Here we provide study guide materials for those groups or individuals who
wish to take a more in-depth look at our translation of the Art of War.
Certainly there are many different approaches to studying the text. We have
provided more material than one study group may need, and so we encourage you to
choose from the discussion topics below. Our overall objective is clearly
described by the questions at the end of the first paragraphs from the book’s
‘About 2,300 years ago in what is now north China, a lineage of military
leaders put their collective wisdom into written form for the first time. Their
text was to shape the strategic thinking of all East Asia. It offered a
radically new perspective on conflict, whereby one might attain victory without
going to battle. Though in the West their text is called The Art of War, in
China it is still known as the Sun Tzu, named for the patriarch of their
Over the last half-century, this text has become a handbook for people all
around the world seeking to transform their approach to conflict, whether in
warfare, in business or simply in everyday life. When a squadron leader targets
his objective or a boardroom falls under siege, when our neighbors join a zoning
battle to protect local parkland, we may find modern-day warriors turning to the
Sun Tzu. Clearly they have a conviction that its ancient wisdom has
considerable value today. But how might we apply this Chinese text to our lives
in a genuine manner? How can it teach us to work more effectively with conflict?
These are the central questions of this book.’
We believe that it is possible to apply the wisdom of the text to our lives
in a genuine manner, and that the result is to uncover a more effective
way of working with conflict. This conviction follows from our view that the
wisdom of the text does not belong to any proprietary group, Chinese or Western.
It is a profound human knowledge, something to which every one of us has access.
Aided by a translation that fosters the perspective of the text which we call
'taking whole,' the reader is able to evoke his or her own insight.
The Sun Tzu recommends that the starting point for any endeavor is
knowledge, of ourselves and of the other. In chapter 3 it says:
And so in the military –
Knowing the other and knowing oneself,
In one hundred battles no danger.
Not knowing the other and knowing oneself,
One victory for one loss.
Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself,
In every battle certain defeat.
Though the Sun Tzu offers models of behavior, it does not suggest we
copy them. In other words, we are on our own, as each new life situation arises.
No person, no book, no external wisdom can tell us how to act. Even previously
successful models cannot simply be laid over the unique realities of our present
situation. As chapter 1 of the Sun Tzu says,
These are the victories of the military lineage.
They cannot be transmitted in
Also, it is unclear to us that there is a single, 'correct' interpretation
of the text. As we state in our introduction:
‘The text of the Sun Tzu is so compressed that it supports a variety
of plausible interpretations. We have refrained from specific interpretations
because they limit the range of meaning that the text can communicate. This is
not just a theoretical preference but a conviction that arises from our
experience working with people over the last decade. We have been impressed by
the insights of relatively inexperienced readers, who have gleaned significant
meaning from the Sun Tzu with only an elementary orientation to the text.’
We are confident that anyone – from the newest reader to the seasoned Sun
Tzu scholar – who applies herself to the study of the text with diligence
and an open mind will uncover interpretations of the Sun Tzu
that haven’t occurred to us. If you would like to share those with others,
please use the ‘Readers’ Forum’ page of our web site.
Reading the text
An excellent way to begin a study session on the Art of War is by
having a member of the group read aloud the section of the text that you are
going to discuss. The following excerpt from the "About the
Translation" of the book will help in this endeavor:
‘We have sought, then, to create an English-language text that is
immediately recognizable as itself. By standing a bit apart from everyday
speech, it resists too ready an absorption into any preexisting world. We hope
thereby to have opened up a ground on which the Sun Tzu’s original
power can provoke the reader’s own wisdom.
We also developed a translation strategy in response to particular qualities
of the Chinese language. When we first read English-language versions of the Sun
Tzu in the 1970s, we were convinced like many others that it might contain
enormous power. Yet we were frustrated, since its wisdom often seemed concealed
in paraphrase. Going to the original Chinese, we were astounded by its
simplicity, clarity and bluntness. It stopped one’s mind midthought. We had a
strong sense it would be possible to reproduce these qualities in English. It
was also clear why other translations had filled in many words and explanations:
the text could be extremely difficult, sometimes confusing even its Chinese
Our translation, then, aims to preserve the naked quality of the text, to
reproduce the sound and feel of the Chinese and thus capture the moment when the
Sun Tzu was first emerging from the oral tradition. To do so, we have
forged a lithic, unadorned English, halfway between prose and poetry. Its
simplicity encourages a reader to approach the book without undue reliance on
concept, allowing its sounds, patterns and meaning to seep into the mind. As we
remove the filters between ancient text and modern reader, the Sun Tzu
begins to reveal itself directly to us.’
