“If you know both your enemy and yourself, you can win every battle without jeopardy”

Paul, a contact on the discussion board at SuttaCentral.net, sent me this one. He was on the United States VA (Veterans Administration) website looking at their anger management course, and right on the first page he saw the quote that’s in the image above. He was instantly suspicious, and rightly so.

The quote is actually from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (III, 31), which in Lionel Giles’ translation is “Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Now I’m certainly not a military strategist, but one thing that struck me about the original quote was that there really is no guarantee of victory in battle stemming from knowing both yourself and your enemy. What you may know about yourself is that you’re disorganized and small in numbers, and what you may know about the enemy is that they’re well organized and there are lots of them. What Sun Tzu actually seems to say is that you can choose not to fight the enemy under such circumstances, not that you’re magically guaranteed victory.

Also, the Buddha wasn’t exactly known for offering advice on how to conquer your enemies. In fact when he talked to kings he tried to talk them out of going to war.

Now, the Buddha did use the language of battles and victory. He said things like these:

He referred to himself as “He whose victory cannot be undone” (Dhammapada, verse 179). In verses 103 to 105 of the same text, the Buddha says:

Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.

Self-conquest is far better than the conquest of others. Not even a god, an angel, Mara or Brahma can turn into defeat the victory of a person who is self-subdued and ever restrained in conduct.

He himself (Dhammapada 201) was beyond concepts of victory and defeat:

Victory begets enmity; the defeated dwell in pain. Happily the peaceful live, discarding both victory and defeat.

He used warriorship as a metaphor for spiritual practice, as when he said that a monk was like a warrior who “is skilled in his stance, able to shoot far, able to fire shots in rapid succession, and able to pierce great objects.” (You can read the sutta to see what he meant by this.)

Another example of this was using the image of a fearless elephant, in the heat of battle, ignoring wounds caused by arrows: “As an elephant in the battlefield withstands arrows shot from bows all around, even so shall I endure abuse.” That’s very handy advice when you’re running a website like this one.

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