Musashi was born in 1584. According to legend, Musashi had a real knack for fighting and killed his first opponent, a well-known samurai, when he was only 13 years of age. He cut down dozens more men by the time he was in his late twenties. In one such altercation, Musashi was said to have single-handedly killed over thirty men in a single challenge. Perhaps mired by his constant killing, in 1612 Musashi made the decision to never use a real blade in battle again. He, instead, elected to use only a wooden sword (a bokken). It is thought by some that he believed himself to be too good to fight others with a real sword. Perhaps out of mercy or a true compassion for life, he chose not to use a live blade. It just wasn’t fair to his lesser skilled opponents.
It was also around this time that Musashi speculated that his undefeatedness was not due to his mastery of the sword, but perhaps only to natural talent, luck, or even divine intervention. So at thirty years of age Musashi then decided to dedicate the rest of his life to discovering the Principle, or as he called it, the Way of Strategy. It was not for another twenty years, at age fifty, that he had decided that he had truly discovered this Way.
In 1645, at age sixty, Musashi isolated himself in a cave near Mt. Iwato on the island of Kyushu. It was there that he committed the Way of Strategy to writing. Allegedly, Musashi died only a few days after completing Go Rin No Shu, the Book of Five Rings. Each book of the Book of Five Rings is titled after an element of nature; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and, what Musashi calls, the Void.
In this six part series, I offer my own thoughts and propose modern day interpretations of this great master’s philosophy. I present excerpts from Musashi’s introduction plus each of the five books that I found important in my own study of budo. Please keep in mind that what I share here is strictly my own opinions and interpretations of Musashi’s writings. You, of course, are welcome to disagree and/or dismiss my interpretations in part or in whole as you see fit. I make to claim to know the true mind of Musashi.
I believe that understanding Musashi’s writings requires an appreciation for the notion of paradox. Many people could easily read his books and say that he constantly contradicts himself. I feel differently. Many paradoxes exist in his writings, but I don’t feel that they are necessarily contradictory because, after all, life is full of paradoxes. For example, Aikido is a very powerful martial art, yet it can be practiced very gently without sacrificing power. To some this is a contradiction. To others, it is merely a complementary paradox. A paradox being a statement where two facts appear to be in conflict with each other, but, in fact, are both true. This, of course, is congruent with some of the principles of Chinese Taoism and Musashi appears to have an appreciation for such a philosophical perspective.
Introduction to Go Rin no Shu
Before entering the first book, the Earth Book, Musashi acknowledges his place in the Universe and demonstrates humility on the subject to which others claim him to be a master.
“There is no fighter in the world today
who understands the Way of Strategy completely.”
Within this statement Musashi acknowledges that even he cannot claim complete mastery over the Way. I think this statement demonstrates Musashi’s humility despite sometimes appearing to be somewhat arrogant. I have found that sometimes, a healthy self-confidence is interpreted by others with less self-confidence as arrogance. A modern day cliché or affirmation expressing a similar notion might be the idea that “no matter how good you are, there is always someone better.” This, of course, may or not be true. You very well may be the best at something. However, the acknowledgement of such a possibility is the admirable trait of humility. A similar saying is “There’s always room for improvement.” We can strive for mastery in any calling, even achieve it to some degree, as long as we simultaneously recognize and respect the fact that there is no such thing as perfection; there is no such thing as absolute mastery. Indeed, there is very much a difference between mastery and perfection. One is achievable, one is not.
“Even if a man does not have an inborn ability to fight,
he can become a warrior by consistently practicing each of these Ways.”
To me this statement simply means that we are all capable of reaching our own potential. One of the most common things I hear when prospective students call our school in Castle Rock is, “I’m not sure I’ll be any good at Aikido. I’m really out of shape and I’m in my mid thirties.” Of course, when it come to Aikido, your age and your weight aren’t relevant. Virtually anyone can train Aikido at any age. We can all become a warrior in any calling, on or off the mat, if we choose to make the decision to do so and take the persistent action necessary to become such.
“The Way of the warrior is the brave acceptance of death.”
This is often quoted in samurai bushido code and I think it tends to come across to many people as scary or morbid. To me, this quote doesn’t mean you need to be prepared to die in order to train martial arts. It really just means embracing life to the fullest and not taking this great gift we have for granted. Accepting the notion of death is just a more macho way of saying to live fully… to live completely. It is only because of death that we, as humans, value life to begin with. It is the supposed contrast between these two that creates value. The fictitious samurai, Katsumoto, in 2003’s film, The Last Samurai expressed a similar notion as “Life in every breath.” This is the brave acceptance of death. It is the willingness and the courage to experience life in every breath. This is something most people never do.
“The warrior is different because by studying the Way of Strategy
he learns to defeat other men.”
