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A major reason for the lasting importance of Musashi Miyamoto—the historical figure played by Toshiro Mifune in The Samurai Trilogy—in Japanese and world culture is his work The Book of Five Rings, a seventeenth-century treatise on the wandering samurai’s principles of swordplay and spirituality that is still widely read today. Here, William Scott Wilson, historian and translator of The Book of Five Rings, delineates those principles and discusses the huge influence the book has had. At the author’s request, Japanese names are given here in their traditional form: surname first.
In the summer of 1643, at the age of fifty-nine, an ailing Miyamoto Musashi was still practicing calligraphy, chanting passages from Noh theater, studying classical poetry, and teaching swordsmanship to a few disciples. Kumamoto, the castle town in which he resided, was hot and muggy, but Musashi persevered in the dojo, although he did not push his students to physical and mental exhaustion the way other teachers often did. By early autumn, he felt that it was time to prepare a legacy beyond his paintings, his reputation, and what was understood of his style of swordsmanship.
Thus, on October 10, he once again went out to Mount Iwato, where he had previously practiced both swordsmanship and Zen meditation, and climbed the path up the rocky outcropping leading to Reigan Cave. After bowing “in veneration to heaven, worshipping Kannon [the goddess of mercy], and standing before the Buddha,” Musashi took ink, inkstone, brush, and paper and wrote out in five scrolls principles that summarized his style of swordsmanship and shed light on his way of life. He titled it The Book of Five Rings.
This short work, barely filling one hundred typeset pages, is still vital today. It continues to be printed in Japanese, has been translated into English at least ten times over the past thirty years, and from this writer’s translation alone has been further translated into Chinese, Thai, Greek, Indonesian, Lithuanian, Arabic, and Spanish. Why the enduring interest in a seventeenth-century treatise on swordsmanship?
Since Musashi engaged in more than sixty duels during his lifetime and was never defeated, it may not be surprising that The Book of Five Rings is fundamentally a book about conflict and victory. It has long been revered not only by swordsmen but also by practitioners of karate, aikido, and other martial arts. However, The Book of Five Rings has found a much broader readership in recent years. Since its first English translation, its study has been touted as the equivalent of an MBA in Japanese business strategy—a competitive art, to be sure. At least one Japanese major-league pitcher keeps the book by his bedside for constant reference. Anyone whose life involves conflict may benefit from studying the techniques laid out in this slender volume.
During Musashi’s time, many schools of swordsmanship claimed that their founders had been enlightened to their techniques by divine revelations, dreams, or the like. Ito Ittosai, for example, secluded himself in the Grand Shrine of Mishima for seven days and seven nights and was rewarded with the revelation of the Itto-ryu. Gods and demons supposedly revealed secret styles to such other famous martial artists as Tsukahara Bokuden, of the Shinto-ryu; Okuyama Kyugasai, of the Shinkage-ryu; Hayashizake, the founder of iaido; and Fukui Hei’emon, of the Shindo Munen-ryu.
Musashi, however, shunned mystic revelations. “Respect the gods and buddhas, but do not rely on them,” he wrote. His style, he declared, was based on personal realizations arrived at through experience, observation, reason, and the Way—the transcendent laws of nature. At the end of the first chapter of The Book of Five Rings, Musashi sums up his rules for understanding his style and putting it into practice:
1. Think in honest and direct terms.
2. Forge yourself in the Way.
3. Touch upon all the arts.
4. Know the Ways of all occupations.
5. Know the advantages and disadvantages of everything.
6. Develop a discerning eye in all matters.
7. Understand what cannot be seen by the eye.
8. Pay attention even to small things.
9. Do not involve yourself with the impractical.
Four other key points Musashi emphasizes in the book are as follows.
The Way of Swordsmanship Is to Win
A commonly held notion throughout the period of warrior rule in Japan was that the Way of the samurai was to fight and die for his lord. While many found this to be reasonable—samurai means “one who serves,” and the samurai’s life and that of his household depended entirely on his lord—Musashi asserted that “the Way of swordsmanship is to fight with your opponent and win.” He had little patience for techniques that were visually appealing but impractical for beating an opponent. He reasoned that, as death sooner or later comes to all, a warrior’s intent should be not to die with his weapons unmastered and “worn uselessly at his side.” For Musashi, the techniques the warrior learned for using his sword should be based on reason and practicality, with the understanding that they would be put into practice to defeat his opponent. A samurai’s lord supported him to vanquish his enemies, after all, not to be killed by them.
Fluidity of Mind
Musashi placed great emphasis on not permitting the mind to be blocked or caught by anything. Concentrating on the opponent’s sword, his footwork, his technique, or anything whatsoever would render the mind—and therefore the body—immobile. Thinking about one’s own technique or weapons would do the same. For Musashi, both body and mind must be free to flow, to respond to every change in the swordsman’s environment and situation. Inflexibility or a strong preference for one technique or weapon over another was worse than useless. Indeed, such prejudices could be one’s downfall. Fluidity implied being without obstructions, especially obstructions created by one’s own mind. “Fixing the mind on one special place,” he wrote, “will confuse the mind and inflict a malady on the martial arts.” An immobile mind meant a dead mind, just as an immobile hand would mean a lifeless hand.
Musashi insisted that his swordsmanship was founded on “true principles,” not tricks or dishonesty. He specifically did not advocate a style based on “deception” or “duplicity,” as other martial artists and strategists did. Nevertheless, he taught that a swordsman must know both his own mind and that of his opponent. In this, he was in accord with Sun Tzu, the fifth-century-BC strategist who wrote, “Knowing your opponent and knowing yourself, your victory will not be in peril.” Musashi deeply considered the character of his opponents, contemplating how he might knock each man off-balance, to make him lose his calm or get angry enough to shake his concentration. Again, Sun Tzu: “Therefore, the man who is good at combat controls others; he is not controlled by them . . . If the opponent is angry, irritate him; show weakness, and he will become arrogant.” Musashi’s bouts with the Yoshioka brothers and Kojiro Sasaki, when he caused his opponents to lose their temper, equilibrium, or confidence, were perfect examples of these techniques. As he writes in The Book of Five Rings, “In my martial art . . . you bend and warp your opponent, taking the victory by twisting and contorting your opponent’s mind.”
The Everyday Mind
While Musashi taught the basic positions for holding a sword, and certain techniques for striking and parrying, he emphasized that a swordsman should not be unduly concerned with such things. Any showy technique or secret style was only a distraction. Both mind and body, he declared, should be like the everyday: nothing unnatural, nothing extraordinary, nothing mysterious. Walking should be natural, the hands neither too tight nor too lax, posture good but not stiff. “In all things concerning the body in the martial arts,” he wrote, “make the everyday body the body for the martial arts, and the body for the martial arts the everyday body.” And “in the Way of the martial arts, do not let your frame of mind be any different from your everyday mind.” He encouraged the swordsman to be as natural as possible; otherwise, stances, striking techniques, the ways of directing the eyes, or particular attitudes would all become distractions, baggage preventing him from acting. To have one’s attention arrested would be to put an extra sword into the hands of one’s enemy.
The Book of Five Rings was written as a guide to be reflected upon, directed more toward the intuition than the intellect. But the imaginative reader will be able to see Musashi facing an opponent in almost every paragraph. Although this astonishing swordsman and artist did not write of his own bouts, he wrote a clear and insightful distillation of what he had learned from them. We find in this short volume an outline for studying the martial arts, a handbook for dealing with conflict in our lives, and an interior biography of one of the most extraordinary characters in Japanese history.
William Scott Wilson is a translator of Japanese and classical Chinese. He is the author of The Lone Samurai, a biography of Miyamoto Musashi, and the translator of Hagakure, an early eighteenth-century work on samurai philosophy, and a number of other writings on samurai thought, swordsmanship, and strategy.