What Has Chess to Do with the Spiritual Journey? by O’Neill D’Cruz

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

– Tertullian

Tertullian’s question reminds us that how we pray, believe and worship, and live—lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi—reflects the perspectives, principles, and practices that inform and guide our spiritual journey, the Way. The metaphors and allegories of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle often serve as maps and mileposts of the Way. In our times, games are commonly used as metaphors and teaching tools. So if we compare the Way to the game of chess, how would that inform and guide our own spiritual practice?

In this exercise, each chess piece represents different perspectives. The shape, name and location of the piece on the chessboard denotes the significance and influence of what the piece represents, and how much value is placed on it in a game. The entire front row consists of pawns, which maybe considered as individual perspectives, while the back row of taller and bigger pieces represent societal systems. Using this approach, we can map both individual and societal principles that inform our spiritual practice (or “gambits,” the chess term for strategic moves and sacrifices to secure long-term gain).

Let’s consider these points by comparing the temptations of Jesus and Buddha, which occur early in their spiritual quests. Each temptation is mapped from an individual perspective using Maslow’s hierarchy-of-needs theory (which proposes five main psychological needs that motivate human behavior), and societal-historical perspective based on organized systems of governance. The Lukan sequence of Jesus’s desert experience outlined in Luke 4:1–13 will serve as a reference for the Christian tradition. Buddhist scriptures outline the path of Prince Gautam in his enlightenment/awakening (buddh in Pali) as the Buddha.  Comparisons to Gautam Buddha’s journey may also be relevant for those whose life situations are closer to a princely setting. If one wants to identify parallels of this exercise in other faith traditions, Nachiketa (Hindu) and Yunus Emre (Sufi) serve as models.

Each temptation consists of an individual and societal component, which helps us to identify the traps one can expect in association with the representative chess pieces. We also learn how to expose the trap, the guiding principle(s) used to dismantle it, and the practical implications of “the right practice’” as taught later in the Gospels and scriptures of other faith traditions.

First Temptation: Transform Stones to Bread (Luke 4:3)

Pawn: It is not surprising that Jesus’s first temptation to turn stone to bread is presented as a way to meet spiritual hunger with physical means. From a hierarchy-of-needs perspective, this represents the urge to meet survival needs on a physical level.

Rook/Castle: The fort-turret form of the rook underscores the role of this piece as a storehouse of economic value: grains and gold have long been stored and guarded in forts all over the world. The stone-to-bread paradigm also represents economic value added (EVA)—the method and metric taught in business schools everywhere—to convert raw materials into consumer products.

The Gambit: “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3). In refusing to make only EVA (“bread alone,” Luke 4:4, quoting Deut 8:3) as the guiding principle of life, Jesus avoids the economic trap. In the same verse, he also indicates that “every Word from the mouth of God” provides spiritual nourishment. On a spiritual level, this is the food we “know nothing about” (John 4:32), which is “to do the will of Him who sent me and complete His work” (John 4:34). Jesus teaches us to ask in moderation—”Give us each day our daily bread”—and meet human survival needs by sharing rather than hoarding “what moths and rust destroy and thieves . . . steal” (Matt 6:19–20). On a practical level, this is exactly how one avoids resource shortages.

In contrast to Jesus, Buddha is presented with unquenchable hunger or thirst (tanha or trisna) of lust and craving, which represents a trap for the affluent prince familiar with an overabundance of sense-pleasures. He correctly recognizes and avoids the trap of addiction, and makes moderation a cornerstone of his Middle Way.

Second Temptation: Dominion, Power, and Glory (Luke 4:5)

Pawn: Luke places this second temptation after the survival needs, which maps well to social needs as the next level on the individual hierarchy-of-needs model.

Knight: This piece represents empire or “kingdoms of the world” consisting of military-political structures and institutions, with service to empire becoming an act of worship.

The Gambit: “Thy kingdom come” (Matt 6:10). Jesus recognizes the trap of considering empire as the means to “dominion, power, and glory” (Luke 4:6) and replaces service of power with the power of service as an authentic spiritual value (Luke 4:8, quoting Deut 6:13). Jesus teaches us pray that “Thy kingdom come” and to place God’s Kingdom first (“seek first the kingdom of God” [Matt 6:33]). In doing so (“whatsoever you do unto the least . . . you do unto me” [Matt 25:40]), we begin to function as an interdependent human community that transcends barriers of primary allegiance to military, political, national, and multinational dominions.

