Asian Philosophy 13: Strategy – Sunzi’s Art of War, Musashi & the Hagakure

For this lecture, please read the first three chapters of Sunzi’s The Art of War.

terra cotta warriors of chinaToday we will be covering famous classics of Chinese and Japanese martial arts.  The first is the Chinese Art of War of Sunzi.  The second and third are the two most revered books of samurai self-discipline, Musashi’s Book of Five Rings and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure.

Sunzi & The Art of War

SONY DSCSunzi (Master Sun, ‘Sun Tzu’ in the old Wade-Giles), also known as Sun Wu, is the great ancient master of strategy and the philosophy of warfare.  Based on the types of warfare described in his Art of War, he is thought to have lived during the late Spring and Autumn period or early Warring States period around 500 BCE, but his dates are unknown and his life made into legend.  It is also possible that Sunzi’s descendant Sun Bin, himself a military strategist, may have been mixed together with the life and legend of Sunzi.

One story often told, which modern historians consider to be pure legend, goes that the King of Wu decided to test Sunzi before accepting him as general of his armies, asking him to train his concubines in military drill with spears to show his efficiency.  Sunzi appointed the king’s two most favorite concubines as officers, and gave them all the order to face right.  The concubines all giggled.  Sunzi told the king that the officers were at fault, and ordered them executed.  The king protested, but Sunzi argued that this was the only way in war to ensure complete discipline.  After that, the concubines learned with remarkable speed and skill.

Yitasha Japanese FortressDuring the Warring States/Hundred Philosophers period, The Art of War became the most widely read work on military strategy in the seven states who sought control of what is today Eastern China.  The Qin considered the work critical in the ending of the Warring States period and the unification of China.  As with the Confucian and Daoist classics, the book had reached its final form by the time of the Han dynasty.  The Art of War covers not simply just maneuvers in war, but also methods of propaganda, deceit, and political control.  Like Confucius’ four books and the later Neo-Confucian classics, it was required reading for obtaining a government position, particularly for a position in the military.

CIA LogoThe Art of War has had a wide influence on warfare, both ancient and modern.  Introduced in Japan in 760 CE, it was a favorite of shoguns and samurai long before the unification of Japan.  Napoleon read and used the work, as did Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh.  It is today required reading for US Military Intelligence and CIA officers.

ho-chi-minhSome of Sunzi’s central teachings are focused on gathering intelligence and practicing deceit and counter-intelligence, knowing everything about the enemy but preventing the enemy from knowing anything about yourself.  He argues that sheer numbers give no advantage, and it is far better to out-think than to out-fight.  Ho Chi Minh’s use of the Art of War in repelling the far superior numbers of American soldiers and firepower during the Vietnam War brought the book into use by the US military and intelligence services.  One tactic specifically used was staying close and inter-meshed with the enemy when the enemy has superior firepower.  This works just as well against bows and crossbows as it does against cluster bombs and napalm, as the enemy can not fire on you without hitting their own troops as well.

Uncle Sam I Want You Propaganda PosterIn the first verses of the text, Sunzi says that the first rule of warfare, to be at one with the way of warfare, is for the leaders and people to be of one mind.  This has two implications.  First, keeping one’s own troops and civilians believing in the leaders is first and foremost, in times of peace and war through aid and propaganda.  Second, in war one should work thought deceit, propaganda and any other means to disenchant the enemy troops and civilians.  The psychological game is more important than the physical fight.  You should not only know how to boost morale and engage in psychological warfare, you should learn to judge your enemy’s ability to boost morale and engage in psychological warfare, for if they are superior at the psychological game you will likely not withstand a physical fight.

