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Traditional Japanese Martial Arts for Adults
The Classic Japanese Text on the Way of Strategy 
by Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645)
Part 3 of 6

by Sean Hannon
In this article, I, once again, offer my own thoughts, opinions, and modern day interpretations of Musashi’s poignant philosophy.  Again, you are welcome to disagree with and/or ignore anything you read in this interpretative essay. 

The second book is called the Water book because like water we must possess ADAPTABILITY to our every changing lives and environment.  This is pure Darwinism.  Adapt or die.  I find it of particular interest that Musashi, a samurai, appears to have truly embraced the virtue of adaptability.  As beautifully depicted in the 2003 film, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, the samurai were virtually wiped out because of their unwillingness to grow, change, and adapt to their rapidly changing environment.  Of course, Musashi was a very strong individual.  Individualism was/is not necessarily considered a positive attribute in traditional Japanese culture.  He was also rather eccentric.  His school of Strategy Ni to ichi ryu broke with traditional by proposing that the best way to battle was with two swords simultaneously – one held in each hand.  This contrasted considerably from the traditional, two-handed sword style of traditional samurai.

“You will not attain the Way of Strategy simply by reading this book. 
You must internalize the writings of this book… 
you must understand the principles with your body.”

Action, action, action!  To know is not to do.  To know and not to do is to not really know at all.  Experience and results are what count.  

Of course, the Way cannot be comprehensively expressed in writing.  Words, while valuable and diverse, are limited by their very nature.  You cannot become a warrior of life just by reading books, watching movies or instructional videos, and certainly not by playing video games!  Get out there and actually do it!  Aikido is much the same way.  You can’t learn just by watching (although you can learn a lot from watching an Aikido class, particularly when you are injured).  

“Your body should not relax in correspondence with your mind, 
and your mind must remain resolute when the body is calm.”

Here’s another paradox much like yin and yang.  At no time, according to Musashi, should your body and mind both be relaxed.  Similarly, at no time should your body and mind be over-tight. They should be at opposite ends of each other.  Your body fit and your mind empty or you body relaxed and your mind at attention.
“In all types of strategy, you must assume this combat posture 
and make it your regular posture.”

Live presently.  Be ready.  The ultimate aim of awareness is not in the ethereal or the abstract, but in the present: here and now.  Nothing exists in the past.  The past isn’t real.  Nothing exists in the future, it hasn’t happened.  The only reality that exists is the present.  Our posture, our body language, should at all times reflect the present and only the present.  Look at people.  Can you not see the lack of presence in their physical body?  One who is tired isn’t living in the present, but is trapped in either the past or the future.  You can see non-present-ness in people’s eyes, in people’s posture, in people’s gait, in people’s skin tone, and in people’s body fat.  If you can’t see this in others, you then must practice your own present-ness.  

There is nothing more present than the live blade of a sword and its inherent ability to cut.  When was the last time you were completely in the present?  Was it when you cut yourself with a kitchen knife or dropped something heavy on your toe?  Was it when you narrowly avoided a car accident?  Physical danger is often a means of bringing us into the present.  However, paradoxically, attracting physical danger is often caused by non-present-ness.   There are other, less dangerous, less risky ways of learning to be present in both mind and body.  One such way is, of course, through the committed practice of Aikido (or other martial arts or discipline).  There is no need to attract danger to live presently with a combat posture.  Think not only of your body carrying a combat posture, but think of your mind as such.  This is not to be confused with being paranoid or worry that you always may be in danger.  It just means to live presently, know where you are, and recognize your relationship is to everything else. 

“Use the eyes in a broad manner.”

Musashi distinguishes sight as two things: seeing and perception.  He views seeing as weak and perception as strong.  Seeing is done merely with the eyes.  Musashi views perception as more than just the physical sense of sight.  To Musashi, perception means viewing with your eyes, ears, nose, and with your gut, your intuition, your internal “vibe.”  See people, read people with all of your faculties, both physical and non-physical.  Tap into that visceral part of you, which says “yes” or “no” to something, not from a place of logic or evidence, but from a place of your gut or gut feeling.  However, I would recommend that in order to trust your gut – your intuition – your vessel must be clear.  The more polluted your body is with garbage like alcohol, tobacco, drugs, medications, fast food, etc… the less you will be able to use your eyes in a broad manner.  

“It is important to be able to see both sides without moving your eyes.”

This quote is particularly important to me.  It reminds me a lot of Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit in his best selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Habit number 5 is: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  The ability to see both (or multiple) sides of any set of circumstances is critical to having successful relationships with family, spouses, colleagues, employers, or even enemies (or perceived enemies).  When practicing the art of Aikido, this skill is critical to the optimal execution of a technique.  Only by seeing both sides of a confrontation, yours and your opponents/partners are you able to optimally respond to an aggression.  The people who are consistently victorious in combat, business, or in their personal lives are those who acknowledge the importance of, and learned competence in, the ability to be able to see both sides without moving your eyes.  Without moving your eyes is another way of saying without having to use great effort.  This comes only through repetitive practice.  

