Book Review: R. L. Wing's “The Art of Strategy” (1988)
Book Review: R. L. Wing's “The Art of Strategy” (1988), The great Sun Tzu classic also known as the Art of War.
A brief review of Asian Philosophy as it relates to the Art of War and what it means for a Martial Artist.
Sun Tzu's The Art of War, just the name itself is an icon. Thought to be a mystic manuscript or even sacred to many warriors and it has been translated and commented on for thousands of years, the Art of War is a book that most serious Martial Artists plan to understand. We often find quotes from Sun Tzu, in books or even rap songs, and there are so many versions of this book in print, in English alone, it can be hard to pick a version or quote that we can find practical use for. The Art of War is one of the few Asian Philosophies that average American will recognize by name, even if it is not seen as such. I would like to review a bit about Chinese religious philosophies so we have an anchor point when framing The Art of War.
When you try to look at Oriental philosophy and religion, you are often told to start with the three main tenets of Chinese ancient thought: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. There are many facets to Asian cultural and religious metaphysics, but these 3 will serve us here as a starting point. I will generalize, which is not the best, but I will try to be brief. Confucianism is about the customs and etiquette that allows the old and young to grow and pass on family values respectfully and for teacher and pupil to create a working benefit for eachother. It is not a religion but a set of rules for human behavior and ritual, more like a government code of procedures then a religion. Taoism is a mysterious notion of not being able to know the whole of the universe, or even to know God, because we are merely simple humans. It is represented in a book called the “Tao de Ching”, written by Lao Tzu as he left the cultured world and went into the mountains to be a hermit sage. The Tao is the great mystery that is life and nature. Buddhism can be seen as a bridge between the previous two, as it is rules and tricks to discover a glimpse of the Way referred to in the Tao de Ching. But that would only be a beginning point, for Confucianism could be a bridge between Tao and Buddha, or The Tao a bridge between everything else. This is what makes these three the foundation of how to dissect Asian theological and cultural context, they form a tripod and you can't really remove any of the legs.
For a martial artist looking at these concepts and a practical use for them in the Western world, it begins with etiquette. The bowing in, the titles, the earned rank but never over seniority, etc these are the order imposed upon the process. These strict Asian customs may not work for independent American's, but there needs to be a known set of parameters that automatically creates a safe and functional learning environment between warriors. A Martial Artist unravels chaos with in the person, and then between two fighters in training, so a grounding must be maintained with what Confucians refer to as familial piety. Sometimes the MA folks call it a Brotherhood, others call it a fellowship, but it is always a code of conduct or even written rules. It keeps things safe and keeps things mentally healthy. Then you have the great mystery of the universe, which is labeled the Tao, and which the human brain can not hope to fully comprehend in limits and words. It is. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a set of principles and “truths” to use as an anchor in this world, while you believe in the Way, and then koans and other methods to trick your existence into a state of Tao. It is a complicated paradox, and not the point of this article. The ending -do on Japanese Martial Arts refers to a Zen Buddhist approach, using the Tao de Ching as a study aid for the Journey.
My Sifu said it very well once in a seminar lecture about Asian Philosophy for Wing Tsun. He said, “You must suffer through Buddhism to become a Taoist.” I laughed because Buddhism is meant to be the end of suffering through non-attachment. But that is the riddle in most religions I guess. The simplest notion here is to expect that all things change, and so to move on in peace when they do. To not move on and to never let go is to suffer. Many people find this very difficult as they do not want to let it go or to get over it. People that find complete expression of this philosophy may find themselves happily homeless and living in a van down by the river, not caring that their teeth fell out or that they never finished college. Except change right? Don't fight against the Way. Non-Attachment right? Again this article is not about becoming a Buddhist, but as a point of reference. I will remind you that Buddha CAME BACK to live and to teach, and did not waste away in his state of nirvana. Moving on...Si-Fu Boztepe explained that to become the Tao you must try all kinds of things, force all kinds of training onto yourself and your own mind, but by trying, you go away from the Tao. The Tao just is, without effort. Much of Martial Arts training is truly suffering, it is painful, it leaves lasting injury, it is challenging. But it is also healing and growth for a human being. It is effort spent to become effortless.
If you train right, and someone attacks you, you fight. It should be effortless and automatic. BAM! You are a Taoist for that moment, actionless action. The fight just is, and you don't have time to think about it, you are it! Afterwards you might reflect on it, and see that maybe you did make decisions, take action, and so forth, but it was in some higher state of mind. Ah, but you are back to being a Buddhist again now, contemplating. This is the paradox again, to act, to think and plan, these are in contrast to the pure connection to the Universe the Mystics claim to be developing. However, as Sifu Boztepe put it, the training of Martial Art, with the pure focus of self defense, is a Buddhist or Tao building method. That is where the Art of War comes to play. It is about how to take Actionless Action.
