In the fall of 2002, as the “war on terrorism” shifted its focus to Iraq, Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker met with Kidder Smith. Smith is cotranslator of the 2,300-year-old Chinese text The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Shambhala Publications, 2001). Smith worked on this project with the Denma Translation Group, whose other members are drawn from the officer corps of Trungpa Rinpoche’s Buddhist military. (See Smith’s article on the Buddhist military, “Transmuting Blood and Guts,” in the summer 2001 issue of Tricycle magazine.) As the introduction to the book states, The Art of War offers “a radically new perspective on conflict, whereby one might attain victory without going to battle.” Smith, who directs the Asian studies department at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, has been engaged in Buddhist practice since his college years in the 1960s and in 1975 began studying with Chögyam Trungpa.
Inquiring Mind: Let’s talk some about The Art of War and its place in our own lives.
Kidder Smith: The Art of War is clearly talking about war, but it’s probably better if we see war as simply the most intensified manifestation of conflict. In other words, this ancient text is not primarily about arming men and women and going out and killing people, although that’s certainly not excluded. After all, most of our experience is not in that realm at all. And yet we’re surrounded by conflict, all of us. So the book is really about dealing with conflict in any of the manifestations that it might take.
IM: Would you say that conflict is perceived as positive or negative, or, perhaps, simply inevitable?
KS: Conflict arises as soon as duality arises. If we think of it in terms of the Buddhist teaching on the five skandhas, the first, form, is not yet dualistic, but as soon as its feeling-tones begin to elaborate themselves, we have the potential for a split between self and other, which becomes, you might say, the ruling principle of the fifth skandha, consciousness. So conflict, in that sense, is inherent in the arising of consciousness. This happens in every moment; in each moment the skandhas run through their sequence, and in each moment we have the possibility of seeing the world dualistically or nondually or both.
IM: What are the fundamental principles of The Art of War?
KS: Actually, I think it’s important that we understand how The Art of War is, in fact, not structured by principles. Instead, it offers a perspective, a view of the world, and its entire text is both an invocation of that view and a description of how the world looks if one holds such a viewpoint. Most simply said, that view is “taking whole.” From this perspective we include every single aspect of our world, from the nutsiest bolts on through the loftiest principles, as well as the weather and our own bad moods. All of these are relevant.
Seeing the world in this way provides a different basis from which to act. To speak strategically, then, means to discover something that is larger than my opponent’s position but also larger than mine. When we take it whole, we move to a solution that cannot be reduced to, yet is totally in relationship to, every single part of the system.
In a military context, we start large. This means looking at every piece of the situation, from the motivation of one’s troops, to the most particular details of supply, to terrain, to larger political objectives. If we think of it in terms of the dichotomy of self and other, it means being able to take both of those views and simultaneously hold them, reaching something that is larger than either of the two alone.
IM: Must one take this view if one’s intention is to be victorious in the art of war?
KS: To be victorious? Well, there’s a small sense of victory, which is based on conquest of the other. But there’s a larger sense of victory, which is inclusive and ultimately doesn’t belong to anyone. That is the victory spoken of in The Art of War.
IM: So that victory includes the vanquished as a partial victor.
KS: Necessarily. True victory can only be seen from a nondual perspective, though the nondual perspective certainly does not exclude the dual perspective.
IM: Of course, from a Buddhist perspective, just the idea of going to war would be considered the wrong thing to do. The Buddha said, “Even if my enemy is sawing off my arm, I would send love to my enemy.”
KS: Yes, and what form does that love take? Sometimes it takes the form of violence.
IM: Fierceness, maybe.
KS: Fierceness is an attitude and violence is an act. I’d like to suggest that sometimes violence is actually the most loving thing to do. The Digha Nikaya, an early Pali text, puts forth what later becomes the five precepts, and it does it in an extremely interesting way. It doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not kill or lie.” It says, “Who is the Buddha? He has lost all inclination to harm and he lives in peace, desiring the welfare of all. Who is the Buddha? He has lost all inclination to lie.” And so forth. So in that text nonharming is based not on a commandment about what one should or should not do, but rather on an attitude of mind, one of kindness and desiring to cause no harm.
The foundation of all Buddhist ethics, then, is only the propensities of Buddha mind. Ultimately, this is your own mind. From this foundation, certain actions follow. Normally, one does not kill. But I think you and I could imagine a scenario in which actual killing, including killing another human being, would be the better choice.
IM: Could you give some examples of that? When is a violent act a loving act?
KS: Here’s a stupid example: Someone is about to set off the atomic bomb; you have a gun; you shoot them. We are very fortunate to live in a society where we almost never have to take such action, but I think that any of us would kill an intruder who was about to stab our child to death. It would be a horrific act, but we would do it again, if it came to it—and take the consequences. The point is that we can’t simply be pacifistic or nonviolent. We have to react appropriately in every situation.