In contrast to Jesus, Prince Gautam was already a prince, and he is presented with the empire-trap of ruling over a temporal kingdom as a substitute for his spiritual quest. On his variation of the gambit, the Buddha chooses to walk with (compassion) rather than walk over (conquest) all sentient beings.

Third Temptation: Command the Angels to Raise You Up (Luke 4:9–11)

Pawn: From the hierarchy-of-needs perspective, transcendence beyond ego-needs is necessary for self-actualization through personal and spiritual growth. Thus, attachment to religious identities and affiliations may become ego-traps for spiritually unwary pious folk—even the much-loved Psalm 91 becomes a vehicle for ego-inflation! (Luke 4:10–11).

Bishop: This piece represents the ecclesial—clerical and institutional—aspects of religious authority, with Jerusalem and the peak of the temple as symbols of place and temple hierarchy, respectively, for Jewish people. (In Catholic tradition, this would amount to Jesus being tempted to jump off the cupola of St. Peter’s in Rome! And a note for chess history buffs: the bishop’s range of movement across the chessboard was expanded during the post–Doctrine of Discovery era and Columbian expeditions of the 15th century, from two squares to the entire diagonal range of the board.)

The Gambit: “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Matt 6:10). While it appears counterintuitive that the third (and arguably most distressing) temptation would involve revered religious symbols, Jesus identifies the trap of spiritual pride and avoids the assumptions of spiritual privilege. Instead of confusing and conflating traditions of worship with worship of traditions (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” [Mark 2:27]), Jesus teaches us to will what God wills: “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” He also cautions his disciples to be wary of blind obedience (Luke 6:39) to self-serving religious authority figures (Luke 20:45–46) and mere human precepts taught as divine doctrine (Matt 15:9, quoting Isa 29:13).

In a variation of the same gambit, Prince Gautam rejects the temptation to enter nibbana or nirvana by and for himself and returns to share the Four Noble Truths of the Middle Way for the benefit of all beings (at which point he becomes the Bodhisattva of his time). Jesus does the same in Luke 4:14, returning to Galilee to begin his teaching ministry.

It is interesting to note that this analysis of the “power pieces” applies to both traditional and modern societies. For instance, the Hindu castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishnavas—correspond to the ecclesial, imperial, and economic systems prevalent today. Parallels to ancient Greece and feudal systems of Europe are also evident in the representative pieces.

The Royal Way

In the power game represented by chess, pawns are sacrificed early and often by and for the benefit of power players. Paradoxically, only the pawn is “transfigured” at the end of its arduous path! In scriptures, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and set people free” (Matt 20:28). Jesus was sacrificed for challenging the economic, imperial, and ecclesial establishments (“It is better that one man die than the entire nation perish” [John 11:50]) and was resurrected at the end of his via dolorosa. Societal systems are designed to serve humanity; the temptation lies in making any of them a false God and an object of worship. When we do so, said G. K. Chesterton, we “end up committing crimes against humanity on humanitarian grounds.”

So the question for each of us is this: If we apply the chess analogy to our own spiritual practice, which system or piece is my false God and object of worship? Which traps are mine to avoid and/or ours to “set free”? And how does that align with, inform, and shape our rules and laws (lex) of engagement, our lex orandi, lex credendi, and lex vivendi?

And now for the King and Queen as part of our chess analogy of the Way. Since all chess pieces are in service of royalty, we have to answer their royal question to both pawns and power pieces: “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20). Our answer may well tell us more about ourselves than anything we have covered so far, since, in the words of Thomas Merton, “every person becomes the image of the God they worship.” ♦

O’Neill D’Cruz retired once from academic clinical practice as a pediatrician and neurologist, a second time from the neuro-therapeutics industry, and now spends his time caring, coaching, and consulting from his home in North Carolina, known locally as the “Southern Part of Heaven.” He is a wounded healer who works to heal the wounded, in order that All Shall Be Well.

Image: Jachym Michal / Unsplash
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