Development Diary: Somā Sutta

Developing Queen’s Rule, there are a couple of touchstones that we keep coming back to – ideas or images that anchor us. The most important of these is a quote from the Somā Sutta – a two-thousand-year-old story of the meditations of a Buddhist nun.

Bodhi tree, as featured in the Somā Sutta and other Buddhist teachings.

What does the Somā Sutta teach us?

The story runs that a Buddhist devotee, Somā, is sitting beneath a tree meditating, attempting to clear her mind on a quest for enlightenment, when she is disturbed by a voice which tells her:

That state’s very challenging; it’s for the sages to attain. It’s not possible for a woman, with her two-fingered wisdom.

In other words: you’re just a mere woman, and therefore too stupid to reach enlightenment.

Somā responds:

What difference does womanhood make when the mind is serene, and knowledge is present as you rightly discern the Dhamma?

The rebuttal seems simple enough. But she then continues:

Yet someone who might think: ‘I am woman’, or ‘I am man’, or ‘I am’ anything at all, is fit for Māra to address.

In other words, she identifies the voice that she hears as that of Māra, a demon of deception and desire who strives to keep people away from enlightenment. Or she personifies her self-doubt as Māra, if you prefer that interpretation. And with her clear understanding, she banishes her doubts and the demon who represents them.

This philosophically is intriguing, and digging in to it could take us far from the game. But the simple point, in brief, is this: in the context of seeking enlightenment, gender is not even an subject that she needs to consider.

So when Somā asks “What difference does womanhood make when the mind is serene, and knowledge is present?” she is asking it in the context of meditation and enlightenment. And in that context, it is a completely rhetorical question. Womanhood, gender, makes absolutely no difference, and asking about it is actually asking the wrong question.

Queen’s Rule, Politics, and Power

But when making Queen’s Rule, we are talking about people who act socially. They do not just sit and meditate. And in a social context – interacting with other people – “What difference does womanhood make?” is not a rhetorical question.

In the realms of politics and power and human interactions, the people in the society determine the difference that womanhood makes. Groups of people, societies, will teach, encourage, empower, support, prevent, shame and forbid women behaving in different ways. And that difference varies from place to place, and time period to time period. And that, for us, is the point.

What we are doing with Queen’s Rule is to take a particular social idea – matrilineal and matrilocal inheritance – and look at how that changes conflict between political groups. Queen’s Rule is a strategy game, but because of the matrilineal nature of the society – because what it means to be a queen is very different from the historical societies that most people are used to – the strategies play out unusually.

So when making Queen’s Rule, there are of course a lot of specific tasks that we have to address (coding, illustration, etc.) but at the heart of it we are taking Somā’s question, and asking it not as a rhetorical one. If social assumptions, laws and customs, determine what difference does womanhood make, then let’s look at different assumptions, laws and customs.

And it turns out that with different social assumptions about the difference that womanhood makes, we get a very different game.

Lotus torches at a Buddhist temple.

Image credits: Old Bodhi Tree (Anuradhapura) by Nishara Chathuranga, Wikimedia Commons; Buddhist temple photo by Nicole le Strange, Yosano Studios


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