IM: Let’s look at our situation in the world right now. We’re living in a country whose leaders are so focused on military might as a way to be victorious, meaning as a way to get our will in the world. I guess one might interpret the approach of our government as nondualistic. One might say that our government believes that for the sake of freedom and democracy, we’re going to send our troops in here and there.
KS: I don’t know whether our leaders see it that way or not, but let’s hope they don’t, because their claims are so patently false and show such an impoverished understanding. Take, for example, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11. It seems to me that it took the planners of the attacks only a few hours to completely obtain their objective: transforming American consciousness into an us-versus-them point of view. Imagine a response where we look into the root of the problem and ask, What would make intelligent, patriotic, highly religious men kill themselves and thousands of people? What was the origin of that? Yes, it’s an act of hatred, but it’s also an act of extraordinary love.
KS: No. Love of your beliefs, your people.
IM: There’s a passage in The Art of War that reads:
And so in the military—
Knowing the other and knowing oneself,
In one hundred battles no danger. . . .
Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself,
In every battle certain defeat.
This is really what you’re talking about, isn’t it? Unfortunately, at what feels like an imperial stage in our development here in America, we seem very, very far from this idea of understanding where “the other” is coming from or from looking deeply at ourselves.
You’ve taught this art of war in military settings, right? Do they think it’s somewhat naive, or do they think, “Well, that’s interesting, maybe we should try to understand the enemy and see if we can get to the root of the problem”?
KS: Mostly that’s not their job. Military people are in charge of making the tanks work, organizing soldiery, and so forth. The conversation we’re having now is really one that would better include the generals, but really more the civilian policymakers.
IM: Well, where did you bring The Art of War and how did they respond?
KS: Eight or nine years ago, at the beginning of the translation project, I went to West Point and spoke with a class there. They didn’t really know what to make of this. They wanted to push me into the corner of being a traditional Buddhist pacifist, which I was unwilling to enter.
I remember someone asked at one point, “Okay, if I’m in a tank coming up over the hill and there’s this other force approaching, what should I do?” I said that I would give him two answers. The first is from The Thirty-Six Strategies, a traditional Chinese military text. The thirty-sixth strategy, which the book says is the best, is to run away. [Laughter] So I said that he could run away. Since he looked offended, I replied, “Of course, that’s probably not an option for you in that situation.” So I just gave him the basic Buddhist pithy advice, which is: “You do what you have to do.”
IM: Be in the moment in the situation; there are no rules. If you’re present with a sense of nonduality, you’ll do the right thing?
KS: Yes, you’ll do the best thing, right or wrong. It’s really immaterial at that point, because there’s not another reference point you can reliably invoke.
IM: It’s a dzogchen teaching.
KS: That’s right. At West Point, I also spoke to the class about my experiences in the Buddhist military, the Vajra Guard established by my teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche.
IM: Trungpa had a little standing army trained in defense, didn’t he?
KS: No. It was more like a national guard where people mostly had jobs doing other things, like teaching or writing poems. No one was armed. We didn’t even do martial arts as a form of nonviolent, or quasi-nonviolent, contact. We were trained in drill, in marching. It was a form of mind training—no different in purpose from any other kind of Buddhist training. This is still one path within what is now known as Shambhala International.
The marching was about being very present in our bodies in a very big space, outdoors, being quite concept-free and yet still active. It’s quite interesting that we marched in strict formation without having any sense of where our next step would take us. So that’s a form of meditation practice. It was just this great display of precise mind, with no goal outside itself. In place of monastic robes, we wore khaki material from Sears and jungle boots from the surplus stores of the Vietnam era.
IM: I can imagine that as being a kind of mind training that also develops a strength of character, a sense of real rock-solidness that doesn’t come from slow walking meditation or sitting on a cushion meditating. Did you find that it created that in you?
KS: Very much so, because one comes to identify with the environment, which was, in this instance, the Rocky Mountains. One has a sense of being a part of that earth and that sky. And, as you say, that’s very rugged and very big and quite immovable, actually. Or we could say that it was simultaneously unmoving (the earth and the sky) and moving (the marching).
IM: This sense of rock-solidness that you get in the marching meditation must, if anything, help develop a kind of fearlessness in the world.
KS: That’s right. I would have to say, using my teacher’s terms, it’s based on basic goodness, and that both the stillness of the earth and sky and the rugged precision of the marching are simultaneously manifestations of that goodness and also pathways to it.
Of course, for many of Trungpa Rinpoche’s students, the Buddhist military was anathema. It was simply nothing they could relate with in a dharmic way. And yet, there were other students who really could only relate to the dharma through the military.
IM: When you were marching, was there a simultaneous evoking of feelings of compassion or love or anything like that? I mean, was the basic-goodness aspect consciously brought into the marching?
KS: I think that was the secret teaching that was available for those who could intuit it. It’s such a paradox—right?—that the military, which is ordinarily organized to perform violent acts, can create in this Buddhist context a crucible in which these various aspects are blended and cooked until their essence as love or compassion becomes distilled. It’s quite miraculous, isn’t it?