The Art of War: Strategies and Tactics in Zen Training

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The Art of War, written in the 5th century BCE by Master Sun Tzu, is a book about military strategies and tactics as the title suggests. As a true classic in the genre of books about military strategies and tactics, the book has had enormous influence among generals and military strategists not just in China but in other countries as well. Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), one of the powerful lords during the war period in Japan, which lasted from the end of the 15th century to the end of 16th century, was one such individual who was influenced by The Art of War and adopted the phrase, “as fast as the wind, as silent as a forest, as ferocious as the fire, as immovable as a mountain,” as the slogan of his military campaigns. Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), who oversaw the democratization and economic recovery of post-WW II Japan as Allied Commander of the Japanese Occupation, is also known as a general who was influenced by The Art of War.

Not surprisingly, the influence of The Art of War has not been limited to generals and military strategists, for the military strategies and tactics Sun Tzu discusses are applicable to other areas of human activities where strategies and tactics matter. With a statement like, “If you know yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without jeopardy,” it is not surprising that the book has influenced, and still influences, many managers of professional sports and business enterprises.

Given such background, we would hardly expect The Art of War as a book that contains useful hints for Chan, or Zen, masters and practitioners, whose goal is very different from that of generals and military strategists. Discourse on Chan Training by Master Yuanyun Jiexian (1610-1672) is unique among books written by Chan masters in that it is modeled on this famous book on military strategies and tactics. How can the book on military strategies and tactics be of value in Chan training where you are struggling with yourself, not with your enemy or opponent, in your effort to gain enlightenment?

Here is how Jiexian explains in his Preface to Discourse on Chan Training why his book on Chan training is modeled on the principles of Master Sun Tzu: “For those who occupy the position of masters in Buddhism, ruling over the Chan community is like ruling over a nation. Using strategic methods to train the Chan congregation is like using military strategies.”1 As an example, Jiexian mentions about his own master, Lingyin (dates unknown), who “used many methods to break through from outside while the practitioner simultaneously breaks through from inside.”2 As for himself, “I have devised methods for Chan masters to accompany their assemblies of practitioners in their walking meditation, to strike blows, to turn their minds around, to capture them and peck through their shells, and to split apart their delusions.”3

We are thus told that Discourse on Chan Training is intended as a “manual of strategies and tactics” for Chan masters who have to deal with students of varying spiritual capacity in Chan training. Jiexian discusses in detail how to distinguish the spiritual capacity of different students, how to test their understanding, when to give dharma talks, how to structure an intense retreat, and how to utilize the principles of Chan teaching in order to “enlighten many people and produce great Dharma generals.”4

Strategic methods Jiexian suggests are thus upaya, or expedient means, which Chan masters employ in Chan training, which varies from gong’an (koan in Japanese) to huatou (wato in Japanese), to mozhao (mokusho in Japanese), and to the use of the bamboo stick (keisaku in Japanese). Varieties of expedient means are employed as teaching devices because Chan masters are entrusted with the important task of guiding practitioners to the Dharma gate and opening their eyes of enlightenment. Which teaching device is effective depends on the spiritual capacity of the individual practitioner. Master Linji ( - 866), the founder of the Linji school, is known to have distinguished three categories—high, middle, and low—of the spiritual capacity among practitioners training under him, and employed a different device suitable for each practitioner.

The real challenge for a Chan master is how to deal with the practitioner whose spiritual capacity is obviously low. For such a practitioner, sitting meditation would not be an effective teaching device, as Jiexian points out: “The ancient saying goes: ‘Great doubt, great awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening.’ Thus, if doubt is total, then enlightenment is total. … If you do not generate genuine doubt, so that the wheels of your mental processes are turning inside, then you will not attain enlightenment even if you keep on sitting until the year of the donkey.”5

Jiexian must have the Chinese Zodiac in mind when he refers to the year of donkey. The fact of the matter is, however, that there is no year of the donkey in the Chinese Zodiac. This suggests that Jiexian is aware of the need for some other radical teaching device to awaken practitioners of low spiritual capacity. A good Chan master, according to Jiexian is one who is able to choose an effective teaching device suitable for each practitioner from a variety of teaching devices available: “Therefore a master who is good at training and tempering practitioners is not averse to taking minute care with his teaching, not averse to great complexity in his efforts, not averse to being completely thorough in his wok, not to averse to employing a complete range of techniques.”6 This is a pertinent advice not just to a Chan master but also to a teacher of any skill or subject.

  1. Sheng Yen, Attaining The Way: A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism, Boston: Shambhala, 2006, p.25.
  2. ibid., p. 26.
  3. ibid., p. 26.
  4. ibid., p. 27.
  5. ibid., p. 43.
  6. ibid., p. 60.