Feb 19, 2024

Tao Te Ching’s Advice For Warriors

The Tao Te Ching begins with advice for warriors in Chapter 67 verse 5 as, “the compassionate will in attack be victorious, and in defence firm. Heaven when about to save one will with compassion protect him.” i.e. the poet advocates a way of compassion for the warrior. 

The standard translation comes out roughly as;

Gentleness is sure to be victorious even in battle, and firmly to

maintain its ground. Heaven will save its possessor, by his (very)

gentleness protecting him.

With such a belief it’s no wonder martial arts such as Aikido have emerged that seek to win a fight without hurting the opponent where possible and if not then not killing him where possible. The idea of the Sage Warrior amongst the Samurai with their elaborate King Arthur & The Knights of the Round Table like code of conduct can also be attributed to inspiration from this text.

The following are the chapters specifically for warriors outlining the basics of the warrior path of zen followed by other related chapters to show how embedded in - the way of the Tao - Zen, the path of war (if necessary) really is;

68. Complying With Heaven 

1. He who excels as a warrior is not warlike. He who excels as a fighter is not wrathful. He who excels in conquering the enemy does not strive. He who excels in employing men is lowly.

2. This is called the virtue of not-striving. This is called utilizing men's ability. This is called complying with heaven-since olden times the highest.


1. The best warrior is not warlike, i.e. he doesn’t like war but fights only if he absolutely has to. One he decides to fight he fights to win but not out of anger or vengeance. The person who truly defeats his enemy does so naturally without pushing for their way. The one who is best is getting good service from people working for him/her is a person who is humble.

2. This is the zen way of fighting the enemy. You don’t fight the enemy with passion but with tactics when and where appropriate and then you accept the results. Striving is the continuous seeking after results when you know not what will work. Such striving is often pointless like looking for a particular grain of sand on a beach. This method of fighting without passion is so ancient is goes back as far as we can imagine. 

Standard Translation;

He who in (Tao's) wars has skill

Assumes no martial port;

He who fights with most good will

To rage makes no resort.

He who vanquishes yet still

Keeps from his foes apart;

He whose hests men most fulfil

Yet humbly plies his art.

Thus we say, 'He ne'er contends,

And therein is his might.'

Thus we say, 'Men's wills he bends,

That they with him unite.'

Thus we say, 'Like Heaven's his ends,

No sage of old more bright.'

69. The Function Of The Mysterious

1. A military expert used to say: 'I dare not act as host [who takes the initiative] but act as guest [with reserve]. I dare not advance an inch, but I withdraw a foot."

2. This is called marching without marching, threatening without arms, charging without hostility, seizing without weapons.

3. No greater misfortune than making light of the enemy! When we make light of the enemy, it is almost as though we had lost our treasure--[compassion].

4. Thus, if matched armies encounter one another, the one who does so in sorrow is sure to conquer.


1. An expert war master doesn’t seek to advance every foot possible but to retreat and let the enemy calm down. Having the most territory isn’t the same as having the most wealth or the best trade wealth. A humble approach to foreign relations is what is advised here.

2. This way a true warrior keeps balance within his army is by preparing them to fight in the right way mentally and winning through positive propaganda alone.

3. Never underestimate the enemy. Always put in careful thought and preparation when dealing with the enemy.

4. Here the poet says the one that engages in a war not in fear or anger or vengeance or greed but with sorrow (implying this is a duty that must be done and is being done as a last resort) is the one that will win. 

Standard Translation;

A master of the art of war has said, 'I do not dare to be the

host (to commence the war); I prefer to be the guest (to act on the defensive). I do not dare to advance an inch; I prefer to retire a foot.' This is called marshalling the ranks where there are no ranks; baring the arms (to fight) where there are no arms to bare; grasping the weapon where there is no weapon to grasp; advancing against the enemy where there is no enemy.

There is no calamity greater than lightly engaging in war. To do

that is near losing (the gentleness) which is so precious. Thus it is that when opposing weapons are (actually) crossed, he who deplores (the situation) conquers.

War Is Always A Last Resort

31. Quelling War 

1. Even victorious arms are unblest among tools, and people had better shun them. Therefore he who has Reason does not rely on them.

2. The superior man when residing at home honors the left. When using arms, he honors the right.

3. Arms are unblest among tools and not the superior man's tools. Only when it is unavoidable he uses them. Peace and quietude he holdeth high.

4. He conquers but rejoices not. Rejoicing at a conquest means to enjoy the slaughter of men. He who enjoys the slaughter of men will most assuredly not obtain his will in the empire.


