For unknown reasons, he or she questioned a number of things, such as me not being a translator or a scholar:
P.S. He or she ("Aoidh") responded:
Today, someone named "Aoidh" on Wikipedia wants to delete my Wikipedia page ("Thomas Huynh") after nine years on the Wikipedia website (October 2013).
For unknown reasons, he or she questioned a number of things, such as me not being a translator or a scholar:
This shouldn't make me sad but it does. I don't know why anyone would be so malicious. If you're familiar with Wikipedia, can you help? Any assistance you can provide, I would appreciate it so much.
P.S. He or she ("Aoidh") responded:
There are many versions of Sun Tzu's Art of War and not because of different translations. These versions are re-interpretations of The Art of War to specific fields such as business, politics, and sports. There is even one version on dating!
Today, however, I would like to introduce to you Liam Shannon, the author of Sun Tzu Soccer. Read our interview with him here.
During my hiatus the last two years, I have missed writing to you about the death of my mentor, Dr. Thomas Cleary, an unparalleled scholar of the Asian classics. He was 72 years old. His achievements are well known. The New York Times wrote a nice obituary dedicated to him.
I first heard of Dr. Cleary in 1988 when he published his translation of Sun Tzu's Art of War (published by Shambhala Publications). It was indeed my first exposure of Sun Tzu in English. My experience reading the book was transformative.
His translation, in addition to showing me the Taoist side of Sun Tzu, showed me the humaneness of Sun Tzu, which brought the venerable classic all together for me. It was the last missing piece of the puzzle for me. Unlike the many previous translations and interpretations which emphasized battles, Thomas Cleary was the first modern scholar who revolutionized how we now view Sun Tzu -- who he really was: an idealist that dealt with a system that dealt out great suffering.
And because Sun Tzu isn't still widely understood, that same insufferable system exists to this very day, Chinese or otherwise. That is to say, China isn't less militaristic or direct than any other nation, just that it must go back to its ideals recorded by Sun Tzu. (I would argue America practices and devotes more time to The Art of War than China.) The Art of War isn't how war was conducted in China historically (although warlords like Cao Cao had tried to implement the principles). Instead, The Art of War is how war should be conducted, a manual and reminder for the military leader.
Something as serious as warfare could only be subverted by great wisdom that would last two and a half millennia. As Dr. Cleary wrote, the ring that is slipped around the monkey king's head (Journey to the West) to remind him to exude great compassion and serve the greater good is the same ring Sun Tzu slips on every reader wanting to find great success through his Art of War book. Those who understand will joyfully yell out "Eureka!" and those who don't will wonder what all the fuss is about.
I can't write a better obituary than the New York Times, but what I can share with you is my personal story of Thomas Cleary.
For those who don't know who Thomas Cleary was, he can be described as the J. D. Salinger of the translator world. He avoided the limelight, didn't want attention or recognition, didn't want to be associated with any organization, school, or association. He simply wanted to be left alone to do his work, which ended up to be over 80 books.
Trying to reach him, I first contacted his publisher Shambhala Publications. But the editor told me even he couldn't get a response from Thomas Cleary. It had been months since he last heard from him. It seemed I was out of luck.
But through a confidential source, I was given his home phone number. I dialed the number. He picked up. I inquired whether it was Thomas Cleary on the other end. He said yes. Then I went through my shpeel about how much I admired his works. I likely went on longer than he had the patience for. Finally I had the courage to ask for an interview with him for Sonshi.com. He flatly said, "No." He added he was "too busy with a current project and need to get back to it."
I mentally panicked. Oh no! Here was my only chance and I blew it. It was like the whole world was crashing down on me. Then I started to stutter, which I rarely do. The more I talked to save myself, I worse I sounded. I was pathetic. I was in free fall.
Silence on the other end of the line.
"[Sigh] Ok, tell me about the interview," Dr. Cleary said.
Looking back on this, Thomas Cleary felt sorry for me. I was a just a poor guy on the other end of the telephone asking for a break. He empathized. He had compassion. He understood Sun Tzu's wisdom.
Despite Dr. Cleary's many years as a famous writer, Sonshi's interview was the very first interview he ever accepted.
There were matters he never shared in public until that interview. Like how he shoveled raw asbestos when he was young, which contributed to his health problems later on. He was able to mitigate some of it through meditative practices.
Dr. Cleary and I worked on several other projects later on, including the Preface for Sonshi's Art of War book, published exactly 20 years after his own Art of War in 1988. It is an incredible honor I will never forget for as long as I live.
On one of our projects, I read a sentence he translated and had a question about one of the words. He immediately looked at the source. After a few minutes, he then said, "You're right -- it should be this." It was a small correction but I felt like I was on equal footing with a master, albeit just for that moment! And he was gracious and wise enough to make the correction so easily and without any care whatsoever.
Today, I feel I have an obligation to continue Thomas Cleary's work to promote Sun Tzu's humanity that is accepted much more now than back in 1988. More work needs to be done to apply those principles in the real world.
The way I look at issues is that if a problem is possible, then its solution is possible. If conflict is possible, then its resolution is possible. And if a world war is possible, then world peace is possible. If stumbling and stuttering are possible, then empathy and compassion are possible. This dualistic view is absolutely Sun Tzu's view. It's the way of the universe. Look for the right moment, the right opportunity and we'll wonder why we worried at all. Sun Tzu understood, Thomas Cleary understood, and we can understand, too. ☯
Biology indicates that the purpose of an organism is to pass on its genes. In short, survival is the goal.
But does this apply to humans?
The obvious answer seems to be yes. We are organisms after all.
However, we are organisms whose strength is our mind -- our thinking ability. Athletes in sports might brag they are the fastest or the strongest, but they all pale in comparison to any cat's sprint or mule's kick. They aren't very impressive against these common animals.
So where we truly excel at as human beings is in our capacity to think. No other animal seems to come close.
As such, thinking allows us to see different options. Thinking allows us to plan and choose our destiny. Thinking allows us to make wise decisions despite our fight-or-flight instincts.
Therefore, thinking even allows us to decide on an option that runs counter to our survival. But this decision is no doubt rare. Not everyone is wise enough to think beyond ourselves. I presume some of us will do whatever it takes to survive, no matter how shameful or immoral. History is replete with examples.
My thinking on this is simple: Why would anyone -- once they realize what they are truly doing -- want to choose life over a worthwhile choice? What is the worth of a life filled with decisions one is ashamed of? What is the point of living a life if it means doing what any savage animal would do? We would cease to be human.
For example, the general fear in directly confronting Russia after it invaded Ukraine is that Russia would use their nuclear weapons, thus destroying everyone else in the process. But if society would rather allow such evil to exist so it could preserve itself, what, in fact, is it preserving? A system that allows for such a evil to exist. Then why is it worth preserving? So it is a no-brainer that we must act against Russia's aggression directly and immediately, NATO boots on the ground and stopping the carnage quickly.
Ultimately, however, the problem with choosing survival over a higher standard of conduct is that it is short-lived. When individuals scramble to survive on their own at the cost of others, they are nevertheless weak as individuals. They are doomed from that point on.
In contrast, fairness, decency, and teamwork are the glue that unites groups, communities, and civilizations, making them strong. Unlike selfish individuals, they are formidable and they last.
Ironically and paradoxically, the more we are willing to die, the better the chances we can survive. The old expression, "Fortune favors the bold" holds true. I would argue that the more we are willing to stick up for others, even at our expense, the more fulfilling our lives are. Now we are living for more than ourselves. We are living a life we are proud of. We live without fear, for even death doesn't scare us. The only thing that should scare us the most is to die without redemption, our penultimate and last acts falling well short of where we want to be.
Because if we always choose a higher standard of conduct, regardless of whether we live or we die afterwards, we are always happy with our decisions. And, in turn, we are always happy with our life, even toward death.
