Scartol/Philosophy of Go

Sub-page of Scartol

I began to truly study Go and Zen at about the same time, and although they have been independent interests of mine for some time, I was intrigued to find that as I study the one, the other inevitably comes to mind.

It seems likely that more than simple geographical coincidence unites them. I would point out that I am quite the amateur in both fields, but I've noticed some things I thought I might explore here.

1. Victory in Go -- like the enlightenment of Zen -- seems possible through logic alone, but is not.

As I understand it, there is a theoretical 'perfect' set of black moves in Go that, if answered by the 'perfect' set of white moves, will result in victory every time. However, the difficulty of computer Go programming demonstrates that this is likely to remain a theoretical concept for quite some time, if not eternity.

In a similar way, many students of Zen want to reach enlightenment by asking the right questions of Zen, hoping to reach enlightenment through a binary approach of "Yes, this is Zen / No, that's not Zen." However, every Zen text I've explored has said time and again that this is diametrically opposite to the path of true enlightenment. Bob Myers: Haha, that's a good one.

Therefore, in both cases, an inner source must be consulted, a guiding mechanism that assists in decisions without the benefit (curse?) of inherent logic. Unless we want to assign a name for every possible place one can reasonably place Black 15, our fuseki must rely on something akin to intuition. (Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart explore the grey area between logic and intuition in The Collapse of Chaos.)

This guiding mechanism is in both cases made stronger through study (tsumego in Go, koans in Zen), but never perfected. Zen enlightenment can be achieved -- like a Go victory -- but there is no way to assure that it will take place.

2. Go and Zen both require clarity.

When the mind is distracted and/or attached to irrelevant matters, it cannot focus on Go or Zen. Of course this could be said for most any game (maybe Craps is an exception), but the point seems especially valid for Go. The difference between two adjacent fuseki moves is potentially huge; to access the source that will inform the decision, the mind must be nimble and clear.

This begets many questions about TheIdealGoEnvironment. Suffice here to say that questions of body position, restfulness, hunger/thirst, and general physical readiness matter to the Go player like the players of few other 'board games'. Janice Kim calls Go a martial art akin to Judo or Karate, and I'm inclined to agree.

3. Go and Zen both facilitate clarity.

The skilled Go player watches offense as well as defense. She plays moves that strengthen her own positions while attacking her opponent's. She scrutinizes subtle possibilities in minute spots of her stones' shapes, while mentally drawing and redrawing all 361 qi on the board. She respects her opponent and respects the game; each move is made with this in mind.

The Zen master reflects on light as well as dark. He seeks enlightenment while aiding others in their quest. He examines the intimate specific patterns in a grain of rice just as he wraps his mind around the entire universe. He respects his teachers and respects Zen itself; each day is lived with the goal of furthering the spirit of Zen.

In each case, past experiences make easier the acquisition of clarity, necessary for future development. The game played today (assuming it is played consciously) will not only aid tomorrow's, but every game thereafter. The koan on which the student meditates today will serve her twenty years later. Both spirits reproduce their best outcome in the manifestation of themselves.

Further, Go provides a mental clarity that extends far beyond the goban. I have encountered several non-Go situations in the past few months wherein I think: "Ah, this situation can be easily resolved. It has only one eye." I would say that the same applies to Zen, but then Zen encompasses all and therefore by definition applies to everything.

4. Go and Zen both break down hierarchies.

Dieter Verhofstadt related a story in RefuseToTakeHandicap about a player new to Go who insisted that insofar as "inequality did not exist and was not celebrated by something as tangible as stones" in Zen, there was no need for handicap stones.

This an exact reversal of how I would interpret the link between Zen's conception of inequality and Go handicap.

If by inequality we mean "a condition whereby two things are not identical in terms of their relative position to a certain ideal," then of course inequality exists in Zen. If one person (let's call her Thelma) has attained enlightenment, and another (Louise) has not, then there is an inequality. Thelma and Louise are not equals in terms of their levels of enlightenment.

What Zen tries to do, however, is break down the significance of that inequality vis a vis other activities and conditions. So for instance the Zen master Gisan instructed his students to give leftover water to the plants, rather than waste it -- showing the equality of plants' need for water. Obviously, the lack of opposable thumbs indicates an inequality between plants and humans; but the spirit of Zen encourages the dissolution of the hierarchy of significance: What does it mean for the plants to be unequal to us in terms of having opposable thumbs? Does that mean that they are unequal in terms of deserving life?

This is exactly the point of handicap Go stones. Let's assume that Thelma, in addition to being enlightened, also knows the aforementioned "perfect" sequence of black stone placement. She will therefore be able to defeat Louise every time. If there is no assumed inequality between Thelma and Louise, then Thelma is assured victory.