The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, is one of the great classics of Taoism and also for the modern warrior. It is an ancient text from 2300 years ago, and it has centuries of commentaries to go with it. Western Military leaders began bringing it back to their own cultures over the last few 100 years and it was made popular in the 1980's as a business attitude aid. In 1973 a tomb in Asia was unearthed and within was found an original version, and though it is a war book, it truly should be called the Art of Strategy, or more perfectly, The Way of Strategy. You see, it doesn't need to be about war, it is about interaction with other humans. The other Taoist texts are about letting go, disconnection with human creations to focus inward. They are about isolation and no action. Buddhism is nearly the same way. But here in the Art of Strategy we have a plan for being a Taoist, and as a Taoist for working with-in the Way, to achieve harmony with others. Obviously we know that this can also mean War and Strife too, as humans are often violent and uncaring of others concerns.
R. L. Wing has taken these original volumes and translated them, one English word for each character. In this way we are not tied down to the military jargon in the commentaries of some general of a later time period, but instead we are giving a working base to expand to other pursuits. It is divided into 52 chapters over four sections, and she has put them together as a weekly workbook, allowing you to grow and study it over the course of a year. While it is still very much a military strategy book, by using a single word for each character, we are given the freedom to interpret it for our own means. Chinese characters can have certain flourishes or minor artistic elements that tell a reader the nuance of the word. We can not do that as well with words using letters. Translators can limit a poem or literary work if they choose the wrong word, because the word doesn't have many alternative meetings. For example a word translation for “vessel” might be carrier, or jar, or sailing ship. You can see that a jar would not have the same significance as a ship, and even the word carrier might mean something different to a Navy man, then it would to a infectious disease doctor. So it is in this way you need to imagine “chariots” and “flags” to mean practical things to your own life, like a business location or a brand trademark. It is written in such a way that you can do this.
Remember the difficulty in becoming a Taoist? How success sometimes leaves you down by the river living in a van. Well this Art of Strategy serves us as a tool for how to actually take action as a Taoist. The Tao de Ching is about the sublime mystery and Way, but leaves people feeling they can not act or conceive of anything as it would be against the Universe somehow. They are trying to ride along with the flow and harmony of nature. However Human Beings are creative, and We have freewill, so it should be our nature then to act and create. The Art of Strategy fills the roll to serve this purpose. It is an Instruction Book on how, when required, a Taoist sets about to make a change happen. Any work or business venture is a change, i.e. an action, so it needs a Strategy. Any relationship between two people or between you and a group of people needs a Strategy, especially with large organizations or political issues. Take note, the ultimate achievement in Sun Tzu's classic is the “achievement of triumph through tactical positioning, without resorting to battle.” This is the strategy we must take when acting or doing things.
R. L. Wing's version of the Art of War addresses the notion that we are warring with conflict. In our lives we face nonnegotiable conflicts and we must move or limit their impact, or we will have to lower our standards for success. Each chapter in this book begins with a reflection on 4 types of conflict: with the self, with the environment, with another, and among leaders. These help the reader approach the Art of War not just as mere battle planning in combat, but the reader can begin to plan and execute a strategy that accomplishes a goal. These might be personal or related to your livelihood, or it may be about how to talk with family members or co-workers, or just about how to adjust the relationship itself. R. L. Wing helps the reader open up to things from a new perspective with these 4 subject areas. The Conflict Among Leaders section looks at inter-organizational communication and conflict, which is best solved by planning and preparation so that the triumph is obvious and both entities are preserved. This is the essence of the Art of War, that when your action affects many other people, then your aim is to capture and convert the enemy and it's resources, not wantonly destroy them.
The Book is laid out in 13 chapters and 52 passages. Each of the 52 passages is meant to be studied for a week. It will take at least a year to start to implement all of the concepts in your life. Each week then is a challenge to address the passage as a thought puzzle. Reflect on the comments under each of the four conflict types and see if you can find a place to apply it. There are blank calendar boxes so you can ad the date and make notes on your observations. After a year, read the whole book again. The actual characters are written down one page as well, so it truly is the work with a translation.
I won't go into the meat of it any more then to say this. Sun Tzu saw actual combat and open warfare as losing. Victory on the battlefield was not enough, we needed to prevent the war with positioning and intelligence. This is what the strategy is focused on, harnessing all of your resources to achieve and mobilize success over obstacles and if possible, be converting the opposition into a resource itself.
Link to first few pages to see the quality in appearance and read some of R. L. Wing's translation:
Amazon.com: The Art of Strategy: A New Translation of Sun Tzu's Classic The Art of War (9780385237840): R.L. Wing: Books