"Get them to face danger, but do not reveal the advantages. Throw them into danger and they will survive; put them on deadly ground and they will live. Only if the troops are in situations of danger will they turn defeat into victory." Sun Tzu
The basis of economics is people making decisions for their own self-interests. Makes sense. We all get it. Until we realize that living life is much more than economics and people don't act that way at all, especially for leaders. It's not even close.
Let me explain.
Take an example of a father. He usually gets up early. He gets ready for work. He thinks about his boss. He thinks about his coworkers. He thinks about the clients. In addition, he thinks about his family; he thinks about his spouse and children. He even thinks about his dogs and cats. What's more meaningful to him than his family? Nothing else.
Same goes for the mother, if not more so.
In short, we think about others all the time. Our self-interests seem like an afterthought. If there is any self-interest at all, it's to achieve heartsease or peace of mind knowing others will be fine.
Economics is important for a higher standard of living. It's how resources can be efficiently allocated. But the way people make decisions is ultimately based on how they can obtain the most benefit for others in their everyday lives. They are vastly more important.
In Chapter 10 of The Art of War, Sun Tzu sums up the main objective of a leader:
"The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure."
So not unlike any modern-day leader, Sun Tzu's decisions were every bit selfless. After all, it doesn't take much to take care of yourself. But it takes the skills and wisdom of a Sun Tzu to take care of people -- holding back our emotions, extending and risking ourselves for the safety and comfort of others.
A friend is someone who over time and situations remains your friend. A friend is someone who somehow thinks about you at the same time as you think about them. A friend fixes your faults and strengthens your strengths. A friend is time and life itself, a connection of memories between the past, present, and future.
Dr. Jeremy Black has written an incredible 180 books, mostly on British history, European politics, and, of course, warfare. His answers might surprise you, especially when he said, "too much of a focus on Clausewitz." Click below to read more!
Interview with Dr. Jeremy Black
The worries and concerns we have in life are often caused by the incorrect application of our time and energies.
For example, we worry about others do, how they'll view us, and the decisions they will make that might negatively affect us.
While those are valid concerns, the relevant question we must ask ourselves is whether it's worth our time and energy to think about them.
The answer, if you think about it, is no. And here's why.
The obvious answer is we don't have control over what others do. We have influence but that's far from having control. And that's actually a good thing. Because we don't want anyone else to control us either. We might allow others to influence us through reason, but not control.
The less obvious answer is we should spend more time and energy on our own actions. They are absolutely things we can control. Complete control. And we can take those actions now. No need to worry about how, what, when.
Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of being proactive and take preventative measures. Whose responsibility is this? Ours. He understands we ourselves can make a positive impact on the future if we act in the present.
So even though Sun Tzu strives to create results favorable to us through the decisions of others, the basis of that calculus lies in our own early initial actions.
For instance, if we want another person to listen to us, and nobody is listening to each other, then we must take it upon ourselves to start listening even when nobody else is listening. Extend an olive branch. Taking the initiative and being an example won't always work, but we have a much better chance of success than doing nothing and letting things happen as is.
Therefore, we must ponder and be careful about how we approach matters and how our actions affect others. As for what other people do, we can be confident they will do what they do, problems and all, as it should be, not as we wish them to be. Fortunately, we don't need to wish and worry about what we ourselves will do, and what we are doing now. We have full control. So take it.
When I read reviews of our Art of War book, it's actually to see if there is any dissatisfaction with the book. If there is dissatisfaction, I promptly offer a full refund. I don't argue because that's how the reviewer felt, so there's no denying. How someone feels is always right.
Sometimes, I must admit I do feel satisfied when I come across a heart-felt review. Below is one of them, which I saw on Goodreads, an Amazon company. I'll take his or her high-five today!
"With so many editions available nowadays, it is by far the best edition I have ever read. An unbiased and very thought-provoking interpretation of Art of War. Unbiased true translations are rare and hard to find - like the book says, authors slightly influence with their choice of words while translating. This book is the product of twenty years of dedicated scholarship and application of The Art of War. The author worked with over forty of the most reputable authors and scholars of The Art of War over the years. I own half dozen editions of the art of war. But this one always stands out from all the rest. The author translates each verse in plain English so that anyone can comprehend. Thomas did not just translate the verses, he also explains how the strategies and tactics can be applied to day to day activities as well as resolving conflicts."
The stories of success are told by winners. The winners can say they won, but what they can't always say is that they won with kindness. That's why not all stories are good, some not worth telling.
Sun Tzu believes the highest ideal in victory is to win without fighting. That means winning without hurting anyone, keeping the most gains. It takes a person of great skill and wisdom to be able to pull off such a victory. It takes a rare amount of insight and creativity. It takes, in short, a lot of care and love. But it's not easy, otherwise everyone would do it.
And there are pitfalls throughout the endeavor: pain, temptations, apathy.
Overcome pain with reason. We can endure great pain if we understand why we go through pain to get to where we need to be.
Overcome temptations with reason. We can shun all temptations if we understand what nobility is. Nobility is forgoing the small even though everyone else thinks it's big.
Overcome apathy with reason. Apathy isn't doing anything. It's a sitting duck. So take one step toward being better and you are already running circles around apathy.
Achieving victory is passable, but the gains from that victory vary. For example, a pyrrhic victory is not really a victory.
Winning without kindness may be passable, but tainted. It's barely worth keeping, certainly not worth bragging about. Re-writing the story makes for good fiction -- it cannot bridge the ideal.
So great is the ideal that if we were given a choice between victory or kindness, we can automatically choose kindness. Obtaining a victory without kindness is common. How can anyone admire it? But the times we see people maintaining their kindness even in the face of loss or losing are few. They are always memorable. They are the stories worth telling.
P.S.: Sonshi is back after a two-year hiatus! I hope to tell more stories.
A doctor studies a disease not because she wants to promote the disease, but rather because she wants to understand it, manage it, and ultimately prevent it.
Similarly, the study of war is in actuality a study for peace -- the real objective. We want to understand war so we can bring about peace, which is the benefit we hope to secure.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu tells us that our highest aim should be to win without fighting. Our aspiration isn't the enemy's destruction but the prevention of battle altogether. This makes sense because in the real world our resources are limited. Therefore, the gain from resolving conflicts and taking whole -- if we are wise enough to achieve it -- can mean the difference between surplus and insufficiency, affluence and poverty, survival and obsolescence.
It is with the above mindset I want to introduce to you Prof. Beatrice Heuser, Chair of International Relations in the Department of Politics at the University of Glasgow. Few people know more about war than she does. As such, Prof. Heuser can help guide us in the right direction and path to peace.
Enjoy our interview with Prof. Beatrice Heuser!
Yesterday I had an insightful discussion with Dr. Paul R. Goldin, a professor of Chinese philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He's about my age and he is exactly what a professor should be: he's friendly, his students all seem to like him, and he's passionate about his field of study. His deep knowledge is apparent as evidenced by his helpful demeanor and creative approach when questioned. A wonderful sight to behold.
And he has a new book out called The Art of Chinese Philosophy: Eight Classical Texts and How to Read Them. Learn more about him and his new book in our interview with Paul Goldin.
Unprecedented times call for sensible cowgirl wisdom. Cowgirl Gay Gaddis exudes the wisdom, gravitas, benevolence, courage, and discipline that Sun Tzu demanded in tackling and succeeding in life's many challenges.
A successful businesswoman, mentor, author, public speaker, and artist, Gay Gaddis answers our questions regarding cowgirl principles, her life, and her advice for working men and women in the modern world.
Here is our interview with Gay Gaddis. Enjoy!
It's not every day I see a new Art of War edition I like. But when I saw Little Bo Illustrates The Art of War, I knew I was looking at a special book.
