Games-playing is one of the oldest and most enduring human traits. Disparate pieces of evidence such as dice discovered at Sumer, game-boards depicted on Egyptian frescoes, Viking chess pieces, and ball parks constructed by ancient empires deep in the Andes link up directly with contemporary phenomena such as Saturday night poker games in Kansas City and the annual go title matches in Tokyo.
Games are undeniably a concomitant of civilization and even in their most primitive forms presuppose some degree of sophistication. Most of all, they require the ability to think in abstractions and to manipulate ideas in logical terms, thereby giving form to what is formless and creating small, recognizable patterns in the shadow of great mysteries.
From ancient times in Japan the so-called `Three Games' were backgammon, chess and go. Chess probably comes from India, backgammon from the Near or Middle East, and go from pre-Han China. Backgammon is a gambling game which, using dice, gives luck or chance the preponderant role. Chess in one of its earlier forms also used dice, but takes its present shape from the structure of a royal society and from war maneuvers. Go is the most abstract and `open' of the three; and with its freedom from complicated rules, its simplicity of form, its fluidity and spaciousness, it comes remarkably close to being an ideal mirror for reflecting basic processes of mentation.
Go is played with black and white `stones' all of exactly the same value, thus somewhat resembling the binary mathematics which is the basis of the computer. The stones are played onto the board and are left as they stand throughout the game, so that the game itself takes shape as a visible record of the thinking that went into it. About three hundred years ago an eminent Chinese monk came to Japan on a visit and was shown the diagram of a game of go which a master of that time had recently played. Without knowing anything of the game save the sketchy description they gave him at the time (this was after go had more or less died out in China), the monk studied the moves as shown on the record and after a few moments remarked with much admiration and respect that the player must have been a man who had become enlightened -- which was indeed the case. (It is interesting to note that this story is told on the one hand by go players to illustrate the quality of the game and on the other hand by Buddhists to show the acuity of the monk from China.)
The great 17th century Japanese playwright Chikamatsu, in a famous passage, compares the four quarters of the go board to the four seasons, the black and white stones to night and day, the 361 intersections of the board to the days of the year, and the center point on the board to the Pole Star. It would be easy to erect a tower of fanciful theory along these lines, but that would only obscure the obvious point. In this striking analogy Chikamatsu is describing a feeling of hugeness and all-inclusiveness -- the board conceived as a complete world system in potential form. The board and pieces can be thought of as limitless: any number of lines and an endless supply of stones to play with, the game itself being the life of the players. (In Chikamatsu's play a young man becomes old and grows a long beard while watching a single game.) Only because we are human and must put practical limits to our activities, do we use just a small part of the infinite board. But this field of nineteen by nineteen is large enough to contain everything we are able to put into it. The number of possible games playable on this board has been reckoned to be more than the number of molecules in the universe.
An anonymous go player has written: `The board is a mirror of the mind of the player as the moments pass. When a master studies the record of a game he can tell at what point greed overtook the pupil, when he became tired, when he fell into stupidity, and when the maid came by with the tea.'
Contrary to the opinion of many people, go has nothing to do with Buddhism. Because it is a valid system in itself, it offers nothing contradictory to other systems, but in fact go is an older inhabitant on this planet than is Buddhism. In China it became one of the Four Accomplishments, the others being poetry, painting and music. It reached Japan around the 6th century and for a long time remained the exclusive property of a leisured noble class. Then during the 16th century all this changed. The many great families and clans which had warred happily against each other for a thousand years were gradually brought under the hegemony of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was during the subsequent period of the Tokugawa era (roughly from 1600 to 1868) that go, along with haiku, kendo, tea ceremony and so on, was most actively cultivated as a way of constructively channeling the mental energies of the people during the long years of peace. One formal word for go in Japanese is Kido. Ki is the old Chinese word for go, and -do is the Chinese word for Tao, which means Way -- or, more specifically, a Way to enlightenment.
All games channel mental energies, whether they lead to enlightenment or the reverse, but it is suggestive to consider the `Three Games' in their social context because then we can see how each of them reflects certain basic characteristics of a general or regional type.
Chess, for example, the great historical game of the West, involves monarchs, armies, slaughter, and the eventual destruction of one king by another. The game appears to be entirely directed along the lines of the great myths of the West from the Mahabharata to the Song of Roland -- the overthrow of a hero and the crowning of a new hero. The pieces, from king down to pawn (peon), give a picture of a heirarchical and pyramidal society with powers strictly defined and limited.
Backgammon, the favorite game of the Near and Middle East, is preoccupied with the question of Chance and Fate (Kismet). All play is governed by the roll of dice over which the player has no control whatever. The players are matched against each other, but each tries to capture a wave of luck and ride it to victory. The loser curses his misfortune and tries again, but the individual is helpless in the grip of superior forces.
Go, the game of ancient China and modern Japan (and now popular throughout the world), is unique in that every piece is of equal value and can be played anywhere on the board. The aim is not to destroy but to build territory. Single stones become groups, and groups become organic structures which live or die. A stone's power depends on its location and the moment. Over the entire board there occur transformations of growth and decay, movement and stasis, small defeats and temporary victories. The stronger player is the teacher, the weaker is the learner, and even today the polite way to ask for a game is to say `Please teach me.'
Things are different now, but in earlier times, when go was so much admired by painters and poets, generals and monks, the point of the game was not so much for one player to overcome another but for both to engage in a kind of cooperative dialogue (`hand conversation', they used to call it) with the aim of overcoming a common enemy. The common enemy was, of course, as it always is, human weaknesses: greed, anger and stupidity.
Every year in March department stores all over Japan present elaborate displays in connection with the Doll Festival. If one looks carefully at the miniature weapons, musical instruments and furniture of a really complete display one will find a tiny backgammon board, a Japanese chess (shogi) board and a go board.
The `Three Games' is a useful classification because taken together they make up a coherent world view. Most of philosophy boils down to speculation centered around the three basic relationships of the human species. The first is man in his relationship to the remote gods and the mysterious forces of the universe. The second is man in the society he builds up around him. The third is man in his own self. Or, to put it another way, man the backgammon-player, man the chess-player, and man the go-player.
That we have these three shows that they answer basic needs in the human spirit. People everywhere are preoccupied with social structures, position and status; and everyone who is capable of reflection must sometimes speculate on his private relationship to fortune and fate.
But go is the one game which turns all preoccupations and speculations back on their source. It says, in effect, that everyone starts out equal, that everyone begins with an empty board and with no limitations, and that what happens thereafter is not fate or wealth or social position but only the quality of your own mind.