The Sage Commander

We are all leaders in our own way. We all face conflict and chaos in our lives. But the wise leader seeks victory beyond aggression.

Denma Translation Group
1 January 2001
Toy soldiers posed to fight each other.

We are all leaders in our own way. We all face conflict and chaos in our lives. But the wise leader seeks victory beyond aggression. An essay by The Denma Translation Group, authors of a new translation of The Art of War.

The Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese text known in the West as The Art of War, shows us how to conquer without aggression. It teaches “taking whole,” by which an enemy is overcome without being destroyed. For over two millennia this text has been studied in East Asia. Now its tradition has the possibility of taking authentic root in the West. Anyone seeking to work skillfully with conflict can benefit from its insights.

The Sun Tzu speaks to conflict from a place we call victory. Victory implies the attainment of one’s objective. But true victory is much more than that. Taking the view of the whole, it encompasses the views of both its enemies and allies. It looks beyond immediate loss and gain, going to the root of all contention. It is utterly flexible. Victory is more a way of being than a final goal. It is the ground on which we can most effectively participate in conflict.

Victory lies beyond the dichotomy of war and peace. War is sometimes necessary, but it devastates much that is good. Perfect peace is not possible in human society. The issue, therefore, is neither how to avoid conflict nor better arm ourselves, but how to engage it in a way that is sane, kindly and effective. Sometimes this may require the use of force, but the highest skill lies in “subduing the other’s military without battle.”

These ideas do not belong solely to the Sun Tzu or any other proprietary group. They are basic human knowledge. Yet the Sun Tzu sets them out with unusual directness. It demands that we understand the structures of contention and master all its relevant factors, from organization, supply and the psychology and forms of conflict, to configurations of seasons and terrain. It urges us to penetrate the surface tangle of phenomena so that their truer patterns become visible.

We must also develop a thorough knowledge of ourselves, the habits of our thought, the passions, dislikes or blindnesses that influence our perception and judgment. This discipline means sustaining an openness of mind, leaving a space for our natural intelligence to arise. Through such processes we begin to relinquish the acquisitiveness of small victories and come to take the perspective of the whole.

The epitome of this practice is the general, the central figure of the Sun Tzu. This general is a sage commander, someone who goes beyond the conceptualizing activity that constitutes good planning, effective strategy or even wisdom. Seeing the whole, the sage commander creates endless forms from within it. This ability arises from human capacities to see, hear and know the world that are common to everyone.

The general is the sage commander who wields power in the midst of contention and conflict. He is a remarkable example of human skill and wisdom. He speaks with authority and is effective and resourceful, in tune with larger patterns. He commands the battlefield. The general personifies an idealized wisdom, making what might otherwise seem distant and unreachable relevant to our everyday life. Upon closer examination, we can see some element in each of his qualities and actions that reflects our own experience in situations of conflict. Just like the sayings in the text that change our way of thinking with a few words, the image of the sage commander can reshape our actions during times of great challenge. This shows us taking whole, how to conquer without fighting.


For the Sun Tzu, the key to skillful action is in knowing those things that make up the environment and then arranging them so that their power becomes available. It is not necessary to change the nature of things in order to come to victory.

The sage commander starts with himself. Thus his first question is not what to do but how to be. Simply being oneself brings about a power often lost in the rush to be something else. A rock is just a rock, and a tree just a tree. But the text tells us that:

As for the nature of trees and rocks—
When still, they are at rest.
When agitated, they move.
When square, they stop.
When round, they go.
Thus the shih [force] of one skilled at setting people to battle is like rolling round rocks from a mountain one thousand jen high.
(Chapter 5)

The torrent these things become as they roll down the mountain side is unstoppable.

Because the sage commander has settled into being who he is, he is no longer constantly comparing himself to others. He is not embarrassed, and doesn’t need to pretend to be more than he is. There is no gap between his words and his action. Thus he acts from his own ground of strength.

The sage commander is genuine because he appreciates himself as he is. This gives rise to gentleness, where he can allow things to be as they are, rather than forcing them to be a certain way. This kindness is not based on the logic of ethics, nor do his actions necessarily conform to conventional standards of behavior.

