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In this following context, how should I know the phrase 'play of blind chance'? What does the word 'play of' mean? Does it mean 'creating of'?

Context:

P.S. shows that the sum of mental and physical phenomena known by the conventional name “person” or “individual” is not at all the mere play of blind chance;

Source: Fundamentals of Buddhism Four Lectures by Nyanatiloka Mahåthera

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    These translations are quite difficult to explain. You can look up the word play in any dictionary. I suggest you go to a site on Buddhism rather than this one, for the English language.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 14:42

4 Answers 4

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"Play" has the meaning "movement" (see https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/play) in expressions like "The play of light and shadow across the ceiling". The light and shadow moved, making changing patterns. You might get this effect if light is reflecting off the ripples on a lake onto the ceiling.

Here it is metaphorical, it means the way that "blind chance" moves or creates (or does not create) an individual. The interpretation of this in a Buddhist context is beyond this answer.

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If you look up play in Merriam-Webster you find "scope or opportunity for action" and "free or unimpeded motion (as of a part of a machine), also : the length or measure of such motion".

It is common to talk about "the play of a rope", meaning the freedom that the rope has to move, and specifically to go in and out. It is also found in fishing, where a fishing line has some "play", meaning you can move it in and out to allow the fish to move and to tire the fish out.

Hence "the play of blind chance" means the scope for movement that blind chance provides. "Play" refers to the range of things that can happen, and if you view that range of things as a space, there is movement within the space, which can allow different things to happen.

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I'd say, based on these definitions of "play": the playing, action, or conduct of a game AND an act or instance of playing or of doing something it means that here the impersonal (or personification of) "chance", or here "blind" chance, is making the "play" or instance of action.

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Tackling this step by step:

Blind chance

Is a synonym for random chance, i.e. events that we cannot deterministically control the outcome of. I'll use the example of flipping a coin here - we don't know the outcome of the coin flip beforehand.

[The] play of blind chance

Is a fancy way of saying "the behavior of random chance".

Continuing the example of the coin flip, either outcome is 50% likely to happen. On average, if you make a large number of coin flips, let's say 2 billion, you expect to roughly get 1 billion heads and 1 billion tails.

But as you start flipping your coin 2 billion times and tallying the outcome, you won't always get a fair division between the two outcomes. Sometimes you might have flipped a few heads in a row, or the majority of recent flips will have been tails, or ... The numbers shift and change as you progress down your tall of coin flips, but it's likely going to average out in the end.

However, if you did another experiment where you flip a different coin 2 billion times, the progression of heads versus tails will be different from the first experiment.
This could lead you to wrongly conclude that each coin is individually different, but this is not the case. Even if you had used the same coin for the second experiment, you wouldn't have seen the exact same progression of heads versus tails.

This is the "behavior" of random chance, it does not always behave consistently in small numbers even though it does tend to average out in the long run. Individual observations of random chance can look different but this does not mean that they is an actual observable difference.

[A] is not the mere [B]

Is a fancy way of saying "is more than" or "is not just". It's indicating that A is either better than B, or that is B plus some other things as well.

For example, "Bob is not a mere violinist" could mean:

  • He is a virtuoso, much better than the average violinist. ("Bob is better than a violinist")
  • He is a violinist, but he also plays other instruments ("Bob is a violinist plus some other things as well")

It's not always clear which of the two is being used, this is very contextual.

[A] is not at all the mere [B]

"at all" is only used to strengthen the confidence of the statement. It does not change the meaning if omitted.

the sum of mental and physical phenomena known by the conventional name “person” or “individual”

Is a fancy way of referring to what we call "sentience", i.e. an object that displays physical mobility and rational thought, something of which we can state that it is alive and shows some form of intelligence.


Combining all this, we can reduce the sentence down to:

[Sentience] [is more than] [how random chance behaves]

In other words, the sentence is trying to convey that it would be incorrect to state that sentience is pure random chance and nothing else.

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