Whether you are studying the text in a group setting or on your own, the
approach could be similar: Choose the section you want to focus on. Read the
passage aloud. Take the point of view that you are a member of this wisdom
lineage, at once both ancient and up-to-date. Read, re-read, consider,
contemplate, and read again. Then begin the discussion.
You may find it helpful to print out and refer to the "Text
Annotation" material from our web site, where more background information
is available, including the original Chinese characters and their root meanings. You
may also find it helpful to read aloud the commentary that accompanies the
Study Guide Questions and Discussion Topics
Here we begin with quotes from the introduction to The Art of War, and
present questions to provoke reflection and discussion:
‘The Sun Tzu begins with the understanding that conflict is an
integral part of human life. It is within us and all around us. Sometimes we can
skillfully sidestep it, but at other times we must join with it directly.
......we also live in a world where aggression cannot be avoided. We must know
the other in order to skillfully engage him or her. It was necessary, then, to
learn to work directly with the conflict in our environment, not ignore it,
submerge it, give up on it or try to deny its existence.
Do you agree that conflict is an integral part of life? Isn’t that a
very negative, fatalistic, or pessimistic view? Can you suggest another view
of conflict in human life?
Unfortunately, English still asks us to choose between masculine and
feminine pronouns. Because Chinese generals have historically been men, we have
adopted the convention of referring to the sage commander throughout as
"he." It is central to our understanding, however, that the knowledge
and action of the sage commander are the property of neither male nor female.
The wisdom of the Sun Tzu applies not just to men in a military setting
but to anyone seeking to work with conflict without aggression.’
Is the Sun Tzu relevant to women or is it just for men? How might
a woman sage commander be and act differently than a man? Are there some
obvious ways in which it might be easier for a woman to be like the sage
commander described in the essays?
‘Approaching the Sun Tzu in this way, we see that its teachings are
not limited to any single realm of activity. Its language can apply equally to
the mother putting her son to bed and to a platoon commander resisting his
superior officer’s disastrous order to fight the wrong opponent. The Sun
Tzu works at the level of the battle of ego or of warfare between nations,
and everything between.’
Can a military text really apply more broadly than just to warfare? Is it
really relevant to all forms of conflict in daily life? Do you find
situations where it clearly doesn’t apply?
‘It is helpful to this process if we can identify the perspective of the Sun
Tzu, seeing the world the way it does. Above all, this is the view of taking
whole. Taking whole means conquering the enemy in a way that keeps as much
intact as possible—both our own resources and those of our opponent. Such a
victory leaves something available on which to build, both for us and for our
former foe. This is not merely philosophical or altruistic. Destruction leaves
only devastation, not just for those defeated, their dwellings and their earth,
but also for conquerors attempting to enforce their "peace" long after
battle has passed. True victory is victory over aggression, a victory that
respects the enemy’s basic humanity and thus renders further conflict
What is the essential perspective of the text -- warfare, winning or
some kind of pacifism? What is the relationship between the art of war and winning
without fighting? Can you give an example of taking whole and how it
requires seeking a larger perspective? Isn’t it just another version of
forcing your will on others?
‘However appealing this vision of victory, it is still true that the Sun
Tzu was written very long ago by people whose world was vastly different
from ours. If we wish to study their text, how can we find its essential
teachings while still acknowledging that they arose at a unique time and
place? We cannot simply ignore these differences and decide that their ideas
mean whatever we would like.’
Wasn’t this written for a very different world, a Chinese society
centuries ago? Is it possible for western reader to really understand and
apply this 2500 year old Chinese war text? Are there essential differences
between East and West in these matters? Can they be bridged?
