Originally published April 4, 2021
I was thinking about Dogen, the 13th century Japanese Zen Master who founded the Soto Zen tradition, the other day. In his essay “Spring and Autumn”, written in 1244, he says that “you play go by yourself”. This seems so clearly false that it takes an effort to try to understand what he could be talking about.
He was trying to explain what it is like to be enlightened and playing go was apparently the best illustration he could think of. His point is that in playing go “properly” you lose any sense of separation from the activity of playing and the other player. It is not just a “shared” activity, it is a single, integrated activity. The focus is on the game, not its potential results and especially not on beating the other player. That last concern will definitely eliminate anything like an experience of enlightenment.
I see a lot of “unenlightened” playing, especially at tournaments. For many players, I think there is an overwhelming interest in beating the other player in order to improve your own rating. It is hard to get “lost” in the game under those circumstances. The whole point of ratings in go is to enable players to have games where they can get lost in the playing and enjoy not being in a situation where you feel like you are isolated, lonely, and being ignored or attacked by others. In playing go, you can experience an immersion in an enjoyable, exciting, invigorating activity that is very freeing. Happily, this can and does happen a lot in club play. I think that having experienced it, a lot of players are reluctant to play in tournaments, where it is hard to ignore the pressure of so much attention being given to winning and losing, that is, to the results of a game rather than to the experience of playing.
That’s why Dogen says enlightenment is like playing a game, not like winning one. (He does says it is not like playing a high handicap game—an issue to be explored another time.) It is unfortunate that modern life doesn’t seem to offer many other examples of an experience like playing go, though there are some. A good conversation can be this type of experience, or a walk in the woods, or reading a good book, or listening to Beethoven’s piano-violin sonatas. But activities involving another person that are like this are rare, unfortunately.
photo by Phil Straus; photo art by Chris Garlock