Here we present some alternative essays by members of
the Denma Translation Group that were born with the writing of this book but are
represented in it only indirectly.
From Barry C.
The Denma Translation Group’s methods sometimes required us to consider
unconventional choices, which led us to search every reference book available
and to try on words as if they were clothing and walk around in them for awhile
to see if they fit and what kind of appearance they made. We weren’t
necessarily concerned with whether they were fashionable but more often we
wanted to find out whether they fit with the rest of the ensemble.
One of the guides we followed in translating was to try as much as possible
to use the same English word for a given Chinese word throughout. As noted in
the About the Translation section of the book, this would enable the
reader to have a more economical appreciation of the text. By adding fewer
words, we would, well, be adding fewer words.
Chinese syntax doesn't employ different word forms for substantives, verbs,
verbals, adjectives, and adverbs, as is usually the case in English. (For
example, creation, create, creating, creative, and creatively.) To make matters
even more challenging, where English would require a suffix or a prefix to
extend the meaning (such as createable), Chinese makes no such
requirements. Instead, Chinese may add a separate word to carry this meaning.
For example, the suffix –able would generally be represented in Chinese by the
separate word ke.
As noted, when we want to extend the meaning of a word in English, we can
often rely on a form that simply applies a suffix to the root word. For example,
for something that is able to be changed, we can say changeable. However,
it is not always so easy. Drinkable is often rendered as potable, eatable as
edible, sendable as deliverable and so forth. Considerable does not even mean
able to be considered.
Naturally, the word we translated as victory occurs many times throughout the
text, and when we encountered the usage of the term combined with the word
indicating ability (together translating as able-victory) and its opposite
(translating as not-able-victory), we had no easily available extension of the
English word victory. Neither victorable or unvictorable exists. So, the mind
(often aided by the thesaurus and dictionary) went to pairs like conquerable and
unconquerable, beatable and unbeatable, destructible and indestructible. The
second of these was too small in meaning and the last too narrow. Only the first
could really be considered, but even it added another idea and it strayed from
our use of the same word, victory. What to do?
For the notion of being able to achieve victory, we obviously came upon the
word invincible. While it had the slightly unfortunate aspect of being a
negatively expressed concept (i.e., victory as unable to be beaten), it had the
advantage of being a shorter word, and most alluring of all, it contained in it
the same Latin root as the root for the word victory, vincere, to
What of its opposite, able to be conquered? In Chinese the pair was quite
simply able-victory/not-able-victory. We very much wanted to preserve some of
that economy in the couplet. Laughingly, one of us said, "How about
vincible?" To check it out we turned to the Oxford English Dictionary and
conveniently it was there. Although none of us could remember having heard or
read the word, the lexicographers of the OED had not concluded that it was
obscure or archaic. At this point, the reading of the citations provided the
clincher. Who could not but be persuaded by a phrase such as "the
vincibility of first love" or the use of the word to play on the name of
the French military force, l’ Invicible? (See the excerpts below.)
We arrived at vincible/invincible in the early 90's and were quite happy with
ourselves. We felt at the time that readers, while likely as unfamiliar with
vincible as we were, could instantly derive its meaning from the couplets it
appeared in at the outset of Chapter 4, such as:
Invincibility lies in oneself.
Vincibility lies in the enemy.
Concerning whether anyone other than Latin scholars and those of a certain
age trained in a certain way would pick up that victory and vincibility were
cognates (born of the same root), some of us felt that in some hidden way the
thread might be felt. Perhaps it was the Churchillian V for victory bridging the
two, and after all were it not for the choices made by the regal and altogether
Churchillian OED, we might well have settled on beatable. Unlike Queen Victoria
(the very namesake of this concept), we were amused with our choice.
In any case, we thought that over time we could reconsider the choice, and
indeed we did, as we did every word, many, many, many times. By the end of the
nineties, it had stood the test of time and came fairly to ring in our ears. In
fact, it yielded one of the many couplets in this Sun Tzu version that resound
with lithic power:
Invincibility is defense.