Samurai on horseback Japanese PrintOne tactic Sunzi taught to win the psychological game was moving troops after every assault, commonly employed in guerrilla warfare such as that employed by the Southern Confederate army against the Northern Union army, as well as the Vietcong against the United States.  For much of European history, this tactic was considered dishonorable and armies would march in plain sight toward each other, but today it is standard practice across the world.  The change was particularly motivated by the invention of the rifle during the American Civil War and the use of the machine gun in WWI.  If the enemy launches a full assault against a specific area, it is often wise to let them advance, move, and then attack from the sides or from behind.  This is similar to the idea behind Aikido, discussed with Daoism.  If the enemy has superior strength or striking power, you move out of the way to keep them off balance.

battle_of_fei_river chinaNot only should you change position, but continuously change tactics as well.  Unconventional tactics that continue to shift situation by situation may make for difficult planning, but they keep the enemy guessing.  Sunzi says, “I never repeat the means whereby I achieve victory, but responsively adjust my positions continuously”.  He employs the Daoist metaphor of being like water, saying that just as water produces currents according to the terrain it crosses, an army must respond fluidly to the enemy to be victorious.

Waterfall in Hidalgo MexicoAnother psychological tactic that meshes well with Daoist teachings is to appear to be the opposite of what you are.  If you are strong, appear weak.  If you are far, appear near.  If you are active, appear to be inactive.  This will not only cause the enemy to put ineffective actions and strategies into play, but in the long run keep them guessing and always confused.  Equally and oppositely, one should encourage the enemy to be as one-sided as possible.  If the enemy is greedy, tempt them so they act on it and are drawn out.  If the enemy is angry, provoke them to make them even angrier.  If the enemy is strong, avoid them and allow them to wear themselves down through continuous advancement.  In the Dao De Jing of Laozi, it says what one wants to defeat one should allow to grow strong.

Waterfall GushingAnother teaching of Sunzi that fits well with the Daoist teaching of wu-wei (non-action) is that one should always attempt to win with the least amount of fighting possible, and the best way to win is to win without fighting at all.  This boosts morale and spares wasting resources.  If you are more efficient at this than your enemy, you can outlast their strength.

MachiavelliWhile one should allow one’s enemy to grow strong to wear them down, one should wait for a moment of weakness to attack, and then gain the upper hand as quickly as possible so that strength and resources are not wasted.  A prolonged war wears down your troops as well as the morale of the citizens.  Long periods of warfare lead to poverty among the citizens and inflation for the economy, which can not long endure before rebellions divide one’s lands from within.  Machiavelli similarly wrote that when one needs to be brutal, one should be as brutal as possible and wipe out the enemy as quickly as possible.

Battle of Red Cliffs ChinaSunzi says it is wise to eat the enemy’s food and use the enemy’s resources, and that one bushel of the enemy’s grain is equivalent to twenty of one’s own.  One famous example from Chinese warfare is found in the Battle of Red Cliffs at the end of the Han Dynasty.  Zhuge Liang told his superior that he could provide ten thousand arrows in three days, a task that seemed impossible.  He used the three days to attach bundles of straw to a fleet of ships, and then he sailed these ships toward the enemy with a small armored crew.  The enemy, believing the boasts to be full of troops, fired barrage after barrage of arrows at the boats, which were then recalled, along with the arrows stuck in the straw.  These arrows were now used against the enemy themselves, who had far fewer arrows then they had before.  Sunzi argued that using the enemy’s troops was also wise, enticing them to change sides and then treating them well.  It is also wise to defeat the enemy without destroying them, keeping their armies, population and lands intact.  This not only allows for more spoils, but breeds less resentment in the population one has conquered.

ninjas with weaponsA big fan of using spies, as well as paying the enemy’s spies well to become double agents, Sunzi says that foreknowledge, knowing what will happen before it happens, cannot be learned from ghosts and spirits, but from spies, who are clearly worth their pay given what an army costs and the value of psychology over strength.  Double agents, enemy spies discovered and then used to give false information back to the enemy who does not know the spies have been discovered and turned, should be paid the most, as they are the most valuable.

