I must be sincere. Before this course was coming I didn’t even know that “The 36 Strategies” existed. I read a lot about “The Art of War” because it is world famous and very extended. So, What makes “The 36 Strategies” so special?
Answer 2 by Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
In the world the Art of War is more famous, but in Chinese societies both inside and outside China the Thirty Six Strategies are more well-known. During conversations, Chinese often mention the names of some of the strategies, such as Rob While Fire is Burning or Borrow Knife to Kill Another like common sayings though they may not know about the strategies.
Strategies in the Thirty Six Strategies are different from strategies in the Art of War. The 36 strategies are called ji in Chinese, which means tricks for particular occasions. The strategies in the Art of War are called fa, which means overall plans of action.
The Thirty Six Strategies are special because they consist of 36 different tricks of an extensive variety that spanned across many centuries. One learns not just 36 tricks themselves but the principles behind the tricks that give rise to countless other tricks which because of their extensive variety can be used for any situations. In other words when you are familiar with these 36 tricks and their principles, you can have any tricks for any occasions.
Let us take an example of the trick, Rob While Fire is Burning. This strategy came from the famous novel, Journey to the West. While journeying to India to get sutras back to China, the Venerable Tripitaka and his disciple, the Monkey God, stayed a night in a temple in a wilderness. The abbot knew that Tripitaka had a magnificent robe presented to him by the Tang Emperor. He requested Tripitaka to show him the robe. But seeing the robe was so magnificent that he became greedy and wanted the robe for himself.
He thought of a trick. He said that he was old and feeble and could not see the robe properly. He requested that Tripitaka lend him the robe for a night so that he could admire it in his own room. Being an embodiment of kindness, Tripitaka consented.
The abbot called his monks together to scheme to have the robe for himself. A monk suggested that they set on fire the room in which Tripitaka and Monkey God were sleeping. While the monks were preparing the fire, Monkey God changed himself into a bee, flew out of the room and discovered the scheme. With a few somersaults he landed in heaven and borrowed a fire-prevention shield from a Heavenly Kings.
With the fire-protection shield, no fire could harm Tripitaka and Monkey God. Monkey God decided to play a little prank on the monks. He gently blew on the fire with the result that now the whole temple was on fire with the monks busy attempting to stop it.
In a nearby cave, known as Black Wind Cave, lived a titan called Black Wind Titan. This titan was a friend of the abbot and frequently visited the temple. Seeing the temple on fire, he flew over to help to put out the fire. But he chanced upon the magnificent robe. He too became greedy. He just leisurely took the robe while the fire was burning.
The temple was burnt to the ground. Of course Tripitaka and Monkey God were safe. Eventually Monkey God got back the magnificent robe for his master.
Cao Cao, the famous prime-minister-cum-general of the Three Kingdom Period made good use of this strategy, Rob While Fire is Burning. He led an attack on the territories of Yun Tan. Yun Tan sought the help of his younger brother, Yun Xiang. Despite numerous attempts, Cao Cao could not defeat the combined armies of Yun Tan and Yun Xiang. So Cao Cao and the attacking force left.
Soon disagreement broke out between Yun Tan and Yun Xiang. It became so bad that Yun Tan sought the help of Cao Cao to protect him. Cao Cao exploited the situation. Pacifying Yun Tan, Cao Cao led his attacking force against Yun Xiang and vanquished him. Later, using an excuse he also vanquished Yun Tan.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu described this principle as “luan er bai zi”, which literally means “troubled, then defeat it”. When a state is in trouble, it is good time to vanquish it. Sun Tzu categorized three types of trouble — internal disorder, external attack, and combination of internal and external trouble. I learned an invaluable lesson while studying ancient world history in Form Six. The great Roman Empire fell because of internal disorder and external attack. Internal disorder was the more important factor. External attack just sealed its fall.
We should all learn an invaluable lesson from here. In future if Shaolin Wahnam ever crumbled, it would be due to internal disorder. We must all guard against this.
The famous Tang general, Xue Ren Gui, who originated the strategy “Deceiving Heaven to Cross Sea”
It would be great to hear some of your experiences using the 36 strategies. Do you have any particularly memorable moments when you applied them, whether with patients, in work or in combat?
Answer 1 by Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
Although I know the 36 strategies well, interestingly I do not consciously apply them to solve problems. A main reason is that since actively putting our Shaolin Wahnam philosophy into daily life, I do not have any problems. What other people regard as problems, I regard as opportunities for improvement, which is quoted from Emiko who mentioned this some years ago.
Another important reason is that, regardless of whether we call them problems or opportunities for improvement, I look at them with a Zen state of mind. The solution often appears immediately, without the need to think of suitable strategies.
But this does not mean that it is not useful to learn the Thirty Six Strategies. In fact, it is because I know the strategies very well that solutions appear easily to me. Just like in our kungfu and chi kung training. I have learnt so many kungfu and chi kung techniques, that now I can respond spontaneously to any attack or meet any chi kung need without having to think of what techniques to use.
Knowing these 36 strategies is also very useful in a reverse manner, i.e. you can quickly know if someone attempts to use any tricks on you.
I recall an interesting occasion many years ago when a salesman tried to sell something to me. He said he had a present for me. I told him straight away that I didn’t want the present. He was shocked. “Don’t you want a present?” he asked, “it’s free.” “No, thank you. I’m not interested in the present.” He was trying to use the trick, Deceive Heaven to Cross Sea, on me, though he probably did not know the name of the strategy. He might not even know he was using a strategy; he just followed the training he was given.