Knowing how to be means that the sage commander doesn’t hover above the ground or perch upon his seat but sits like a mountain, of the nature of the earth. Being who he is, he is a compass point by which others can obtain their bearings, so that they too can relax into who they are. Simply by being who he is, holding his seat, he has already accomplished much of his goal.

Since his activity radiates a quality of completeness, his actions display a deep conviction. This engenders trust, so others believe in what he does and says. Thus he leads the people and ensures the welfare of the state.

When the sage commander leads the troops into battle, they must follow without hesitation. He works hard to earn this loyalty by knowing and caring for his soldiers. With natural inquisitiveness about how people function, the sage commander connects to his troops in an intimate and personal way.

And so one skilled at employing the military takes them by the hand
as if leading a single person.
They cannot hold back.

(Chapter 11)

Every circumstance is an opportunity for the sage commander to cultivate this relationship, and every exchange can deepen his connection with his troops.

Loyalty is above all based on appreciation. It develops when people appreciate what they are involved in, and when appreciation is expressed for them. The sage commander earns the loyalty of the troops by first genuinely expressing loyalty to them in even the smallest gestures. He doesn’t miss the opportunity to win someone’s trust, and never gives up on anyone. In this way, he creates a unified entity where before there were many individuals, and gains a military that follows him through extreme conditions and conflict.

He looks upon the troops as his children.
Thus they can venture into deep river valleys with him.
He looks upon the troops as his beloved sons.
Thus they can die with him.

(Chapter 10)

His natural inquisitiveness manifests as respect for the intelligence of his troops. Even negativity is not an obstacle, since he responds to the intelligence expressed within it. Thus mutual respect strengthens the bond between the sage commander and his troops.

The bonds forged by intimate contact and mutual respect provide the ground for hard training and difficult tasks. Constant socialization and reinforcement of values are necessary to build cohesiveness. But it is through this kind of effort that these bonds can develop into fierce loyalty.

Working with Chaos

The ground of battle, and indeed all of life, is unpredictable, full of chaos and uncertainty. From an ordinary perspective, chaos is the disorder between the last discernible order and the future order that has not yet come. It is a dangerous and uncertain time, when things that seem solid and fixed fall apart.

Chaos is indeed a great challenge for the general. If he himself is chaotic, his ability to command the situation is seriously undermined.

He is chaotic and unable to bring order.
(Chapter 10)

And the outcome of his own confusion is a confused and ineffective military:

The general is weak and not strict.
His training and leadership are not clear.
The officers and troops are inconstant.
The formations of the military are jumbled.
This is called “chaos.”

(Chapter 10)

The sage commander, however, always takes the bigger view. While in the midst of confusion, he sees how chaos forms its own particular order. Though the course of a hurricane along the coast is unpredictable, it is part of a weather pattern that is intelligible.

Chaos is born from order.
Cowardice is born from bravery.
Weakness is born from strength.

(Chapter 5)

Chaos and order are two aspects of the same thing. Together they constitute the totality of our experience, the good and bad, the confusion and clarity—how it is all interconnected and constantly shifting. From the smaller perspective we experience these as opposed. But in order to take whole, the sage commander must work with this totality. He resides in the fundamental orderliness of the chaos, and thus for him:

The fight is chaotic yet one is not subject to chaos.
(Chapter 5)

While chaos is generally a difficult and uncomfortable time, it is also dynamic, a time of great openness and creativity. The sage commander develops an appreciation for its potent quality. Since he holds no fixed position, chaos is not a threat. He is not undermined by uncertainty. Rather than giving in to the impulse to control chaos when it arises, the sage commander rests in the chaos, and allows it to resolve itself.

This trust resembles conventional patience, in that the sage commander refrains from action. Yet rather than an act of forbearance, it is a matter of letting things happen in their own time. It is a withdrawing from the smaller skirmishes to allow a greater victory to ripen.

When it has rained upstream, the stream’s flow intensifies.
Stop fording. Wait for it to calm.

