Ram Dass: Samsara veiled by Nirvana

The book BE HERE NOW by Ram Dass both exemplifies the New Age movement’s appropriation of eastern spiritual practices into a western framework of thought, and implicitly illustrates that any embodiment of a religious practice is highly influenced by the pre-existing conditions of the practitioner.

At the time of writing BE HERE NOW Ram Dass divides his life into three stages: the social science stage, the psychedelic stage, and the yogi stage. Ram Dass was born as Richard Alpert in 1931, and became a Psychology Professor and Therapist at Harvard in 1961. “I wasn’t a genuine scholar, but I had gone through the whole academic trip. … But what all this boils down to is that I was really a very good game player” (Dass). Through some of his clients, Dass was introduced to community of hip young people, with hom he engaged in material, alcoholic, and sexual orgies as release from his neuroses. “I felt that the theories I was teaching in psychology didn’t make it, that the psychologists didn’t really have a grasp of the human condition, and that the theories I was teaching, which were the theories of achievement and anxiety and defense mechanisms and so on, weren’t getting to the crux of the matter” (Dass).

Dass became in involved with Aldous Huxley’s experimentation with the effects of psychedelic drugs such as psylocybin (synthetic mushrooms) and LSD on others and themselves. Among themselves and their test subjects they developed a theoretical hierarchy of drug experience, from common heightened perceptual sensitivity, to dissolution of self, to “pure” perception of the world as energy. After a cycle of “turning on” and “coming down” Dass became conditioned to the drugs to the point he’d take five to ten times the normal dose to get a high; he felt it was time to move on, and went to India.

Bringing LSD with him and sharing with the locals in India, Dass reported that an old Buddhist Lama said: “That gave me a little headache.” Another monk responded: “That was good, but not as good as meditation” (Dass). Impressed by the guru Maharaji who could take the same doses of LSD as Dass but feel no effect of the drug, Dass became enamored with the mental acuity and fortitude of eastern traditions. With a conversion experience out of his existential misery, he changed his name and briefly studied Maharaji’s Raja Yoga before returning to the west. “Since his most recent return to the west from India he has been floating about on an ocean of love… carried by the winds of desire of beings he can serve” (Dass). He wrote BE HERE NOW in 1971 about his spiritual experience he attributes to the guru.

The core book of BE HERE NOW, titled FROM BINDU TO OJAS adopts a graphical format of presentation. Pen drawings and non-linguistic symbols accompany freely laid out type, printed on unbleached brown paper. Although many readers’ first reaction is to dismiss this as crazy, this presentation carries the reader along an abstract spiritual path that is very effective at representing the subtleties of Dass beliefs and experience. Although the meandering journey that is the book may seem unintentional as it spirals from clarity of a few words on a page to confusion with words printed over words printed over drawings, the text intentionally foreshadows its own development in subtle ways that immediately become clear upon a second reading. Figures 1 and 2 show typical pages of the book.

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Figure 1: page 57                                                        Figure 2: page 37

BE HERE NOW illustrates that individuals influence the embodiment of whatever religion they ascribe to; in addition to the invocation of Buddhist imagery such as lotus flowers, the concatenation of being, or the sound of Om (which punctuates the end of every page) the text exhibits Christian thought about the kingdom of heaven, unconditional love,  and god of infinite power and compassion, and a preoccupation with Existential concerns such as death anxiety, The Allegory of the Cave, and emptiness of identity that plagued Dass in his earlier years. His monologue refers to Aldous Huxley’s “I am I” and Istigkeit (Is-ness) discussion from The Doors of Perception. He also follows the thinking of the beat generation, asserting: “What meditation is all about is to cool you all out” (Dass). Further equation of Rama as God, all women as the Veil of Maya and thereby Sansara, and invoking Herman Hesse’s German pseudo-Buddha, Siddhartha, to solidify his arguments further illustrates the scope of Dass’s conceptual conglomeration. The book extolls its own paradoxes that arise from this wide-reaching syncretism.

