Dogen and the game of "go"

Dogen mentions the game of Go exactly once in his writings, in the “Spring and Autumn” fascicle of SBGZ. That’s of deep interest to both go players and Zen students. What did the old geezer have to say?

Maybe that Go is an analogy for englightenment? Sounds promising, and that’s the interpretation of Bill Cobb in his essay Empty Board:

There is good evidence that ancient Chinese and Japanese Zen masters associated playing Go with the experience of enlightenment. The writings of the thirteenth century Japanese Zen master Dogen contain a clear example.

Let’s take a look at this. “Spring and Autumn” is nominally about heat and cold. It starts with a dialog between Tozan (Dongshan) and a disciple, where the disciple asks the master, “When cold or heat comes, how can we avoid it?”, and the master answers, “Why don’t you go where there is no cold or heat?”

Dogen then paraphrases a commentary by Wanshi, a Chinese Zen master from the twelfth century, on the case (my translation):

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.

Wanshi has changed the subject. He is no longer talking about heat and cold—he’s talking about the nature of dialog. He’s saying that dialog, like a game of go, is an interaction between two active players. We must, he tells us, understand the nature of dialog in order to understand this particular dialog between Tozan and the disciple, and by extension the relationship between teacher and disciple. If Wanshi were giving this talk today, he’d probably be using tennis instead of go as an example.

Dogen now comments on the commentary:

Sticking with the go analogy for now, the real question is what’s happening with the two players. The minute you talk about two players playing go, you’ve become a bystander, which is no good because bystanders can’t play go. Playing go means one player and his opponent facing each other, it must be said.

Dogen didn’t like Go, which had a reputation as a gambling game and a waste of time. Far from comparing Go to enlightenment, he didn’t even really like Wanshi’s use of Go in the analogy.

Incredibly, instead of “bystander” Tanahashi has “a handicap of eight stones”, a mistake also found in the Nishijima/Cross rendition, involving the word “hachimoku”, which in this context clearly has the “bystander” meaning (“okame hachimoku”). And instead of “playing go means one player and his opponent facing each other”, Tanahashi gets ultra-creative with “you play Go by yourself; the opponents become one”, which also has no relationship with the original.

What’s really happening here is that in typical Dogenesque fashion, our friendly master is changing the subject once again—this time to the question of involvement, and the way that our language with expressions such as “two players playing go” itself facilitates separation by helping to hide the fact that I myself am one of those two players!

Continuing with my translation:

In addition, though, you should explore Wanshi’s “you’ve got to answer my move” with an engaged mind. Wrap your body around it to study it. “You’ve got to answer my move” is saying that you can never be me. Nor must you skip over his “if you don’t want to get taken for a ride” part.

For “you can never be me”, Tanahashi has “’you’ are not yet ‘you’,” whatever that was supposed to mean.

Cobb now gives an exuberant summary based on the incorrect Tanahashi translation:

Here we have a striking example of the use of Go by ancient Zen masters to explain enlightenment. Dogen speaks of the experience of enlightenment as “dropping off body and mind”, which means losing one’s sense of being a separate being, ultimately distinct from the world and from others. He and Hongzhi are suggesting that playing Go involves this experience of non-separateness.

He goes on:

If you’re curious about what nirvana is like, the next time you start a game take the advice of ancient Zen masters and just play, not trying to do anything else. Let the game “swallow you up.”

But you already get the idea.

The bottom line: Dogen had nothing special to tell us about go or go players. But we can certainly enjoy Dogen’s insights on the relationship between language and subjectivity. And we can remind ourselves of how important it is to get translations right, especially when they are going to be used by other scholars as a basis for further commentary.

(Thanks to John Fairbairn for his help.)

7 Responses to “Dogen and the game of "go"”

  1. Mikefrog Says:

    Whoever thinks Dogen (or Wanshi) was talking about Go has missed it by a million miles.

    But can you clarify for me, is this “taken for a ride” your translation, and what is the flavour of it? (Or how do others render it?) (I play Go, but know no Japanese other than Go terms).

  2. Bob Myers Says:

    “Take for a ride” is a translation of the Japanese çžžã?˜åŽ»ã‚‰ã‚“ (damaji-saran). Tanahashi has “swallow up”, not clear where he gets this. Cleary has “fool completely”. An expert in classical Chinese and Japanese glosses whom I consulted this as “perplex” you, and adds “The meaning of saru is rather like out- in outfox.”

    I’m not completely comfortable with “take for a ride”, not because I think it’s wrong, but because it’s awkward and a little bit too colloquial. An equally colloquial alternative would be “get away with murder”.

  3. Mikefrog Says:

    Thanks. Maybe in comparing Zen teacher – disciple with playing Go, Wanshi was thinking of what I’d express as “you can’t just follow me around” which is what teachers of both disciplines often say.