Whether I was looking at the scales of a dragon or the scales of a fish, the detail of the book's drawings was amazing. The person who put this delightful children's book together was L. H. Draken, a writer of Chinese-Noir. Working with the dichotomy between these two genres, combined with her knowledge of and experiences in China, L. H. Draken was able to make little Bo and The Art of War come alive.
It is with great privilege to bring you our recent interview with L. H. Draken where we discuss her new book!
Time flies when you're having fun. On August 12, 2019, we will celebrate our 20th anniversary of Sonshi.com. Much has changed since our humble beginning, but what hasn't changed is our commitment to educating the world on Sun Tzu's peaceful solution to war.
What has encouraged me most for at least the last decade is the involvement of women learning and teaching Sun Tzu's Art of War. This isn't your father's Art of War anymore. It's now the strategy and leadership book of choice for many mothers, sisters, and daughters. When more people are educated in making smarter decisions and making things work more effectively, the world is better as a result.
So it is with much joy I have published our recent interview with Dr. Michael Nylan, a female scholar and translator of Sun Tzu's Art of War. Her amazing perspective is well worth the read.
Contrary to what people think they know, Sun Tzu's Art of War doesn't promote war. It doesn't promote violence. It is a work of great wisdom and humanity. If you can hold on to these indisputable concepts in your mind, you will not go wrong.
Recently I see writings in academic circles that try to promote the notion that The Art of War isn't a work of humaneness. That's rather unfortunate and misguided. These academics should pick up their phone. The year 1987 is calling. They are making the same mistakes that others have made before 1988 when Dr. Thomas Cleary wrote his groundbreaking introduction in his translation of The Art of War. He was the first major Western scholar to have gotten our Chinese classic correct.
So with this blog entry I am trying to set the record straight once again. Education is a never-ending endeavor.
Sun Tzu's Art of War is one of the most useful books you can read to stop and prevent conflict. The politicians who read and understand it are less likely to advocate wars. Military generals who read and understand it are more prudent in launching attacks. The everyday civilians who read and understand it are less prone to anger and rash behavior. Sun Tzu's Art of War can help anyone because there is nobody who doesn't have to deal with conflict in his or her life. Our book doesn't simply advise measured actions but quick, powerful, and creative actions to ensure victory and return to harmony. This difference seems subtle but substantial in practice.
May all individuals see things from a wise and mature perspective in the future, one of effective education and peace. ☮
P.S. If you want to discuss more about this, feel free to post your comment below and we'll discuss further.
Today I want to discuss a topic that might be the elephant in the room. If Sun Tzu's Art of War gives the reader an advantage, why would that reader freely share it with others? Someone yesterday said to me it's not smart to tell others about your playbook. So why am I promoting and teaching others around the world about Sun Tzu's Art of War via Sonshi, a book, and this blog?
When I first studied Sun Tzu's Art of War over 30 years ago, I knew what I had in my hands was remarkable advice and information. You would think I wanted to keep this advice and information to myself, much like what the feudal Japanese warlords did when they secretly studied their coveted copy of Sonshi (a Japanese transliteration of Sun Tzu).
But I was lucky. I had a wise teacher. The first Art of War book I studied was from Dr. Thomas Cleary published in 1988 (who 20 years later wrote the Preface for our own Art of War book published in 2008). In his Art of War book's introduction, Dr. Cleary refers to a very famous Chinese novel called "Journey to the West," published in circa 1592 AD.
"Journey to the West" tells a story about a magical monkey who eventually became the Monkey King after stealing the devil's sword, became a master in swordsmanship, and founded a monkey civilization. However, even though he was a ruler of an entire nation, he wasn't a ruler of himself. Because of his lack of wisdom, he created a dangerous arms race with neighboring nations. Fortunately, the Monkey King meets Buddha who conquered the Monkey King's ignorance through education.
As a reminder of this education, Buddha slips on a ring around the Monkey King's head that tightens whenever he acts without compassion. Likewise, with Sun Tzu's Art of War, Dr. Cleary wrote:
"The Art of War has been known for a hundred generations as the foremost classic of strategy; but perhaps its greatest wizardry lies in the ring of compassion that Master Sun [Sun Tzu] slips over the head of every warrior who tries to use this book. And as history shows, the magic spell that tightens its grip is chanted whenever a warrior forgets the ring." Thomas Cleary
The insight of the sentence above cannot be overstated. It is to be read carefully and understood fully. In short, if you choose to become a student of Sun Tzu's Art of War, you cannot help but be wiser and more compassionate than before studying the book.
When you have two sides who are fully aware of Sun Tzu's Art of War, they would only engage in battle if victory is assured. But since there can only be one winner in war, one of them will refuse to fight. Unlike simulated competition like in sports where two sides must compete, in war one can always choose to not fight.
An argument might be made that this is merely delaying a fight. But it isn't so simple. First, peace now is better than peace later. Second, with the passage of time, sentiments can change, allowing for more opportunities for reconciliation. And third, according to Sun Tzu, as long as at least one side is wise and proficient at strategy, peace will continue if that side so chooses, especially in defense:
"Those skilled in warfare can make themselves invincible, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be vulnerable. Therefore it is said one may know how to win but cannot necessarily do it. One takes on invincibility defending; one takes on vulnerability attacking." Sun Tzu
Even better, if both sides are students of Sun Tzu's Art of War, they will treat all troops well (theirs and the opposition's), strive to leave All-Under-Heaven intact, since their leaders would be "cautious and prudent" and "wise, trustworthy, benevolent, brave, and disciplined." These are the qualities that are geared toward solving problems, not escalating them. These are the qualities that push for peace, not war, or at a minimum, push for a quick end to war if it has started already.
Ideally, if everyone in the world is a student of Sun Tzu's Art of War, we would not have more wars, but instead we would have more educated people who truly understand the full costs of war and have the mindset, creativity, and compassion to resolve differences. Unless every option has been exhausted, the mere suggestion of war would be outrageous and absurd. War, in essence, would be viewed as a failure and a shame to all involved.
Therefore, to answer the question "Should you share Sun Tzu's Art of War with others?", I emphatically say, "Yes!"
I have seen with my own eyes the positive difference it makes in people's lives. Sun Tzu students aren't only more empowered but they are empowering others. Through the use of logic and reason, they care about another person even if nobody else does. They are kind to others knowing that kindness doesn't diminish their power or strength, and often quite the reverse is true. There have been countless times I have observed people's eyes light up after reading Sun Tzu's Art of War but it's not surprising because that was how I was when I first read the book.
Alas, war hawks and chickenhawks who quote Sun Tzu almost always quote him incorrectly (misattributing the quote to Sun Tzu or misunderstanding the quote altogether) and have apparently not pondered beyond mere quotes. These are the people I want to reach out and educate, if it's not too late.
Educating others and learning from others about Sun Tzu's Art of War are so satisfying that I will continue what I'm doing. I hope you are benefiting from Sonshi, our Art of War book, and these blog entries. I hope you spread the word far and wide.
I will leave you today with a wonderful concluding sentence in Dr. Thomas Cleary's introduction, which so correctly and perceptively sums up why I continue to study Sun Tzu's Art of War after 30 years and what many of you might have already observed in your own study:
"Classics [like Sun Tzu's Art of War] may be interesting and even entertaining, but people always find they are not like books used for diversion, which give up all of their content at once; the classics seem to grow wiser as we grow wiser, more useful the more we use them." Thomas Cleary
Last week, S.A. Newman asked us, "What is the English translation of your cover photo?" What she was referring to is the white and green Chinese characters at the top of this webpage. I have re-created the same Chinese characters with the calligraphy brush, now in black and green, in the picture above this paragraph.
