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Interview with Thomas Cleary


In the world of strategy books, a milestone was reached in 1988 when Dr. Thomas Cleary published his translation and interpretation of The Art of War. A Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard and J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Cleary redefined the military treatise by linking it to Taoist thought found in classics like the I Ching and Tao Te Ching. He purposefully highlighted "a profound undercurrent of humanism" to the often misunderstood book on warfare. Most Sun Tzu scholars have followed these viewpoints ever since.

Thomas Cleary is a prolific writer. He has penned 80 books, most of which are related to East Asian culture and philosophy, e.g., Buddhist and Taoist works. We have found the author to be fiercely independent and that he likes to draw information directly from the source (thus perhaps explaining his deep interest in translating classics from their language of origin). If you were Sun Tzu, wouldn't you want to gather intelligence the same way, too?

We at also found Thomas Cleary to be very down-to-earth. He told us of a time recently when he worked with a contractor to install fiberglass insulation, which of course is not the safest work. The contractor liked his work ethic so much that he offered him the job. When Dr. Cleary finally fessed up to being a successful writer and just wanted to go blue collar for the day, the contractor said he graduated from Princeton but found his current career suited him better. Luckily for us, our esteemed author did not also change careers, and so we will continue to enjoy his works for years to come.

Below is a rare interview with Dr. Thomas Cleary. Enjoy! You have translated numerous books; we are simply astounded by your productivity. When did you first take interest in translations?

Cleary: I got into Buddhism when I was in my teens and started translating when I was 18. The reason behind my research into various books was because I wanted to learn. Your Art of War edition is among the best-selling Art of War books of all time. What got you interested into translating the military classic?

Cleary: I usually translate works that have never been translated into English before. But in this case, everyone has heard of Sun Tzu. His Art of War has already been translated into English.

However, I found past interpretations of the book too limited. They are limited representations of the West. There are a variety of presentations not given, such as from a Taoist standpoint. Previously, Taoism in The Art of War has either been denied or minimized. I wanted to say, here is one way -- another way -- to look at the text. What concept from The Art of War would you say people misinterpret the most?

Cleary: I no longer read Western interpretations of the Art of War so it's hard to say. If I have to venture it would be that The Art of War is not political. It is military and technical. What was your most challenging book to translate?

Cleary: Of the eight languages and some 80 books I translated, I would say Old Irish was the most challenging. This is due to the destruction of Irish language and culture over the centuries, and so the records are very spotty. I am a student of law myself, and many aspects of Gaelic law can be useful in the American system such as in Restorative Justice.

The Flower Ornament Scripture, the Avatamsaka Sutra, was also challenging. Where would you place the importance of The Art of War in relation to the other 79 or so books you have translated? In other words, do you think it is particularly important or merely the most well known?

Cleary: I suppose that the importance of a book depends on whether people can benefit from it, according to their needs. The attention it gets, on the other hand, may be affected by different factors. Have you ever thought of teaching at a university?

Cleary: There is too much oppression in a university setting.

I am not in Engaged Buddhism, have never supported cults, am not a member of any academic clique, and do not belong in organized education. I am not confined to any group. I want to stay independent and reach those who want to learn directly through my books. But you were taught at Harvard, perhaps the most traditional of all universities.

Cleary: A good thing about Harvard was language training was done by native teachers. You did not find that everywhere. What are you currently working on and what is next for Thomas Cleary?

Cleary: I am currently studying law, e.g., Comparative Constitutional Law. The American system is in flux and needing new ideas. The current system is based on the power of precedent so change is slow. By looking into other systems around the world we may be able to resolve issues, for example, in a more humanitarian way. All this may be a subject of a future book. According to a recent LA Times story, you were with the Dalai Lama. The news reporter incorrectly described you as a Harvard professor. Could you tell us more accurately what happened?

Cleary: I am not a Harvard professor, as the LA Times article says. All the other representations and their implications are likewise fictitious. I was not onstage with the Dalai Lama, and did not flank him at any time. I was not among those sporting the silk scarf he bestows. My work is not connected to any personal, political, or sectarian associations or alliances. My message that day had no relation whatsoever to the Art of War, and I was not introduced or identified that way.

As I have already translated both Buddhist and Islamic scripture from their original Sanskrit and Arabic, I was requested to address that assembly. I just recited some scripture as an amicus mundi, friend of the world.

These are the passages I presented.

