Notes on Deciphering Sun Tzu

Notes7 minutes

‪I’ve always enjoyed the poetics of ancient Chinese philosophy and by extension Zen Buddhism.‬ ‪Whereas friends just didn’t get The Art of War or Tao Te Ching, I found them obvious and favourable within the first page. Yet even though I’ve read these books repeatedly over two decades, I’ve never lived within these cultures, let alone even visited their countries. So my appreciation has been mostly for their poetics.

I’ve been doing a reading club on strategy for the past few months. We read books and pool notes on them. One book that has particularly stood out for me was “Deciphering Sun Tzu: How To Read ‘The Art Of War’” by Derek M. C. Yuen, which Ben Mosior gladly shared.

“Deciphering Sun Tzu” helped me understand the poetic paradoxes of ancient Chinese Philosophy as an alternative and coherent strategy to how we’ve been raised to think in Western society. Here’s a mutated summary of Ben’s notes, mostly for my own understanding.

From goals to consequences

The Western tradition of strategy is a means–end rational framework: it implies the use of certain means to achieve desired ends. Western thought assumes strategy to be causal, not consequential.

In contrast to Western strategic thought, the aphorisms of Chinese strategic thought may appear contradictory, even paradoxical. Our initial readings of Sun Tzu, et al. are more akin to reading poetry, which naturally lends itself to pondering metaphors, not checklists of action.

Indeed, pondering metaphor is the intent. Aphorisms of dual meaning are meant to help one understand the unforseeable nature of reality. By starting with “not knowing”, Chinese strategic thought begins at “the inherent potential of the situation (Shih) and to be carried along by it as it evolves.”

In Chinese thought, the end is impossible to predetermine (which is, strangley, the ultimate rational means-end insight). This means no plan can be worked out in advance. Instead, one can only understand consequences arising from conditions.

Opposed to the Western mode of the rational means–end efficacy, the Chinese mode can be described as paradoxical condition–consequence.

The condition–consequence mode teaches one not to aim directly, as a first-order goal, but to allow an effect to happen, as a second-order effect.

Conditions and effects

Condition-consequence is a process which transforms the situation by effects. This is markedly different from the means-end mode where a goal leads to direct action in order to achieve a result. There are subtle implications:

  • Conditions occur “upstream”. Like a fisherman paying attention to the weather, or a surfer to the waves, she won’t act without favourable conditions. Attention, patience and non-action become virtuous.

  • There are as many consequences as there are conditions. No two consequences will be alike. Outcomes are expected to be interchangeable.

Now we can understand how condition-consequence is manifested in “yin-yang” as a continuum of complementary opposites: Heaven-Earth, strong-weak, fast-slow, many-few.

The yin-yang dialectic embraces ever-changing reality: whatever is opposite is a complementary condition to be respected. Externalities are always included in Chinese Strategy.

The certainty of a result is taken far more lightly because “plans are easily disrupted. Increased certainty actually exacerbates this effect.”

Far from being two irreducible or even mutually exclusive states, yin and yang (or A and not-A) are two consecutive stages that are produced by the deployment of reality.

How to act

Given this understanding of condition-consequence as the mysterious unfolding reality of yin-yang, how then should one act?

A yin and a yang is what is called the Tao

The Tao is the uninterrupted interplay of yin and yang. Unifying their duality must happen before proceeding in The Way (Tao). This unification should be like water:

assisting the natural tendency is always preferable to opposing it as everything carries within itself its own seeds of destruction when it over extends.

The fundamental principle Of Tao is Returning: “return is the movement of Tao”. And the fundamental function of Tao is Yielding: “yielding is the practical application that effects the manifestation of return.”

Now we can understand the paradoxical poetry of Chinese strategic thought as a system that tries to keep inside the tempo of unfolding mysterious reality, and as a method of playing with the polarity of situations in order to deceive an opponent.

Thus, Chinese strategy is less a plan designed to achieve a predefined aim than a plan intended to outwit an opponent. By understanding and creating conditions, one allows reality to unfold in their favour.

Conditions which predominantly draw on human factors or irrationalities can be created for the defeat of an opponent. Thus, the Chinese strategem is to discover potential or propensity, encourage its impetus, pushing it to the extreme, and finally exploiting it when it reaches the tipping point.

In this way, “yielding” is essential because it prevents one from reaching the extreme prematurely. It also greatly enhances one’s chance to “out-flex” his opponent. As in the Chinese and Japanese martial arts, technique overcomes force. When you rush without technique, your force can be returned with ease.

We can now understand the paradoxes at play in ancient Chinese philosophy are in fact a method of penetrating the enormity of experiential understanding about the tempo of action:

Plot against the difficult while it remains easy,
Act against the great while it is still minute.
Difficult affairs throughout the realm invariably commence with the easy,
Great affairs throughout the realm inevitably commence with the small.
For this reason the Sage never acts against the great
and is thus able to complete greatness.
What is tranquil remains easily grasped,
What has not yet betrayed signs is easy to plot against.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

How to think

For learning, you gain daily; for the Way, you lose daily.

Within ancient Chinese strategy, learning concretises mental models, which are always simplified models of reality “thereby preventing reality from being grasped as it actually is.”

Thus, Tao stresses unlearning and not knowing, so as to see clearly. In this way, Tao resembles the Zen idea of “no mind”. (Zen Buddhism was originally influenced by Taoism but they are two different philosophies.)

Because “the essence of warfare is to betray its model”, when one has unlearned and keeps “no mind”, it becomes particularly difficult to anticipate one’s moves.

Again, the water metaphor helps to summarise the Tao philosophy: by being formless, one is endlessly adaptable, always open to potential. Your Shih is constantly replenished. And because potential always preceeds impetus, you can naturally find for yourself the right action under the right conditions.

By shedding dogma, by killing all your darlings, your mind can see clearly the opportunities right in front of you. You are not phased by finding problems you could never have foreseen because you know that is the natural order. You find the difference between your plans and what actually happens causes you no friction.

This is how "the weak defeats the strong” and how “striking second” are “the products of the organic structure of Chinese strategic thought.”

Propensity and impetus

Victories are won through propensity rather than force or actions.

Your strategy should recognise and assist natural propensity by encouraging its impetus. Just as a surfer waits for the right wave.

Never interfere with an enemy that is in the process of committing suicide.
Napoleon Bonaparte

In Chinese Strategy, the end is pre-determined. Like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects or Macbeth’s witches, great strategists know the future before it happens. More than simply “wait-and-see,” a great Chinese Strategist “foresees-and-waits.”

“Double, double toil and trouble,” the witches chant, casting their spell on their Macbeth’s propensity. To foresee the future, set the conditions for other actors to make their natural plays, avoid being meddlesome and instead wait for the tide of action to arise.

And when conditions have given way to consequences, and when it is obvious to everyone that a sacrifice must be made, act decisively once and for all.

In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breathes. Lord Takanobu said "If discrimination is long, it will spoil."
Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure