Back in 2001, I posted to the rec.gambling.poker newsgroup:
An ex-Mormon friend of mine ... noted that the two states that build the most garish "temples" (Nevada & Utah) happen to be right next to each other.Most people have a similar mind in a casino as in a church. They're ready to make sacrifices, in the hope that some unseen magic force (God or Luck) will ultimately grant them rewards that outweigh the costs. And they have an amazing ability to hold onto this hope, even when all logic and evidence contradict it. The old joke goes: the difference between a church and a casino is that when people pray in a casino, they really mean it.
Religion & gambling are dependent on the fact that life is filled with unknowns ("When you die, where do you go?", "Will the board pair on the river?", etc, etc); since most of us aren't satisfied with not knowing, there's an attraction to such things. Just as movies etc put a frame around life in order to bring it down to a size we can grasp, churches & casinos put a "frame" around the unknown so we can approach it in our individual ways.
Generally, people approach the unknown with awe & reverence in church, or with playfulness in a casino, & often with desire in either location. At higher limits in the casino (or in low-limit religion), this distinction may blur...
It's my chosen belief that the Golden Rule operates in life as clearly as probability operates at the tables. But since there's no frame around our existence, the variance is monstrous, & the long term is longer than we can imagine.
As with religion, I approach gambling in a way that outwardly appears the same as the majority, but with a different intention. Sure, I'm affected by the roller-coaster of short-term luck, but my focus is on making the best decision in each situation, understanding that in the long-term, fluctuations even out, and you end up with precisely what you deserve.
I have faith that it works the same way for life-in-general: do good action and get happiness, do bad action and get suffering. This clear cause-and-effect can be glimpsed only occasionally, only from the widest perspective. Casino gambling, when done with discipline and mathematical understanding, makes it a little easier to see the ultimate justice of cause-and-effect play itself out. That's because, when compared with life, gambling has a simple and precise way of keeping score. Also, the "long-term," where ups-and-downs even out, requires months or years in gambling, as compared with infinite lifetimes in the real world.
Learning to play video poker with mathematical precision (which allows me to play at roughly even odds) isn't that difficult. Anyone of average intelligence could do it. I've found, though, that large numbers of casino-goers can't even grasp that one can apply critical thinking skills to gambling in a meaningful way. They can't or won't accept that we have some control over our gambling destiny, that there are alternatives to just praying for luck.
All of what I've said about gambling is perfectly analogous to my perspective on spiritual practice or life. As the alcoholics say, we need to have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can't control. If I can accept and make peace with the big questions of existence (that I don't know where I come from, where I'm going, why I'm here, or who I am), I can leave the mystery to take care of itself. I can direct all my attention and energy to the one thing that I can control, my true job: responding to this very moment with whatever clarity and compassion I can manage.
Different people do spiritual practices in ways that outwardly look the same. But there can be profound differences in intention. Are we, for instance, doing sitting meditation with the belief that some outside being or force will magically come to our aid? Or do we direct our effort and attention purely to how we keep our own thinking and behavior, moment to moment?
As I once put it in a dharma talk:
... the world is filled with spiritual teachers anxious to tell you their ways to beat the system. They say, "If you follow me and my way, you'll get all sorts of good feelings inside and good situations outside; if not now, then in the future. My way will grant you benefits infinitely greater than the effort you put into it."
In other words, they teach the possibility of getting good stuff that you don't earn, and don't deserve. This is a beautiful idea, and it's given beautiful names, such as "God's grace," etc. I've noticed that the largest crowds seem to form around those teachers who say that small efforts can bring big rewards.
In our school, the teaching different. Dae Soen Sa Nim says, "Big effort, big attainment. Small effort, small attainment. No effort, no attainment." How can someone considered a great teacher get away with promising so little? He also says, "Understanding cannot help you." This means that life offers no tricks or shortcuts; and if you really understand that there are no shortcuts, even that's not a shortcut.
Maybe it sounds awful to give up such beautiful hopes. But when you completely give up hope, you're left with something extraordinary: a clear view of the present moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What are you doing right now? That's much better than hope.
There's a story about this in a Carlos Castaneda book. Carlos is walking with don Juan and stops for a moment to tie his shoe. Just then, a boulder falls from the cliffs above and crashes to the ground a few feet ahead. "My God!" Carlos says. "If I hadn't had to tie my shoe, that would have killed us!"
"That's true," replies don Juan. "And maybe someday you'll stop to tie your shoe, and because you stop a boulder will kill you. You don't know when the boulder will fall, so the most important thing for you to do is to tie your shoe impeccably."