The Game of Go

An Unexpected Path to EnlightenmentWilliam S. Cobb

Can a board game teach the principles of impermanence, interdependence, compassion, and no-self?


A number of traditional practices in Japan have been used as aids in the search for enlightenment, such as the arts of flower arranging, archery, sword fighting, the tea ceremony, and karate. In addition to serving as paths to enlightenment, they can illuminate the Buddhist perspective. However, one major traditional practice in Japan associated with Buddhism for centuries and traditionally referred to as a “way” or do, (pronounced dao in Chinese), has been neglected by those seeking to explicate Buddhism. This is the game Westerners call “Go,” known in Japan as igo or kido, “the way of Go.” It provides a useful way of depicting and experiencing the fundamental aspects of life as Buddhists understand it.

The game of Go originated over 4,000 years ago in ancient China where it was considered one of the four activities a person had to master in order to be truly civilized, the other three being poetry, music, and painting. It was brought to Japan around the seventh century C.E., probably by Buddhist monks returning from training in monasteries in China. Although the game is much older than Buddhism, it was quickly recognized by Buddhists as a useful tool for Buddhist practice. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the strongest players in Japan were generally Buddhist monks. (The oldest extant record of a game in Japan is traditionally ascribed to Nichiren, the thirteenth-century founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism.) The game was popular as a means of instilling the virtues of overcoming fear, greed, and anger among the samurai whose instructors in Go were Buddhist monks. Its capacity for making its players better people is part of the reason Go is still widely popular in Japan, Korea, and China, where millions of people play regularly. The increasing popularity of Go in Europe and America also reflects its tendency to foster humane attitudes.

Go is a strategy board game, as is chess, though the two games differ profoundly. It is played with circular black and white pieces called “stones” on a square grid that is usually 19 by 19 lines. The stones are placed on the intersections of the lines, rather than in the squares, and are not moved during play, although they can be captured and removed from the board. Play begins with an empty board, and the players alternate placing stones on the board, with the player who has the black stones going first. As play proceeds, patterns of black and white stones evolve on the grid.

Winning and losing is determined by the number of open intersections you are able to surround with stones that are safe from capture. However, the point of playing is clearly understood as not that of winning games (when Go is played properly, you lose about half of your games), but of exploring the possibilities to be found in particular arrangements of stones. You seek to create interesting games, and that requires becoming a stronger player by acquiring a greater understanding of the game. Thus, the players engage in a search for enlightenment—which involves moral qualities as well as intellectual understanding, insofar as greed and fear are the greatest barriers to becoming better at the game. A handicapping system is also built in to ensure that players of unequal skill will have an equal chance of winning or losing: The weaker player places an appropriate number of stones on the board before the stronger player places a stone, and is thus given an advantage. To facilitate the awarding of handicap stones, each player is given a rank based on past performance, which changes as the player becomes stronger.

There is a special connection between playing Go and the authentication of enlightenment, as suggested by a striking passage in Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo. In the essay “Spring and Autumn,” (Shunju), written in 1244, the Japanese Zen master Dogen uses a reference to Go to help his audience understand a famous koan from T’ang China: a monk asks how to avoid being cold or hot. Master Dongshan tells the monk to go where there is no cold or heat. Dogen refers to several traditional explanations of this response that interpret it as making a philosophical point about the unity that must be prior to all distinctions: A unifying concept of temperature must be realized prior to the distinctions between cold and hot.

Dogen says that we should, instead, heed the words of Hongshi, a twelfth-century Chinese Zen master: “It is like when you and I are playing Go. If you do not respond to my move, I’ll swallow you up. Only when you penetrate this will you understand the meaning of Dongshan’s words.” Dogen comments on this along with an additional explanation in terms of his own notion of “dropping off body and mind” (shinjin datsuraku), pointing out that Go players experience a profound overcoming of the sense of separation from each other and from the process of the game.

Understanding Go as a path to enlightenment begins with four fundamental Buddhist principles, usually denoted by the Sanskrit terms: sunyata (emptiness), pratityasamutpada (dependent co-arising, or interconnectedness), anitya (impermanence), and anatman (no-self). Each of these is present in a straightforward way in Go, and by playing the game one can experience being in a world that is quite different from that normally inhabited by most Westerners.

In contrast to games like chess, in Go there are no playing pieces on the board at the start. This situation makes the range of moves much greater because of the size of the standard board, with 361 intersections; and because all the pieces are able to occupy a point on the board, the number of possible games is astronomical.

