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Chapter Excerpts

Here we will feature excerpts from various parts of The Art of War, replacing the current selections with new ones from time to time.

From the commentary section, Chapter III, (Page 142):

And so one skilled at employing the military
     Subdues the other's military but does not do battle,
     Uproots the other's walled city but does not attack,
     Destroys the other's state but does not prolong.
One must take it whole when contending for all-under-heaven.
Thus the military is not blunted and advantage can be whole.
This is the method of the strategy of attack.

        The first four lines summarize the chapter so far.

       Only with the strategy of taking whole will the general find complete victory. This means assuming the perspective of the whole at the outset of the campaign. Thus you keep your military intact, preserving both the advantage that leads to victory and the advantage that comes from victory.

       At times you may have to destroy the enemy's state. If so, do it quickly. There is no simple rule on this.

From the commentary section, Chapter IV (page 147):

Of old those skilled at defense hid below the nine earths 
     and moved above the nine heavens.
Thus they could preserve themselves and be all-victorious.

      Here the standard text has: "One skilled at defense hides below the nine earths; one skilled at attack moves above the nine heavens." This obscures the more powerful message of the bamboo text, which points instead to a defense not based in conflict.

     In the best defense, one goes outside the range of enemy insight, becoming ungraspable and thus unbeatable. Victory need not be achieved by will or devastation. The all-victorious general resides beyond defeat.

From the commentary section, Chapter V (page 155):    

Pwun-pwun. Hwun-hwun.
The fight is chaotic yet one is not subject to chaos.

Hwun-hwun. Dwun-dwun.
One’s form is round and one cannot be defeated.

      Pwun-hwun indicates tangled cords and the confusion of battle. Hwun-dwun is the word for a whole whose pieces cannot be individually identified. Roundness suggests completeness.

     In chaotic conditions the usual patterns, which constitute the orthodox world, are not discernible. One order has gone, and the next has not yet arisen. Chaos thus offers continual openings to someone who can perceive its deeper order.

     One’s form is round because all possibilities are included in it. One can respond without confusion to whatever emerges. Thus one cannot be defeated.

From the essay titled "Taking Whole" (pages 74-6):

Learning Shih

     Shih exists only moment to moment. But one can learn to recognize it and thereby act effectively. Although in some other military traditions, victory may be attributed to the commander’s will, a perfect battle plan or overwhelming weight of numbers, in the Sun Tzu it comes from mastery of shih. Like the squirrel crossing the stream, we need to measure the situation carefully, assess whether the water is placid or rushed, and if rushed, whether we are strong enough to cross. We also need the ability to assess it for its potential shih, as someone with a good eye knows which way water will flow through a range of hills, just from seeing the form of a valley and its surrounding spurs and ridges. Then we can determine where to place a dam in this landscape—seeing the simple and easy thing that changes the whole configuration.

     The Sun Tzu teaches us shih in many ways. Three are especially important. The first is using a short phrase to summarize a complex argument. We have already seen several examples of this: "And so one skilled at battle seeks it in shih and does not demand it of people." The text also uses this mode to teach us the larger view:

Taking a state whole is superior.
Destroying it is inferior to this.

     That passage continues with a generalization and then a set of further principles:

                                         Therefore, one hundred victories in one 
                                                    hundred battles is not the most skillful.
                                         Subduing the other’s military without battle 
                                                    is the most skillful.

                                         And so the superior military cuts down strategy.
                                         Its inferior cuts down alliances.
                                         Its inferior cuts down the military.
                                         The worst attacks walled cities. [Chapter 3]

These statements derive from a perspective that takes whole. If we didn’t know them from within that larger view, we’d think of them as no more than tangentially related individual insights.

     Second, the text teaches by metaphor and image: "The rush of water, to the point of tossing rocks about. This is shih." Shih is "like drawing the crossbow," "like rolling round rocks from a mountain one thousand jen high." These images remain with us, shaping our thought in ways we may not consciously recognize. Their power cannot be reproduced in linear prose.

     The third way of teaching shih is simply showing examples of it. Thus the text says things like "In crossing mountains, hold to the valleys," or "In crossing water, one must distance oneself from it" (chapter 9). We could read these initially as simple admonitions—in situation A do R. They are good advice from the front lines, simple and clean. More fundamentally, however, they express the world in terms of relationships. They describe what a circumstance looks like if we assume the view and what we would automatically do in response. Instead of enunciating these as principles, it instantiates them—gives us examples of them concretely embedded.

     Much of chapters 8 to 11 consists of this kind of information. Sometimes it’s presented as typologies of action. The nine grounds, for example, are nine types of terrain; a certain pattern of activity is appropriate to each. Much of the content seems rather obvious. These may in fact be the earliest strata of the text, with data arranged into groups of five or nine to facilitate memorization. But they are no less profound than the more conceptually complex chapters at the start of the book, for they derive from and express the same view.

     And they teach shih just as surely, steeping us in the examples until we intuit the relational view, entirely bypassing the concept-based training of other chapters. This is the way one learns Aikido or karate, working with the kata, or form-sequences, repeating them until they are second nature, or first nature. It’s also the way an oral tradition sustains a culture. Its maxims slip in under our consciousness, and their wisdom enters the mind-stream. This approach becomes problematic only when we try to reproduce the behavior of the maxims, instead of using them to trigger insight for the present circumstance.

     Through these forms of training, we come to experience the world differently. All the time the nature of things is being pointed out to us. From this we learn to act spontaneously and appropriately in any new situation.


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