The Cultural Myth of Bushido

samurai with their lordIn the article (the last selection in your reader) Death and Bushido, Hurst argues that a modern mythology has grown since World War II in Japan, America and elsewhere about Bushido, the supposedly suicidal samurai code.  Nitobe Inazo (1862 – 1933), who was educated by Americans and had a very poor understanding of Japanese history and culture, wrote the international best-seller Bushido: The Soul of Japan in 1899 to introduce Americans to the culture he was actively abandoning.  Nitobe believed that he was coining a new word, ‘Bushido’, for the code of the medieval samurai.  The word does appear in the Hagakure, but this is rare.  Unfortunately, Nitobe was very inaccurate and overly romantic in emphasizing a culture of honor, death and suicide as distinctly Japanese.

Yamamoto_TsunetomoThe Hagakure of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, which we will turn to shortly, was held up by Nitobe as the samurai classic, the book that tells us “the way of the samurai is found in death”, and that samurai live to serve their master and commit suicide whenever this becomes impossible.  Unfortunately for Nitobe, Tsunetomo was an eccentric who was describing his personal philosophy and teachings he hoped to pass on to his clan, not the common culture of feudal Japan.  Courage in the face of death and loyalty are prized in warriors the world over, and they were values highly prized in Neo-Confucianism, but recklessly accepting death was not.  Tsunetomo himself wished to commit suicide after the death of his lord but he was ordered not to by the Shogun.  Retiring as a Buddhist priest, he then wrote the Hagakure.  After the death of a lord, it was far more common for samurai to become ronin, wandering master-less samurai, until finding employment with another lord.  Tsunetomo says becoming a ronin is despicable, and is a practice that has unfortunately become common in his own time unlike in the glorious past, but he is likely mistaken and projecting his own views.

Samurai_on_horsebackThere was no common Japanese code for samurai, and the cultural coherence they shared was a mixture of Neo-Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and Daoism.  There were samurai who were devoted to Zen, both the Soto and Rinzai traditions, to Pure Land Buddhist traditions, as well as to orthodox Neo-Confucianism and the unorthodox Wang Yangming school, but there were none who were devoted to a tradition known as “Bushido”.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure

HagakureIn the Hagakure (In the Shadow of the Leaves) of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, there are many lessons to be learned.  Like Musashi, he repeatedly references Confucius and the Buddha.  Unlike Musashi, Tsunetomo repeatedly argues that a warrior should not be an artist or waste time rounding themselves out, but rather focus on virtue and martial arts.  Virtue includes not only courage, but also compassion for all people and being in harmony with the way of all things.

Musashi and AligatorIn the opening passages, Tsunetomo writes, “The Way of the samurai is found in death.  When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death.  It is not particularly difficult.  Be determined and advance.  To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of the sophisticated.  When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim…To die without gaining one’s aim IS a dog’s death and fanaticism, but there is no shame in this.  This is the substance of the way of the samurai.

Japanese samurai blocks arrowsTsunetomo argues that a warrior should devote himself to his lord and lose all self-interest.  This seems unobtainable, but it is “right before your eyes” and anyone can become excellent the very moment it is completely accepted.  He claims that with only two or three such devoted, an entire state can be protected.

He says that it is bad to yawn in front of others, and to stop oneself from yawning one should rub one’s forehead upwards or lick one’s lips while keeping one’s mouth closed.

In an interesting passage, he says that fish will not live in water that is too clear and prefer to hide under duckweed.  In the same way, the population will “live in tranquility if certain matters are a bit overlooked or left unheard”.

Musashi_vs._BokudenHe quotes Master Yagyu, saying, “I do not know the way to defeat others, but the way to defeat myself”.  In an almost direct quote from Laozi’s Dao De Jing, he says that matters of great concern should be taken lightly, and matters of little concern should be treated seriously.  If one takes small things seriously, then everything will be in order when disaster strikes and one will be at peace and have the patience and skill one needs.

