Every One

The massive Northern army is moving across the land. Town after town, province after province collapses in the onslaught. The power of the Northern army is irresistible.

They arrive on the banks of the Yangtze River, and make camp. The Yangtze is the last barrier between them and the kingdoms of the South. Between the Northern army and the conquest of the entire empire.

The people of the south have heard the stories of murder and devastation as the Northern army moved across the land, for years. Now the spies have reported they arrived here. At their homeland. There is no more time.

The leading generals of the nations of the South, after years of battles of their own, have allied to resist their enemy, but they are terribly outnumbered.

Whatever their chances – the invasion has begun. They will need at least 100,000 arrows to fight off the attackers as they cross the river. But they cannot make, buy, or confiscate anywhere near that number in the time they have left. They do not know what to do.

One of the generals in the alliance, General Zhuge, is a thorn in the side of the others. He is great. He has never been defeated. Maybe out of envy, seeking his destruction, or maybe in desperation, the other generals select him as their leader. And they delegate to him the impossible task of getting the 100,000 arrows. It is their only hope. It is almost no hope at all.

Zhuge thinks. He can see the campfires of the enemy across the river, burning red against the night sky. They are tired. They are resting.

He follows the trails of smoke up to the sky.  Fog will be coming in soon.

He orders a few of his men to immediately search the banks of the river upstream and all the streams that lead into it.  Take every boat, large or small, they can get their hands on and hold them in the river, a few miles above the enemy camp.

He orders another group to stuff a thousand sacks with hay, and to compress it as tightly as they can.

The fog is moving in across the Yangtze River. It begins to conceal the enemy campfires from Zhuge’s view. The sounds of the enemy’s voices are muffled and then silenced.

The enemy commanders will set their forces on alert. They understand weather. They know this fog will give the Southern alliance cover for a surprise raid. The Northern commanders know this would be desperate, and likely to fail. And they know that the Southern forces are desperate, and this will be their only chance.

The Northern commanders order their invading army to highest alert, to watch for a surprise attack from across the river.

The Southern General, Zhuge, goes up the Yangtze River a few miles to the spot where his men have collected the several hundred boats. He orders his men to board the boats. He tells them to man their oars from the center of each boat, and to surround themselves with the sacks of hay, completely sealing themselves inside, with only the oars extended out in to the water, with the boats tethered together, bow to stern, in a line.

The boats cast off into the silence and the fog, into the Yangtze River. They cross for almost a mile, and glide down stream, in single file. On command, as they reach the place where the invaders are camped and waiting on high alert, the men in the boats begin to shout and to hit their drums, hitting the coded command to attack. But they do not attack. They keep on floating slowly past the enemy camp.

The enemy camp bursts to life, and from their side the air is  filled with a hurricane of arrows. Thousands and thousand of arrows fly, perfectly targeted, hitting the southern kingdom boats, boats barely visible to the enemy through the fog, where the arrows hit their mark, but stick in the bags of hay.

So many arrows stick in the bags so quickly that the boats begin to tip, leaning toward the enemy’s side of the river. So the men in the boats unhitch the ropes and turn their boats around, heading back up stream, rowing hard, as the enemy fires another fusillade, puncturing the other side of the bags of hay with arrows, righting the boats, as they row hard away from the enemy camp and back to the safety of their own, looking like a floating pack of porcupines.

Zhuge presented the 100,000 arrows to the alliance of generals, fulfilling his commission.

Now what is your plan, the other generals asked.

Return the arrows, Zhuge said.

The arrows were distributed to General Zhuge’s forces, and their counter attack began. The Northern army was routed.

That was 2000 years ago.

The stories seem to be about resourceful and remarkable people. We admire them, and learn from them. Everyone of them, and every one of the hundreds of thousands of people on the field that day, learned. Each in his own way, within the scope of his ability and ambition, like everyone in the world, learned his skills.

As we do. Here and now. We all prepare to meet the challenges we have taken on, and the ones we cannot anticipate.

You may get advice from experienced people, and learn from the examples of others, and from the stories that we hear. But you are your teacher. You take your shot. If you miss its up to you to see what went wrong, and what you can do about it.  You are the one who needs to get it right.

One shot counts. Every shot counts. Once you take it you cannot get it back. And there may be no time for a second try. In practice we can learn from our mistakes. That is the freedom we find in the discipline of training.

Under a tyranny you cannot learn from your mistakes.  Travel, or read Milan Kundera or Alexander Solzhenitsyn:  One wise crack, one slip and you’re done.

It’s the same with the tyranny in your own heart.  People declare themselves masters before they are. That prevents them from learning.  In public life or inner life we will get new information, be able to interpret it without prejudice, and adapt to the new conditions. If we are humble and skillful we will have the tools to improvise.

If we are rigid we will fail. If you declare yourself great, or a master, and you are not one, no matter what your students think, you fail.

In a training setting – a dojo, a classroom – it is easy to limit challenges. There is little opportunity to test theory or performance, under pressure. But on the street,   or in debate, with the responsibility of leadership and of victory and the possibility of defeat, and in the heat and light of your own heart, the challenge will be real. Under live conditions it will be possible to adapt, execute, improvise, learn, and improve.  There it will be possible to be courageous and strong. There it will be possible to win.

In the ancient world archers spent years perfecting their skill. Standing, kneeling, mounted, at a walk, shooting moving targets at a gallop.  They made many shots before they engaged an enemy. But every day as they practiced they knew that day would come.

The archer found his point of aim far off in the sun.  Sometimes he fired straight along his line of sight into the line of the enemy. In ancient Greece, while General Zhuge was making history in China, archers fired from the rear of the battle, providing covering fire for the advancing troops in the front. From there he fired his arrows up arcing through the sky, like rainbows, over the heads of the infantry and the chariots of the cavalry.

Every one of them had been through training. Each knew what he was supposed to do, from the first time as a new apprentice, as he faced the static target made of hay, standing far off down the training field. On the command from the archery master he drew back his bowstring, sighting his shot and let it go. He heard the familiar sound of the bowstring near his ear as the arrow flew, a familiar sound, like a high wind in the branches of an olive tree.

If his arrow missed its mark and the target stood there untouched, empty, staring back at him, the archery master called ‘Hamartia.’

A miss.  An error.  Something unintended. Something unsuccessful.  Not what you want to do.

In training we know what we want to achieve.   We continue to make effort again and again, maybe a thousand times, with our goal in sight, our ideal in mind, maybe a million times if that’s what it takes, until we can hit the mark, effortlessly and flawlessly every time.

Then, when we find ourselves at a bend in the river, with firelight and star light in the distance, even before the fog rolls in, we can see what’s possible, and will be ready.


Post by J. Michael Brooks


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