The only way to create an equal challenge is to alter the initial state of the board so that the "perfect" sequence cannot be applied. There is no point in pretending that all players are equal; the question is how to make the challenge equal.

5. Playing Go and the path to Zen are both enjoyable.

I've studied a variety of religions (although never in much depth, insofar as the moment I hit dogma I tend to retreat), and have yet to feel the same small sense of "aha!" that I often get from Zen koans or tales from the masters. I feel as though each time I sit down to read a story about Bankei (one Zen master to whom I have taken a particular shine), I will be in some way entertained. (I recognize that much of Zen is not fun or entertaining, and that the quest for enlightenment is a serious endeavor that demands sacrifice. But it appears so much less tedious than, say, Catholicism.) I don't pretend that I will reach enlightenment just by reading a koan, but often I do feel at least slightly more aware.

I feel the same way about Go -- each game presents an entirely blank slate upon which I may spend some time playing at the art. My goal is to be happy with the art (ie, win the game). But even losing can be pleasurable.

In both cases, I feel sure that regardless of whether I reach my destination (whether I win or lose, whether I am enlightened or not), I will enjoy walking the path.

Okay, enough of this.

-- Scartol

HolIgor: Go is considered a form of art rather than a competitive game in the East. But, naturally, it is a competition first of all and a very cruel competition, a fight of characters. The main idea is to convince your opponent that your threat is larger than her's. The characters clash. Many games are developed in the way that after a short period of maneuvering with the placement of stones some of the opponents makes a move that claims too much, just a little to much, at least a little more than the other player is ready to give. It is a matter of both skills and determination then. You have to develop an inner strength to be up to the challenge.

Despite the fact that go is a form of art you seldom enjoy the artistic values of it in your own games. There is too many mistakes in them and the post game analysis almost always shows that your win is due to the mishap of your opponent rather than your own skill in finding a kami no itte. This is said. But this is true from the point of view of a practical player.

Scartol: The following occurs to me (having just watched the movie ''Pi'').

Go (like Zen) is part knowledge, part intuition. When playing, one must (especially during fuseki) act on reading outside the board. Who is your opponent? Do you need to play aggressively or defensively? Will she be tricked by deceptive plays? Will she recognize a sneak attack?

We might say that there is a certain set of common fuseki. Let's call this order. We play one of the common patterns, and continue along the path until someone makes an uncommon move. Now the board becomes chaotic.

Chaos ensues until one of the recognizable shapes emerges. At that point, there is often a vital point which must be secured or attacked. Pure order.

But abandoning a 90% dead shape too soon is a mistake (suppose you found that 10% lifeline?), as is continuing with a 100% dead shape. The chaos re-emerges when the player decides when to abandon ship, and move on to another place on the board.

Meanwhile, the patterns and shapes are all interacting with one another, and based on a large variety of elements (luck, foresight, proper intuition, the will of the gods), these interactions may or may not prove victorious.

Could it be said, then, that the key to winning on the 'total board' comes in knowing when to move between order and chaos? If so, then this seems to be a uniquely human characteristic, and computers will likely never be able to achieve it. the quest for a kami no itte is a quest to create pure order on the goban, a quest no less foolish than trying to create pure order throughout the universe.

This train of thought is continued in the movie ''Pi''..

To keep the focus of this page on philosophy (particularly of the Zen variety), I've moved a discussion that used to be here to a page called Does Kami No Itte Exist -- Scartol

The ideas represented herein are continued (some might say to a silly extent) in an article by Ernest Brown in the American Go Journal (24:1, Winter 1990) entitled "Go: The Study of Buddhist Ideals."

See also The Zen Way to Go.

Naustin I propose a new path Philosophy and Go that could
encompass all aspects of philosophy as it relates to go.

SnotNose: I'm intrigued at the apparent similarity between Go and Zen. I want to read more about Zen. Can anyone suggest some books for a Zen novice?

Scartol: Sure. Start with Zen Flesh, Zen Bones edited by Paul Reps and then check out some of the titles quoted in The Zen Way to Go. 101 of the tales from ZFZB can be found [ext] here. Enjoy!