He argues that one should not promote those who have not committed mistakes, but promote those who have made and corrected their mistakes.  Those who have never made mistakes are dangerous, while those who have corrected their mistakes show repentance and have gained valuable experience.

rainstormTsunetomo says there is something to be learned in a rainstorm that applies to everything in life.  If a person doesn’t want to get wet, they hurry and try to walk under shelter but get soaked anyway.  The person who knows and accepts they are going to get soaked gets just as wet, but walks without fear and concern.  Accepting the inevitability of mistakes, pain and betrayal frees the mind to see the immediate.  This is a wonderful mix of Buddhist tranquility and Daoist non-action.

sunriseHe argues that when something strange happens, it is ridiculous to say that it is a mystery or an omen of something to come.  All things, including solar eclipses, are simply the natural activities of Yin and Yang, so an eclipse happening every one hundred years is no more mysterious or ominous than the sun rising and setting every day.  A sunrise would seem strange and mysterious if it happened only every hundred years.  Mystery is created in the mind.

He argues that calculating people are contemptible, and all decisions should be made within the space of seven breaths.  In the most trivial matters one’s heart can be clearly seen, and the way to handle anything is found in the smallest of things.

Kamikaze Japanese PlaneWhen Japanese Nationalism surged between WWI and WWII, when Japan was fighting wars with China and Russia, Nitobe’s book based on the Hagakure became popular with Japanese nationalists who embraced Bushido as a new religion.  This reached its peak in WWII, when Japan was fighting America in the Pacific, sometimes using suicidal kamikaze pilots to take out battleships and aircraft carriers.  This encouraged the belief in America that the Japanese are a culture obsessed with death and willing to commit suicide at the drop of a hat, views that fit nicely with a racist understanding that Asian culture, unlike Western culture, finds the individual entirely dispensable.  This is found in James Clavell’s novel Shogun, where many samurai characters kill cruelly with little emotion and often see suicide as an honorable solution to political problems.

Japanese Kamikaze Planes Attack US Battleship

Hearts and Minds CoverIn the documentary Hearts and Minds, a film about American propaganda during the Vietnam war, a general tells the television camera that in the Orient, life is cheap and not valued as in the West, which is why bombing villages of women and children is unfortunate but necessary in a battle against Asian people.  There are similar things being said about Muslims by generals and pro-war pundits in America today.  One news anchor said that suicide bombers show us that Muslims do not care about their children the way that Western people do, and so they are unfortunately put in war’s way and become casualties of bombing runs.

Ronin crossing bridgeAs Hurst points out, many of the most famous battles of feudal Japan were decided by a defection, of a major player switching allegiances.  Just as Sunzi says, in war defectors, especially nobles and their houses, are highly prized, encouraged and rewarded.  It appears that the medieval Japanese valued both loyalty and abandoning loyalty for personal gain, just like the rest of humanity.  It is often forgotten that when particular values such as loyalty are highly praised it is precisely because their opposite vices are all too common.

sepuku japanSeppuku, Japanese ritual suicide, did exist but was uncommon.  It was not a solution to political disgrace, but typically practiced as a way of avoiding enemy capture, torture and execution.  Some samurai did practice junshi, committing suicide to follow their lord in death, but this was also rare.  Seppuku was a punishment in the Tokugawa period, and samurai who had or were suspected of committed crimes were sometimes ordered to commit suicide, but this was hardly embraced by the samurai.  Similarly, much has been made of kirisute gomen in Tokugawa times, the practice of testing a blade on a random peasant passing by as if samurai had this common privilege, but historians today find almost no credible instances of this practice.  Rather, it is something cruel said about one’s enemy.

Musashi’s Book of Five Rings

MusashiMiyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645) is possibly the most famous samurai in Japanese and world history.  He is famous for his dueling record (supposedly only losing once), his invention of a two sword fighting style, and as the author of his strategy guide The Book of Five Rings.  A follower of Zen Buddhism, he practiced zazen sitting meditation for decades.  His life was celebrated in the famous but somewhat fictional 1935 novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa.  My father had a copy of this gigantic book (three inches thick) when I was growing up and he would tell me stories of Musashi’s duels.

