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Some Senryu about Go
by William Pinckard

A basic tenet of Buddhist philosophy holds that the cause of all suffering is the inability to perceive the real nature of things. This inability occurs because of an innate inclination to cling, greed, which beclouds the senses and produces a state of confusion called in Sanskrit avidya, `absence of brightness'. When the clinging tendency is cut off, avidya becomes vidya, `brightness', that is, clarity of perception -- the precondition for satori. The English word for this, enlightenment, embodies much the same concept.

In Japanese Buddhist texts `absence of brightness' is written mu-myo 2, two characters with the same literal meaning as the Sanskrit original. Mu-myo is related to mu-shin 1, another significant term about which it is unfortunately almost impossible to find an adequate explanation for its appearance in contemporary go writing. The Buddhist conceptual background is by now so remote in this century that even most go professionals have forgotten its origin.

Mu-shin literally means 'no mind'. Here the word 'mind ' (Sanskrit citta, also translated 'heart') signifies the place where the tendency to hold fast operates. 'No mind' thus means not a state of imbecility, a negative condition, but the mind in a state of relinquishing its hold, a positive condition of perfect calmness and quietude in which things that impinge on the mind can realize their true form and be correctly perceived. Mu-shin, therefore, is the rectification of mu-myo and denotes the condition that produces clarity of perception and thus makes possible correct and effective action. The term mu-shin has long been used by go teachers and is often seen still, written on fans or displayed scroll-like in places where go is played with seriousness.

The sen-ryu is a unique literary form that explores and expresses the nature of avidya and its manifestations in human life. It was introduced into Japan in the middle of the eighteenth century, chiefly through the efforts of one man, Karai Hachiemon, whose pen-name was Senryu 3, meaning `River Willow', and it has been steadily cultivated by generations of poets, pseudonymous and anonymous, ever since.

In form and length the senryu resembles the better-known haiku. Both are 17-syllable 3-line forms, but their content is entirely different. The focus of haiku is the seasons of the year and is (at least in its pristine form) entirely impersonal. The senryu, on the other hand, is intensely personal, sharp and often scathing in its implications. It is called `comic' poetry, but the humor never arises from a gag or punch line as with most American and English jokes. It only begins to make its effect after the idea in its entirety has been absorbed by the mind, whereupon it sets to work like yeast in a lump of dough. The reader need add nothing to a senryu, but he should make himself receptive to the logical implications of each word and idea. These implications extend outward from the 17-syllable core, ramifying in both time (before and after the moment) and space (along the periphery). In these new translations of old senryu about the game of go an effort has been made to retain as far as possible the original word order, this being of some importance to the total effect.

Tatta hito-ban to
uchihajimeta wa
sakujitsu nari

Saying `just one game'
they began to play . . .
That was yesterday.

And they're still at it. This happens in chess as often as go, and we know of wives who have had to divorce their husbands for this reason. One of the main concerns of all senryu is the problem of time. The feeling here, to this translator at least, is like that of a great wheel set in motion and turning imperceptibly but inexorably, like day and night.

Gokaisho to
isha to e tsukai
futari dashi

To the go club and
to the doctor's, a pair
of servants is despatched.

A sudden emergency arises at home. They know where father is always to be found, so as a matter of course two servants are sent out, one to fetch him, one to fetch the doctor. Here the mechanism of the senryu seems to operate like that of a clockwork toy: a pin (the accident at home) trips a lever that actuates two figures that zip off in different directions, make a complicated pattern, then return to the centre. Since the Japanese have a passion for doctors and medicine, the whole cycle would probably be repeated several times a year.

Shincho ni
utsu wa saisho no
ichi ni ban

With caution and prudence
they play the first
one or two games.

A satire the force of which will be acknowledged by most go amateurs. We all know in our hearts that we are really capable of playing better than we usually do. We like to start out calmly determined to show our true strength by avoiding our usual clumsy mistakes, but soon we forget, the old lack of brightness takes over, and we're playing as badly as we did yesterday. A visitor to a go club will be tickled to see and recognize the parade of characteristic expressions that pass over the players' faces as they slowly descend through different stages of self-control.

Go no jogen
iitakunaru to
niwa e tachi

Go advice:
when he wants to speak out
he steps into the garden.

A bystander at a game should keep his mouth shut. The middle line of this senryu, a single complex verb, rather brilliantly conveys the feeling of swelling up, bursting with the desire to point out an obvious mistake, until one must either commit an impoliteness or go outside to relieve one's feelings.

Go no rusu e
maotoko utte --
gae ni kuru

He's out playing go.
Her lover, for a snap --
back, comes in.