  4. Gregory Wonderwheel Says:

    Very interesting! Do you have an online URL for Dogen’s Japanese?

    I’ve see similarly strange translations of the Gateless Checkpoint (Ch. P-y. Wumenguan, J. Mumonkan) where insertions and completely wrong words are used in the author’s attempt to capture the “meaning.”

    While I completely appreciate your translation, I can’t agree with your conclusion that “Dogen had nothing special to tell us about go or go players.” I marvel that you can say such a thing after marvelously translating Dogen’s very special comments about go and go players! Dogen points out that the interaction of the Zen teachers is just like an interaction in go. Dogen shows the interaction in go reveals the functioning of suchness in in the verbal interactions (mondo) of Zen teachers.

    Dogen has made it clear that Wanshi presented his students with a koan having a two-sided head: “Show your answer my move?â€? and “Show how you avoid getting taken for a ride?â€? In other words, play go!

  5. Ernest Brown Says:

    Commentary on translation of Spring and Autumn (fasicle 66 Shobogenzo)

    I understand the Spring-Autumn fasicle to be a skillful means of nurturing our understanding of non-duality. It is extremely interesting that Dogen and the 6th century Chinese Master Wanshi use Go as intellectual property for helping us with this very subtle concept. Clearly, there is reason to believe that they both think that using Go in this way will be of aid to the people of the time with understanding this issue. Whether it helps us today would seem to require a knowledge of Go and Zen.

    I notice in the footnotes of Kazuaki Tanahashi’s translation that he seems to have little understanding of Go when he points out that there are 361 squares on the Go board rather than saying there are 361 intersectons. Since I cannot read Japanese or Chinese I cannot be critical of the translations, however I would like to point out some notions that occur to me in reading this fasicle. Both translations refer to a handicap of eight stones. In Tanahashi’s translation he indicates that Dogen is says “If you and I are playing Go then you have a handicap of eight stones.” To me this is a masterful double entendre. In his footnote Tanahashi states that nine stones is the maximum handicap. By using an eight stone handicap reference Dogen suggests that our level of enlightenment is far from his. Dogen was indeed very focused on the issue of innate enlightenment as opposed to acquired enlightenment. He wondered why if we are innately endowed with enlightenment do we need to “practice” in order to acquire enlightenment?” Shinran was also plagued by this and eventually came up with the idea of “other power” through Amida’s Vow, to resolve the issue for himself. Dogen suggests that his student’s (as readers of this commentary) are not completely ignorant as they have at least heard the Dharma. Just hearing the Dharma opens us to the path and is a level of enlightenment itself in a sense. However, Dogen tells us that there is much more for us as we travel the path to where he has arrived. This is particularly exciting for Go players if it suggests that Dogen considers himself to be an expert Go player. However, because these commentaries’s can always be considered skillful means we cannot really assume that Dogen is literal about his Go enlightenment. (As Go players it is fun to think that) If there is documentation that Dogen disparaged Go (similar to Confucius) we would assume that he was not very competent in playing Go. It is difficult for most Go players to believe that accomplished players could be disparaging of the game we find so meaningful.

    Tanahashi does give references for his translations of the classical references. Use of classical references as intellectual property is a well documented practice of philosophical study of the time. His translation “you are not yet you” is a common Buddhist notion indicating prior to our experience of suchness.
    In my dissertation, “Using the Game of Goe to Understand Patterns of East Asian Thought”, I demonstrate how playing Go provides one with an experience that is useful in understanding concepts such as Yin/Yang. I had not discovered Dogen’s fasicle at the time, but Dogen is using Go to help his students understand Buddhist concepts. Dogen, who is often compared to Nagarguna, as one of the greatest Mahayana intellects, obviously is very careful in his use of language. Therefore, we can only believe that he found Go to be a very useful topic for his students to understand concepts discussed in this fasicle. Although I don’t believe there is a clear indication that Dogen is pointing to Go as a method for reaching enlightenment, since he is pointing to Go as useful for understanding non-duality and perhaps even providing one with an opportunity to experience non-duality, one could interpret this as a validation of Go as leading to an enlightenment experience. This is where a more detailed historical analysis would be important. For if we know that Dogen for some reason disparaged Go as an unuseful pastime, we would not think that he thought playing Go leads to enlightenment.
    Some of the analysis above seems view Dogen’s writing as an intellectual exercise. We must remember that Dogen is always using language to go back and forth from the conventional to the absolute. He often challenges us to work with paradox until we come face to face with the absolute. My intuition leans towards Tanahashi’s translation. However, perhaps Tanahashi’s Zen training leads him to go to far in interpreting Dogen’s meaning for us. How compassionate of him if that is the case.