Vincibility is attack.
Conquerability is attack? Not bloody likely.
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From Barry C.
Applying the Unconventional Power of the Sun Tzu to a Conventional World
What is the point of a text, after all? Some can entertain, some can educate,
some can amuse, some can serve as reference, and some texts can alter our view.
Certain kinds of deep texts, such as the Sun Tzu, can provide an ongoing
challenge to limited views of our experience and the limited actions that derive
from them. Such texts are not simply read, absorbed, and packed away for good.
They speak to us, and demand ongoing attention.
The Sun Tzu’s power as a deep text has been attested to by its mere
longevity, not to say by the many commentators it has attracted. Many deep texts
inculcate in us a view, but many also inspire and exhort us to conduct ourselves
in certain ways that arise from that view. They educate and elevate, but they
also train. The Sun Tzu is just such a text. The several short musings below
discuss first a few aspects of view within the Sun Tzu—namely, the overarching
notion of victory and the understanding of the dynamic flux in which we conduct
our affairs—and then what kind of discipline may be necessary to bring the
view we discover into the realm of our everyday affairs. To work with the view
without considering how it might inspire conduct is not much more than a parlor
game. To breeze over the view and race into applying injunctions
Little-Red-Book-style risks merely replicating conventional conduct and
affecting it with a sententious spin. Before long, profound phrases become
Just as the leaders of the Warring States period, we find ourselves in a
world of convention. The rules the world operates by cannot simply be flouted
with abandon. Jumping the queue may not put us ahead in the end. Indeed, if we
wish to accomplish anything in worldly affairs, we must exploit these very
conventions or be content to chip away at the margins. Yet, the conventions laid
before us constrain us in unfathomable ways. They demand to be distrusted. This
tension can pull at us on a daily basis: how do we work in the world without
completely buying into the shaky viewpoints that create it? The promise of the
Sun Tzu is just that. To subvert the very ground we walk on, while using it as a
stepping stone to a vaster ground.
What is Victory?
Most of human life is absorbed with getting someplace. Getting what you want.
Not getting what you don’t want. In everyday terms, we regard this as victory.
We’ve achieved a victory when we’ve extricated ourselves from a difficult
situation. We’ve achieved a victory when things get better in exactly the way
we would like them to get better.
With this kind of victory, we ride the roller coaster of the vicissitudes of
life and we mark our place in relation to what we think we want to happen. This
kind of victory is inherently limited and limiting. It is also a kind of victory
that seeks to manipulate the world and the people in it to our ends. It is
ultimately untenable and unsatisfying, because any supposed victory contains
within it the seeds of our next defeat. All in all, it is a game we use to make
the raw and naked business of life entertaining to us, in the hope we might
avoid its central features.
There is a greater sense of victory. It is possible that victory may be an
ongoing condition, rather than a temporary state of affairs defined in relation
to reversing an uncomfortable or undesirable situation that we find ourselves
in. The sense of victory expressed in here is evident in the lines from Chapter
4 of the Sun Tzu:
military is first victorious and after that does battle.
The defeated military first
does battle and after that seeks victory.
How is it possible, with our conventional understanding of victory, for the
victory to be obtained before the battle? Certainly, we can read this as merely
poetic diction, meaning merely to say that the general has so assured himself of
victory through planning and preparation that it is a foregone conclusion. While
this sense is implied in the Sun Tzu, a deeper sense may also be derived, namely
that victory is a condition of confidence, knowledge of affairs, and innate
curiosity, such that one knows what can be conquered, how, and when. This kind
of victory can be cultivated. It is precisely the opposite of the pre-defeated
mentality that believes that victory must be sought elsewhere, as the sum of a
series of battles. Such conventional victory is already being diminished the
moment it is attained.