Anyone who has seen the expression of chagrin, annoyance and sheepishness on the face of a go-player caught in a snapback should appreciate the force of this senryu. Here a technical go term is applied with wit and precision to the situation of the cuckold. Even the fact that in a snapback it is one stone that slips in to capture a group somehow adds to the overall effect.

Sumi ni ishi
korosarete kara
O-ki ga tsuku

The stones in the corner --
after they have been killed
he starts to worry . . .

The comedy of a not very expert player pondering over the board and slowly becoming aware of a danger when it is already too late: two time-frames revolving slightly out of phase.

Ishi wa iki-
ta ga shini-me ni wa
awanu nari

His stones have
lived, but for the deathbed
he is not in time.

Two kinds of life and death are linked in one equation into which are factored two types of speed. Someone was scheduled to be present at the deathbed of a relative or friend but got involved with saving a group of stones in a game of go. These, after a struggle, lived; meanwhile the other died.

Sensei ni
yon moku, deshi ni mo
yon moku nari

With the teacher,
it's four stones; with the pupil too,
it's four stones.

This neatly describes the chagrin of the earnest (and somewhat vain) amateur go player who takes lessons. Usually he plays against his teacher, a professional, with a four-stone handicap and perhaps is sometimes allowed to win. Then one day it's the teacher's professional pupil who gives him a lesson -- a young sprig of thirteen or fourteen (as the word deshi implies), and he finds it as difficult as playing against the venerable teacher. This senryu unflatteringly mocks the relationship between fees-paying amateurs and professional teachers while at the same time pointing up the huge gap between the two. What handicap the average amateur takes hardly matters; the professional will usually win if he wants to.

Ki ni makete
kaereba uchi wa
arashi nari

Losing at go,
when he returns the house
becomes a tempest.

The word `tempest' in the Japanese original is written with characters meaning `fierce wind and rain'. When the testy player loses and returns to the bosom of his family the weather forecast is: depression followed by sharp words, gales and tears. The use of the formal word ki for go points up the contrast between the before and after.

O-aite no
go ni kachiso de

With an exalted person
playing go, and in danger of
winning, he thinks hard.

A player who is stronger at go than his opponent, but socially his inferior, finds it necessary to think in reverse, so to speak. When this senryu was written, a lord could still vent with a sword his feelings on a commoner. Even today in Japan a company president, no matter how weak, somehow finds the game ending in his favor when he plays with an underling.

Go no shobu
yobu koe de shiru
nyobo kana

Outcome of the game:
by the voice that calls her,
the wife knows.

At the end of a game with a guest at home, husband calls to wife for tea or cigarettes, and from long experience she can tell merely by the tone of his voice whether he won or lost.

Kaku utaba
nado to hebo go no

`If only I had played here'
etc.,etc. -- the go klutz's
pain at losing.

It is a wonderful thing to see how many amateur players are able to turn losses into victories during a post mortem discussion. Such people play on long after they should resign, and when the game reaches its dreary conclusion they point out to all with the patience to listen that the opponent's winning moves were really a mistake, and that if Black had only played here, White there . . . and so on and on.

Shoben ni
okite nyobo wa
go wo shikari

Getting up
to piss, the housewife
scolds the go game.

She went to bed hours ago and they're still at it. She can't help letting off a few grumbles in their direction as she passes by. They, of course, don't hear a word. In fact if she ran by naked and screaming they probably would not notice a thing -- if they were typical go players.

Yoyaku ni
katte go kyaku ga
toki wo kiki

At long last
winning, the go guest
asks the time.

Reluctance to stop while losing arises from the feeling, shared by most of us amateurs, that the only important games, the only games that really count, are the ones we win. No matter how many we lose, after a won game we can feel we have shown our true strength, we lean back with a modest smirk and begin to take note of the world again.

Yo fukasi ni
tenjo made ga
go-ban nari

In the depth of night
even the ceiling
becomes a go board.

A player is unable to stop thinking about his mistakes. Lying in bed, staring upward, he replays the game far into the night. A strange and interesting metaphor is here: the go stones move from the board to the ceiling and beyond the ceiling to the sky where they become again the stars from which they were born thousands of years ago.

Here is an example of another kind of verse, a famous kyoka (mad poem) attributed to Sansa, the first Honinbo and founder of that line. He is said to have composed it on his deathbed, which would date it at 1623. As a demonstration, perhaps, of mu-shin, and not without a touch of grim humor, he makes his own imminent death the subject.

Go narabaya
ko ni mo tatete
iku beki wo
shinuru michi ni wa
te hitotsu mo nashi

If this were go
I'd start a ko fight
and surely live,
but on the road to death
there's no move left at all.