Both sets of Chinese characters are hand-written specifically for Sonshi because it is our main motto. The motto translated in English is, "We don't only show you how to read Sun Tzu's Art of War. We also show you how to apply Sun Tzu's Art of War."
How wonderful Ms. Newman asked that question because I didn't realize until now you might have been curious to know what those Chinese characters meant as well. Now you know. For those new here, the "four-leaf clover" icon is Sonshi's logo and the peace sign is based on our objective of world peace, in alignment with our recent acquisition of the domain name ☮️.com.
It is also wonderful she asked that question because it gives me an opportunity to discuss more about our motto and why it is we all read Sun Tzu's Art of War. The purpose of reading Sun Tzu's Art of War isn't simply to read it, even if we can memorize it backward and forward, but to receive some kind of useful benefit from it.
I believe our motto is important because it is a useful motto. It reminds you and me to keep using Sun Tzu's Art of War as it was intended to be used: not for entertainment although it might be enjoyable but for practical life application. The book wants to earn its keep and it's been doing that for 2500 years.
Epictetus used to admonish those who would brag about how they can expound the complicated verses of Chrysippus. But all he cared about was how they were able to translate those verses into favorable changes in their everyday behavior. An analogy he used was, "Don't show me your lifting weights. Show me your muscles." Meaning, don't show me all the books you own to impress me but let me see how those books helped you in your life. Let me see your behavior, your mindset, how you treat others.
Ultimately if there is no positive change in behavior then what good are books like Sun Tzu's Art of War? I hear some people use their The Art of War book as display. One can do whatever he or she chooses with his or her own money, but a value of a book should go well beyond its price, at least more than the price of a poster.
Therefore, a good scholar would not only be knowledgeable in the concepts of an important book like Sun Tzu's Art of War but also serve as a living example of how that book has helped him or her. It is just as important to be a practitioner of a philosophy book as it is to be a serious student of it. I would argue that both are one and the same.
As a student of Sun Tzu's Art of War, I strive to apply the book each and every day. To me, that's what being a student of The Art of War is. Due to its practical principles, it's not limited to a classroom but can be expanded to a way of life. It is too important and useful of a book.
Thus, strategy would be a way of life. Self-control would be a way of life. Leadership would be a way of life. Being thoughtful and patient but at the same time decisive and to act quickly with full force to defend or gain advantage. They are all behaviors that everyone can see whether or not a person is successfully applying the book. And when I say "everyone," I don't mean necessarily the general public who would read about it in a newspaper article but would include family members as well. Wisdom, like peace and charity, starts at home.
I know Sun Tzu's Art of War works because it has a positive effect in my own life. Better is my ability to control what I can control, how proactive I am, how I view problems and opportunities, my relationships with those around me, my performance of life's endeavors. It simply makes me want to go out there and share it with everyone I meet.
From my numerous interactions with others who have read and applied Sun Tzu's Art of War, their story invariably reflects mine. They also tend to express relief to finally meet someone like me they can talk to about Sun Tzu's Art of War. Of course I happily oblige because the feeling is mutual.
How wonderful there are people from all over the world using this ancient Chinese classic to help them prepare and overcome modern life challenges with aplomb. I know how they feel. The feeling is of great satisfaction, of not only being disciplined in our actions but also taking the initiative and influencing matters outside ourselves in more predictable ways.
Like all things in life, there are no guarantees beyond our own actions. There are many and unknown factors that can outweigh our efforts. However, to fully utilize what little we do have through strategy can often be sufficient in securing significant performance gains.
For example, the difference in the additional skill level of a superior athlete is relatively small in comparison to the difference in his or her gains, whether they be in putting up great stats or securing great trust from coaches and teammates. To be more specific, it is analogous to the difference between a baseball player batting .250 versus a player batting .300 -- a difference of 5%, or about one extra base hit every five games -- but in terms of salary and stardom, that difference is out of the ballpark.
And when it comes to war, every little difference in keeping safe the lives of our service men and women is immeasurable. Sun Tzu pushes military leaders to become better by raising the strategic bar they need to clear:
"The important thing in doing battle is victory, not protracted warfare. Therefore, a general who understands warfare is the guardian of people's lives, and the ruler of the nation's security." Sun Tzu
"The enlightened ruler is prudent, the good general is cautious. This is the Way of securing the nation, and preserving the army." Sun Tzu
This prudence is important. By disallowing missions that have low chances of success, it raises the overall chances of troops coming back to the barracks to fight another day. Prudence forces the military leadership to be more stringent in their willingness to send troops. It forces leaders to avoid keeping troops out for long if they are sent out. It forces them to work harder than any Marine or soldier sent out on the field because their strategy must be sound -- and that relies on nothing less than an extraordinary amount of investigation, creativity, and outright brilliance.
A sound strategy sets troops up for success. Once it is is executed, our troops would be like "boulders rolling down the hill," powerful, effortless, and unstoppable due to their positioning and momentum. The hard part of the entire endeavor is the strategic set up, which is the responsibility and duty of leadership. Leaders must not fail in this one critical task, or be faced with horrific consequences.
Speaking of horrific consequences, a prolonged campaign indicates the strategy is neither sound nor effective. In such a case, Sun Tzu would advise us to stop, regroup, and only move when an opportunity presents itself again:
"Move when advantageous, stop when not advantageous." Sun Tzu
What matters most to Sun Tzu is the result that is in the best interest of the nation. Everything else is details. In our case, it doesn't matter how much time we spent studying The Art of War. It matters that we understood the concepts correctly and then take the next step and apply them to our situation correctly.
So I urge you to go beyond reading Sun Tzu's Art of War. Reading isn't enough. Continue forward. Once your understanding is attained, take advantage of your newly gained knowledge and use it in your own life:
"I have heard of military campaigns that were clumsy but swift, but I have never seen military campaigns that were skilled but protracted." Sun Tzu
You might feel clumsy at first, but as Miyamoto Musashi would say, everything feels clumsy at first. But you must keep trying because your goal isn't to not feel clumsy but to make progress.
And no matter how clumsy you might feel, it is a better feeling than the feeling of failure, especially if the reason for that failure was due to your lack of preparation. You are better than that. You were born to accomplish great things. With more a higher, more stringent expectation of your performance, you can't help but prepare more. You work harder to create sound strategies, and thus be excited to take action on those strategies to achieve success.
Success might have begun with you reading Sun Tzu's writings in his 13 chapters, but it ends with you writing past those 13 chapters in your own life. Make your life's book an important and useful book, one that is always updated and improving. It would be like a great book that keeps on getting better.
How many times have you heard education is the answer to many of the world's problems? The reason why it is mentioned so many times is because, per the wisdom of the crowd, it's probably true.
However, since the world doesn't have an infinite amount of resources to pour into education, a better question we want to answer is what kind of education should we spend our time and money on? What subjects in school should we focus on beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic? As this is a website about Sun Tzu's Art of War, the answer seems apparent, but bear with me here while I explain myself in more detail.
A sad trend I've been noticing over the last decade is colleges are downsizing or even discontinuing their offerings in philosophy. In the drive to offer more practical career-oriented studies, cutting philosophy seems like an easy decision. But that would be a grave mistake.
The study of philosophy is the study of logic, among other things. And the last time I checked, business decisions still hinge on logic. Otherwise, if a company keeps making illogical decisions, it will not survive long-term.
Furthermore, given the rather poor decision making of corporations in the news, it would do them some good to hire more philosophy majors. As a nation, we spend so much on audits, regulation, and providing assurances on the backend -- all necessary, of course -- but we fail to spend as much on the prevention of fraud, incompetence, and misjudgments on the frontend. In other words, instead of striving to not make a mess in the first place, we rather be proficient at cleaning that mess later on.