The world perceived from the point of view of having victory over others,
rather than being in a state of confident victory, is essentially static. It
judges all conditions as to whether they present obstacles to what we want or
opportunities to obtain what we want. What we want is viewed as a stationary
condition. We persist in this kind of view in spite of abundant evidence to the
contrary, evidence that tells us for example that what we frequently think of as
having been "bad" has turned out to be "good." A simplistic
example would be thinking of being sick as being bad, when it may turn out that
the rest we took and the time out of the fray turned out to be highly
The sage commander cannot afford to operate with such a low view stuck
between polarities. Instead, it is innately understood that all conditions are
in flux. That a condition that exists now is in the process of changing. One
condition may be transformed into its opposite.
Advantage and disadvantage are vital, but they are viewed from a greater
perspective that always takes into account changing conditions. If one operates
with this larger view, panic and wishful thinking do not impede the conduct of
one’s affairs. The conditions as they present themselves are regarded as the
ground that must be operated within. Rationalizing or developing logics that
convince oneself that a condition is not what it appears are out of the
question. Reality is harsh and direct, yet because of its changeability it
always presents possibilities.
The flux also relates to people. Their energies fluctuate according to
certain patterns. After a win, for example, people tend to be elated and a
temporary surge of energy takes over, but soon that surge will be replaced with
genuine tiredness and a sense of remorse that now that the battle is over, the
thrill is gone and the toll has been paid—and must continue to be paid. This
time gives opportunities to the adversary. A force that seemed invincible may
suddenly be vulnerable (or "vincible" in the term used in this
translation), merely through the passage of time and the inevitable fluctuation
If one regards the world as static, its solidity will always fight against
you. Within the Sun Tzu, this point of view is never taken. Solid is only one
side of the equation, a part of the fluctuation. As Chapter 9 indicates:
Attain both hard and soft.
This is a pattern of earth.
The very earth itself tells us that both hard and soft are necessary. One is
not superior to the other and both intermingle. A tree is harder than mud, but
so much more supple than a rock, yet even a rock is soft when put in contact
with the appropriate weight.
The Sun Tzu could easily amount to a nifty set of ideas worthy of many
lengthy, late-night discussions and roundtable seminars. Yet, its truest value
is as a practical text. A training text for living in the world. If one utterly
renounces the world, perhaps it is not of much value, but even then one must
confront countless inner conflicts just as real and just as raging as war. One
of the great values of the military way of life lies in the rigors of its
training. As several people have noted, it is the closest thing to monasticism
that the regular world has to offer. Military life and training causes one to
give away certain habitual comfort zones that can easily inure one to the world’s
dynamism and its dangers. It inculcates a sensitivity to surroundings and an
ability to act in the midst of highly challenging and difficult situations. This
kind of ability has been called warriorship.
The Sun Tzu text naturally assumes this level of loyalty, devotion, and
training on the part of the military, officers in particular. Much of its
meaning is lost if it is applied absent any discipline of working with how one
conducts one’s mind and body and how one synchronizes the two. For example,
the notion of not prolonging is a key one in the Sun Tzu. One could easily
develop an ideology based on that or a little mantra, "Don’t prolong. Don’t
prolong." But if one actually engages in a contemplative discipline (such
as meditation or martial arts), particularly in a setting where there is
leadership and teaching, one could come to see how that prolonging operates in
very subtle ways in one’s body, in one’s very way of getting up in the
morning, in the way one glances as a conversation is about to end. In that way,
one works on a discipline that works from the inside out. You can come to
understand the principle in an essential way, so that when a challenging
situation tests the mettle of what you have learned, what you have absorbed into
your system, you are not left simply having a debate with yourself about whether
this situation amounts to prolonging or not.
A merely conceptual approach is in fact the antithesis of the spirit of the
training in Sun Tzu’s principles. It assumes that there is something to get.
If I just figure out the ideas, then I will be smarter, then I will have
dominance. The mastery can only be achieved through discipline; the text and the
training it implies are only handmaidens to that discipline. They are not ends
in themselves. The wisdom lies not in the books. Neither is it available ready
made in other masterly people. It must be drawn out of oneself through
discipline, aided with instruction and training. As is stated near the
conclusion of Chapter 1:
These are the victories of the military lineage.
