Why Do Anything?

The Art Of Interaction In The Game Of Go

Torii, Kiyonaga, 1752–1815, artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If everything is essentially empty and formless, why interact with it? Why suffer the stress of defeat by challenging someone to a game of Go?

About this series

Go, also known as Baduk or Weiqi, is an ancient board game developed in China over 4000 years ago, and still played by millions today. But what elevates Go from that of other board games enough to be considered an art, a spiritual practice, even an expression of divine cosmology?

In this series, I’ll offer some of my reflections on what the game has to teach.

Why Play?

A student asked a Buddhist monk, “If everything is empty and formless, if nothing matters, why play Go? Why shouldn’t I throw the stones on the floor, punch you in the face, and scratch my name into the Goban forever ruining it?”

The master replied, “You may certainly do those things, and I would not judge you because there is nothing inherently wrong with them. But, I am unlikely to play with you in the future, so you must ask yourself: what is more interesting, ruining the game or exploring the endless possibilities it offers, together?”

They played.

Playing games requires us to accept concepts and rules. These concepts and rules are boundaries that facilitate exploration, discovery, and interaction.

However, as the student rightfully points out, these rules and the mechanics that follow are made up. So why choose that over destruction?

The master argues that there can be no interaction without boundaries, and while destruction is certainly a form of interaction too, it just follows different rules which the student might not be aware of.

The message is not so much that playing Go is better than destroying the Goban, rather that the stories we choose are ‘better’ than the stories we don’t.

Exploration vs. competition

By choosing to interact, the student can temporarily accept arbitrary rules and explore their consequences. It is when we mix in stories we don’t choose, but wholeheartedly believe in, that we become narrow minded and attached to the shapes and forms of things.

From this perspective, one can play Go to further interaction (exploration) or to end interaction (competition). In other words, if you play to win, you play only to end the game, which begs the question of why you play to begin with.

This is similar to the notion of finite and infinite games by James P. Carse. A finite game is a game with clear rules and objectives, with a definite end and a definite beginning, and an inherent sorting of contestants into winners and losers. An infinite game lacks all such constructs.

Life is an infinite game, while most board games are finite. At least in isolation. The message of James P. Carse’s book is not, however, to determine which games are which but how one should approach life: do you choose exploration or competition?

While this is true for all activities, the game of Go is in my view a demonstration of this through some of its mechanics.

The handicap system and fair play

The inbuilt handicap system in Go ensures you will lose roughly half of your games, no matter what.

Thus, playing to win is a fool's errand when playing with a handicap. Not that you can’t win, but if you win, you should probably increase the handicap.

This breeds a culture of playing to delve deeper into the possibilities of the game, rather than winning. It also encourages teaching others how to play. Not only is it a gift to help someone, but you also make the game more interesting for yourself!

Thus, Go embodies good sportsmanship where winning at all costs is not that interesting, unless you play Go for reasons other than playing Go.


Fair play goes deeper than nice behavior on the field. Fair play is a recognition that all play is an interaction dependent on an equal playing field where you can only benefit by raising your opponent up rather than pushing them down.

The very act of playing Go depends on interacting with your opponent, but more than that, the patterns and possibilities the rules offer are only possible through the back and forth of stones vying for position.

“A Chess game is a dialogue, a conversation between a player and his opponent.” — Bruce A. Moon

Chess is a discussion, where one argues the validity of an opening or line of play. Go, in my opinion, is more of a dance where the movements of one facilitates the movements of the other. It is a cooperation more than a competition, and there’s no check mate that forces the game to a halt.

The many rule-sets for determining a winner is a testament to the lack of any such clear objective inherent in the core rules (unlike Chess).

Endless Go

The core rules only determine how the game progress, but not how it ends or who wins. In principle, the game will either freeze (players passing forever) or cycle around in a nearly endless exploration of shapes, as there is no game state in which neither player can’t make a move.

Even when the board is almost full, the last move will clear most of the stones of the board and start the next battle. One can view this as a karmic cycle where each cycle of moves influences the next one, and no shape is safe forever.

For practical purposes, players may pass and with two consecutive passes, the game ends, and a victor is determined. But the essential rules of Go have no way to determine the winner, nor when the game ends. These are only pragmatic constructs added by various rule sets so that society doesn’t crumble over an endless game of Go.

But if there is no end state and no winner, what is the purpose of play?

Play and purpose

Endless Go (without tournament rules for ending the game) is an artificially bounded, infinite game. There are a few rules for what happens when laying down a stone, like there are a few rules for what happens when you throw a stone into the air, but within those rules, infinity awaits.

Go teaches us the fun of exploring all the possibilities inherent in a simple set of rules without regard for right or wrong. The only way you can lose is by insisting that there is something like losing.

While Buddhism argues that everything is formless and empty, in essence, this allows temporarily giving form and substance to our experience in an almost playful manner. Indeed, only by insisting on there being form can we play Go, and only by treating forms as temporary rather than fixed can we play Go well.

Thus, in interacting with an opponent, on the board, can we practice attachment to our temporary shapes and practice letting go of them when their time has come. The key is then to carry this lesson over to the rest of our lives.

Scientist by day, aspiring writer by night. Exploring the human condition 24/7. Futurologist in between. Twitter: @turntwine — Wordpress: sevenius.wordpress.com

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