Ongoing Study

The Rules of Victory demonstrates how the skillful actions from the Sun Tzu text can apply to you and your life. The Art of War is not about an ancient approach from a foreign culture. Rather it presents inherent human wisdom about a way of viewing and being in the world based on common human faculties. With a little shift in view and study of the text, these skilful strategies become accessible and applicable to your work:

From Chapter Seven: How to Enter This Wisdom Lineage

Now we turn our attention to how to undertake a closer study of the text itself. Study, in the way we use it here, refers to the whole range of ways people relate to learning The Art of War, including something as simple as taking the text off the shelf from time to time and spending a few minutes with it. As we discussed in the very first chapter, we have found that an excellent way to study the text is what we have come to call “reading practice.” In reading practice, we carefully read and reread short sections of the text aloud in a contemplative environment. It differs from what we commonly call study, because it isn’t solely about acquiring knowledge from outside us but rather about mixing our mind with the world in a way that also provokes the wisdom inherent in us.

Whether you are studying the text in a group or on your own, reading practice can be approached in a similar manner. First of all, choose a short segment to focus on. It can be a single line, a couplet, or a short section that presents a theme of special interest to you. It could be a theme that seems especially relevant to the events in your life or one that seems especially dense and difficult. As long as there is some interest in or connection to the lines you have chosen, your choice doesn’t really matter. Next, find or set up an appropriate place to read aloud—a container of the kind we discussed when we talked about forming and transforming. This can be any space— your office, den, or favorite quiet outdoor spot—that is open and conducive to learning, one that reinforces your study.

To begin the reading itself, take the point of view that you are a member of this wisdom lineage, at once both ancient and up to date. Read the chosen passage aloud, with careful diction and an awareness of the space around the words, but still in a relaxed and normal reading voice for you. This is not a theatrical performance. Allow a brief gap, less than half a minute, to consider and contemplate what you have read. Read the lines aloud again. If you are studying in a group, the reader can then begin the discussion by sharing what the lines mean to him or her or what questions arose. If you are studying alone, consider how these lines connect to the specific situation in your life you are focusing upon. In both cases, retain the sense of open space and inquiry throughout.

As we have noted, reading the Sun Tzu is challenging, because the text is pithy, at times opaque, repetitive yet inconsistent. It doesn’t surrender its lessons easily. But this is also a key to its power. The Sun Tzu text began as wisdom passed on through an oral lineage for hundreds of years before it was written down. It was composed to be recited aloud and remembered, so it is rich with imagery and poetic language. Its rhythmic cadence helps penetrate beneath superficial discursive thinking.

Since it was based on memorization, the text relied on a poetic structure—sound and feel, tone and pace—to carry its message forward intact. Reading tunes us in to the sound-based nature of the Sun Tzu, helps us to “hear” the deeper meaning of the text, and thereby make a more genuine connection to it.

Reading aloud involves both speaking the text and listening to it. Interestingly enough, the communication and learning happen in the listening part rather than the speaking part. Listening is a way to connect to your sense organs and perceptions, and through them to your world. When we talk about a contemplative approach, it’s just another way of saying “simply listen.”

We often do listening exercises in our Art of War seminars, and you can do a simplified version of them on your own. It can be woven into your study of the text. When your study becomes too discursive or disconnected, take a break and do this listening exercise.

It starts with just being quiet, either in the middle of a room or outdoors. First, bring your attention to whatever you hear. Suspend the impulse to judge or name sounds; just let them be. Notice where sounds come from, when they arise and when they disappear. Begin to notice the details you are missing. Notice what you are doing when you aren’t listening. You can do this on a regular basis or from time to time. You can do this anywhere, or you could go to someplace special to do it. It is helpful at first to do this listening practice in less busy places so you can more easily discriminate sounds. After a while, you can move on to places where the sounds form a symphony.

Through a discipline like listening practice, you begin to discover that there are rhythmic, harmonic beginnings and endings going on all the time in our world. Chaos and order are turning into each other repeatedly. The energies and activities that make up our experience, those elements we touch when we employ shih, are always at play in this ever-changing world. It is possible to notice and even tune in to them. One of our colleagues, a professional musician and teacher who developed the listening exercises,1 tells us that when you play jazz, for instance, you don’t think up or decide what to play or react on first impulse. Rather, you hear what to play. A problem arises in playing music if when you’re not playing, you’re waiting to play. In the same way, problems arise in communication if when you’re not talking, you’re waiting to talk. As with playing music, skillful action is self-evident in the situation, if you’re listening.

Reading practice helps in our ongoing study of the text because it is based on and strengthens our natural inquisitiveness. It fosters a greater openness to exploring the experiences in our lives. This is equally true for practices that work in this same way with our other senses. In fact, we also include in our workshops a practice involving nonjudgmental observation of what is in our field of vision in a given environment. Learning, whether The Art of War or anything else, is the act—or the art—of “knowing” as we understand it in the Sun Tzu. It’s not a matter of collecting information but rather absorbing what’s going on around us. We are learning not so we can use things at a later point but because we have an appetite for discovery and exploration of our world.

With ongoing study of the text through reading practice and the listening exercise—or other contemplative techniques—the profound strategic practices contained in the text’s lines begin to seep more deeply into your system. Then, in situations of conflict and challenge, the text’s pith instructions begin to shape the way you think and act. Rather than applying a “learned” technique, you allow a new way of viewing the world to emerge. Knowing more clearly the elements of your present situation gives rise to the kinds of skillful action that lead to taking whole.