People have often said to me, “How come you are such a good listener?” Or, “How come you are able to figure out or resolve this issue so quickly?”  I believe the answer is because I have recognized the importance of seeing from both sides and have practiced it enough to be able to do it without moving my eyes.

“When you pick up a sword, you must be intent on cutting down your enemy.  
There should be no change in your grip as you do so.”

Practicing everything you do with intent and perfection in mind.  Pay attention!  Everything is important, even the little things.  “When walking, walk.  When sitting, sit.  But above all, don’t wobble.”  When you are working, work well, work intently.  When you are exercising, be focused on the exercising.  Do it well.  Do it intently.  Don’t read a magazine while exercising.  When you are sleeping, sleep well.  Make the room dark, quiet, and turn off the TV.  Sleep well.  When you are lying around on a Sunday afternoon watching television, just watch television.  Watch television well, really well.  Try not to multi-task.  Multi-tasking is far over-rated.  People think they are saving time or being more productive.  It is my experience that the only thing multi-tasking makes you more proficient at is being less productive.  It is my experience that people who multi-task get less things done, not more.

“A fixed hand is a dead hand.  A flexible hand is a live hand.”

Jack LaLane frequently say, “Life is motion.  If you want to stay alive, keep moving.” LaLane could be compared to Musashi in many ways.  LaLane is as committed to his art of being forever fit and healthy as Musashi is to his perfection of the Way of Strategy.  Both these masters encourage one not to get too stuck in your routines. Don’t become old.  Stay young, by constantly growing and constantly adapting.

 “Encounter your opponent with the point of your sword aimed right at his face.”

Be decisive.  If you are going to engage with someone, do it directly; do it openly.  Don’t beat around the bush, don’t gossip or go behind someone’s back.  Confront your enemies directly, be they external or internal.  Like an Aikido technique, enter the confrontation, blend and take it off the intended line of attack, and attempt to redirect the energy to a hopefully mutual and harmonious conclusion.

“Attack the enemy at the exact moment he attacks you.”

Don’t hesitate. Aikido student Kriss Myer introduced me to the acronym OODA.  It means Observe. Orient. Decide. Act.  While we may learn these steps sequentially, the master is one who appears to move through these four distinct steps instantaneously.  This is a product of mastery, which is a product of repetition.  The Aikido mat is a perfect place to learn these four steps viscerally and then take that sense of mastery into other areas of your life.  “He who hesitates has lost” is a popular secular proverb.  In Musashi’s world, hesitation could mean death.  Perhaps this still remains true today.  Hesitation could be financial loss, injury, a career setback, the loss of a valued relationship or any other number of opportunities.  A lack of clarity and lack of intent cause indecision.  Napoleon Hill, author of the classic 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich! calls this “having a definiteness of purpose.”  

“Hit your opponent’s hands from below, as he attacks… 
concentrate on hitting his hands.”

This is a big challenge for all of us.  Cut your opponents hands and the threat of his sword vanishes.  Similarly, a gun isn’t dangerous unless it is in someone’s hand.  I take this to mean: Focus on what matters.  Don’t get distracted by the frills.  Avoid the shiny objects.  I often use the shiny object metaphor to remind me to stay focused.  I came up with it by watching my cat become completely distracted by something shiny reflecting in the house.  Address the foundation of your challenges, the source of what ails you, not the symptoms!  

“You must come to know my style and general rhythm and harmony 
in order to anticipate the opponent’s sword direction.”

“By seriously understanding (the Way), you will 
be assured of victory by discerning your opponent’s intent.”

Practice centeredness.  Know yourself and you will know nature’s rhythm.  Feel the natural rhythm of things and your opponent’s intent will be revealed to you.  Embrace nature’s rhythm and you will find a path through your challenge (or enemy).  Learn to step outside of your own interests and perspectives and you can learn to easily read and anticipate the actions, intentions, and motivations of others.  

“If we are well aware of the path of the sword, we are able to handle it with ease.”

Repetition is the mother of skill.  We only get good at the things we do repeatedly.  If you spend your time on things that benefit you, you will get good at those things.  If you spend your time on things that harm you, you will get good at those things, too.  So, spend your time on things that benefit your body, mind, and spirit and you will be able to handle challenges with relative ease.

“If you try to wield the long sword quickly, you will be mistaken in the Way.”

Be present.  Focus on where you are.  Be mindful of the future, know exactly what you want to be, do, or have in the future, but don’t try to live in the future because the future doesn’t really exist.  And, when it does exist it will not longer be the future, but then will be the present.  Don’t be in too much of a hurry to “succeed” at something otherwise you may find that your alleged success unfulfilling.  Remember: if it feels like you are cutting corners, if it feels easier, if it feels like it’s cheating, then it is.  

“The way you hold your sword must be that which 
makes it easiest for you to cut the enemy well.”