Qur'an: The Age By the age, man is indeed at a loss, except those who have faith and do good works and take to truth and take to patience. The Atheists Say, "O atheists, I don't serve what you serve, and you don't serve what I serve. And I won't serve what you serve and you won't serve what I serve. You have your way, and I have my way." Assistance Do you see the one who repudiates religion? That is the one who rebuffs the orphan and does not encourage feeding the poor. So woe to those who pray yet are inattentive to their prayer: those who put on the appearance and yet are withholding assistance.

Flower Ornament Scripture (Avatamsaka-sutra):

I know all the various arts and crafts and sciences in the world dealing with writing, mathematics and symbols, physiology, rhetoric, physical and mental health, city planning, architecture and construction, mechanics and engineering, divination, agriculture and commerce, conduct and manners, good and bad actions, good and bad principles, what makes for felicity and what for misery, what is necessary for enlightenment, and behavior linking reason and action. I know all these sciences, and I also introduce them and teach them to people, and get people to study and practice them, to master and develop them, using these as means to purify, refine, and broaden people. We understand you will introduce a series of books on the different schools of traditional Japanese military and political science. Please tell us more about the first book, The Warrior’s Rule, and how it would help a person in today's world?

Cleary: The Warrior's Rule may serve several purposes, depending on the reader.

There is an underlying social purpose, in broadening and deepening general understanding of Japanese culture, including the special characteristics and distinct varieties of the warrior culture of the samurai. While it is well known that Japan has for some time been subject to external pressure to change its constitution to permit international military action, nonetheless the potential implications of the revival of Japanese militarism have not, for historical reasons, been as carefully considered in the West as in the East.

The safeguard of the postwar Japanese constitution, moreover, is not necessarily as solid as popularly imagined, even if it remains as is, and may not inhibit international action that is formally framed in terms of national defense. Indeed, the label of defensive purpose might conceivably be applied even to preemptive action, without requiring any constitutional change within this framework of interpretation. Anecdotal information suggests that many Americans are not even aware that postwar Japan has military forces at all, but the following quotations illustrate something of the gravity with which the potential role of the modern Japanese military in the power balance of East Asia is viewed in certain circles:

From US Dept of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, Feb. 06, 2006, page 41:

"Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time off set traditional U.S. military advantages absent U.S. counter strategies."

Now let us consider the following suggestion for Japan 's possible role in a counter strategy addressing this fear of China:

Japan Policy Research Institute, Critique, Vol. XII, No. 1 (January 2005)

Will Japan Go Nuclear? by Marshall Auerback

"While the rest of the Asia/Pacific region is increasingly turning to Beijing as its new economic and political locus, Japan appears to have made the decision to throw in its lot completely with Washington . Economically, the Bank of Japan has systematically destroyed its balance sheet through its longstanding (and ultimately futile) dollar support operations to accommodate the most egregious excesses in U.S. economic policy-making. But as Japan 's Iraq deployment indicates, this cooperation is now manifesting itself to a greater degree in the military sphere. Although not yet explicitly stated, the logical culmination of these ties would be to encourage Japan to go nuclear at some stage in the future. From Washington 's perspective, this would also have the added advantage of curbing China 's growing influence in the Asia/Pacific region."

A nuclear Japan may be one of those phenomena that become more possible to the degree popularly ignored or dismissed as improbable. There are, nonetheless, undoubtedly those with grave concerns in this regard:

From The Korea Times , 7/9/2006:

"We see the recent move of elevating its defense agency's status as being closely related to Tokyo 's growing inclination to beef up its military capabilities. The recent moves by Japan to gloss over its wartime atrocities in school textbooks is also viewed to be deeply related to a strong current that is pushing for a revival of nationalism and militarism in Japanese society.

Japan 's Self-Defense Force (SDF) has been steadily strengthening its military capability at a rapid pace, introducing state-of-the-art weaponry and expanding its sphere of operations. It is an undeniable fact that the rapid transformation of the SDF into a full-fledged military force is awesome enough to bring back neighboring countries' bitter memories of Japanese militarism."

Considering the magnitude of the powers and forces involved, maximization of all-around understanding of the underlying cultural and psychological elements that are engaged in international relations can be useful to minimize miscalculations of potentially disastrous proportions, by rendering the principals involved, and the public at large, less vulnerable to the influence of ill-informed opinion, the destabilization of artificial inflammation, and the peril of indiscreet experimentation.