Universities that choose to cut their philosophy departments are making the same illogical decision. Instead of making sure companies are happy with the workforce graduating from their institutions, maybe they should make sure their real customers, the students themselves, are happy after their graduation. Focusing on career-based subjects isn't a well-rounded education. A well-rounded education has to include philosophy, which enables people to think for themselves, not only in their pursuit of economic prosperity but also in their pursuit of personal happiness.
Speaking of happiness (or should I say the lack of happiness), another disturbing trend I see is so pervasive that it is called the crisis next door: the opioid epidemic. According to the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), over 300,000 Americans have died from it since 2000. The economic cost in one year is estimated to be over $500 billion, or 2.8 percent of the GDP. To put this into perspective, to remedy one problem, it is costing us more than the US government spends on all welfare assistance for over 50 million Americans.
The debate over what is causing this opioid crisis will continue but two causes seem to stand out the most: despair and availability.
Regarding despair, who cannot identify with despair? Whether it's social or financial despair, there are many who cannot manage the stress and pressure. I believe promoting philosophy in schools can be an answer to relieving much of that stress and pressure. In ancient times, Greek and Roman parents sent their aspiring young sons to philosophers teaching them how to handle everyday challenges. They focused on how to deal with strong emotions and presented strategies on how to subdue them. These young men would then be more prepared and able to take on roles of public service assigned to them.
For some reason, this practice of formally teaching children how to overcome emotions has gone away and this responsibility has largely been transferred to the parents. Sounds reasonable until you consider that in over 60 percent of American households, both parents work for a living. So the chances of their children receiving proper life instruction outside of their television or mobile phone screens seem worse than in ancient Rome or Greece.
Regarding availability, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated, "Sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, but there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain Americans report [emphasis added]." And according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), at least 20 percent of patients with opioid prescriptions abuse them.
Now imagine if we can have a marketing campaign on philosophy just as effective as the ones put out by pharmaceutical companies. Aimed at young and old alike, philosophy would be on the minds of people seeking a different way of living. Philosophy certainly doesn't numb the mind to make the pain go away but it does activate the mind to prevent someone from abusing (or possibly even using) drugs in the first place. Therefore, let's make learning philosophy available and accessible as much as drugs, and provide people with more options to manage life's problems.
Of course I have considered the real physical pains people deal with in my thoughts today. Prescriptions for physical pain relief, including depression, will always be needed. But the matter of abusing them is a psychological condition that philosophy is adeptly designed for.
I have also considered young people needing to go through the natural process of maturity. Overcoming emotions takes much practice and experience. There is no way around that. Young people will inevitably have to go through life's stages in order to mature. But by teaching them philosophy and thus presenting to them smart, effective methods on how to tackle everyday issues, such as strong emotions, they don't necessarily have to experience hardships to learn and grow. They would be more prepared, which increases their chances of success.
Likewise, the philosophy of Sun Tzu's Art of War with good guidance provides students, young and old, time-tested methods on how to handle everyday conflict, a source of pain for many people. By learning how to plan out a strategy to resolve differences that are causing that conflict, people have a better chance of making that pain go away. This kind of education promotes better relationships at home and at work. This kind of education promotes a society where more people are able to function and contribute to a greater good, as we were born to do.
Thank you for reading my blog today. I will see you again real soon.
Yesterday I discussed Sun Tzu's near obsession with the avoidance of anger in The Art of War such that it seems to indicate his own past problems with anger. This is similar to why veterans who have seen the horrors of war firsthand are usually the biggest doves. In every sense, I believe this is the admirable human drive for redemption.
Avoiding something isn't only a matter of being sick of something or having had too much of something, but is also coming to our senses and finally seeing a path that is closer to where we want to be. We can see the bigger picture of the world and it's clearer, too. This is the very process of learning and maturing.
To Sun Tzu, this accumulation of learning and maturing translates to practicality and effectiveness. It gives us strength, which in turn gives us the power to make things happen for ourselves and for the people around us. When someone has strength, he or she can't help but exude it. For example, Sun Tzu advised the military leader:
"Do not do battle with well ordered flags; do not do battle with well-regulated formations." Sun Tzu
Here, Sun Tzu is referring to the opposition's army strength indicated by its impressive well-ordered flags and well-regulated formations. A trained and disciplined army is a formidable army.
But sometimes, strength is much more subtle. It can even be the opposite of what people expect. An enemy's display of anger and aggression, for instance, seems to project strength but we know it's quite the contrary, as explained by Sun Tzu in Chapter Nine (Army Maneuvers):
"If he speaks belligerently and advances aggressively, he will retreat." Sun Tzu
Conversely, if the opposition is calm, it doesn't mean he or she is weak but in actuality might be in a position of great strength (also found in Chapter Nine):
"If the enemy is close and remains quiet, he occupies a natural stronghold." Sun Tzu
And right between the two verses described above from Chapter Nine, Sun Tzu speaks about humbleness:
"If he speaks humbly, but increases warfare readiness, he will advance." Sun Tzu
Humbleness, like calmness, indicates someone being in control and not in a state of extreme emotion. Humbleness prevents someone from making rash decisions. He or she is cautious and prudent.
Being cautious and prudent is a mindset prized by Sun Tzu because the chances of making a costly mistake in war are greatly reduced. Since this mindset is from the objective of defense, one can achieve invincibility:
"Those skilled in warfare can make themselves invincible, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be vulnerable. Therefore it is said one may know how to win but cannot necessarily do it." Sun Tzu
Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching states that skilled warriors are so averse to making mistakes that "their wariness was as that of one crossing a river in winter; their caution was as that of one in fear of all around." This approach preserves our strength, especially in war and conflicts where one bad move can jeopardize people's lives and livelihoods.
Because Sun Tzu believes humbleness is a trait of strength, he even feels the need to convert the opposition's emotional state from being humble to being arrogant in order to shift the balance of power:
"If they are humble, make them haughty; if they are relaxed, toil them; if they are united, separate them." Sun Tzu
It is apparent here that Sun Tzu is trying to move the enemy from a position of strength to a position of weakness: from humbleness to arrogance, from relaxation to exhaustion, from unity to separation.
Further corroboration of the value of humbleness can be found in the following story from The Masters of Huainan (literally The Writings of the Masters South of the Huai, otherwise known as Huainanzi):
When the state of Jin marched on the state of Chu, the grandees of Chu asked the king to attack, but the king said, “Jin did not attack us during the reign of our former king; now that Jin is attacking us during my reign, it must be my fault. What can be done for this disgrace?”
The Jin army invaders above didn't retreat only because of an ideal or morality. They retreated also for pragmatic purposes because they suddenly became aware of the strong leadership present in the state of Chu, as evidenced by all the leaders' exemplary humbleness. It was obvious to them that Chu's leaders must be of sound mind; they can see reality clearly. Ultimately, it means Chu is capable of creating sound strategies appropriate to successfully defend Jin's attack. Thus, Jin made the right decision to go back home.
If Jin didn't have the wisdom to determine Chu's true strength and instead attack and somehow manage to occupy Chu, it would still be at a tremendous cost. The Masters of Huainan states:
The Martial Lord of Wei asked one of his ministers what had caused the destruction of a certain nation-state. The minister said, “Repeated victories in repeated wars.”
This is exactly why Sun Tzu said the highest excellence isn't winning 100 battles but to win without fighting at all. The goal isn't to simply win battles because battles are costly. In business terms, battles produce a poor return for our investment. The Tao Te Ching puts it more dramatically: "When you win a war, you celebrate by mourning."
Sun Tzu's aim is to prevail with All-Under-Heaven intact, especially since losses of our enemy don't always translate to gains on our side. This is true victory. Sun Tzu's aim, as confirmed by The Masters of Huainan story above, prevents not only the unnecessary destruction of our enemy but also the weakening and erosion of ourselves.
