Yesterday I had my first lesson in playing Go. The game is over 2500 years old and is thought to be the oldest board game still played today. It is such an elegant, and yet overwhelmingly complex game to learn. My western mind sees squares on the board and not points or intersections. I naturally want to capture pieces, to gain a material advantage, like in chess, and while there is that element in Go, it is hardly the endgame goal. Go, instead, is about territory. It is about creating good shape. It is about not only strength, but influence. There is an aesthetic element to the game that isn’t secondary to the tactics. In Go, the beauty is intrinsically part of the strategy.
And this is a key difference between Go and chess. It’s not that chess can’t be beautiful. But the beauty in chess is in the brilliance of the move. In the mind of the player. When we watch a calculated strategy in chess unfold, it is elegant to behold. But the shapes and the movements of the pieces themselves are not intrinsically beautiful. It is in how they are used that we ascribe beauty.
Whereas in Go, the shapes and structures one creates are, in themselves, beautiful. At least that’s what I’m told. Because, as I stare at the board, all I see is an enormous checker board. I can’t even hold the stones properly (in between the tip of the middle and index finger.) I’m that new.
Honestly, I usually get about ten moves in to the game and then I’m just placing pieces randomly. I build little trains of black stones, only to have them swallowed by my computer opponent. Often, I fail to see what the goal of the game is, let alone what constitutes a good next move.
So, to have my friend Paul offer to teach me to play Go was more than a gift, it was a relief. Because I hate not understanding something. It is like a splinter under the skin. We scheduled lunch at one of our favorite spots, we ate, and then Paul broke out the board and the bowls of black and white stones.
During the hour, I mainly was just scribbling notes. He started at the very beginning. He taught me how you hold and place each piece. He demonstrated what good shape looks like, how to create balance, how every move has, and must have, consequence.
At one point, Paul placed a piece for me and I immediately saw the board change. I had been trapping myself in a corner, losing territory, and with one play, the initiative had flipped back to my favor. But the realization wasn’t as logical or rational as all that. It was much more intuitive. Paul asked me, “Do you feel that?” The cool thing is, that I did. You could feel the strength of the move. You could see the shape of the structures change. It was like the whole board transformed before my eyes.
He told me that there is a Japanese phrase that Go players will use. “Ah so desu ka.” It means, “Oh, now I see!” or “Ah, that’s how it is!” Often it is a phrase that is used when one sees too late. When we suddenly discover that we’ve lost the advantage. But it also expresses the way that perceptions can shift before our eyes, where we realize that we’ve been staring too closely at our little corner of the board.
When we make a play out into the negative space on the board, it creates balance. It requires us to take a step back, to visualize a move away from our tight circle of stones, and to feel the influence and tension that comes when we extend beyond our limited line of sight.
When we do this, reality shifts. The pieces on the board are transformed before our eyes. And that feeling can be really moving. We call it illumination.
This happens to me when I’m reading a great book. Something like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The story we are reading all of a sudden grows and expands. The plot shifts before our eyes. We thought we were reading one thing, only to find out the story is so much bigger. Not merely in complexity, but in scope.
And this often happens to me when reading scripture. Especially the more difficult or puzzling passages. You stare and stare, and sometimes are asking, “Why is this even here?” And then that shift happens. That flash of first light on the edge of the dark horizon. It is Truth with a capital T. It breaks our small molds. And it invites us beyond.
And when it does, we see its goodness. It sets us free. We trust it is good, because we see its beauty. And though we might not have the language to describe it or put it in words, we can taste it. We can see it. We know it intuitively. Because, ultimately we discover and know truth with our hearts. And this is what illumination feels like. It is moving. And it can happen in the simplest ways, like the joy of a well-played piece. Or the aroma of a good cup of coffee. Or the sweet embrace of one of my kids.
Next week I’ll have my second lesson. I already have a ton of questions. But I look forward to it. For the beauty and complexity of the game, for the well spent time with a good friend, but also for the simple joy of learning to see life through a lens that is ever continuing to widen in scope.