Although Dass adopts an countercultural attitude to Protestantism, the book contains myriad praise for Jesus as enlightened being: “Start to live in the Tao (the Way) Jesus said: I am the way! The way is the way is the way” (Dass p. 30) Although Dass may criticize mainstream Christianity, he adopts the contemporary view of therapeutic faith, and invokes Jesus as a therapeutic figure to deal with suffering, concluding the book with: “Do you think that when christ is lying there and they’re nailing the nails in he’s saying, ‘oh man, does that hurt!’? He’s probably looking at the guy who’s nailing him with absolute compassion he digs why the cat’s doing it. … You’re standing on a bridge watching yourself go by” (Dass p. 107)

An appendix of the book refers to itself as “Cook Book for Sacred Life,” but contains a series of short essays on life rather than literal recipes. Dass puts forth a theory for successful exercise, meditation, sleeping, diet, literal eating, sex, and interior design. This fits the trend in New Age literature that presents pseudoscientific guidelines for living based on theology or aesthetic principles. A second appendix titled “Books to Hang Out With” provides a list of further reading, including the Bhagavad Gita, the Holy Bible, and the Tao Te Ching.

The book bears a graph to clearly separate itself from the “profit motive.” Figure 3 shows the mark.


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Figure 3: Cost Distribution

Interesting to note, the numbers in the circle chart sum to 8.88 rather 1.00, 100%, or $15.15 (the book’s cost) Given the emphasis on numerology in New Age, this 8.88 likely correlates with 888, a transliteration of “Jesus” in Christian numerology. Additionally, the cost of the book, $15.15 (an odd increment for trade) may numerologically refer to John 15:15, which can be translated as: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” This sentiment fits, as Dass chooses to name his movement the Hanuman Society. (In the Indian epic the Ramayana Hanuman is the loyal follower and friend-servant of the Hindu patriarchal figure Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu.) In BE HERE NOW, Rama was equated to God. Interestingly, Dass describes an overwhelming desire during his existential malaise to be a servant, that is, free from freedom; Dass found the role as servant-friend he desired in the God he understood through the lens of Indian spirituality. Currently, later in his life, Dass is seriously exploring Judaism to resolve his childhood dissatisfaction with himself, his family, and his culture.

His conversion experience represented in BE HERE NOW confirms that his religious writing is thematically influenced by his own development as a person. An individual’s preconceptions and needs take primacy in shaping whatever religious ideas they embody.



Dass, Ram. (1978). BE HERE NOW. New York, NY: The Crown Publishing Group.

Review: Titan Souls


Titan Souls features a solitary hero armed with a single arrow who explores a ruin to fight titans. Featuring very tight and unforgiving gameplay and melancholy exploration, the game immediately ties the player to its silent protagonist and commands interest. While most games today rely on numerical gamification to bolster weak gameplay (in the form of  stat upgrades), Titan Souls boldly builds its gameplay completely around the player’s ability and drive.

Art & Sound

Titan Souls mix of pixel art  looks gorgeous, and working with the well-composed soundtrack and ambient effects communicates the contemplative environment quite well. Certain bosses are rendered from low-poly 3D models, yet don’t look out of place in the flat pixel world.




The combat gameplay is running and dodging while shooting and recalling a single arrow; the player dies in one hit, but so do the bosses. This very simple premise leads to some excellent gameplay. The best bosses likewise evolve from the superposition of a few simple premises, such as spinning smashing cuttable arms + a chasing gas cloud + a rotating weak spot, or two hands that alternate between blocking and crushing at conflicting rhythms. This leads to a very rewarding intellectual gameplay.


While some of the gameplay is excellent, a few bosses exhibit a sort of artificial difficulty from speed; in the case of the Yeti or Spike-Ball Idol Head, for instance, the concepts weren’t particularly difficult, but they moved very quickly as if to make up for the lack of conceptual challenge. These bosses weren’t as fun to fight as the slower bosses, leading more to frustration and relief than a feeling of real accomplishment. When combat isn’t fun and there is no numerical gamification, the only thing that keeps players going is a compulsive sense of addiction rather than enjoyment; this is not very healthy or very noble game design.


In times when the gameplay slacked, the game could have relied on story to maintain the player’s interest. Though it was interesting to explore and find implicitly expositional images or locations, this was not tied to the run of the game’s plot. Perhaps the game would have maintained its momentum better if these mysterious and interesting moments were parsed out after boss fights.

Titan Souls crafts a very special experience for the player, and does so very courageously against trends in modern gaming; because of this, its receiving very mixed reviews. For any proponent of video-games-as-art, Titan Souls will not disappoint.

Review: Firewatch


As ridiculous as the concept may sound, I’ve always toyed with the idea of creating a mountaineering video game.  Although Firewatch is heavily story driven, it toys with the idea of hiking in an almost metroidvania level design, and it works! Although some rules of the game are a bit questionable from the perspective of an outdoorsman, the game combines it’s story, setting, and mechanics quite well. Even so, it is by no means above criticism; let’s dig in!

