The Stonecutter and the Tao of Rock-Paper-Scissors

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Have you ever played rock-paper-scissors, sometimes called Rochambeau? Probably, right? But maybe not everyone. With everything going digital, maybe teens and below have never played before. But it's a shame if they haven't because this simple child's game is a great entry point into Eastern philosophy.

Having its origins in ancient China, rock-paper-scissors is a prime example of the cyclical thinking in Eastern philosophy. Rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock. Most Eastern (and also native) philosophies have that in common: from Taoism to Buddhism—that life is cyclical.

Since the game is so simple and clever, it's one of the oldest games people still play. And perhaps the oldest game still played in its original form. What keeps it antifragile is, it doesn't have too much to it. The game design is perfectly balanced.

In economics, rock-paper-scissors is known as a zero-sum game. (In physics, this is known as conservation of mass and energy.) There is no ultimate advantage. You gain and lose equally. And that's the idea, that life is full of tradeoffs, every decision is an equivalent exchange. Even if we can't see all the consequences. This is much more in line with reality than how we normally view the world: in black and white and absolutes.

The Western counterparts to Taoism and Buddhism are moralism, dualism, and absolutism. We can see this best illustrated in two variations of the same fairytale: the Eastern philosophical viewpoint in "The Stonecutter" and the Western moralistic viewpoint of "The Fisherman and His Wife" by the Brothers Grimm...

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