In my younger days, some masters would tell me that other masters criticized my kungfu behind my back. “What do you think of my kungfu?” I asked. “Of course, it is very good,” they said. “That is good enough for me,” I said, “I don’t have to worry about what the other masters said.” I knew they were using the strategy, Borrow Knife to Kill Another.
Yet, looking back with hindsight in my healing work I often use the strategy, Deceive Heaven to Cross Sea. The title of this strategy is not quite appropriate here as it connotes a sense of deception. It would be more appropriate to call it Admire Plum Quench Thirst, which connotes a sense of inspiration, and is actually another name for this type of strategy. When someone couldn’t stand unassisted, I told him to imagine how wonderful if would be when he could walk and run unaided.
In combat, the strategy I use often is Sound East Strike West. It is extremely effective. In the no-shadow kick, which is one of my specialties, I could kick slowly yet hit an opponent when I use this strategy effectively.
An old picture showing Grandmaster Wong demonstrating a no-shadow kick on a student
The Thirty Six Strategies are actually not strategies in the sense of overall plans of action, but rather ruses or tricks to overcome particular problems. In Chinese, the 36 strategies are called ji, whereas the strategies in the Art of War, for example, are call fa. There 36 strategies or tricks were used at different times in history by strategists, generals and important people, but are collected into a book by an unnamed author.
The 36 strategies are conveniently classified into six groups as follows. Like Shaolin kungfu patterns, the titles of the 36 strategies are poetically described in four characters.
1. Deceive Heaven to Cross Sea
2. Surround Wei to Save Zhao
3. Borrow Knife to Kill Another
4. Use Rest to Wait for Labour
5. Rob while Fire is Burning
6. Sound East Attack West
7. From Nothing Born Something
8. Secretly Escape via Chen Cang
9. Across Beach Watch Fire
10. Knife Hidden in Smile
11. Plum Sacrifices for Peach
12. Snatch Goat Along Way
13. Hit Grass Startle Snake
14. Borrow Body to Reincarnate
15. Trick Tiger Leave Mountain
16. To Catch So Release
17. Throw Stone Attract Jade
18. Catch Bandits Catch Leader
19. Beneath Cauldron Withdraw Firewood
20. Troubled Water Catch Fish
21. Golden Cicada Sheds Shell
22. Close Door Catch Thief
23. Far Befriend Near Attack
24. Borrow Passage Attack Guo
25. Steal Beam Change Pillar
26. Point Mulberry Scold Acacia
27. Fake Madness Not Insane
28. Ascend Roof Remove Ladder
29. Tree Top Blossom Flowers
30. Turn Guest Become Host
I am sure we shall have a lot of fun as well as benefit from the answers to the questions submitted.
Some of us may have the impression that the 36 strategies are tricks to deceive other people. As scholar-warriors we want to defeat our opponents in honorable ways, which was the tradition of great masters in the past. So some of us may think the 36 strategies are not suitable. But this is not so. In fact, knowing the 36 strategies help us to win honorably.
Firstly, we are aware of tricks our opponents may use on us. The 36 strategies are comprehensive, and so include any tricks opponents may think of, regardless of whether they know the 36 strategies. This is following the advice of the great strategist, Sun Tze, i.e. know your enemy and know yourself, and you will win hundred battles out of hundred. Sun Tze himself used these tricks frequently. These 36 tricks are effective tools to implement the strategies described in the Art of War.
Secondly, tricks by themselves are neutral. It is the intention behind that makes our action facilitated by the tricks noble. You will be pleased to know that the great Guan Yin Bodhisattva used the first of these 36 strategies, Deceive Heaven to Cross Sea, on Monkey God. The result is that not only it brought a lot of benefit to the Monkey God, but also it brings a lot of benefit to people all over the world, including us.
After being released by the Venerable Xuan Zhang, or Tripitaka, from the Five-Finger Mountain which imprisoned Monkey God, he became a disciple of Xuan Zhang to protect the master in the journey to the West to bring sutras back to China for translation. (If this did not happen, most of the Buddhist sutras which were originally written in Sanskrit would be lost.) But Monkey God was mischievous and would not always listen to Xuan Zhang.
So Guan Yin Bodhisattva appeared as an elderly lady with a crown in the form of a golden ring and a magnificent robe, and presented them to Monkey God who gladly wore them. Then Guan Yin Bodhisattva taught Xuan Zhang a ring-tightening mantra. Whenever Monkey God did not follow Xuan Zhang’s instructions, the master would recite the mantra, which would tighten the ring on Monkey God’s head causing him inextricable pain. Monkey God knew 72 transformations. He could, for example, change himself into a fly, but the ring would contract accordingly. The pain would stop only when Xuan Zhang stopped chanting the mantra.
In fact two of the 36 strategies originated from the stories of Monkey God and Immortal Li, namely Rob While Fire is Burning and Borrow Body to Reincarnate. We shall read about these interesting stories in the relevant answers.
This itself makes the Thirty Six Strategies Course very special. Monkey God and Immortal Li, who have frequently guided, protected and blessed us, are the source of two of the Thirty Six Strategies.
So the Thirty Six Strategies Course during the Valentine Festival in Ireland is not about learning how to trick people doing something which they would not normally do, but about learning to be cost effective so as to enrich our lives and the lives of other people. These strategies, collected over many centuries, are still being actively used by military strategists, business leaders and top people all over the world today.
Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
10th January 2013
Guan Yin Bodhisattva and Monkey God
A course on the Thirty Six Strategies was held on 22nd and 23rd August 2015 in Ireland. Please see Harvest Festival 2015 for details.