(Chapter 9)

Chaos then becomes a powerful time for the sage commander to take effective action. He can use it as an ally, particularly against a highly solidified position. Chaos can undermine that situation, unraveling it rather than forcing a confrontation. Trying to overpower solidity by building up greater solidity merely triggers the cycle of escalation.

Since the sage commander appreciates and accommodates chaos, he sees more clearly what is taking place within it. Thus he knows how shih (forces) will develop and can catch the moment when one small gesture will be more decisive than a tremendous effort applied at the wrong time or place.

Being prepared and awaiting the unprepared is victory.
(Chapter 3)

Allowing a chaotic situation to develop demands courage, for it often means that in the short term things will get worse rather than better. There is always the chance that something of value will be harmed. But in the interplay of chaos and order, things don’t always resolve themselves in a linear manner, so they must be allowed to run their course. Achieving a fundamental, long-term solution is more important than resolving immediate irritation and discomfort. So he allows the situation to develop, and, with patience, finds the right moment to make the critical impact.

Faced with chaos or conflict, the sage commander looks first to the largest reference point. No matter what ground he has been given, he always thinks bigger. Loosening his gaze on the immediate and short term, suspending his habitual view, he looks to the space around things. This allows lesser objectives to change and develop naturally. These smaller goals are often woven closely together and in competition with one another. Yet even as they shift position and change shape, they can still support the larger goal. He is careful not to fixate on a particular way they might manifest and thereby avoids insignificant skirmishes.

The best illustration of this is in how he works with problems. A problem usually arises when one holds to a view that has become too small and inflexible. Addressing a problem as it is presented often reinforces the fixation that initially gave rise to it. The sage commander focuses on the bigger perspective that holds the key to both the problem and the solution. There he can catch the possibilities that are hidden from others and attain the victory they cannot see.

In seeing victory, not going beyond what everyone knows is not skilled.
Victory in battle that all-under-heaven calls skilled is not skilled.

(Chapter 4)


According to the Sun Tzu, victory arises only in the moment.

These are the victories of the military lineage.
They cannot be transmitted in advance.

(Chapter 1)

How then does the sage commander find victory? Once again, this comes back to knowing—first himself and then the other—as the source of all skillful action. Relying on his own genuineness, he creates the ground for victory in his actions and environment, but most importantly, in his mind.

The sage commander is beyond the sway and manipulation of others. His preparation, then, is not so much focused on the accumulation of strength as on taking a position outside the reach of attack. His perspective prepares the ground of no defeat. Thus he steps outside the possibility of attack altogether, remaining beyond grasp. If he cannot be found, the enemy has nothing to fight against.

Of old, those skilled at defense hid below the nine earths and moved
above the nine heavens.
Thus they could preserve themselves and be all-victorious.

(Chapter 4)

The sage commander moves beyond defeat by being victorious over his own aggression. He neither ignores nor indulges in it. Aggression gives the enemy something to fight against. This mires the general in battle. The sage commander responds to aggression by creating space, which relaxes the situation and, paradoxically, brings it more under his control. It’s like controlling a bull by giving him a very large pasture.

Residing in victory, the sage commander creates both the ground for the enemy defeat to arise and the openness to catch it when it does. In this way he is victorious before the battle is fought.

The sage commander forms the ground and brings others around to his victorious perspective. He forms himself as well as the environment, and thus narrows the enemy options. He offers them the choices he wants them to have, and leads them where he wants them to go. The sage commander attains victory when the enemy can see no other alternative and chooses what he has offered. It is all-victorious when they see that option as best for them, and have no idea that they were directed there.

One skilled at moving the enemy
Forms and the enemy must follow,
Offers and the enemy must take.

(Chapter 5)

The text suggests various ways in which the sage commander may shape the ground. The ultimate is creating preponderance or shih, which is simultaneously the configuration of forces and the power inherent within them. The sage commander forms the ground to bring about favorable shih. He doesn’t change the nature of things, only their circumstances. Thus he gains their power. As the sage commander shapes the ground to create advantage, he waits for the node to arise and then swiftly acts. This is the critical moment when preponderance can be applied and victory assured.