Naustin-- I too have an interest in both Zen and Go and feel they are harmonious compatriots. I often am frustrated by time constraints of playing actual game Sometimes I really feel I could think about a move for a long time but often for a variety of reasons can't. I have also struggled with the fact that meditation practices in which I seek to clear my mind often do not work. I heard someone mention that they felt simialarly so they prefer to practice contemplation meditation. In the interest of both of these I have set up a go board at the spot in my apartment where I do my prayer and meditation. I have started replaying the game from Kawabata's The Master of Go. I only put one move down every day and try to contemplate it and and just see what ideas come up for me. Sometimes something will leap out at me when I'm not even sitting there but moving around my apartment and my eyes just happen to stray over there. I have only played three moves so far but already feel that it is a worthwhile excercise. Perhaps it will also help me to focus and be more detached at the board when I am playing others. In these ways I feel Go can be practised as a discipline.

Ellbur: I do not believe that philosophy may be applied to a game as abstract as Go. Go starts with simple rules, which define the entire game. When logic is applied to these rules, the result is strategy. Strategy forms the way in which we play Go.

In natural phenomena there is no system which is isomorphic to the game of Go. The rules may be likened to philosophical ideas, but the analogy is always imperfect and irrelevant to the game.

Scartol: I must passionately disagree. In nature, as in Go, there are rules -- they are relative, but we all agree upon them. For example, all living things die; it is the way of the universe. (As a boy, the Zen master Ikkyu broke his teacher's teacup and capitalized on this truism by saying "It was time for your cup to die.")

Once we agree to these fundamental tenets of the universe, we can explore them (What happens after we die?), cope with them (Why must death be part of life?), and even dispute them (Are life and death real?). The same is true of Go.

Indeed, I agree completely with your statement: Go starts with simple rules, which define the entire game. When logic is applied to these rules, the result is strategy. Strategy forms the way in which we play Go. If we replace "Go" with "existence", I believe we have an apt way of describing the very purpose of philosophy.

Zen is even more applicable than Western philosophy in my opinion, because it recognizes the balances between life and death; strength and weakness; and joy and grief. The dualities and contradictions of Zen continue to strike me as singularly appropriate for a game as nuanced as Go.

However, I must take umbrage with your use of the word "abstract." I agree that parts of Go are abstract (fuseki especially, for me). In these areas of the game, it's very hard to nail down specific ideas or philosophies (despite Kajiwara's claim that "Move two lost the game"). However, other parts of the game are very concrete -- life and death problems, for example. (I can't think of anything more concrete than a vital point.)

It is precisely this balance between the abstract and concrete that makes Go such an excellent subject for philosophical analysis, and that of Zen in particular.

PS. As I've said before, I don't wish to make simplistic, direct, or authoritative connections between Zen and Go. I am a total beginner at both (a mere two years of study in each). However, I am fascinated and riveted by these connections, and I believe it's worthwhile to explore them, for the benefit of our understanding of each field.

Ellbur: I dissagree with what you have said.

If we replace "Go" with "existence",: Well, if we replace Go with existence, it seems we have sacrificed quite a large portion of reality, haven't we? It would be inconvenient in this space to list the many things I have encountered which are not Go, so I will leave you to imagin what these might be. If you still feel that we should replace Go with existence, at least leave some existence for me, as I don't want to leave reality.

Furthermore, Go and Existence are usually considered separate entities. Supposing we replace 'Metaphysics' with 'motor-boat racing.' It seems to me we cannot learn anything from this exchange of realities.

I must have been unclear to use the word 'abstract.' I will refrain from defining it now as I myself do not know what it means in my above statement. Perhaps read 'transendental?' No, that's no good either. Just replace 'abstract' with 'broken typewriters' and see what it sounds like then.

I follow the somewhat lonely class of people who derive philosophy from elementary principles, a priori conceptions, progressing with the use of generally accepted logical rules. This is why the 'philosophy' of Go is strategy, only strategy.

Ellbur: As an explanation for what I have described here, I created the page Ellbur's Philosohy Of Go.

RussellKhan: Ellbur, you seem to be misunderstanding what Scartol said above. I quote:

Indeed, I agree completely with your statement: Go starts with simple rules, which define the entire game. When logic is applied to these rules, the result is strategy. Strategy forms the way in which we play Go. If we replace "Go" with "existence", I believe we have an apt way of describing the very purpose of philosophy.

Here he is suggesting that we replace the word "Go" with the word "Existence" in the preceeding quote, which would give us (roughly):

Existence starts with simple rules, which define the entire game. When logic is applied to these rules, the result is strategy. Strategy forms the way in which we exist.

Of course he doesn't want to turn all of existence into Go! Besides, if you're going to interpret it that way, shouldn't it be turning all Go into existence?

