My first exposure to baduk was a March 2014 article in Wired magazine on the game ‘computers still can’t win‘ by Alan Levinovitz. Interest peaked, I clicked through and began to read. As I scrolled downwards my attention became fixed upon the game’s history and its simple, beguiling aesthetic to the point that I hardly noted Levinovitz’s extensive technical discussion. With imagination aflight, I determined to learn more about the game.
In subsequent weeks I discovered Hikaru no Go and Teach Yourself Go by Charles Matthews (n.b. libraries are incredible resources!). I was introduced to KGS and IGS and began a few 30-kyu games. Although I recoiled at the instant challenge the game presented I did not lose interest. As weeks turned into months I dabbled in online play but did a lot more procrastinating (i.e. reading about baduk). I became a teen kyu but wasn’t really serious about my play even though I told myself that I wanted to get stronger. This start-stop routine continued until I began Project Dan in March 2016, a whole two years after first learning about baduk!
A lot of life happened in those 24 months, but none of it extinguished my interest in baduk. And since initiating Project Dan – I am now approaching its hundredth day – I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on what drew me to baduk and what sustains my interest in the game despite all of the challenges that it presents. One comparison I’ve been drawn to in this thinking are the similarities between becoming proficient at baduk and learning a foreign language (something I also have some experience with), both in terms of its rewards and challenges.
Since I always like bad news first, let’s start with the challenges.
Learning most things, but especially something as foreign as a new language or a profound game, is effortful. There is no easy way around this challenge. Like faddish fitness programs, products that promise language proficiency in weeks or days or hours rely on our desire to make things easy, simple, and readily digestible. We fall for these promises because they make the road to some difficult thing seemingly more navigable. Their power lies in fostering an illusion (not a trick!) – in capturing our imagination. Oh I can learn German in three weeks! Great, sign me up! As if the language of Goethe was something that could be packaged and shipped, ready to use upon delivery. When we expect media to deliver to us a mastery of a given subject we are setting ourselves up for failure.
The need for effort frustrates our imagination and wounds our pride. Acknowledging inability presents a monumental challenge. This is an individual obstacle that each person must face on their own even if they have recourse to external aids (e.g., friends, media, etc.). Steven Pressfield terms this force Resistance. It is the enemy of any person seeking to do anything that will move them from a lower plain of existence to a higher one. At times, Pressfield writes, Resistance may pose as an external aid – a friend or a book. Recall my procrastination above. I was reading about baduk instead of playing it! There is a cartoon Pressfield referenced. In it a man was standing before a table and the pearly gates. Above the pearly gates it said simply “Heaven” and on the table was a stack of books labelled “Books About Heaven.” Which one would Resistance have us choose?
Inability sucks but it is a fact we must confront. Even Socrates in his Apology acknowledges that the more he learned the more he realized his own lack of knowledge. Our relative weakness should lead us to humility – a realization that we are not the best at each and every thing right away and all at once – but instead it often causes us to clam up and abandon whatever it is we were seeking. I know that I’ve confronted this temptation many times with regards to baduk and my German studies. It’s a continuous challenge. On good days my very weakness spurs me to love and pursue baduk all the more.
Along with effort there is a need to accept a prolonged period of incomprehension. In a foreign language things that were once commonplace, such as expressing a basic need or thought, become difficult. Lacking words we resort to gestures and other crude devices. We might be able to communicate but it is nowhere near as fluid as in our native tongue. The same is true with baduk. Although it is sometimes referred to as a ‘conversation without words’ the games of beginners (like me) often resemble encounters between complete strangers who share no common tongue. We’re trying to communicate, however poorly, and often fail! We play slack or meaningless moves, for example. Nevertheless we make the attempt, and we keep trying – eventually we might be able to communicate with a degree of coherence. As with language, in baduk comprehension requires immersion.
The product of this effort and immersion is this: To transcend words and deeds and reach a deeper level of understanding. As it is between a husband and wife, words often fail or or not necessary. The mutual comprehension is so ingrained that the medium of communication shifts from vocabulary and grammar to something higher, more profound. A baduk game between masters is similar: It is a thing of beauty which most cannot comprehend. The collective experience gained from a shared endeavor is something powerful to behold. Is it paradoxical that through learning another language, even one of actions such as baduk, that we somehow reach a plain beyond words and deeds to a deeper experience of reality?
Perhaps it is not a paradox because we have in our imagination and the wonder which fires it a signpost to something beyond ourselves and the object of our attention. The deeper reality is the experience of beauty. In language it might be the cadence of the words and phrases or the culture which these undergird. In baduk the beauty is found in its complex simplicity. The fact that from slate and shell and wood a game with more possibilities than our minds can comprehend could emerge and continue for millenia is amazing.