One way we can gain consistently is to learn from our past mistakes because we would prevent future losses. To act like this, like how the king and ministers of Chu acted, we must remove our enlarged ego that has been obstructing our view of the world that is much bigger and clearer than we think it is. Without seeing the possibility of our fallibility, we won't have the foresight to actively solve problems when they are still small and manageable.
In essence, being humble is a redeeming quality that makes us want to change our behavior for the better. And if we can improve on our behavior, we can become stronger and become capable in both defense and attack. We would have no enemies under Heaven, balance would be restored, and everyone can go home in peace. This is the world in its natural calm and humble state.
On the subject of war, it is no surprise that Sun Tzu warned us about the dangerous consequences of anger. In fact, Sun Tzu seems so troubled by anger that he mentions it throughout The Art of War:
"If they are angry, disturb them" (Chapter One)
"If the general cannot control his temper and sends troops to swarm the walls, one third of them will be killed, and the city will still not be taken. This is the kind of calamity when laying siege to a walled city." (Chapter Three)
"He who is quick tempered can be insulted." (Chapter Eight)
"If he gives out punishments frequently, he is dire straits. If he is brutal at first, and then fears the masses, he is the extreme of ineptitude." (Chapter Nine)
"If the officers are angry and insubordinate, doing battle with the enemy under anger and insubordination, and the general does not know their abilities, this is called collapse." (Chapter Ten)
"The ruler may not move his army out of anger; the general may not do battle out of wrath." Sun Tzu (Chapter Twelve)
"Those angry will be happy again, and those wrathful will be cheerful again, but a destroyed nation cannot exist again, the dead cannot be brought back to life." (Chapter Twelve)
What can we take away from Sun Tzu's emphasis on anger?
First, it would seem Sun Tzu believes that anger is a powerful emotion. If anger wasn't a common problem for leaders, he wouldn't mention it at all. But since he mentioned anger numerous times, we can surmise Sun Tzu had personally seen the devastation that it has caused. I can't help but think it is personal to Sun Tzu because he had made tragic mistakes due to his own unsuccessful battles with anger in the past.
Second, Sun Tzu believes that anger is temporary. To make decisions that are permanent for a temporary condition isn't very wise. Thus, he reminds us over and over to be cautious and prudent. There is no need to rush. Whatever gains we might have missed will come back again, but what we would lose due to anger will never come back.
Third, by paying attention to our current emotional state and the emotional states of others, Sun Tzu shows us that we can minimize anger's effects and even control and benefit from it:
"Killing the enemy is a matter of arousing anger in men; taking the enemy's wealth is a matter of reward. Therefore, in chariot battles, reward the first to capture at least ten chariots." (Chapter Two)
"If his troops confront you with anger, but do not do battle or leave their position, he must be investigated." (Chapter Nine)
"Adaptations to the nine grounds, the advantages in defensive and offensive maneuvers, and the patterns of human emotions must be examined." (Chapter Eleven)
Instead of being angry, how can one behave? In addition to being "wise, trustworthy, benevolent, brave, and disciplined," Sun Tzu defined further the traits that combat anger:
"It is important for a general to be calm and remote, upright and disciplined." (Chapter Eleven)
But of course this is easier said than done! What is unrealistic is believing you cannot ever feel angry. Even sages feel anger at times. The difference, however, is how quickly and effectively someone defeats anger when it appears.
Sages are like Sun Tzu when it comes to dealing with extreme emotions. They take on these enemies with great seriousness. And it is all-out war with menacing emotions like anger. As Sun Tzu said, we cannot depend on the enemy never attacking us but for us to always be prepared for its attack at any time. One such sage is Plato. Below Seneca the Younger recounted how Plato handled one bout of anger:
"Plato, when angry with his slave, could not prevail upon himself to wait, but straightway ordered him to take off his shirt and present his shoulders to the blows which he meant to give him with his own hand: then, when he perceived that he was angry, he stopped the hand which he had raised in the air, and stood like one in act to strike. Being asked by a friend who happened to come in, what he was doing, he answered: 'I am making an angry man expiate his crime.' He retained the posture of one about to give way to passion, as if struck with astonishment at its being so degrading to a philosopher, forgetting the slave, because he had found another still more deserving of punishment. He therefore denied himself the exercise of authority over his own household, and once, being rather angry at some fault, said, 'Speusippus, will you please to correct that slave with stripes; for I am in a rage.' He would not strike him, for the very reason for which another man would have struck him. 'I am in a rage,' said he; 'I should beat him more than I ought: I should take more pleasure than I ought in doing so: let not that slave fall into the power of one who is not in his own power.'"
As you see from the story above, the great Plato, author of the masterpiece The Republic, was almost defeated by anger. It took a simple but uncommon act of paying attention to his condition that he recused himself from the situation and asked his friend Speusippus for his assistance. He was capable of being aware of his incapability.
Sun Tzu was also aware of his incapability when facing a walled city. Anger is like conquering a walled city. It is formidable. Underestimate and take it for granted at your own peril.
But anger can be conquered. In order to take on anger, like in a walled the city, we must muster up enough strength. Sun Tzu advised us to take the time and diligence to build strength:
"Laying siege to a city is only done when other options are not available. To build protective shields, armored wagons, and make ready other arms and equipment will require at least three months. To build earthen mounds against the walls will require another three months." (Chapter Three)
Being strategic like Sun Tzu, we too can utilize time to conquer anger. Count to ten. Sleep on it. Keep busy doing something productive, such as cleaning the house. Listen to music. Do whatever it takes to divert your mind away from the matter at hand when you find anger getting an upper hand. Time can serve as a valuable ally. Sun Tzu knew the importance of timing in success, and we can all learn from that.
Let's not forget about diligence. A wise person can consistently defeat anger because he or she had plenty of practice, having underwent a "winter's training" as Epictetus would say.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe that Sun Tzu has the wisdom to warn us about anger not because he never felt anger in his life. He likely made horrible mistakes due to anger and had profoundly learned from them. What is more important was his diligence in making sure not to make the same mistakes again.
The Art of War translator Dr. Thomas Cleary tells a story about a samurai candidate up for a promotion and the elders of the clan were discussing among themselves whether it would be a wise decision to promote him. One elder reminds the group that this particular samurai made a bad mistake in the past, and it would be dangerous to promote him. But another elder responded by saying what is truly dangerous is a warrior who never made a bad mistake and is due to make one in the future.
Therefore, don't let the past hinder your future progress. Be cautious and prudent but be not afraid to survey a difficult problem -- push forward to build strength by putting in the hard work to create a sound strategy to match.
Building strength is a virtuous cycle if you decide to not let strong emotions like anger overpower you. You know anger's weakness of being temporary, and so you can employ time to vanquish it. I hope in its place you then have more time and space for tranquility, even joy. And what a joy it is for you to be here with me today at Sonshi.com. I appreciate your stopping by and learning along with me Sun Tzu's wisdom.
Today I was reading an Art of War edition written and interpreted by Chinese general Tao Hanzhang. He was the chief of staff of the army during the Chinese Civil War and later served as provost in the North China Military and Political College. He was also an adviser at the Beijing Institute for International Strategic Studies. He was both a soldier and an academic, a rare and wonderful combination.
Because he wrote about and taught Sun Tzu's Art of War, you would be correct to think Gen. Tao views Sun Tzu favorably. His book offers numerous accounts from Chinese history to support his arguments. I say arguments not in the sense they were controversial -- his interpretations were grounded, perhaps even mundane -- but rather they are those from a hardened individual who was a product of his specific time and place.
For example, although Gen. Tao was an ardent supporter of Sun Tzu and his wisdom, which he demonstrated throughout much of the book, he did manage to offer a few critiques. One was how he thought Sun Tzu seemed to look down upon laboring people when Sun Tzu said to kick away the ladder behind soldiers and to move them to and fro like a shepherd herding sheep.