On May 1 of 2006, the US Department of State issued a joint statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Japan's Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, saying, "The Ministers stressed the imperative of strengthening and improving the effectiveness of bilateral security and defense cooperation in such areas as ballistic missile defense, bilateral contingency planning, information sharing and intelligence cooperation, and international peace cooperation activities, as well as the importance of improving interoperability of Japan 's Self-Defense Forces and U.S. forces..."

The envisioned role of Japanese forces in this alliance is evidently not limited to the East Asia . Afghanistan , Iraq , and the greater Middle East are also mentioned in this joint statement, suggesting the potentially world-wide scope of US-Japan military cooperation.

This increasing emphasis on the US-Japan alliance will unavoidably intensify the need for American military directors, officers, and soldiers to understand the many faces of Bushido; and expansion of joint operations in the future may be expected to bring the subject to the attention of the American public to an unprecedented degree.

In terms of specific applications, military officers and noncoms will recognize the significance of the care that Bushido devotes to the cultivation of the warrior spirit. The effects of warfare on the human psyche have been studied for ages, and it might be said that a general concept of chivalric education and training is to balance the personality of the warrior under the most difficult of circumstances. This balance is considered beneficial both to the individual and to society, given the entire nexus of stress created by the conditions of mobilization and combat. In view of widespread warfare and the proliferation of private military corporations, currently said to be active in over one hundred nations, the moral and psychological elements of martial culture are of intrinsic concern to both civil and military sectors of society.

For the military sector, information on the disciplines of other orders can be useful, not only for understanding the ethos and operation of those other orders, but also for stimulating improvement in the discipline of one's own order. This latter effect is enhanced by difference of origin, because the material of other orders is not authoritative in one's own order, and therefore the individual defiance impulse does not operate so automatically, resulting in less resistance to absorption by recruits. The consequent institutional and psychological detachment permits the material to be sorted in an objective and pragmatic manner, for relevance and usefulness, without dogmatic or traditionalistic compulsion.

Some element of competition, such as is characteristic of the combat mode itself, can also contribute to the efficiency of external stimulation to excellence. This is in fact one of the principles of the specific school of military science represented in The Warrior's Rule, that is adopting and adapting whatever technique or method is useful at the time, whatever the source, whether in one's own tradition or another.

This principle of adaptation is also extended to matters of individual organization and personal self-discipline. It is emphasized that ideals and precedents of the past, however excellent in themselves, may not be applicable unaltered in the present, and should therefore not be taken as inflexible dogma; but can nevertheless be profitably studied to suggest or to illustrate certain practical principles, with the understanding that their actualization in real life in the present requires accurate adaptation to current conditions. This is a most important point in this school, and its fundamental culture of conscious consideration, applied to all aspects of life, including education and profession, expands the relevance of The Warrior's Rule beyond the realm of political and military science per se, to the condition of individual human beings responsible for themselves and others in a world of massive forces that are not entirely predictable and under no one's absolute control. The training of the warrior's spirit fosters qualities of character and habits of conduct that can help develop character and effectiveness in all walks of life, personal powers of self-government including vigilance, order, thought, will, discernment, and decision.

Another aspect of The Warrior's Rule that is associated with the theme of adaptation is somewhat more specialized, but the significance of the issue implied does have the potential to affect the entire world. This melancholy matter has to do with the development of Jingoism in modern Japan , a monster as yet undead, indeed showing signs of revival. When considered in connection with the foregoing views of global affairs, the problems that a revival of Japanese Jingoism could pose demand serious consideration. The Warrior's Rule illustrates the fragmentary origins of ultra-nationalism in the attempt to extricate Japanese political and military thought from uncritical and inefficient idealism based on ancient Chinese classics. The original impulse was not anti-Chinese as it was to become in its ultimate deformity, but an initiative toward intellectual independence for practical purposes, in an atmosphere clouded by an intensifying sense of being surrounded by powerful forces.

In this connection, while illustrating the beginnings of this individuation process to differentiate subsequent developments and distortions, The Warrior's Rule also balances the circumstantial division with inherent evidence of the profound and indelible interconnection that Japanese culture has had with Chinese culture throughout history. The last and longest of the five treatises translated in The Warrior's Rule, entitled The Way of the Knight, exemplifies this profound appreciation of Chinese culture with particular vigor and clarity. The extent and sophistication of Chinese learning evinced by the Japanese author is remarkable in any era, and Western readers in particular may be surprised to read such accessible, practical, and even dynamic presentations of ancient classics as sources of inspiration for self-development and self-mastery, personal dignity and social skill.

[End of interview]

We recommend his strategy book as discussed in the interview:

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