Here Musashi differentiates his Way of Strategy from that of mastery over other non-martial arts such as calligraphy, tea ceremony, carpentry, dance or even sword crafting. He contends that they are different, in many respects, because mastery of, for example, the Japanese art of tea ceremony (sado) is the mastery of a system of self – or put another way, one defeats oneself. In warriorship, people learn to defeat other people. Personally, I don’t recognize the difference Musashi is trying to make, but, of course, I am not a samurai master!
“The spirit which defeats one man is the same
as that which defeats ten million men.”
“If one masters the long sword, that one man can beat ten men.”
Musashi appears to be a big believer in the idea that there is no such thing as size or scale. One is the same as ten. Ten is the same as one hundred and, of course, one hundred is the same as one. For a classic, pop-culture reference, I would relate this saying to that of the Yoda character in the Star Wars movies of the 1980s. Of course, many know that the character of Yoda (a Jedi master) was probably influenced to one degree or another by ancient samurai masters, perhaps even Musashi. Nonetheless, Yoda, a creature probably less than two feet tall was represented as having great strength and power despite his physical stature. “Size matters not. Do or do not. There is no try,” is a famous saying of the little master.
Notice how Musashi states that it is the “spirit” that defeats one man or ten million men. He didn’t say it was the man, or the skill, or the weapon, but the spirit. This is essential in learning the Way of Strategy. A classic illustration of this principle is the infamous Japanese Tea Master Story.
When the tea master met the samurai, he thought the samurai was a Ronin, and this insulted the samurai greatly. The samurai was so displeased that he challenged the team master to a dual the next morning. The tea master was terrified. He ran to the only sword master he knew and pleaded with him to train him in one night to become an able swordsman. But the tea master was a hopeless student. No matter how patiently the sword master tried to teach him, the tea master remained inept. At last the sword master said to him, "Just approach your sword fight the way you approach your tea ceremonies," and gave up.
The following morning, heavy hearted, his fate sealed, the tea master reluctantly went to his appointment. When he faced the samurai on the misty hill he shut his eyes tight, lifted the heavy sword above his head, then concentrated and centered himself the way he did when he performed his tea ceremonies. At that, the samurai threw down his sword, got down on his knees, and begged the tea master for forgiveness. "If I had known you were such a great swordsman," he said, "I never would have challenged you!"
Musashi tries to communicate that large is small, and small is large. It is a rather holistic way of viewing the world, a world of sameness, likeness, and whole-partedness (if there is such as word).
In my opinion, Benjamin Franklin made a very similar quote. “You can only grow to the size of your thoughts.” Think small and you will be small. Think big and you will be big. This also applies to other aspects of our lives. Think yourself fat and you will be fat. Think yourself tired and you will be tired.
“The principle of strategy is the accomplishment of one thing,
in order to accomplish ten thousand things.”
I sum this notion up in one word: Focus. Musashi is firm on the notion of mastering one thing in order to be victorious in every thing. It is only by mastering one thing that we can learn how to master all things. Most people try to be great at a number of things before they have learned to be great at just one thing. I contend that it is this misconception that keeps people from having the success in their lives that they crave.
What will you master? How will you learn the art of mastery? Aikido? Your job? Another hobby? Your emotional state? Master one thing and you will be able to achieve great things because of what you learn in the process of mastery. Try to succeed at multiple things simultaneously without first learning the process and having the experience of mastery, and you will struggle indefinitely.
“You must train day and night in order for you to be able
to make decisions quickly.”
Successful people from Napoleon Hill to Andrew Carnegie; from Henry Ford to Anthony Robbins all say that the most successful people are those who make decisions quickly and change their minds rarely, if at all. The ability to make decisions quickly in battle, of course, can mean the difference between life and death. This is definitely a skill that must be acquired. But this skill very much spills over into other areas of life as well.
To acquire this skill, you will be the recipient of heavy criticism. You may be called excessive, compulsive, stubborn, or even neurotic. However, these are often the criticisms of people less committed to their own success, growth, and mastery. I recommend that you ignore anyone who isn’t absolutely and completely supportive of your attempts at mastery.
Your training doesn’t end when you step off the mat – at least, not if you are paying attention it doesn’t. If you’ve been practicing Aikido for even just a few months I’m certain you have already recognized how you actually are practicing Aikido (or the Way of Strategy) 24 hours a day, seven days per week, even though you may only train at the dojo 2 or 3 times per week. You begin to see the Aikido in everything, in every interaction, in every challenge you face. The more you practice Aikido the more you will find your intuition, your visceral body wisdom, and the more you will be willing to trust and execute your instinctive decision making abilities. I believe this is what Musashi means about training to make decisions quickly.
In the next article, we will dive into The Earth Book, the first of the 5 books of rings.