In his second critique Gen. Tao concluded that Sun Tzu's principle, "There are occasions when the commands of the sovereign need not be obeyed" is obsolete. He argued that since war is a part of politics, "[this principle] often causes irremediable damage to the nation if long-term and overall interests of the state are given up for the sake of local interests in the battlefield."
It would seem Gen. Tao was trying to balance his admiration for Sun Tzu with a rather brief, almost half-hearted attempt to appear less zealous. I respect that attempt, but they don't hold up when we consider three concepts from The Art of War itself.
First, in Chapter One, Sun Tzu right off the bat mentions the Tao or the Way, where the general and the people are aligned. The interests of the people are what gives someone political power. So if both the general and the people are aligned, it would only mean the ruler would be out of touch if he and the general disagree. If the ruler is out of touch, then his commands can, should, and must be ignored. What happened to the Jewish people in Europe during World War II is one devastating example.
Second, in Chapter Three, Sun Tzu explained at relative length how a ruler who erroneously administers the army like he administers civil matters can bring trouble and disaster onto the battlefield. When this happens, how could this possibility serve the nation well in the long-term? Today, over 60 years later, the Vietnam War is a disturbing reminder of this failure for not only the 58,220 American soldiers who died fighting far away from their homes but also the uncountable millions of Vietnamese who perished on both sides.
Third, in Chapter Twelve, Sun Tzu speaks to the possibility that leaders themselves can make horrendous, irreversible mistakes. Sun Tzu was obsessed with being cautious when wielding the instruments of warfare, and for good reason:
"The ruler may not move his army out of anger; the general may not do battle out of wrath. If it is advantageous, move; if it is not advantageous, stop. Those angry will be happy again, and those wrathful will be cheerful again, but a destroyed nation cannot exist again, the dead cannot be brought back to life." Sun Tzu
Therefore, what is truly obsolete is the notion that a leader's decision is infallible, like it comes from the Heavens, such that others, like a military general, cannot help but obey.
However, from Sun Tzu's perspective, the military leader's job is just as crucial, if not more so, because in his hands are the lives of hundreds of thousands. And in modern times, it has meant the lives of millions.
"The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure." Sun Tzu
As such, it is the duty of the upright military general to convince and persuade the civilian leader, and only failing that, to disobey in its execution for the benefit of the nation. The former is the preferred objective, and the latter is the deliberate choice between a rock and a hard place.
Let's now take a look at the verse in Chapter One where Sun Tzu mentions if the general follows his principles and applies them, he will prevail so keep him, and if not, dismiss him. Because of the arrangement of the Chinese characters, another plausible translation of that verse is if the ruler follows his principles and applies them, he will stay, and if not, he will leave. "He" leaving or staying here is Sun Tzu himself!
Some translators and commentators are so taken aback by Sun Tzu's impudence here that they believe this can't be possible. However, from my analysis of Sun Tzu's character, his integrity, confidence, and strength are beyond reproach, and so I believe his bold stance is indeed a possibility -- especially for a general who would have the fortitude to disobey a ruler's command.
Interestingly enough, if the ruler and the general don't see eye to eye in the first place, a general like Sun Tzu would not be around to assist in the ruler's objectives, much less be around to disobey commands. In this situation, it would seem leaders aren't put in leadership positions, and so what you have is a situation that lacks leadership. What you have is a bunch of yes-people incapable of thinking for themselves. Have you ever experienced that in the corporate world?
Furthermore, Sun Tzu disobeying an order isn't about being audacious or even about being "right," but about fervently subscribing to wisdom and sound judgement that are grounded on benefiting society. He believes that an order that lacks reason, and thus does great harm to others, is an order to be ignored.
Imagine how beneficial it is in our society to have wise and thinking people in leadership positions who can determine the fate of so many. They would be a treasure worth keeping. We would want them to stay.
"Barn's burnt down --
Masahide's quote above captures well the idea of optimism. It is being positive even when there are things to be negative about. It isn't ignoring reality but focusing on the possibility, no matter how small, because nobody knows what the future holds. In short, it's very much the act of living, and that is to choose our path instead of allowing outside forces to choose it for us.
One reason why I am always enthusiastic about Sun Tzu and his wisdom is that I am by nature optimistic. Perhaps it's reading too many Zig Ziglar books growing up. Whatever the case, I tend to be confident and hopeful that things will work out in the future. When I am armed with Sun Tzu's practical strategies, I have a more tangible reason to be confident and hopeful.
Since youth, my confidence and hope depended upon a tremendous amount of preparation. In school, I wanted a deadline date that is far off, not because I wanted to wait, but I wanted to have more time refining and perfecting my work before the teacher sees it. Needless to say, the grades I received would make any Asian parent happy. Maybe.
There were numerous instances when I would forget to eat and lose track of time completely. That continues to this day. Part of that is because I enjoy working, and part of that is because I want the satisfaction of achieving something outstanding. Overall, the harder I work, the more confident and hopeful I get.
Going back to the quote above, Mizuta Masahide had every right to feel discouraged after his barn burned down. But as a warrior, he understood that strength lies not in things but in people, namely within himself. To still not forget our heavenly gift despite misfortune is analogous to maintaining a small beachhead despite an enemy attack to later build upon. With time and diligence, one can imagine the progress that can be made from a seemingly humble beginning.
With optimism, we give it the old college try against the odds. And should we fail, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, "at least [we fail] while daring greatly, so that [our] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Too often what we call realistic or reasonable is really our doubt taking hold. In much of life, especially with many people involved, there are simply too many variables to account to truly determine failure or success in the future. And so logically we choose not to make a decision at all. Doubt causes us to stop working. And stop working is something I can't imagine myself doing.
Of course Masahide isn't the only warrior who's optimistic. I would argue there is another warrior with plenty of optimism, even in the midst of considerable danger and concern:
"The day the general leads his troops into battle, it is like climbing up high and throwing away the ladder. He leads his troops deep into enemy ground, and releases the trigger. He burns his boats and destroys the cooking pots." Sun Tzu
Or how about this one:
"Get them to face danger, but do not reveal the advantages. Throw them into danger and they will survive; put them on deadly ground and they will live. Only if the troops are in situations of danger will they turn defeat into victory." Sun Tzu
What gives Sun Tzu such confidence and hope that his soldiers will survive and achieve victory? It could be based on past experience. But it is more to do with knowing his army, the enemy's army, and the environment they engage in.
Sun Tzu's thorough preparation allows him to place his soldiers in the best possible advantageous position to achieve success. Business leaders can learn from this lesson. If they aren't constantly setting the stage for their team to do great work, then they aren't doing their jobs.
Notice Sun Tzu doesn't depend on superstars to produce the results he seeks. He depended upon rather ordinary soldiers to produce extraordinary results, thanks to the strategy he conceived. Strategy leverages limited resources and enables the leader to calculate if they are sufficient for success.
However, as much as Sun Tzu emphasized doing many calculations and ensuring no miscalculations are made to make certain of victory, it would seem implausible he wasn't at all concerned about how the battle would turn out. Leaders who treat their people like their own beloved children would always be concerned, no matter how certain they feel. So without optimism, and letting doubts set in, Sun Tzu couldn't logically "release the trigger." He would pack his bags and go home. Yet he stayed and pushed his troops forward.
Furthermore, if we believe Sun Tzu lived in the real world, we would also have to believe he knew there are no guarantees in life. Except death and taxes. But victory isn't one of them. Anything that can happen might (or will) happen. Failing to calculate an unknown factor is a possibility. That factor contributing to defeat is a possibility. Sound strategy can only assure our success in the long run; the chances of making costly mistakes in the short-term, in one battle, are significantly greater.
