Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Go and the Arts

My essay is necessarily limited in that I took as my model the essay on Chess by Titus Burckhardt in Mirror of the Intellect and the appendix by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad in his book on sports and culture. For those who have not yet read it, my essay includes a brief introduction to the game, a discussion of its sacred origins, the symbolism implicit and explicit in the physical properties of the playing board and pieces, and my own observations concerning the experience of gameplay and how this experience readily lends itself as a support to the spiritual life.

In an set of rules for behavior in a Japanese Buddhist monastery dating from the year 701, one Abbot proscribed that "For monks and nuns who indulge in music and gambling, one hundred days of hard labor. The koto and go are not restricted." Overall, I sought to answer the question of why this particular game might not be subject to the same restrictions as other pastimes and also why it received such attention and refinement within the monastic communities of the far east. In terms of its essentials, I think that I was largely successful in presenting some significant and suggestive ideas that provide the foundation for such an answer. I did not take into consideration many of the peripheral subjects that, although important, do not contribute directly the substance of my thesis.

I do not think that Go bears a direct association with any of the subjects that you mentioned such as painting, calligraphy, music, tea ceremony, meditation, and the martial arts, in the sense that they are distinct activities, each of which possesses properties that are unique to itself without being synthesized with any of the others. However, there is also the sense in which they can and generally are used in conjunction with the others, each contributing a similar support to the spiritual life, but in a different and idiosyncratic way. Thus you may have a master of the martial arts who practices the tea ceremony and calligraphy while also enjoying the game of go. In Chinese culture, it was common to speak of the 'four accomplishments' which implies that in fact at least four endeavors, music, painting, calligraphy, and go, were practiced in conjunction. To speak in terms of dimensions, we might say that whereas there are outward differences in terms of formal endeavor, each possess an inner dimension which endows it with a position of similarity and complementarity to the other arts.

Two parallels seem to serve as the basis of all such similarity, the practice of ritualized action and the effort of contemplative concentration. The tea ceremony exemplifies the former and archery the latter. Within the tea ceremony, in addition to the symbolic properties inherent in the gestures and materials, the precise ritualized actions serve to embody in a ceremonial fashion the ideal of perfect behavior combined with the principles of chivalry and the contemplative element of awareness. Consciousness is fully present in and aware of every movement as it is made. In this manner, the regular practice of the tea ceremony allows one to periodically enter into the attitude and experience of the disposition of perfect "adab". The rhythm resulting therefrom then has the capacity to carry that disposition into life as a permanent reality that is continually refreshed and renewed by the practice of the ceremony. Parallels to the spiritual retreat and the rhythm of Muslim prayer are evident.

The practice of archery is different in that it does not emphasize awareness of bodily movement, instead positing a single pointed concentration on the target. Such a concentration involves a loss of awareness of the ego as of the body such that perfection in archery is sometimes referred to as effortless perfection. One does not perform the act. Instead it performs itself through you. I have not considered deeply enough the experiences of painting and calligraphy, despite my greater degree of practical familiarity with them. It is evident however, that both provide an added dimension of metaphysical knowledge, participation in which is necessary in order to produce a representation and manifestation of such knowledge within the concrete image that results from its practice.

Go necessarily partakes of both qualities of ritualized action and contemplative concentration but with an emphasis on the latter. Like the tea ceremony, it traditionally takes place within a room specifically designated for that purpose which bears the distinctive insignia of the traditional ambiance. Within China and Japan they are generally adorned with calligraphy depicting the cardinal virtues, Li or prioriety, Chih or wisdom, and Jen, human-heartedness or compassion. Although all are necessary and important to the game, Li is sometimes given emphasis through the outward postures and attitudes of the players, while Jen generally pertains to the inward attitude in relation to the opponent. There are elements of ceremonial behavior in traditional gameplay that include for example, traditional dress, the delicacy of physical posture and a gracefulness and reverence expressed through the placement of the stones. Opponents generally give each other a respectful greeting and wish upon the other a good game. Traditionally a weaker player approaching a stronger player will request a game by asking to "please teach me."

Ambiance and disposition aside, the emphasis in Go is clearly upon contemplative concentration for the game involves total concentration even at intermediate levels of skill. Like archery, it does not involve a deliberate act of will, but rather arises naturally out of the necessity of play. Fully engaging the memory in the recognition of common patterns, discerning the direction of play, and reading possible sequences of moves involves a complete absorption into field of gameplay. Unlike archery, however, it induces the effort of concentration through analysis rather than synthesis. Instead of being absorbed into the unitive point of the target, one is instead absorbed through the proliferation of oftentimes dozens of local situations which must all be taken into consideration within the overall context of the board. Likewise, although all virtues are contained implicitly within the singular state of absorbtion in archery, they are given a manifold expression within the Go game. In accordance with the text of I Ching which I have symbolically associated with the game, "Thus the superior man of devoted character heaps up small things in order to achieve something high and great." Whereas the symbolism of the arrow involves its pointing directly to the goal of the Absolute, the symbolism of the stones involves movement toward the Absolute through the theophanies of its manifold reflections within manifestation, hence the emphasis on a cosmological symbolism.

I suspect that you may enjoy the following writings on Japanese Prints and the Game of Go by William Picknard. The following statement concerning traditional motifs in images depicting the game is particularly pertinent:

"Faithful to ancient Chinese tradition and legends that portrayed go as integral to myths of beginnings and a contemplative pastime worthy of Sages and Immortals, artists situated players at the farthest reaches of remoteness, on the towering peaks of cloud-wreathed mountains emblematic of Taoist concepts of spiritual ascent and transcendence. In such surroundings the board was shown to inhere in nature itself -- incised in the rock's surface -- with the course of play possessing the power to dissolve all boundaries of time and space. Depicted is a way of being lost in thought, transported `out of this world,' and a means by which religious adepts could contemplate the infinite."

I recently added a section on recommended reading to the bottom of my essay that you may find useful in your endeavor to learn the game. Learning Go is a lengthy process requiring a considerable amount of effort. It begins by playing on a small 9x9 board to become familiar with the rules and patterns before progressing to a 13x13 board and eventually to the full-sized board. It is common to experience an initial sense of difficulty or foreignness in the game which comes from the need to develop skill at what is sometimes called 'lateral thinking', a thought process that is generally more intuitive than logical.

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