This starting position illustrates an important point about the notion of shunyata. Emptiness, in Buddhism as well as in ordinary language, does not refer to an absolute lack of everything. Thus, the earlier translation of sunyata as “void” was very misleading. Emptiness refers to the absence of something that, for some reason, one expects to find—as when we say a glass, normally used to hold liquids, is empty even though it is full of air. The point is not that there is nothing there at all, but rather that what is there differs from your expectations.

The emptiness that Buddhism affirms is very similar to that in Go. The Buddhist point is that potentiality precedes actuality. There are no ultimate limits on the possibilities of being. Reality is open-ended in an absolute sense—a fact that has many implications for understanding the human situation.

The Go player discovers that the absence of an absolute fixed structure or of ultimate limits on reality is not the disaster you might expect. On the contrary, it makes things much more interesting. Go is vastly more complex than chess because of its indefiniteness, that is, its emptiness. One learns to revel in the creative possibilities that result from the relative absence of defined powers and fixed structures rather than being frustrated by the fact that there are no final answers about what constitutes good play.

In the Buddhist sense, emptiness refers to the fact that nothing is self-determining, and thus nothing is eternal. Everything is what it is by virtue of its relationships to everything else, and since no fixed thing serves as the ultimate ground of this vast complex, everything is subject to constant change. In the same way the principles of impermanence (anitya) and interconnectedness (pratityasamutpada) also fundamental to the game of Go. The most obvious manifestation of interconnectedness in Go can be seen in the way groups of stones develop during play, while the shifting significance of these groups and the stones that compose them is a clear example of impermanence.

Play in the game is directed by the intention of one player to surround more empty intersections than the other player. The technique is to create walls that encircle parts of the board by placing stones adjacent to each other so that they form solid lines. Since stones can be captured, this process becomes very complex, and the significance of stones is constantly changing. Considered in itself, a stone has almost no significance. A stone’s real significance lies in its potentiality for interaction with other stones. It can surround territory or disrupt the ability of stones of the other color to do so, and even capture those stones. Thus, players learn that things are what they are by virtue of pratityasamutpada, interconnectedness. Moreover, the significance of any stone or group of stones is subject to the possibility of radical change. A stone or group of stones that is important at one point can become dispensable as a result of later developments. Stones can even be used as sacrificial offerings for the sake of later gain and may or may not be accepted as such. The significance of the vulnerability of the stones accustoms the players to the reality of impermanence, and again this is found to be not a dreadful situation, but one that greatly enriches the experience of playing.

A more revealing and significant level of Go as a path to enlightenment is the way it can illuminate two basic questions: how one can avoid falling into a nihilistic relativism while affirming a principle of emptiness as ultimate; and why it is that wisdom—insight into the fact of emptiness—generates compassion. These two issues, among the most challenging in Buddhism, appear in the famous advice of Zen masters not to make judgments of good and bad. Since this sounds like a bit of advice that is supposed to be good rather than bad, one is not sure how to understand its message. Moreover, we assume that compassion is a good thing as well. Go is very helpful in illuminating these puzzles.

To approach these issues, something must be said about the fourth principle, anatman, the doctrine of no-self. The recognition that there is no self is a key step on the path to enlightenment, but people are often confused about what this means. One way to clarify this is to note the implications of the notion of interconnectedness. Since everything is what it is by virtue of its relations to other things, this means that I as an individual am constituted by my relations to other people, institutions, places, actions, etc. There is no self-grounding inner core of the individual. Our lives are entirely dependent processes.

Since my life is a function of relationships with others, the only way I can make my life better (not worrying for the moment about what counts as better) is by making everyone else’s life better. That is to say, the only motive I could have for trying to make the lives of others worse is the notion that I could thereby make my life better in some way, but pratityasamutpada makes this impossible. This notion is reflected in the game: It cannot be good to win in Go because it is not bad to lose. This is because the aim of achieving greater understanding is often more effectively facilitated by losing than by winning.

This view of the nature of a human being is essential to the game of Go. One of the most striking consequences of playing the game is the way it leads to the diminution of self-centered behavior even in those who are merely playing the game because they like it as a game. In other words, the game induces the overcoming of self even in those who are not aiming at that. A clear indication of this is the congenial interpersonal atmosphere you invariably find at Go clubs and tournaments. Players are genuinely supportive of one other, rejoice in others’ successes, go out of their way to help weaker players become stronger, and generally act like friends rather than opponents. This can be true of groups who play other games, but in Go the character of the game itself directly promotes this kind of behavior.