    This fasicle begins with the following:

    Great Master Wuben of Dongshan was once asked by a monk, “When cold or heat comes, how can we avoid it?”
    The master said, “Why don’t you go where there is no cold or heat?”
    The monk said, “What do you mean by ‘where there is no cold or heat’?”
    The master said, “When it is cold, cold finishes the monk. When it is hot, heat totals the monk.” (1)

    A real life experience of the notion of going to “where there is no heat or cold” (non-distinction, non-duality) is in the description of Thich Quang Duc’s immolation, (i.e., Thich Naht Hahn’s teacher) A photo of him in full lotus in flames during the Vietnam War with the description by onlookers of how he disintegrated in motionless silence, is a demonstration of going where there is no cold or heat as opposed to the images of other monks running in flames.
    Rather than criticizing one another with regard to various translations and interpretations I recommend we encourage one another in our quest to understand Dogen’s teachings so that his skillful means can reach out to us now with the sincerity that he presented it so long ago.

    Spring and Autumn (Translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross)
    Zen Master Wanshi (2) of Tendo-zan mountain in Keigen-fu city(3) (who succeeded Master Tanka and who was known as Master Shokaku) says, “This episode, if we discuss it, is like a game of go between two players. If you do not respond to my move, I will fool you completely. If we experience it like this, we will begin to understand Tozan’s intention. And Tendo cannot help adding a footnote:

    When we research it, this concrete place is without hot and cold.
    Already the blue depths have dried to the last drop.
    I tell you we can catch a giant turtle just by bending down.
    You are a laugh, dallying in the sand with a fishing rod. (4)

    Not denying the game of go, for the present, who are the two players? If we call it “a game of go between two players,” there might be a handicap of eight stones. With an eight-stone handicap, it is not a game of go, is it? If we are to discuss it, we should discuss it like this: the game of go is one player and an opponent meeting each other. Even so, we should mindfully consider, and should physically master, the state now expressed by Wanshi as “you do not respond to my move.” “You do not respond to my move” says “you can never be me.” Do not pass over “I will fool you completely.” (5) In mud there is mud: those who tread in it wash their feet – and also wash their crown strings. In a pearl there is a pearl: when it shines it illuminates others and it illuminates itself.

    Spring and Autumn (translated by Kazunaki Tanahashi)
    Zen Master Hongzhi of Mt. Tiantong, Qingyuan Prefecture, is an heir of priest Danxia. His initiatory name is priest Zhenjue. He said:
    When you take up this dialogue it is like you ad I playing go. (6) You do not
    Respond to my move – I’ll swallow you up. (7) Only when you penetrate this will you understand the meaning of Dongshan’s words.
    I cannot help adding a footnote to this:
    In here you see there is no cold or heat.
    The great ocean dries out now.
    I would say a great tortoise can be picked up if you just lean down.
    I laugh to see you playing with a fishing pole on the sand. (8)
    Suppose there is a go game; who are the players? If you say that you and I are playing go, it means you have a handicap of eight stones. (9) If you have handicap of eight stones, it is no longer a game.
    What is the meaning of this? When you answer, answer this way: You play go by yourself; the opponents become one. Thus steadying your mind and turning your body, you should examine Hongzhi’s words, “You should not neglect the words, “I’ll swallow you up.” Mud within mud. (10) Wash your feet, wash the tassel on your hat. A jewel within a jewel. Illuminate other, illuminate the self.

    1- Extensive Record of Zen Master Hongzhi, chap. 4
    2- Master Wanshi Shokaku (1091-1157), successor of Master Tanka Shijun. He became a disciple of Master Tanka Shijun at the recommendation of Master Koboku Hojo. When he was 39 he became the Master of Keitoku-ji temple on Mt. Tendo, where he remained until his death.
    3- Present-day Ningpo in northern Chekiang. Master Dogen was later to practice here on Mt. Tendo under Master Tendo Nyojo.
    4- Wanshi-koroku, chap. 4.
    5- Master Wanshi’s words describe the serious state of action in daily life.
    6- Go is the Japanese name for the originally Chinese game qi, played by two people with black and white pebble-like markers on a square wooden board divided into 361 squares.
    7- To swallow you up: to blind and defeat “you”; or to take away the separation between “you” and “me.”
    8- Extensive Record of Zen Master Hongzhi, chap. 4.
    9- In go to have nine extra stones to play with is the maximum handicap. Dogen indicates the separation between the two players by this device.
    10- Indicates nonduality of the two players.
    11- This phrase is based on a line of Chu Anthology: If this vast water is clear I will wash the tassel on my hat. And if it is muddy I will wash my feet.

  6. “Go” the Zen Way: the art of loosing Says:

    […] ( Dogen & Go) […]

  7. berita liga inggris Says:

    Why people still use to read news papers when in this technological globe
    the whole thing is existing on net?

Leave a Reply