Musashi Battleship 1944

In WWII, the Japanese named one of their most powerful battleships the Musashi, and today there is a Playstation game by the same name.

musashi-by-yoshikawa coverMusashi’s two sword style was invented as he was fleeing a fortress and fighting off a crowd, as he was forced to draw his second sword to defend himself.  Traditionally, the second sword would only be drawn if the first sword was lost.

Musashi was known to keep his opponents waiting and arrive late to make them upset and give them time to be unsettled by the thought of possible death.  Duels were fought with a variety of weapons, but Musashi always chose the sword.  Several of his duels were fought in front of the Shogun.  Most duels would not be fought to the death but ended after the first blow was successfully struck, unless a duel to the death was agreed upon by both opponents.

b287d-musashiandsasakikojiroduelschulptureMusashi’s most famous duel was with Sasaki Kojiro, known as the demon of the western provinces, on Funajima Island.  There are conflicting stories about the duel, much which may be myth.  Today there is a statue on the island commemorating the duel, as well as a statue of a boat at the place Musashi set sail for the island.  According to the legend, Musashi agreed to duel Kojiro to the death, and the duel preoccupied him so much that he hopped in the boat without his swords.  As he was rowed to the island, he carved a wooden sword out of a spare oar.  He arrived late, as usual, infuriating the comrades of Kojiro.

Musashi duel with KojiroAccording to one account, Musashi stepped of the boat, wordlessly charged at Kojiro, struck him in the head with a single blow, killing him, then stepped back onto the boat and left with the turning tide to avoid Kojiro’s comrades.  In the novel, Kojiro throws his sheath away into the surf as Musashi steps off the boat.  Musashi says, “Kojiro, you’ve already lost”.  Kojiro, perplexed, asks why.  Musashi replies that Kojiro must not think he has any more use for his sword.  Clearly, Kojiro meant to intimidate Musashi with his show of total disregard, but Musashi, playing the mental game as Sunzi recommends, turns this confidence into doubt to use his opponent’s show against him.

Musashi Kingfisher perched in a dead treeIn his Book of Five Rings, Musashi says that a great warrior is a well rounded person who studies the arts and tea ceremony as well as a wide variety of martial arts.  Musashi was himself a painter, and there are several of his works that remain today including his famous Kingfisher Perched in a Dead Tree.  He argues that learning many things enriches and compliments each particular skill.  There is the Buddha’s way of salvation, Confucius’ way of learning, and the many ways of the arts and the martial arts.  Each individual practices the ways that they find pleasing.  Musashi writes that the way of the warrior is the way of both the pen and the sword, of studying strategy as well as physical fighting.  The warrior uses the pen and sword to gain resolute acceptance of death, to be able to die for the cause.  Anyone of any station in life can die for a cause, but it is the warrior’s profession.  Musashi compares a master carpenter planning and building a house to a warrior who strategically plans and physically fights battles and duels.


tsunami hokusaiThe five rings, each a chapter of the work, are the five elements of Buddhist cosmology.  Earth concerns strategy, like a map of the terrain.  Water concerns spirit, to become fluid to react to the situation.  Fire concerns fighting, having the courage and skill to win.  Wind concerns the past traditions and schools of strategy, the things said by those of the past.  Finally, Void, the fifth element that binds the others together as particular things, the highest element, is the eternal way of things, what one must become like to act naturally.

musashi statue graveMusashi says that timing is critical to everything, and that all five books are chiefly concerned with timing.  Learning and training allows one to gain the ability to win with the eye as well as the arm.  This is interesting advice from a guy who purposefully arrives late.  Opponents, like Kojiro’s comrades, would say Musashi is dishonorable and irresponsible, a poor teacher of timing, but Musashi would say that using lateness as a strategy, developing patience and using inaction (a good example of Daoist wu-wei) is mastery of timing.

Finally, as a bonus, a depiction of octopi samurai:


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