Chapter Two Excerpts

From Chapter Two: View, Practice and Action            [back to excerpts page]

If respecting the wholeness and integrity of the Sun Tzu text itself means that we are not able to simplify it into prescriptions, how can we evoke its wisdom and power in our lives? How can we penetrate beneath a superficial understanding and apply its profound methods to the conflict and chaos we experience here and now? To do so, we need to take the Sun Tzu’s view of the world as our starting point and then look more closely at the lines and sections that present the text’s profound practices and extend its view—including shih, extraordinary and orthodox, deception, and others—and consider how they may be applied to our circumstances. And we have to do this using an approach that gets us thinking in the way the text does and preserves the integrity of the text, and presents and respects its wholeness. Only in this way can the pith instructions and practical directions from the Sun Tzu come through to us with the view that empowers them and leaves them intact.


The Sun Tzu shows us such a “holistic” approach on the very first page of the text. It appears in the form of directions to the sage commander about how to evaluate the nature of something before taking action. The central elements are the well-known, traditional Chinese triad of heaven, earth, and human that we introduced briefly in our discussion of our translation in chapter 1. Presented in the text as heaven, earth, and general, this simple, logical framework builds on the way the mind naturally sees things to form a powerful tool for understanding their underlying meaning.


In this framework, heaven represents what is above, the big view and all that comes from it. The vast sky overhead holds limitless possibilities and potential, some part of which we choose and express as our aspirations. Heaven could manifest as a torrential downpour making troop movement difficult in a military campaign, which is why most translations render this Chinese character as “weather.” Or it could manifest as a brainstorm of ideas in your organization’s board meeting, both inspiring action and setting the parameters for it.


Earth is what is below and what we stand on. It holds the practicalities—both obstacles and supports—through which any vision must travel to reach actuality. In military terms, it usually refers to the terrain—the mountains, rivers, and flat ground that constrain and create possibilities for movement and defense. In the broader sense, earth is the ground of any situation that we face when taking action.


The general is the human element standing between the two, representing the principle of leadership. This is the agent of action that brings the aspirations of heaven and the practicalities of earth together to produce the desired outcome. The general leads the army in warfare; every one of us marshals our resources in campaigns each and every day.


Heaven, earth, and general is a model presented to the general as an approach to assessing the situation. This kind of logical framework gives the leader the best of both worlds: it is possible to look at key individual elements, such as the aspirations and obstacles, while also looking at the whole, since each element is understood in relation to the others.


The school superintendent in our workshop was facing the same kind of challenge as the general. He was motivated by a deep longing for more effective action in the face of the conflict and aggression in his workplace. He wanted to know how the principles from the Sun Tzu that so inspired him could emerge in the form of actions.


He had flashes of insight about the Sun Tzu—the beginnings of assuming the view of the text—but was uncertain about how to put them into effect, as he said, “in the heat of battle.” The text’s essential messages were not second nature to him; therefore, the profound actions from the Sun Tzu could not readily arise. He knew it would involve a process.


The challenge of putting ideals into practice, of joining insight and vision with effective action, is a common and routinely frustrating aspect of the human experience. From diet and exercise plans to corporate leadership training schemes, from social welfare programs to foreign military interventions, the path of high-minded intention is littered with our failed campaigns. For principles and ideals to lead to successful action, we need more than wishful thinking or good-hearted intentions.


What connects our view to our actions, or allows our ideas to have impact in the world, is the practice of our regularly repeated behaviors and ways of interacting with the world. These can be accidental or deeply ingrained habits, or actual methods, specific practices, or disciplines. Principles, intentions, and viewpoints show up in our actions by following regular pathways, trails that have been blazed through effort and training. We could read the classic text on good writing The Elements of Style, but the “elements” laid out in the book would only show up in our style after much practice and reinforcement.


One reason that joining vision with action is such a great challenge is that even the clearest view can be expressed in different practices, and thereby lead to different actions that result in similar outcomes that nonetheless vary in important ways. For example, if the police hold the view that there is a serious speeding problem along a particular highway, they could employ two different methods to effectively slow motorists down and decrease loss of life. One method would involve hiding patrol cars and setting up speed traps, which would lead to the action of many people being pulled over and punished. It would slow down traffic but could also result in the problem of increased courtroom time taking officers away from more pressing duties. Another method would involve placing their patrol cars in plain sight along the highway, serving as a caution to drivers, causing people to slow down in response. This method would lead to the action of not doing anything, which takes a highly trained professional, prepared for action and geared up for dangerous situations, and directs them to sit idly by for hours at a time. The result, while again slowing down traffic, could have the side effect of depressing the morale of the force. In both cases the police methods fulfill the view and slow down traffic, but the different actions result in very different sets of problems the police force will have to deal with next.


The elements of the approach we can use to get inside the wisdom lineage of the Sun Tzu are emerging from this discussion and beginning to form a model. It follows the same pattern as the framework of heaven, earth, and general that we discussed above and is closely related to it. We start, as always, with the view—the heaven principle of how we see the world, what we believe about how it works, what we take for granted. We then have the practices or methods we employ—the earth principle of the ways, most often habitual but also chosen, that we extend, express, or enact our view through the practical realities of the world. And these give rise to action—the way we as leaders interact with and engage our world to bring about success in our campaign.


These three—view, practice, and action—are inseparable parts of a whole way of looking at things, like appreciating a single precious stone by its different facets. The views we hold become the source of future actions, and therefore our views can be imputed from our actions. And what connects the two are our methods, the regular pathways we follow that translate how we look at things, what we strive for, and what we intend, into what we actually end up doing or producing. We have the inspiration of a favorite Chinese food dish we want to make for our best friends; we prepare the wok, shop for the vegetables, and brush up on our stir-frying techniques; and come Saturday night, a steaming plate of ginger beef delights our guests. All aspects of this experience fit together as a whole, and the wholeness of this way of looking at reality makes it an excellent means for considering the parts of the Sun Tzu while ensuring that the text’s integrity is respected.


Connecting the view of the Sun Tzu to skillful action by means of its profound practices provides us with the most direct path to understanding and applying the text’s principles. Approaching the Sun Tzu in this way already places us in the midst of this wisdom tradition and orients us as members of its lineage. The framework of view, practice, and action is a natural expression of how we think about and see the world. Immersing ourselves in this framework will not only enter us deeply into the text, but it can also help us to relate more effectively with all aspects of our world. So, in order to employ this framework to study the Sun Tzu more deeply, we will explore the full meaning of each of its aspects—view, practice, and action— and how they work together.


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