“In warfare there is a saying
rather than a host
better to be a guest
rather than advance an inch
better to retreat a foot
this means to form no ranks
to put on no armor
to brandish no weapons
to repulse no enemy
no fate is worse than to have no enemy
to have no enemy is to lose one’s treasure
thus when opponents are evenly matched
the remorseful one prevails”
(Taoteching, verse 69, translation by Red Pine)
WANG CHEN says, “In warfare, we say the one who mobilizes first is the host and the one who responds is the guest. Sages only go to war when they have no choice. Hence, they are the guest.”
CHIAO HUNG says, “This was a saying of ancient military strategists.” If so, they remain unnamed. Sun-tzu, meanwhile, calls the invading force the k’o (guest) (Suntzu Pingfa: 2.20).
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “According to the Tao of warfare, we should avoid being the first to mobilize troops, and we should go to war only after receiving Heaven’s blessing.’
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The host resists, and the guest agrees. The host toils, and the guest relaxes. One advances with pride, while the other retreats in humility. One advances with action, while the other retreats in quiet. Those who meet resistance with agreement, toil with relaxation, pride with humility, and action with stillness have no enemy. Wherever they go, they conquer.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In warfare, sages leave no tracks. They advance by retreating.”
WU CH’ENG says, “Those who go to war form themselves into ranks, equip themselves with weapons, and advance against the enemy. But when sages go to war, they act as if there were no ranks, there were no armor, there were no weapons, and as if there were no enemies.”
SUN-TZU says, “Generals who advance with no thought of fame, who retreat with no fear of punishment, who think only of protecting their country and helping their king are the treasures of the realm” (Suntzu Pingfa: 10.24).
SU CH’E says, “Sages regard compassion as their treasure. To treat killing lightly would be to lose the reason for compassion.”
TE-CH’ING says, “When opponents are evenly matched and neither is superior, the winner is hard to determine. But whichever one is remorseful and compassionate will win. For the Way of Heaven is to love life and to help those who are compassionate to overcome their enemies.”
WANG PI says, “Those who are remorseful sympathize with their opponents. They try not to gain an advantage but to avoid injury. Hence, they always win.”
WANG P’ANG says, “To be remorseful is to be compassionate. Those who are compassionate are able to be courageous. Thus, they triumph.”
LIN HSI-YI says, “Those who attack with drums and cheer the advent of war are not remorseful. They are remorseful who do not consider warfare a pleasure but an occasion for mourning. In this verse, warfare is only a metaphor for the Tao.”
LAO-TZU says, “When you kill another / honor him with your tears / when the battle is won / treat it as a wake” (Taoteching: 31).
And RED PINE notes that lines ten and eleven may seem strange when we read them for the first time. I know they always trip me up. I keep thinking “to have no enemy” would be great. It just goes to show how little I know. But, Red Pine says, “The import [of these lines] would seem to be that without an enemy, we would have no recipient of our compassion and thus no reason to practice it.”
I have been thinking a lot about war in the last several days. The US Senate may actually vote as early as this Friday on ending America’s involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen. I am keeping my fingers crossed. Lao-tzu actually had plenty to say about warfare in the Taoteching. In today’s verse, for example he talks about, what in his day was already an ancient saying, about warfare. “Rather than a host, better to be a guest.” While there is some disagreement among our various commentators, I think I am assuming correctly when I agree with Wang Chen that it is the one who mobilizes first who is the host, while it is the one who responds who is the guest. This isn’t the first time Lao-tzu has said, you should only use force when “forced” to.
It is the lesson I wish my own country’s government would take to heart when it comes to warfare. For some years now, at least since the 2001 AUMF (drafted 3 days after 9/11) authorizing then President George W. Bush to fight terrorists wherever he could find them. I only recently came to realize just how narrow that 2001 AUMF actually was.
I say that now, knowing the Congress has spent roughly 17 years ducking their constitutional duty when it comes to war, and president after president (first Bush, then Obama, now Trump) , using that 2001 AUMF to attack sovereign nation after sovereign nation. Can you name all the countries we have bombed since September of 2001? Each one of those countries’ bombings were justified using that 2001 AUMF. Interesting, since it actually was a pretty narrow allowance.
Only those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or those aiding or harboring those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. That is why Bush had to lie about Iraq being somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks to justify that war in Iraq. By the time Obama became president all pretense of ever needing to tie a country we wanted to bomb to the 9/11 attacks went out the window. No need to do that anymore. Congress wasn’t about to do their duty and demand that the president cease and desist until Congress gave their approval.
That may all change starting this week. Anti-war progressives who were deafeningly silent for the eight years the Nobel peace-prize winning President Obama was killing innocent men, women, and children, even American citizens without due process, are now beginning to raise a ruckus again. Having Trump doing the bombing doesn’t sit well with them. Good! Welcome back. Better late than never.
I am cautiously hopeful that something good is going to come out of this. This war on Yemen has been horrendous. I have heard some good rhetoric coming out of Washington, at last. But don’t think for a moment, I will be satisfied with only empty rhetoric.
The truth is, just as Lao-tzu taught. Just more of that ancient saying about warfare. “Rather than advance and inch, better to retreat a foot.”
Don’t be the first one to form ranks, to put on armor, to brandish weapons. Be the last. Only do it, because you have no choice. Having to repulse an enemy should repulse you.
Lao-tzu does say something in today’s verse that never fails to throw me, each time I read it. He says, “No fate is worse than to have no enemy.” Every time I read that I think I must be misreading it. Doesn’t he mean “have an enemy”? But Lao-tzu goes on to say, “To have no enemy is to lose one’s treasure.” And I agree with Red Pine that what Lao-tzu is meaning is how having no enemy would mean having no one upon whom we could practice compassion. Like not bombing the living daylights out of their country’s infrastructure.
Anyway, that is about all I wanted to say about today’s verse. Except maybe this. It is the remorseful one who will prevail, in any armed conflict. We have plenty of reason, right now, to feel remorse about what we have done to the people of Yemen. May those who do, prevail.
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
LIN HSI-YI (FL. 1234-1260). Scholar-official who produced commentaries to a number of classics. His commentary on the Taoteching is noted for its clarity. Lao-tzu k’ou-yi.