Dogen and Go

    Keywords: Culture & History

Dōgen (道元, 1200-1253, [ext] Wikipedia entry), the founder of the Japanese Sōtō school of Zen ([ext] website), knew go and referred to it in at least one place in his writings.

Table of contents

Reference in Spring and Autumn

A definite reference to go is found in his philosophical masterwork Shōbōgenzō 正法眼蔵 ([ext] Wikipedia entry), or Treasure of the True Dharma Eye, in the Spring and Autumn (Shunjű) fascicle (chapter). This starts with a disciple asking the Chinese Zen master [ext] Dongshan how to avoid heat and cold, and being told “Why don’t you go where there is no cold or heat?” Dōgen then paraphrases a commentary by Wanshi, a Chinese Zen master from the twelfth century, on the case (translation Bob Myers):

Discussing this is like two players playing Go, where you’ve got to answer my move if you don’t want to get taken for a ride. You won’t grasp what Tozan is saying until you’ve internalized this.

Kazuaki Tanahashi ([ext] website) has done a translation of this fascicle in his book Moon in a Dewdrop ([ext], but see the criticism by Bob Myers below.

Controversy over interpretation

Bob Myers says that this passage uses go as an analogy for engagement and involvement, and that a contemporary version might refer to tennis instead.

William Cobb wrote an article, [ext] The Empty Board – Dogen on Go (2003-09-21, archived 2007-08-11), on Slate and Shell based on the Tanahashi translation mentioned above, drawing conclusions that Myers dismisses as spurious: he claims that Dōgen is suggesting that playing go can lead to loss of sense of separateness from the opponent.

Bob Myers, assisted by John Fairbairn, claims that Tanahashi’s translation (and not just this one) has numerous problems, and provides his own translation of the section in question and commentary [ext] here. His bottom line: Dōgen actually regarded go as a time-wasting gambling game; it is just wrong to claim he equates go and enlightenment.

Discussion of the controversy

isshoni: Alas, as too often in Western commentaries on Zen, disagreements in translation/interpretation of intrinsically difficult texts are worded in a rather aggressive manner … I have no idea which one, if any, is more accurate. For what it’s worth, I’ll mention that Tanahashi Kazuaki is a member of the Sōtō school of Zen, which initiated an extensive academic translation of the Shōbōgenzō and other Sōtō texts, namely the Sōtō Zen Text Project ([ext] archived website), whose works are being published at a slow pace by American scholars. Their translation of Spring and Autumn still awaits the assignment of translator.

BobMyers: Saying that something is wrong is not “aggressive”. It’s just saying that it’s wrong. The Stanford project to translate Dōgen (which is now suspended pending completion and collation of all translations for a planned 2020 publication date of Shobo Genzo) was not “initiated” by the Sōtō Zen Head Office, and Tanahashi being a “member” (whatever that means) of the Sōtō School has nothing to do with that project, and does not give his translation any added authority.

Alleged reference in Twining Vines

An alleged reference to go by Dōgen also occurs in the Nishijima/Cross translation of Shōbōgenzō ([ext], in the Kattō (Twining Vines) fascicle, but it turns out this is spurious – see BobMyers’s [ext] analysis here.

The passage in question refers, in this translation, to “one move in a go game”, but Myers, assisted by John Fairbairn, suggests that “scrap” would be more appropriate.

Beginner’s Mind and go mentality


Enlightenment sought in Zen may not directly compare to aspiring “shodanhood”, but while reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind ([ext] Shunryū Suzuki), the following struck me:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few

(for a few more interesting quotes that may apply in Go, see [ext]

Suzuki also writes that “beginner’s mind was a favourite quote of Dōgen”; doing a wikisearch, I find “a beginner’s wholehearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment” ([ext]

Dogen and Go last edited by hnishy on November 27, 2022 - 10:09
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