Yet throughout The Art of War, Sun Tzu expresses complete certainty:
"No miscalculations mean the victories are certain, achieving victory over those who have already lost." Sun Tzu
"I know who will win and who will lose. A general who listens to my principles, and applies them, will surely be victorious; keep him. A general who does not listen to my principles, and does not apply them, will surely be defeated; remove him." Sun Tzu
How could that be if Sun Tzu was a realist, never mind a pessimist? He would use more moderating words. It simply doesn't make sense -- unless Sun Tzu was indeed an optimist.
Therefore, Sun Tzu's principles don't run counter to optimism -- they run beside and parallel to it. They complement it.
This complementary mix then demands that along with our optimism we must do the hard work to plan and prepare. Things will likely go well but there will be unforeseen setbacks, which we will learn from as we move forward. No matter what, we must not stop being proactive.
So if we continue on our mission, our gains will outnumber our losses. In baseball as in life, going home most of the time would be considered an extraordinary accomplishment. And in warfare as in life, going home at all would be considered an even greater accomplishment.
"One who is skilled in warfare principles subdues the enemy without doing battle, takes the enemy's walled city without attacking, and overthrows the enemy quickly, without protracted warfare. His aim must be to take All-Under-Heaven intact." Sun Tzu
Was Sun Tzu a pacifist? The likely answer is more nuanced, and would depend on what the exact definition of "pacifist" is.
So let's start with a definition of pacifist: holding the belief that war and violence are unjustifiable.
If that is the definition then Sun Tzu straight away isn't a pacifist. Although his goal is to win without fighting, he has explained in several chapters on what to do in times of battle. To Sun Tzu, war isn't the only response, not even a preferred response, but it is a cautious and begrudging option. Thus, he certainly believes that war at times is justifiable.
Yet Sun Tzu was no war monger. The overall impression of The Art of War is a guide of what to do when provoked or in danger. It isn't a book about using war for gratuitous gain. In the very first verse, Sun Tzu said, "[War] is the way to survival or to destruction," which strongly suggests a defensive objective due to an aggressive enemy.
What might confuse some Sun Tzu students is that although the objective is to defend and preserve, Sun Tzu's strategies call for the leader to be extremely proactive, to take the initiative, and be very much on the offense. To quote an old cliche -- the best defense is a good offense -- would be appropriate here. Anybody who has ever implemented this strategy, or be on the other side, would know how effective it truly is.
Epictetus, a philosopher of the highest order, states that it would be shameful that a person doesn't attack an enemy approaching. An image he gives is a bull rushing toward an attacking lion to defend his herd. The bull somehow understands his capability as well as his duty.
Likewise, for an individual, he or she must have the capability and the gumption to attack in order to defend in times of need. This doesn't happen overnight. It takes a winter's training and the confidence to take action. Those who cannot are not only incapable of harming, but also incapable of helping.
Therefore, an effective leader isn't only someone who is kind but also has the ability to protect, promote, and make things happen. Do not be like those who are only strong in good times but wither in bad times. Anybody can do that.
Leaders are strong at all times because they understand nothing stops their noble response and noble behavior, even during great hardship or abundance, when the average person would be discouraged or arrogant. Thus perhaps it would not be helpful to label anyone a pacifist or a war hawk but rather see how he or she acts in times of trouble and success.
For years I have expounded that Sun Tzu's Art of War is really the Art of Peace. They are one and the same. Why? Because conflict, disagreements, and yes, even fighting are a part of life. To be able to handle them with aplomb is what a person needs to truly practice the Art of Peace.
This is analogous to a doctor who specializes in cancer treatment. Nobody can claim he or she promotes cancer just because he or she writes about cancer. That is exactly Sun Tzu's situation when it comes to warfare.
You don't want to go to people who merely speak of peace all the time. They tend to have a habit of avoiding conflicts instead of bravely facing them and gaining the hard but beneficial experience of resolving them. Instead, you want to go to a person who has vast experience in solving real-life problems and asking him or her how he or she did it.
Practical wisdom that Sun Tzu offers takes on reality instead of only focusing on the ideal. One cannot reach the ideal without first fixing what needs fixing. It takes great courage. I believe such high level of courage originates from a high source, which interestingly enough, is present in your heart and mind since the moment you were born.
Take a look at the two ancient Chinese characters at the top of today's blog entry. They represent "Sun Tzu." You can clearly see two individuals reaching up to the heavens. The first character shows a person reaching up to the heavens holding a weapon. The second character shows a person reaching up to the heavens without a weapon. They are in war and in peace, yet both characters exude benevolence.
Now take a look at the peace symbol, ☮. It is a symbol of significant importance, an ideal that's in alignment with Sun Tzu. That's why we acquired the domain name ☮.com. Gerald Holtom, the creator of ☮, later in life wanted the symbol inverted. To him, it is a more uplifting symbol, a symbol of hope and triumph.
This is very interesting, since an inverted ☮ looks very much like the image found in the two ancient Chinese characters of Sun Tzu. Is this not a divine revelation? Perhaps.
In every matter, you can strive to seek out the divine path, because the divine path is the wisest path. It would click. It is where epiphanies come from. It is what sound strategies are made of. It is acting with great wisdom -- whether in war or in peace -- where everyone around you would all be better off because you exist in the world.
General Samuel Griffith recounted in his Art of War book published in 1963 the story of Minamoto Yoshitsune, a famed strategist and military commander from 12th century AD Japan:
Even at the age of eleven Minamoto Yoshitsune made a vow to restore his clan to its former exalted position. The monks entrusted with his education found this youth 'a listless and unpromising pupil when they tried to drill him in the Sutras.' The abbot discovered that there was 'only one way of keeping him out of mischief and this was to read Sonshi [Sun Tzu], the great Chinese military classic, and such works to him. Then he was all attention.'
Griffith's mention of Sonshi in his book was how Sonshi.com got its name. Much like young Minamoto Yoshitsune's experience, the words that Sun Tzu wrote eventually resonated with me so completely that I wanted to go out and share my enthusiasm with everyone through my own writing on the World Wide Web back in 1999.
My writing on the Web later led to a book. As mentioned in the last blog post, Sonshi.com celebrated the 10th anniversary of our Art of War book, "The Art of War -- Spirituality for Conflict" published on March 1, 2008.
During its production, I can still remember my editor Mark Ogilbee telling me the publisher reviewed my writing and was impressed by it. That apparently was a huge compliment since (1) he knows many outstanding authors and (2) he was rather stoic, not the sort of person who praises others.
Frankly, I never thought my writing to be all that great. My secret is simply I write as I speak in business: to be clear and to be understood easily. Miscommunication causes many problems and I want to prevent them as much as possible.
I'll let you in on another secret. When I was a freshman at the University of Washington in Seattle, my writing was so bad that the professor had to sit me down and explain to me basic grammar rules.
It wasn't always like that though. As far back as elementary school, I was writing full stories. I loved to write. However, as I grew up, I wrote significantly less. Other things were of greater concern. Like cars and girls. So the less I wrote, the worse I got.
Fortunately, as I progressed in college, I wrote more. Pretty soon I was back on track. After graduation, it was on to working in companies and communicating clearly via memos and emails. There was no excuse for not being professional because the efficiency and effectiveness of projects depended upon it.
Nowadays, I write because I want to share with others my experiences, not necessarily to get things done. I want to share with you what I saw or learned. That means, then, that I must possess experience or knowledge worth sharing with you, even if it's only for entertainment value. At the very least, it forces me to constantly step out of my comfort zone.
Therefore, if I stop writing, I have stopped learning, improving, appreciating. That's just not me. It's not the life I want to lead, either for myself or for others. My goal is to write such that even a listless Minamoto Yoshitsune (like me) would be "all attention." That was the skill of Sun Tzu's writing.
So I will strive and continue to write, hopefully as often as I can.
"A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song." Chinese proverb