A victorious military is like weighing a
hundredweight against a grain.
A defeated military is like weighing a grain
against a hundredweight.
One who weighs victory sets the people to
battle like releasing amassed water into a
gorge one thousand jen deep.

(Chapter 4)

In this complex and essentially uncontrollable world, the ultimate outcome of present actions is not predictable. The enemy of today may be a friend tomorrow. The sage commander seeks a victory that is ongoing. Taking whole allows him to preserve the possibilities—to keep every option open.

Taking whole means conquering the enemy in a way that keeps as much intact as possible—both your own resources and those of the enemy. Such a victory leaves something available to build upon, for both you and your former foe. Destruction leaves nothing, and its aftermath diverts valuable energy from the larger victory.

Taking whole starts with defeating the enemy’s strategy, both large and small. Strategy is the means by which all actions are coordinated and all resources allocated. The enemy’s strategy makes their actions coherent and focused. Defeating it unravels their cohesion and dissolves their alliances. Thus the sage commander renders the physical destruction of their forces unnecessary. He accomplishes this through the skillful use of forming and transforming the ground of battle. This is as much a matter of mind as it is of the physical conditions of warfare.

And so the superior military cuts down strategy.
Its inferior cuts down alliances.
Its inferior cuts down the military.
The worst attacks walled cities.

(Chapter 3)

Swiftness rules when it comes to taking whole. It allows the sage commander’s military to seize the moment when advantage arises. The sage commander’s patience allows him to await that moment. When it comes, he can act with lightning swiftness. All in all, he gets to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible. He is not slowed by relating to what the enemy chooses to show, but sees the purpose behind their actions, making quick work of a conflict that could otherwise be destructive for all.

The most profound method the sage commander employs to attain victory is the extraordinary and the orthodox. He engages the enemy with what they expect. This is the orthodox, that which is familiar and understandable, what the enemy can easily see. It confirms their projections. However, the sage commander conquers the enemy with what they never imagine. This is the extraordinary. It is not any particular action but simply what the enemy does not expect.

To do so, he works with the enemy’s perception of the world. If the enemy believes the sage commander’s position to be protected, they will not attack; it does not matter if it is undefended in fact. More than anything, the sage commander must understand his enemy’s processes of thought. Whatever the nature of someone’s thinking, strong or weak, it forms a pattern. As such, it systematically includes and excludes. These are both its strengths and limitations. If the sage commander can discern the enemy’s patterns, he knows what is orthodox within it. Then, in response, the extraordinary is apparent to him:

One skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary—
As boundless as heaven and earth,
As inexhaustible as the Yellow River and
the ocean.

(Chapter 5)

The patterns of his enemy’s thought are obvious to the sage commander, the way a road map indicates where the next highway exit leads or a facial expression reveals so much about someone’s intention. Part of this comes from familiarity with the world. However, it is less a matter of specific information than of his understanding of basic human existence. All these are still the orthodox. But he himself always thinks bigger, seeing beyond them into something the enemy cannot conceive. This doesn’t require special equipment or techniques. It works with the ordinary things of the world and has a quality of everyday magic.

The all-victorious sage commander doesn’t attain victory by bringing the enemy over to his side. Instead he creates the existence of a larger view that includes both sides. It is the ground from which all interests arise. But there is no promise of victory, no formula or guideline that will ultimately ensure that victory comes about. Nor is there is an absolute measure of victory. The sage commander can only refer back to his ground of basic genuineness.

Taking whole is victory over aggression. It arises in the unique moment of each circumstance. It preserves the possibilities. Victory is ongoing, a way of being rather than a final goal. It means embracing all aspects of the world. Trying to reject parts of it perpetuates the struggle, in oneself and in the world. Victory over war is victory over this aggression, a victory that includes the enemy and thus renders further conflict unnecessary.

From The Art of War: A New Translation. ©2001 The Denma Translation Group. Used with permission of Shambhala Publications.

Denma Translation Group

The Denma Translation Group is led by James Gimian and Kidder Smith, director of the Asian Studies Program at Bowdoin College. The members all received training in a contemplative discipline created by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called the Dorje Kasung, which draws on the practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the Shambhala vision of enlightened society, and some Western military forms.