(I haven't read your page on philosophy yet, that's where I'm headed next)

ilanpi Hi there, interesting discussion! I don't know anything about zen and just a little more about go, but I do know about the mathematics you refer to, so will limit myself to that. I believe that you are making a common error due to your reading of the popular science literature which almost always fails to grasp a basic point about chaos (and the scientific ideas presented in the movie "Pi" seem entirely inspired from a cursory reading of popular science magazines). This point is the following: Chaos does not mean complicated. On the contrary, it is a general principle of chaos, at least in its precise mathematical definition (positive entropy) that it exhibits very regular behavior *on average*, so in this sense can be well understood. I suppose you can fix this by substituting "chaos" with "complex system".

Ellbur: I don't think that anywhere in these philosophy pages 'chaos' is used with its mathematical meaning. Following from the common English use of the word, chaos is being used to mean a 'complex system,' as you said.

Concerning ourselves too greatly with definitions is futile, as the goal of this philosophy is to discover things that are not contained in the definitions themselves.

demeryt?: Hello! I think this discussion is very interesting, but very dangerous at the same time. Zen is a beautiful but strong and rigid practice, if you study zen truthfully, your go might be in danger of being neglected. And the other way round. Remember the legends about buddhist monks who fell in love with village girls as they played go together? It might be a symbol of the fact, that go is human and zen is human and _above_. I might be (and probably am) wrong anyway. But it is very interesting, I hope to learn more about it during my lifetime. Greetings to all zen practitioners and go players!

someone?: It has come into my mind that the moves in Go don't have reasoning behind them in truth. A move is just a move, nothing more, nothing less. A move means: there is a stone of either black or withe on a particular coordinate. Everything else (shape, strategy, aji, goal, potential or even a KO threat) only exists in ourselves. A move does not threat the opponent, the player does it with the use of that move. A move may have different meaning for one player and different meaning for the opponent, and even another for a spectator. Actually a move considered mistaken may turn around as the game progresses and become perfectly placed. I think this resonates in some ways with Zen. (Though I only slightly know Zen and not much better do I know Go)

Ronlee?: I'm not sure I agree that Zen/Taoist philosophy has any application in the game of Go. The most fundamental tenet of Taoism is that the best way to approach life is to be like an "uncarved block", to be what is fundamental to your existence, to follow the flow of life the way a cork will be thrown up and down by a churning river but will still manage its way downstream along the surface. In those arts associated with Zen and Taoism (calligraphy, flower and and furniture arrangement, Tai Chi), there may be some emphasis on study, but the ultimate act of creation depends on something instinctual and basic. Maybe in the opening game, you can act on this level, the way jazz players feel their way through a solo. Like most other games, instinct in Go may play a large role in helping determine what the best move is, but I do not know any Go players who never bother to read ahead, relying solely on their intuitions.

No! Go is a game of destruction, negotiation, suffocation, headaches from thinking, pattern-recognition, escapes, sacrifice, reinforcement. It is a game of fear, attack, cleverness, second-guessing your opponent. Go is a game of war, and if war can be well-described in terms of Taoist philosophy, then maybe I need to study Taoism a little bit more.

If one wishes to draw some sort of philosophical parallel that comes from East Asia, I suggest looking at the Art Of War.

As an aside: what philosophy is associated with Western chess? Hegellian synthesis? Thomas Aquinas' writings? Ultimately, consider the possiblity that Go is just a game. Maybe you can learn a few lessons of how to live life from Go, and, more likely, you can learn lessons of how to wage war, but trying to get a deeper understanding of Go by reading Taoist texts makes as much sense as trying to learn Western Chess by reading the Bible.

-- Ron Lee (only 20kyu, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.)

Scartol: Actually, I think the Bible may hold some answers for the outsider seeking to understand chess; the bishop moves in a crooked pattern, the king is the most valuable piece on the board and the holy ghost (aka the queen) works hard to be everywhere at once.

Okay, that's pushing it. Actually, since chess probably also comes from Asia, I don't know that the analogy applies. As I rambled on about in Philosophy of Go?, I think Go embodies a mindset of perspective that doesn't fit concisely into the binary pigeonholes that many western minds (and philosophies) would like it to.

Therefore, I consider Go to be much like bowling, one of the most Taoist activities I've ever encountered (see "The Big Lebowski" for more details) -- all that must be done is to knock over the pins. Then the question is: how does one do so? And I don't believe the answer is ever the same for any two people. Thus the Tao of Go.

TimBrent: Scartol, the original version of Chess was very different, closer in fact to xiangqi than to chess of today, in that the elephant (Bishop) moved in a one space diagonal jump, the vizier / firzan (Queen) only moved one space diagonally, much like the elephant and mandarin in xiangqi. Go is of course very organic and even today in all likelyhood, the same game as it was 3000 years ago. (age disputed, see Go History)

Scartol/Philosophy of Go last edited by Dieter on November 30, 2011 - 16:44
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