Sun Tzu


Derek, I am currently reading Sun Tzu, and I am wondering how it is connected to the Tao. I think the title “The Art of War” may be an important clue, because the Tao is all about the art of living, and war is part of life. Am I on the right track?


Actually, the original title of the work, Sun Zi Bing Fa, means “Sun Tzu’s Military Principles.” There is nothing in it that can be translated as “art.” Thus, the title we all know so well today is actually a distortion created by early scholars.

This does not mean you are wrong to connect Sun Tzu to the Tao. The connection is real, and also quite profound. Although Sun Tzu seems to talk about the art of waging war, his ultimate message is actually the art of not fighting. He distills this essence in writing the following lines:

Therefore, a hundred victories in a hundred battles
Is not the best of the best
The military that can defeat others without battle
Is the best of the best

This resonates powerfully with Lao Tzu’s message, which is clearly expressed in chapter 30 of the Tao Te Ching:

The one who uses the Tao to advise the ruler
Does not dominate the world with soldiers
Such methods tend to be returned

The place where the troops camp
Thistles and thorns grow
Following the great army
There must be an inauspicious year

A good commander achieves result, then stops
And does not dare to reach for domination
Achieves result but does not brag
Achieves result but does not flaunt
Achieves result but is not arrogant
Achieves result but only out of necessity
Achieves result but does not dominate

…and also in chapter 31:

A strong military, a tool of misfortune
All things detest it
Therefore, those who possess the Tao avoid it
Honorable gentlemen, while at home, value the left
When deploying the military, value the right

The military is a tool of misfortune
Not the tool of honorable gentlemen
When using it out of necessity
Calm detachment should be above all
Victorious but without glory
Those who glorify
Are delighting in the killing
Those who delight in killing
Cannot achieve their ambitions upon the world

Both Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu are describing the warriors of the Tao – knights of honor who are as devastating in combat as they are reluctant to fight. They are the rare few who understand from studying the Tao that the most powerful weapon of all is not the instrument of warfare… but the hand of friendship.

Derek Lin
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