parts and yet a whole.
The net of Indra is an analogy for All-That-Is, for lack of a better word. The Buddhists would call it emptiness, instead (see related article). I once went on a quest myself, and there was a deep spiritual experience; the net of Indra expresses that experience very clearly. I actually believe, the ancients who came up with the analogy probably had the same experience.
[As a side note: Hesse originally planned to write the book with reference to a card game, and only later changed it to glass beads, or pearls. I have a hunch he knew. Certainly, in that the last chapter he masterfully weaves together several ancient stories about Vishnu and Krishna and Maya. And then, there was his book Siddharta. He was no stranger to Eastern thought, nor Western.]
So I hope you get a little bit of an insight of how the game may have been played, looking at the same theme from many different angles. Certainly, I can only scratch the surface here, and I invite you to find your own access and analogies.
Masters of the game: becoming one
In the story, for the players that were the best, the masters, playing the game became like a religious experience, where through this net of connections and experiences they come to know God, or enlightenment / nirvana (Buddhism), or moksha (Hindu).
At the highest level, a grand master will realize that the glass bead game IS really himself/ourselves.
The player IS the game, and the game IS him.
The game plays though him.
And now we are really getting to the real meaning of the book “The glass bead game.”
Because the book is really not about the game itself, it never states the rules, nor any of the symbols used, yet it only implies it.
The game is not about you, nor winning, but service
Rather, the book is really about a man, a fictional character, called “Josef Knecht,” who becomes a master of playing the game, the “Magister Ludi” for his country.
As grand-master, he oversees the game, cares for it. He is part of the elite class that played and maintained the game.
Knecht was a master. But there was more to him. In fact, we find the crucial clue in his very name: “Knecht” is German for servant. Really, it means the servant of a knight, an esquire or page. Thereby, it implies a service to somebody or something noble.
So here is the notion of service.
Knecht at first was a servant to the game, but realized that he must serve a greater purpose. It is not enough to reach this knowledge, to reach nirvana, to realize emptiness (sunyata), to touch God, to see yourself as God and God as you.
Because in that very experience you realize that each and every one of us is divine, and that you, by having experienced that divine, are each and everyone of us.
For any master of the game, when they look at another person or thing, they know that they ARE that person and that person IS them. The don’t understand it in theory, based on some abstract thought. No, they have experienced it through the process sketched in above.
And this knowledge cannot be restricted to some elite. It has to be brought out.
So Knecht, the grand-master, quits.
And he begins to teach.
Of Bodhisattvas an Arhats
As such, the story of Knecht is really about bodhisattvas,and arhats, to use two Buddhist terms.
In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is somebody who is ready to reach nirvana, and thereby break the cycle of rebirth. Yet his love for all is so great, that he vows to come back life after life until everybody is enlightened.
And the word arhat literally means “defeater of foe.” I love that word. An arhat is also somebody who comes back to defeat the foes of mankind.
Those are the great teacher. And of course, they realize the goal can never be reached. But they also know they are all, and all is them, and thereby that is the only thing to be done: teach, and help.
The Greatest of all masters
But it even goes deeper than that.
We can identify some masters of the game that we know, today, who were really good at playing it. Those are masters of finding analogies or paradigm shifts that illuminate All-That-Is (or emptiness) from as many different angles as possible, and thereby allow us to gain an access to it.
I think, Hesse must have been one, otherwise he could not have written this book. Hofstadter is one. Leonardo Da Vinci was one. Michael Talbot was one (The Holographic Universe. Oh Michael, why did you have to leave us so early? You saw it all so clearly. Thank you! ). And some of the great Philosopher-Physicists who understood that physics needs a philosophical basis, an ontology: Schrödinger, Bohm.
But then there are the really big grand-masters, the best players ever, who also came to teach.
We find these in many great religions: Buddhism:the Buddha; Islam: Mohamed; Hinduism: for example, Shankara, Christianity: Jesus
They all touched the secret and tried to teach it.
Now, to be clear, I am NOT saying that the book is about Jesus, or the Buddha, or Einstein, or Bach, or Bohm, or Escher, or the Quantum or...
Not at all!
NOT ONE WAY BUT ALL
As a matter of fact, it must not be. IT MUST NOT BE A SINGLE WAY. Because that is what many of the original insights were turned into: our way is the way.
Instead, it is as Krishnamurti said: Truth is a pathless land. Everybody has to find his or her own path.
That is exactly the point of the book: it is not a singular way, but many, all of them, at once.
So instead of holding one way as sacred, the value is in how these teachers approached it: through allegories, and meditation, and art, and psychic insights, and parables, and intuition, and mathematical axiom, and dreams, and koans, and music, and riddles, and science, and poetry, and philosophy, and paradox, and prayer, and dialectic dialogue, and whatnot... [added later: The Gates of Truth ]
(Surely, YOU are good at some of these? )
Any and all ways of gaining insights that forces us to approach the great secret not just though pure words, or from a singular view, but to find our own access to it.
We must interpret us into that which cannot be named or understood in words from many ways.
Only if we illuminate it from as many angles as possible, we can illuminate it, and be one with it – once more.
It is about you
So there you go. All that and more lies hidden in the story of the glass bead game.
But here is one more thing to talk about. The End. After quitting as Magister Ludi, Knecht takes on the job of teaching a single child, a little bit on the wild side. They go on a swim, and Knecht dies. The end comes out of nowhere, abruptly, within the last page of a storry of over 500 pages. He’s gone, in an instance. But the child, through having known Knecht, is transformed. And is inspired to play the game himself. That’s the key.
The game passes from mater to student.
And so it turns over to you, dear reader.
Because, if you know it or not, you --dear reader-- are already a player of the glass-beads-game, too.
And maybe, if you can realize it, it's greatest player.
No, scratch that word “maybe.”
But realize it you must.
What multitudes of analogies can you see to illuminate the great Mystery?
Namaste — I bow to you and the Divine in you.
Copyright © Hanns-Oskar Porr