They cannot be transmitted in advance.
Methods, Models, and Standards
The text emphasizes what could variously be glossed as methods, models, or
standards—such as the methods of dealing with various kinds of ground, the
model of the sage commander, or the standard of swiftness or non-prolonging. The
principle of working with such archetypes is vital in using the text to work
with ourselves and with others. Models are presented to us not as mere molds
that intend to replicate exactly what has been done by others. They are not
cookie cutters. This kind of rigidity results in the most oppressive kind of
training, the kind that gives us automatons. By contrast, operating without
models gives us dilettantes and self-stylists. Models instead give us something
to emulate, to bring our own unique experience to and to bring to the unique
ground we face. By working steadily and carefully with models, by living up to
standards that have been set for us, by applying methods that have been taught
to us, we can ultimately engage the world with real freedom and spontaneity.
If we are not inculcated through the use of models, we are much more likely
to speculate and to free-lance in our actions. Relying boldly on what we can
muster from our own resources, rather than relying on what has been inherited
and extending it further. To train well by using methods is not to say that
"There is only one way of doing things." It is to say, "Try this.
See what results." Then one can make the model one’s own and in the end
become the model or standard for others. This is the great achievement of the
A Contemplative Approach
Etymologically, contemplative comes from a root meaning "a place cut
off, a protected space." To approach a text contemplatively is to allow its
words and ideas to be worked with in an uninterrupted way. One traditional triad
for contemplating texts in the Buddhist tradition says:
leap like a tiger.
crawl like a turtle.
look back like a tiger seeing where he has leapt.
This enjoins us to be careful not to speculate too soon or too much, not to
immediately open an issue up to debate, or to fight with it. It means to simply
come to understand what is said, then see where and how that accords with
Further, a contemplative approach means not trying to decide a definitive and
final meaning. This reduces a text and its usefulness. It also tends to create
ideological camps that can spar with each other with little gain arising from
using the text. A text is tested by the mettle of experience. If what it has to
say can settle in one’s mind easily, as situations arise real truth can be
discovered. As one consistently takes what is contemplated, allows it to settle,
and mixes it with experience, one’s experience—from the inside out—begins
to be influenced. Ultimately, the text could be discarded. If one’s discards
it before plumbing the depths of what it has to say, however, the contemplation
has been too hasty and impatient. The greatest texts are worthy of a lifetime’s
worth of contemplation.
If one studies material such as the Sun Tzu outside of any discipline that
allows one to engage the world with care and circumspection, it can be like
playing with rather than wielding weaponry. Somebody will be needlessly hurt.
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From Grant MacLean:
'Sage Commander' or 'Commander Sage'?
It is well-known that good generalship demands highly-developed personal qualities. A near-contemporary of Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu pointed out that military action based on rage, greed or ambition breeds -- respectively -- defeat, destruction or extinction. Voltaire commented admiringly on the "cool heads" of the British in their battles with his countrymen. Lawrence of Arabia knew well, and wrote much, of the need for great qualities of intellect and intuition in the successful commander.
In the most exalted, such a person combines in him/herself the spiritual and psychological mastery of a sage with the military skills of an all-victorious warrior, a notion often understood by the world's military hierarchies, embraced by its religions, and reflected in such traditions as the Knights Templar and Japanese Bushido.
In the text, this person is talked of as the 'sage commander.' Although we could read this as an adjective qualifying a noun -- the 'wise general' -- it is best read as a binomial, or pair of nouns, in which the qualities of the sage and those of the commander are co-equal. In this sense it would be as accurate to talk of a 'commander sage' as a 'sage commander' -- a sage such as Mahatma Gandhi who, for all his emphasis on the techniques of absolute non-violence, often construed his campaigns in military terms, referring, for example, to the "weapon" of satyagraha, truth-force. Here the qualities of personal mastery and wisdom have been so seamlessly merged with those of military skill that it is unclear which face is being presented to the world.
An equally valid way of understanding the term is as nouns conjoined by hyphenation, as the 'sage-commander.'