Beware: the following sections contain spoilers, which for this game would be ruinous to your experience.


The common assumption in gaming that the only way to motivate predominantly male players is to appeal to their sexual urges by using a flirtatious female guide or boss is not only offensive, 1-dimensionalization of their audience, but also just lazy writing. If we’re all mature enough to be playing a supposedly intricate and adult-themed game, aren’t we mature enough to engage with it on a less juvenile level? Although Delilah’s engendering of your player’s guilt is thematically interesting, the developer emphasized the “flirtation simulator” aspect of Firewatch as selling point. (This can be seen in how the trailers highlight Delilah’s line: “I don’t talk to the other lookouts as much as I talk to you. Not in the same way.”)

Although the absence of physically present people is an interesting stylistic choice that helps the feeling of loneliness for most of the game, when Delilah is not in her tower at the end, it felt more like a design copout than anything else. This was clearly invoked to avoid technical considerations for her implementation; when Half Life 2 shined with its lifelike characters over a decade ago, its interesting that new games can get away with so much less in a setting where personal characters matter even more.


There were a lot of invisible walls. How the game decided which relatively flat boulders the player can scramble onto was unclear and frustrating. Henry rappelled with his bare hands. Most of the “unclimbable” rappel points were easily scalable scree slopes.

(Geology Rant: The shoshone range, especially Thorofare creek where the game is set, is volcanoclastic strata, plutons, and sandstone. In game a rappel slope was called shale. This use of language betrays writers who know only through association rather than experience.)



While the plot was interesting, it became clear that the player’s choices had no bearing on the run of events. This was probably to minimize effort in technical considerations, and the result is very weak. Why give the player a choice at all if they’re just a spectator? Some choices had tiny, superficial effects, like the image in a diary entry or the name of a fire, but players want to choose things that affect the game world; that is the point of a game: the player affects it by playing. All choices in beginning sequence, reporting encounter with teens, not starting the observation station fire, and asking to meet Delilah were meaningless because the game decided it needed certain events to happen to satisfy their tension devices and story arc. Writing multiple plots is challenging, but this would have been the distinguishing feature that would have made a good game an excellent game.


New Atheism Needs… the Dali Lama?


This week His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama visited Madison, WI, a city that time again joyfully receives him. Hundreds gathered to watch him disembark his flight at MSN airport, and tens of thousands applied to a lottery to see the Lama speak at the University of Wisconsin. Although the Lama speaks of his struggle for Tibetan freedom, he also speaks about compassion, love, and peace – that is, morality.

Madison is famously liberal, racially white (meaning non-Tibetan), and widely atheistic (it is, after all, the seat of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a humorous religion intended to lampoon Christianity.)highres_170246282.jpeg

Why does the Dali Lama hold such a dear place in the hearts of such a “non-religious” community?  A Madison blogger wrote on the topic: “Affluent folks who no longer have to worry about meeting life’s basic needs start to wonder what it’s all about. Their spiritual journey starts with the luxury of time and education to help them to think about it, and their inquiry tends to be less about community building and more about personal fulfillment and their own ‘journey.'” Although such people may have rejected Christianity, they still want morality and spirituality from a different source. For them, in the words of Nietzsche, although God is dead, the shadow of Buddha shall be cast upon the wall for centuries hence.

This appeal is what started the 14th Dali Lama’s ascent to stardom in the past few decades. Even for the more secular groups in which the Dali Lama’s fame first grew on the west coast, the mystery of eastern religion and perceived wisdom of a millennia-old tradition were important in reinforcing their already-held belief in such virtues as altruism; that the Dali Lama’s moral teachings are basically no different from the Christian moral substrate of his New Atheist American followers is partially the reason for his penetration in that cultural group’s authority void.

This trend can also be seen in the in-class viewing of Little Buddha, in which westerners, including an allegorically secular engineer, are introduced to the seemingly strange and mysterious Buddhism, only to learn it is not so different from their own culture, and then to embrace its teachings to some degree. In all times and religions (including non-religions) a token of similarity is the swiftest path to religious understanding, conversion, and syncretism.