Leverage.  Live your life at a level of awareness, at a level of honesty that allows you to leverage your skills and assets in such a way that you optimize your time, your effectiveness, and your results.  Don’t create artificial prisons, mental prisons that hold you back in life.  Avoid being sucked up into socially-conditioned beliefs that limit our happiness and sense of integrity.

“The most important principle when taking a sword into your hands
is to cut down your enemy by whatever means need to be applied to this end.”

Be decisive and act!  The more clearly you know and feel your outcome, the faster you will achieve it.  The most successful people in the world make decisions quickly and change those decisions very rarely, if ever.  Unsuccessful people call this stubborn.  Successful people call this committed.

“You must think first and foremost about performing the motion
which will bring about cutting him.”

Begin with the end in mind.  Focus on your objective, your ideal outcome, while maintaining your awareness of the present and you will find that your obstacles are not really obstacles.  Some say that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  If you can vividly identify these two points (Point A – where you are now, and Point B – where you want to be), that straight line will reveal itself.  If you don’t know one or both of these two points, no map will help you.

“When your enemy tires, you must expand your body and your spirit,
and cut him… using your power like that of water from a flowing stream.”

Everything has momentum.  Success has momentum.  Failure has momentum.  Health has momentum, and sickness has momentum.  When our enemies (such as laziness, self-doubt, fear, etc.) begin to tire, begin to lose its momentum, we must seize the moment and expand our power, our commitment to your advantage.  We must never allow our enemies to rest and regain their momentum.  The art of Aikido teaches us how to do this.

“Cut quickly and strongly with your hands, body, and legs. 
If you practice well you will be able to cut with great force.”

“The Cut and the Slash are distinct from each other.  The cut is decisive,
and done with a brave spirit.  The slash is simply a touching of the enemy.”

Nothing great happens when you only committed part way.  If you commit only half of your resources to any effort, you often only get half a result... sometime even less!  If you want great results, you must commit completely with your entire spirit.  So ask yourself, are you really cutting in your life?  Or are you just slashing?
“When you are fighting against many… you must crash the enemy together,
as if you were tying a line of fish.”

What often looks like many problems in life is often just one problem.  Do not separately identify one problem as many, for it will overwhelm your spirit.  Try to identify what the one problem is that is in your way from succeeding and then cut it down decisively.  Defeat the one, and you will discover that the other problems may seemingly vanish.  The ability to discern the one from the many is largely a matter of perceiving your challenge from a perspective of intensive honesty.  Honesty is most often the “skeleton key” to solving most problems.

“You will be able to win using the One Cut… If you practice well in this way, strategy will flow from your mind and you will have the ability to win according to your will of mind.”

Get really good at one thing and you will find that the other things often fall into place with great ease.  Be just average or mediocre at several things (by not being focused) and your life will feel mediocre and cluttered, at best.  Jack of all trades, masters of none are usually the most unsuccessful, least happy people.  Develop mastery at something and succeed in that endeavor before you venture on to the next interest.  Spread yourself too thin and unhappiness will find you quickly.  Remember: avoid the shiny objects.  

“You make a journey of a thousand miles by taking step after step.”

There are no shortcuts that lead to success.  So, stop searching for them.  If you find such a shortcut, it will likely be short-lived.  Perhaps by taking bigger steps or by walking more in a straight line may shorten your journey, but those physical steps still have to be taken.  Remember, you may begin with the end in mind, but you still have to actually get there by taking the physical steps in reality.  Beginning with the end in mind just makes the journey more enjoyable, it doesn’t substitute for taking the steps.

Well, that’s enough for now.  I’m off to Book Three: The Fire Book.  See you next time!

Read Part One - Introduction to Book of 5 Rings
Read Part Two - The Earth Book
Read Part Three - The Water Book
Read Part Four - The Fire Book
Read Part Five - The Wind Book
Read Part Six - The Void Book

Ready to Try Aikido?  
The Water Book is the second of Musashi’s Book of Five Rings.  Musashi continues his warriorship dissertation by describing why the second book is called the Water Book.  “When water is at its base, the soul is like water.  Water takes on the shape of its vessel.”  Musashi explores the virtue of ADAPTABILITY as it pertains to warriorship.  He uses the element of water as a metaphor for describing this value.

The longest of the five books, the Water Book spends a great deal of time on specific techniques of sword fighting.  Musashi discusses topics such as posture in strategy, proper gaze in Strategy, proper footwork and stances, and specific techniques and principles such as no plan- no concept, running-water strike, and continuous cut. However, Musashi also still finds time to promulgate philosophical proverbs that can be extrapolated not only to Aikido training, but to daily life, in general.  The virtue of adaptability that Musashi  advocates (as implicated in the title The Water Book) is taken, by me, to mean adaptability in both physical skill and in the willingness to think and perceive situations flexibly.  
Miyamoto Musashi Samurai
Artwork by 
Miyamoto Musashi