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A 4000-year-old Chinese game holds an essential key for the survival of modern food companies.

If you don’t have a taste for history, philosophy, or board games, you may not have heard about a 4000-year-old Chinese board game known in English as ‘Go’. It is a game of territorial domination where players capture ground by surrounding it with black or white stones.


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Primoz Artac

3 years ago | 6 min read

Go is not just considered a game. In his book ‘The Way to Go’, Karl Baker, a game expert, says Go is regarded as a valuable life skill. It is held in such high regard that, in China, it is seen as one of the four essential life skills for an educated person. The others are poetry, music, and painting.

When two food companies face-off, the instinct is often to throw stones at each other in an aggressive way. Each company is trying to destroy its opponents. In doing so, it seeks to control the market. But, the principles of Go can be applied to control territory using strategic methods without the crude conflict of conventional stone-throwing.

Go as a Means to Understand Absolute Reality

The game Go was born in ancient Asia and hence relates to deep philosophy, including Buddhist principles. At the beginning of a game, the board is empty. This emptiness can be viewed as a symbol of the infinite potential at the heart of Buddhist practice — a non-dual awareness from which all of life is born and played out.

The game of Go is the play of two, battling for the relative territory within the canvas of naked oneness.

Understanding the non-dual or absolute aspect of life would imply a responsibility to nurture both sides of the playful conflict, since the two are by nature, united. The battle for territory is seen as a dreamlike state and, at the absolute level is as a fundamental reality.

According to Buddhist philosophy, if one is aware of the emptiness, the relative is understood to be an illusion. Nothing might change physically, but the scenario is devoid of a substantial character and, conflict is perceived as a game rather than a torturous reality.

When this absolute state is unknown, self and others are taken as real and, dualistic reality ensues. An example of this is when a human watches a movie. It is possible to watch a movie and enjoy grief, pain, anger, and all kinds of emotions.

The enjoyment comes from knowing the subject is just a character, and the film is just a projection. We cannot enjoy the same feelings in real life since we experience it as real through not understanding the empty, non-dual nature of our minds.

The Paradox of Simultaneous Benevolence and Competition

If we want to understand the complex ecosystem that is the food industry, we must first understand that healthy competition is critical.

However, engaging in the crude, aggressive tactics applied by many prominent organizations will always lead to a lose-lose scenario for all. A feisty battle for territory without growth suffocates the market, which leads to over-saturation and price-swelling. But, what if the principles of the game ‘Go’ were applied instead?

If the mission of winning territory abides by the principles of the game, it is possible to have robust and healthy competition within a market that is in constant expansion rather than decay.

There are two ways a business can engage in the game. Firstly, they could battle for the territory within the playing field as it is. This would mean that there will be a fierce face-off with opponents to win the limited ground that currently exists. The alternative is to innovate. In this case, rather than engaging in a catfight for the land that exists, they create new ground through invention and thought leadership.

In the Food Industry, as Competitors, We Need Eachother

In the film Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is captured by ‘the Predator’, but instead of killing him, he lets him go. Predator recognizes that without his prey, the game is over and not wanting to end the game but only hunt, he needs to release Arnie.

This is an advanced level of thinking, which at present is seldom applied by mainstream food companies. The desire to eliminate opponents is having a devastating effect on world food issues. It may ultimately reduce the ability for any competition and make way for a needs-based system, killing the artistic food industry as we know it.

Innovation is a Competitive Intelligence

The only move forbidden in Go is placing a stone back on a spot where it has been before. This principle keeps the game in a state of dynamic flux where every situation is new and exciting. Our current food and environmental policies are the opposite of this. They leave us spinning around again and again into the same circumstances without a chance of evolution.

The prohibition of this retrospective move in Go forces the game to keep renewing itself. The only option is a move forward in time with no space for traditional hang-ups and attachment to the past.

Non-attachment is a fundamental aspect of Buddhist practice. This downright refusal to cling to the past and seek out previous scenarios puts a stop to conditioning as we know it. It allows us to flow with the constant selfless flux that is at the core of all things.

A wise business owner might be intelligent in applying the retrospective rule within their own business. The application of the law in ‘real-life’ implies compulsory innovation. It is now widely accepted that innovation is not only key to the survival of a business; it is also vital to the survival of an industry.

In addition to sustaining sector and business, it enables its evolution. It further expands the empty playing field within which there becomes more and more space for multiple companies to thrive. When the rule is applied, there is no selfish, limited grasping for territory. There is only healthy competition within the constant expansion and unlimited growth of mutual abundance.

The emptiness and unlimited potential in Buddhist philosophy are also dependant on dynamic change, impermanence, and that consistent expansion of abundance.

When innovation dies, the industry ceases to grow. When the sector stops growing, businesses will face off more and more, fighting for the little space there is.

The game of Go might be just a game, but it is one that has been taken extremely seriously for thousands of years. Some of the greatest players of Go were Japanese Buddhist monks. As the mind becomes more selfless, one becomes much better at playing the game.

A conventional player of the game might see a battle of territory domination in which the objective is to win. Seasoned players of the game know that herein lies a paradox. How does one face off against one’s opponent while simultaneously benefiting them and expanding the very playing field itself? This is both the magnificent beauty of the game of Go and the mystery of the Buddhist path.

One thing is for sure, the food industry in its current form is on a trajectory towards destruction. There are a few great food companies that are innovating. Outstanding advances in technology such as ‘the Impossible Burger’ are offering solutions so deep that eating a hamburger can play a significant role in saving the planet.

Icons, such as David Chang and his restaurant Momofuku are doing extraordinary things with fermentation. Dan Barber and his team at Blue Hill Farm cook mushrooms in live compost and find new ways of compressing flavor into a squash.

Such advances in food technology don’t just benefit the inventor. They change the industry forever, thus finding new, powerful ways of creating more nutritional food with better carbon and ethical footprints.

Go as a game might be 4000 years old, but its ancient principles are more relevant in our world today than they have ever been. Perhaps it is because it is grounded in principles of emptiness, impermanence, and interdependence — laws which, they say, are beyond time itself.

It is not just considered a game. In his book ‘The Way to Go’, Karl Baker, a game expert, says Go is regarded as a valuable life skill. It is held in such high regard that, in China, it is seen as one of the four essential life skills for an educated person. The others are poetry, music, and painting.

“Unlike Chess, Go exercises both the left and right sides of the brain. Go has been compared to the martial arts as a means to develop discipline and character. The Go player must contend less with his opponent and more with conflicting impulses and emotions within him (or her) self” (boardgamegeek)

My writing is based on true events and stories. It is as real as it gets. I changed parts of the stories and excluded real names as I don’t want people to get hurt. But most of the stuff I write is authentic and includes my thoughts and feelings.

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Primoz Artac

Generalist that thinks broadly (not deeply).


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