1. Weapons are one of the worst of man’s inventions. “It would be best if we had never invented a weapon” the poet laments. So zen/tao doesn’t depend upon weapons.

2. This is an interesting way of arranging the concepts of peace and war. I’m sure that left's aversion to weapons and the right propensity for war in our time is just a coincidence. That said, the fact that a Taoist when peaceful is of ‘the left side’ and when functioning as a warrior is of ‘the right side’ is something that should be easily understandable by an American audience.

3. Here the poet makes it clear that while weapons are the worst inventions of man and are not used by the “Superior” man (Taoist/zen practitioner), if there is no other choice than using weapons (going to war/fighting) is fine. You don’t go out hunting a tiger for the sake of hunting it but if attacked or under threat by a tiger then you have to take up arms to not only repel it but to kill it so it doesn’t strike/eat someone else. Same applies to other situations in everyday life or once in a lifetime wars/battles.

4. A zenist who fights, who has to fight, does so with no joy in what he has to do. If a person enjoys killing then he reveals a flaw in his character. A person who enjoys killing can’t build an empire that lasts because his own attitude of enjoyment in death comes back to get him.

Standard Translation;

Now arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen,

hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore they who have the Tao do not like to employ them.

The superior man ordinarily considers the left hand the most

honourable place, but in time of war the right hand. Those sharp weapons are instruments of evil omen, and not the instruments of the superior man;--he uses them only on the compulsion of necessity. Calm and repose are what he prizes; victory (by force of arms) is to him undesirable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the slaughter of men; and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot get his will in the kingdom.

On occasions of festivity to be on the left hand is the prized

position; on occasions of mourning, the right hand. The second in command of the army has his place on the left; the general commanding in chief has his on the right;--his place, that is, is assigned to him as in the rites of mourning. He who has killed multitudes of men should weep for them with the bitterest grief; and the victor in battle has his place (rightly) according to those rites.

Winning the War

67. The Three Treasures

1. All in the world call me great; but I resemble the unlikely. Now a man is great only because he resembles the unlikely. Did he resemble the likely, how lasting, indeed, would his mediocrity be!

2. I have three treasures which I cherish and prize. The first is called compassion. The second is called economy. The third is called not daring to come to the front in the world.

3. The compassionate can be brave; the economical can be generous; those who dare not come to the front in the world can become perfect as chief vessels.

4. Now, if people discard compassion and are brave; if they discard economy and are generous; if they discard modesty and are ambitious, they will surely die.

5. Now, the compassionate will in attack be victorious, and in defence firm. Heaven when about to save one will with compassion protect him.


1. You are amazing because of being unusual not because you are usual. If you resembled all the things people call great then you are just like other great things and thus just mediocre in nature and not great at all! (poet is saying that things aren't as they often appear to be).

2. The three things the poet cherishes and prizes as valuable is the ability to feel empathy for other living beings or “compassion”. The second treasure is the ability to be frugal and careful in living and the third is to be satisfied without the fame of living in the limelight. In other words, the poet claims there is benefit to gain from remaining in the shadows, so to speak.

3. Compassion can make you brave as you try to help the less fortunate. Being careful with expenditure means that when needed you can be generous with you accumulated wealth. Those who can remain in the shadows rather than residing in the limelight can be the perfect instruments of implementing the will of the people.

4. - If people are brave without being compassionate i.e. fighting for a cause rather than fighting to help people.

- If they aren’t careful with expenditure YET are generous in giving (thereby giving more than you have which can lead to other problems)

- If people discard modesty but seek stuff through ambition (thus seeking to boost their own ego by accomplishing stuff) then you surely walk the path of mental and spiritual death.

5. The compassionate person will be victorious in attack for all eternity and in defense will hold out forever. (even if one loses the battle one wins the war, so to speak). Even the universe of life itself seem to help the compassionate man succeed while protecting him.

Standard Translation;

All the world says that, while my Tao is great, it yet appears

to be inferior (to other systems of teaching). Now it is just its

greatness that makes it seem to be inferior. If it were like any

other (system), for long would its smallness have been known!

But I have three precious things which I prize and hold fast. The

first is gentleness; the second is economy; and the third is shrinking from taking precedence of others.

With that gentleness I can be bold; with that economy I can be

liberal; shrinking from taking precedence of others, I can become a vessel of the highest honour. Now-a-days they give up gentleness and are all for being bold; economy, and are all for being liberal; the hindmost place, and seek only to be foremost;--(of all which the end is) death.

Gentleness is sure to be victorious even in battle, and firmly to

maintain its ground. Heaven will save its possessor, by his (very) gentleness protecting him.

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