Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Some Classic Literature: The Art of War

Yick. The 3 day weekend has me out of whack and forgetting to post things the night before. So, you guys get a midday post as opposed to a repost. Yaaaaay?

For those who do not know me very well, I am very interested in the sciences. The mindset of the sciences is very similar to my approach to martial arts: to learn anything, you must first accept that you do not know something. Along a similar vain, I believe the well known quote by Isaac Newton hold true to martial arts as well: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. As a martial artist, and in almost everything in life, we begin by being introduced to something, shown the rudimentary level information, and gradually increase the intensity and complexity of the pursuit until we are ourself asking the new questions. As my instructor once said, a black belt is just the new white belt. Once there, the advancement of your abilities lies in your own hands.

By looking at what came before, we are able to better determine how to move ahead. In martial arts, much of this is done in a teacher-student setting, but there are other ways to seek insight into martial arts from the past. One of the most favored methods is by reading, and today I'm going to begin to talk about a book that I, as well as historians around the world, have found incredibly useful.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is probably one of the most well known books in the world. Here is a selection from the forward to the 2003 Barnes and Noble Classics edition of The Art of War:

"Thought to have lived in the fifth century B.C., at roughly the same time as Confucious, Sun Tzu was born as Sun Wu--Sun was his family name, Wu his given name, and Tsu an honorific title. His family was part of a clan of experts on arms and fighting; in that era, clans and families "owned" information. just as in medieval Europe guilds fathers passed on specialized knowledge and training to their sons. Sun Tzu's teachings are most likely a combination of his clan's ideas and his own, as well as concepts associated with early Toaism."

Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War as a guide book for his ruling emperor to use in waging war. It was used by many ruling entities of China for centuries, and finally translated to French in 1772, and English in 1905. Since then, various translation have spread around the globe, and the book is studied by people from all walks of life. The nature of the text is such that, though written about waging war, the content itself can be applied to many different aspects of life, from business to personal interactions.

As a martial artist, much can be gleaned from The Art of War, both practically and philosophically. I am going to take segments from the book and analyze them in the order the are lain out in the text. What follows is my own interpretation.

I. Laying of Plans, part one

This section of the text describes the importance of plans and breaks down how to properly strategize for what lays ahead. I will not include every segment, but the ones that I believe hold the most information for discussion. For example, the opening sentence "Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the state" does not hold much significance in our discussion.

3. "The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions of obtaining in the field.
4. The are: The Moral Law; Heaven; Earth; The Commander; Methods and Discipline.
5,6. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.
7. Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.
8. Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.
9. The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.
10. By Method and Discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in it's proper subdivisions, the gradations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditures."

These five aspects, as written, are very literal in their application to military action. Without faith in the emperor or their nation, solider may be inclined to disobey or flee. Knowing the weather conditions and taking the time of day into account has enormous implications for an operation. To apply them to ourselves as individuals and as martial artists, we have to draw connections between the explicit factors and the implicit traits within ourselves. Let's take, to start, the implications for planning a training regimen.

The moral law, as it applies to the individual, is faith that what you are doing is right, or at the very least necessary. The stronger the foundation of confidence in your actions morally, the stronger your convictions. This can be broadened to motivations as a whole, depending on the individual. If you find yourself more motivated by personal gain than morals, you must use that to your advantage to maximize your own conviction. Find what is most important to you, and use it to remind yourself why you are training, fighting, or struggling for what you want to achieve. 

Heaven, the natural conditions at a given moment, is significant for planning ahead for a plethora of reasons. Your daily schedule may limit you to certain times for training. The weather may forecast rain, preventing your run. Winter is too cold to swim outdoors, and in summer it may be too hot to strain yourself while exercising. Understanding the environmental conditions and how they will change over time allows you to maximize your efficiency. If you want to compete in a tournament in two months, consider your schedule, the common weather for the season, and what you need to accomplish in that time. Running in the mornings might be better for you because it will still be cool outside, and you can train indoors in the evening. 

Earth, the physically immediate conditions, takes into account the limitations set fourth by your current state. Is the neighborhood too dangerous to run through?  How close is the gym? What sort of training is available to you, and what isn't? What are your current limits when it comes to training? By thinking heavily on these conditions, you can plan the specific regimen such that best fits your current environment. 

The commander in this scenario could mean different things. If you are being taught or trained by someone else, do they have the traits of a good teacher? Do their values align with your own? Do you find that their attitude towards training is in sync with your own? Or, it is possible that you are your own commander. Do you trust in your ability to make wise choices? To hold yourself to the proper standards to achieve your goals?

Methods and discipline ties closely to the commander here. While you may not necessarily have an army to regimen, you to have priorities to structure. Is it your training that must take front seat to everything? Or is it a secondary concern to other parts of your life. Can your budget support a gym membership, or must you sacrifice something else in order to afford it? Careful consideration of other aspects of your life and your personal means is important in establishing a training regimen that can be sustained. 

In addition to this scenario, you can apply this structure to combat as a martial artist. When engaged in a fight or flight situation, consider the moral implications of what is happening. Is it right to stand your ground and fight, or is fleeing the proper response? Is it dark out? Did it just rain? The weather conditions could provide a chance to use different tactics to overcome your opponent, such as limited vision and slippery footing leaving you with an easier time tripping your opponent. How far are they standing from you? Are you in a narrow alley or an open street? Are they armed? Are you armed? These physical conditions limit or open your options for engaging the opponent. As for commander, you should take into account both you and your opponent's state of mind. Are they likely to leave you alone if you give them your wallet? Will they balk if you stand up to them? Do you trust yourself to make the right call in the amount of force used? The methods and discipline here are your priorities. Are you going to try to make an opening for an escape? How much of a risk are you willing to take to accomplish your goals, be it to subdue the enemy or get to safety? 

These five heads, as Sun Tzu referred to them, are the key factors in planning ahead.  My next post will finish my commentary on what the text discusses in regards to using said factors. 

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