‘Thus every modern reader of the text may forge a relationship to the Sun
Tzu similar to that of Chinese readers over the last two millennia. This is
what it means for us to enter the tradition. No one can say in advance what the
text will mean to us. Though it offers models of behavior we might emulate, we
can do so successfully only when we understand its underlying view from the
inside, mixing our own mind with its wisdom.’
‘Then, in situations of conflict, its pith instructions begin to shape the
way we think and act. What seemed like foreign truths become recognizable as our
own. Our actions become a natural expression of what the world is and how it
works. This is the ground for practicing the art of war.’
How can one make a genuine connection to this book? Even though it is a
war strategy manual, can it be inspirational like the Tao Te Ching or
the I Ching? How can ordinary people in the west really use this
book? How does the Art of War apply to everyday life? Give an
Here are questions about some general topics in the Sun Tzu:
What is the attitude of the Sun Tzu to the use of force and violence?
In some places it recommends avoiding them, as when it says, "One hundred
victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful. Seizing the enemy without
fighting is the most skillful" (Chapter 3). Yet Chapter 12 is devoted to setting
fire to the enemy. How does one reconcile such a view?
The Sun Tzu does not set out its points in clearly reasoned arguments
but rather offers short maxims and examples. Often it appears to contradict
itself. How does a reader work with this? What extra burdens – and extra
opportunities – does it offer?
The Sun Tzu takes no moral position one way or the other. Is it, then,
amoral, beyond any ethical concerns? Or does its insistence on effective
strategy and short wars, and its preference for avoiding armed confrontations,
lead to a moral good after all?
Some people have used the Sun Tzu to conquer their enemies as
ruthlessly as possible. Why is this a misinterpretation of the book?
Here are questions that focus on some of the well-known themes in the text:
What is the general’s relationship to the ruler? On the one hand, "The
general is the safeguard of the state" (Chapter 3). Yet in other places the
book suggests that there are orders of the ruler that one should not obey. Is
there a middle ground between these two? On what basis does one make a decision
in these cases?
The Sun Tzu speaks mainly about the general, and how he or she should
treat ordinary soldiers. What about the officer corps? What is the general’s
relationship to them?
In Chapter 6 the Sun Tzu talks about "the empty and the
solid." What do these terms mean? How do they apply to conflict in our
daily lives? Are there times when we should ignore the book’s advice to attack
the empty, and instead concentrate our forces against the solid?
What are the extraordinary and the orthodox (see Chapter 5)? How do they work
together? How does one transform into the other? How is it possible for all
strategies to come from them, as Chapter 5 claims?
Describe "taking whole." How does one learn such a strategy or
point of view? Do you regard it as superior to other approaches, as the book
seems to say? Are there situations where it may not be affective? What role does
force play in it?
The concept "shih" is perhaps the most difficult in the
whole Art of War. What does it mean? What are its parts? How do we
understand the images we have of it, like the crossbow or the rocks rolling from
a high mountain? Does shih exist in every situation? How do we learn to
see it? What benefit comes from knowing shih? And what larger benefit
comes from seeing the world in terms of it?
Deception often has a very negative connotation for us, yet it is a central,
respectable concept in the Sun Tzu. Describe these two understandings of
deception. What kinds of deception foster the actions of the sage commander and
what kinds of deception do not? Is there ‘good’ deception and ‘bad’
deception? If so, what is the essential difference?
Here are questions to provoke your personal experience of using the Sun
Tzu in everyday life:
Are sage commanders born extraordinary or are they trained? How does one
become a sage commander and exercise these qualities? What qualities of the sage
commander do you most identify with or have experience with?
What are some examples in public or private life that exemplify the approach
in the Art of War?
The book suggests that everyone is a sage commander, a leader in their own
sphere. Give some examples of conflict you have experienced while in a
leadership role and how you worked with these situations. Any examples of taking
Give some examples of the contemplative approach to reading, understanding
and working with the Art of War.
Pick one campaign battle and follow its progress over time with the Art
of War as a reference.
What is the relationship between trusting the world and shaping the world?
Review some examples of chaos in your life and your response to it. Discuss
the points where you were or were not able to accommodate the chaos, and what effect
had. Did your actions help to resolve the situation, or create more chaos?