Miyamoto Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings”

A Book For All Times and Cultures

Today, I will write a few words about Miyamoto Musash’s “Book of Five Rings,” a book I have read in translated form… as even I have not studied enough medieval Japanese to be able to read the book “raw”. (This places me in the same category as the vast majority of today’s Japanese people, incidentally.)

This book concerns the art and science of sword-fighting. Whatever else people may glean from it in terms of enlightenment applicable to their own daily struggles is derived from the book’s singular focus on sword-fighting and the mindset that goes into it. The book does not attempt to dictate to you how to achieve excellence. The book simply points the way, delving deeply into excellence in one area and describing how mastering the process of seeking excellence in one field brings one much closer to excellence in others. This is like how learning how to speak a foreign language (to me, that would be Japanese) makes learning other foreign languages easier in the long run, because you’ve been through a similar process.

Musashi’s book begins with philosophy and ends with philosophy. In between is a great deal of astonishingly frank and practical observations about fighting and killing, from personal combat to small-scale army combat with a highly skilled force. The content of the writing clearly suggests someone who has read, and understood, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” but who has mixed in the circumstances of his era and the experiences of his own life.

The reason I say the book is about sword-fighting and not swordsmanship is because Musashi isn’t teaching people how to have the prettiest fighting forms and use ritualistic methods to enhance the human spirit. His observations are about how to win. Vince Lombardi would have understood him; Lombardi, the great American Football coach, was quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t ‘everything’ – it’s the only thing.” In real life and death combat, your ideal outcome is you live and the other guy doesn’t. Results in practice, not theory, are how victory and defeat is defined.

One of the insightful pieces of philosophy from the start of the book is how Musashi compares the craft of the carpenter to that of the warrior. The master carpenter keeps his tools sharp, uses the right tool for the right job, and similarly, uses the right people for the right assignment. I note for the record that Musashi actually went out and tried this, and succeeded at it, before he ran his mouth in ink. His words came after a life of action, with deep reflection coming after the legendary adventures of his youth, not in the opposite order.

One of the most insightful observations about combat that he wrote was about adopting a “stance” of no stance at all. In other words, not telegraphing your potential moves to the other side, not giving him free information, and not restricting yourself from responding to whatever may come your way. By adopting both a physical posture and a mindset of complete adaptability, Musashi was able to overcome well trained opponents whose thinking was narrow and had never truly left the training hall. Combat is broader than what they teach in books and classes, and those who fail to appreciate that tend to wind up dead at the hands of the people who can and do appreciate it.

I can’t relate the whole book to you here, but one of his writings about sword-fighting was about the physical properties of blade clashing against blade.

As I wrote in my little e-book about Japanese swords (the one no one reads, haha!), Japanese katana are folded for resilience and hammered in that state to even out the carbon content, are forged with a softer steel core to add extra springiness and resistance to snapping from sideways force, and are tempered (fast-quenched) to make the outer, harder steel extra hard and able to cut marvelously. Similar techniques are applied to scalpel blades manufactured in Japan to this day.

So, one of Musashi’s nuggets of wisdom was about how two swords clashing together (in whatever way) results in the swords literally bouncing off each other. Remember, they’re hard, but they have springiness. That springiness means they have a tendency to bounce back a certain distance. A skilled swordsman who has a feel for that can apply force to counteract that bounce and seem to continue his attack through the bounce, striking while the opponent is recoiling.

That’s incredibly real-world for a book on Japanese swordsmanship. As for actually mastering controlling the recoil and going right back on the attack, Musashi essentially says, you’ll have to try it for yourself with an actual sword in your hand. He had no illusions that anyone was going to master all of this from reading a book. Rather, he pointed the way and encouraged people to try and see for themselves, because his techniques and observations were the result of real-world experience with what worked and what didn’t.

The carpenter example was but one example of the mindset Musashi pushed: look at the real world around you and get a handle on what works and what doesn’t. In other words, if you can do that in other fields, including how money is made and lost (and I note for the record many samurai would have regarded such words as tantamount to heresy at the time), you will be much better prepared to understand life and death combat. This is because fighting, as opposed to swordplay, is a matter of near pure reality; to grasp what works and what doesn’t, and to cultivate the former and discard the latter, is about 99% of how Musashi earned his legend.

The other 1% is that lovely oriental philosophy stuff we love to stare at like a lovely flower. It’s there, it’s nice, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s the point of what Musashi wrote.

Thus, in many senses, Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings” is the antithesis of traditional Japanese swordsmanship, samurai philosophy, and China-inspired values of civilization and culture. On the other hand, over time, Musashi’s book was hailed as the writings of a true warrior who had walked the walk, and only then talked the talk; someone who clearly knew what the hell he was talking about and who exemplified the warrior spirit.

Put bluntly, Musashi’s philosophy and fighting style were the polar opposite of “the banzai charge” featured in WWII. Musashi didn’t rely on the superiority of his “spirit” or the majesty of his philosophy. He relied on himself and his sword (or stout wooden pole, as the case may be!) and physically made it happen. He achieved victory because he reached out and grabbed it first and hardest.

I continue to strive to emulate this mindset. I have no illusions about having succeeded. I will succeed when I am able to grab hold of victory by my own two hands and my own efforts, having learned what works and what doesn’t, and acting upon it. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: jeremiahbourque@gmail.com
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