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Additional Essays

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. Boyce:

Whither Vincibility?

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 conquer.

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.                  Top of the page


From Barry C. Boyce:

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 cliches.

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:

          ...the victorious 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 advantageous.

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 of energies.

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.

Personal Discipline

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 general.

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:

             First, leap like a tiger.
             Second, crawl like a turtle.
             Third, 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 experience.

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.                                              Top of the page


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.'


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