The motivation behind the Buddhist denial of the existence of an inherent self is the connection between the idea of such a self and the experience of suffering. The notion that your being is ultimately independent of others implies that your life can be improved by doing things that enhance your own being regardless of the impact on others.

This belief leads to what Buddhists call “attachment,” that is, to the idea that there is something—material wealth, power, status, whatever (even enlightenment)—that will make my life better if I can get hold of it for myself. However, this only generates suffering. Either you are desperate because you do not have whatever it is, or you are desperate because you are afraid of losing it. The only solution is to abandon the idea of an independent self and to embrace the reality of your interdependent being.

This manifests itself in Go in several ways. In the Japanese tradition you always begin a game by expressing your appreciation for the other player’s willingness to play, as well as recognizing that your understanding will be enhanced by the game. A popular metaphor for Go in Japanese is “hand conversation” (shudan), an interactive process valued for the quality of the process rather than any outcomes for the individual conversants.

The most effective way Go undermines players’ attachment to self is the handicapping system that is an integral part of the game. If you win more than about sixty percent of your games, you are automatically promoted to the next level of the ranking system, which changes the handicap in your games. This means that you expect to lose about half your games: on this basis alone one is encouraged not to become attached to winning. The character of the game encourages players to abandon attachment to getting stronger, as well as to winning, and to focus instead on enjoying the game at their present level. Since the emptiness of Go prevents you from forcing a win, the players learn to greatly restrict judgments of good and bad. In counseling a weaker player one may note that a particular play is “usual nowadays” rather than “good” or that a line of play is “difficult” rather than “bad.” Such counsel is usually explicitly hypothetical as well: “If you want to capture those stones, you should play there.” It is not uncommon for players to be very enthusiastic about a game they have just lost, especially a particularly elegant game.

Here we begin to see how a lack of ultimate standards of good and bad may not lead to nihilism and despair. There is a context that provides the structure necessary for things to be more or less interesting, but that context is clearly created by an agreement between the participants to play this game. It is a recognition that the absence of such standards can lead to an attractive situation rather than to one of boredom. This is just the point that Buddhism tries to make.

In Go, there is an initial agreement about what counts as playing the game, and these basic rules and definitions make it possible to see some possibilities as inappropriate. In life, Buddhists speak to this issue by saying that compassion is the natural accompaniment of wisdom. This claim is not easy to grasp, because the wisdom referred to is precisely the understanding that everything (including this claim) is empty. There are no absolutes. This would seem to leave Buddhism open to the possibility of having no basis for objecting to behavior that seems clearly outrageous—torturing babies as a way to deal with boredom, for example. How can Buddhists support their appeal to compassion as the only appropriate response to the human situation?

The game of Go can again provide a useful model. When two people confront each other across a Go board, they could do virtually anything—throw the stones at each other, carve their initials in the board, etc. Why play Go? The broader question is, why do anything at all? This question seems to be about ends, and thus is usually assumed to require some sort of standard of good and bad if it is to be answered. However, there is another way of looking at it: by considering the kinds of beings who are facing each other. If you assume the reality of emptiness and interconnectedness, any behavior that is inconsistent with this condition will clearly be inappropriate because it is based on delusion, a false view of reality. Thus, what is appropriate is going to be cooperative in some sense.

While it is true that because of the nature of reality, nothing very significant (in ultimate terms) is ever at stake, it still is the case that some things seem more appropriate than others, and a useful guideline for finding the more appropriate things is to say that they are the cooperative acts that increase the opportunities for cooperation—the compassionate acts. One plays Go for the same reason people climb mountains—because it is there, and it seems such a waste not to play it. It is the same for life in general. The game of nonattachment is a useful model for a life of nonattachment. If you’re curious about what nirvana is like, learn how to play Go. Then take the advice of Dogen and just play, not trying to do anything else. Let the game “swallow you up.”

The point of playing is clearly understood as not that of winning games but of exploring the possibilities to be found in particular arrangements of stones. One seeks to create interesting games.

At Go clubs and tournaments, players are genuinely supportive of one another, rejoice in others’ successes, go out of their way to help weaker players become stronger, and generally act like friends rather than opponents.

The game of nonattachment is a useful model for a life of nonattachment.

William Cobb is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. He is certified by the Nihon Kiin (Japanese Go Association) as an International Go Instructor. This is an adaptation of an article that originally appeared in The Eastern Buddhist. The American Go Association maintains a website at www.usgo.org.

Image 1: Courtesy New York Public Library.
Image 2: Korean print: Go game. Courtesy New York Public Library.
Image 3: Japanese in the United States playing Go. Courtesy New York Public Library.

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