Review: Axiom Verge


Rather than embody the abstract principles that make metroidvania games so excellent, Axiom Verge strangles itself in thematic pretension and mindless stylistic imitation. Though I would not assert a game must do something completely new to be creative and good, this game’s method of imitation (the term “formulaic copying” would be more accurate) lacks all freshness and heart.


2D gameplay must develop from a set of basic ideas in superposition with one another to create interest and natural difficulty. The main basic “ideas” in Axiom Verge are player position, enemy position, and 8-directional shooting. The enemies move in extremely rational ways such as circumambulating platforms to frustrate the player’s jumping, bouncing off walls at right angles, and bouncing down from the ceiling to hit the player. Although these ideas in themselves aren’t so bad or necessarily boring, Axiom Verge expects players to only face one behavior at a time, leading to exceptionally dull gameplay. Super Metroid, a good game that uses the same axioms, pits players against a mixture of these behaviors to lead to a stimulating but fair challenge. These behaviors were created to respond to the simplicity of AI available in the SNES; if a modern game really wanted players to face only one behavior at a time, it could create more interesting behaviors. At this, Axiom Verge fails as well; its more complicated enemies depend on speed and high-damage artificial difficulty to be challenging.  Even the bosses seem to be designed with the philosophy: “If it shoots bullets, it shoots a lot of bullets. If the battle is getting stressful at the end, just scale the bosses shooting speed.” It’s not hard. It’s not good gameplay. It’s trying desperately to prop up a feeble combat system.

The cornerstone of metroidvania design is the nonlinear opening of game space to the player through discovery of meaningful game mechanics. While space in Axiom Verge is opened up by upgrades, I would argue the game is not really metroidvania; the upgrades bear very little on the gameplay, and do little but to let you pass the new formulaic gimmick of a barricade, and although the world is nonlinear, its topology and upgrade path is designed as if from a minimal diagram the game developer scribbled down. The whole point of nonlinear world design is to provide the experience of freedom and exploration, but Axiom Verge rarely affords the player a chance to explore; instead a player might peek into an area and immediately realize this one of two choices is not traversable with current “Axiom Disruptors,” and walk the other way.

(Semantic Rant: Axiom Disruptor is the game’s name for guns. The game’s story centers around a glitch, a broken rule, a disrupted axiom of the game world, which might be more aptly titled an axiom disruptor. The fact that the guns do damage is an axiom in itself; the guns aren’t disrupting axioms, they’re disrupting an enemy’s existence! This game is so full of itself it can’t even think.)


Axiom Verge is very proud of its NES palette pixel art. Unfortunately, the art is both weak and compromised. The screen size is so giant that the pixels become basically irrelevant to the game’s appearance; the nearly monochromatic color schemes of the levels looks more like a pink mess than a tight, communicative, and abstract NES game.




axiom-verge-screen1.jpg                                                                                      Axiom Verge

The game props up its pixel art with other effects such as little distortions or destruction particle effects that end up looking more like confetti than carefully crafted graphics. The pixel art sprites themselves are not especially well crafted – their messy, heavy dithering looks almost as if was created to be viewed under a bilinear filter and not really be pixel art at all.


How are we supposed to engage with this poor, trapped, scared protagonist while listening to this rhythmically bland, melodically goofy pseudo 8-bit squealing? This perhaps more than anything else crushes all stakes and sense of being in an alien, disgustingly organic yet digital world.


Axiom Verge’s unintellectual gameplay, level design, and music maybe could still be fun if the game didn’t insist it was so damn serious. Yes, we get the idea that axioms are the foundation of a reality, even a virtual reality; this is not revolutionary, and not as profound as this game would like to think. The ponderous and idiotic dialogue (coming from Trace, supposedly the greatest mind in the world) shatters any connection a player may have with the protagonist or world by trying to heavy-handedly tell the player what to think and feel.

“Trace, there is … gun …in next room. You must get it.”

“Wait, what’s going on here? Who are you? … Hello? Where am I? Is the gun that lady just mentioned, or did I just imagine her?”

“You must go now, before he finds you?”

“Before WHO finds me? … I guess she’s gone again.”

This is insulting to the player’s capacity for judgement. When the dialogue fills all the space for speculation, there is nothing left for the player to think, wonder, or feel.

Although Metroid is an excellent game worthy of immitation, Axiom Verge copies concretes from Metroid without understanding or incorporating the Metroid “gestalt.” Don’t waste your time on Axiom Verge, unless you want to learn how not to design a game.Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 4.02.51 PM.png

Sorry Tom.