Without a doubt, The Void Book is the most ambiguous, esoteric, and perhaps the most perplexing of the 5 books in The Book of 5 Rings. It is also the shortest of all the other books, perhaps because how does one endlessly elaborate on something called the void? Nonetheless, I'll give it a shot
Knowing what Musashi calls “the void” provides contrast for knowing what “is.” Without knowledge, acceptance and awareness of the void Musashi asserts that there is confusion. What “is” and the void (what “is not”) produce clear contrast. Not acknowledging the void produces camouflage and ambiguity.
I summarize this book simply as: humility. I believe that it is important that we all be consciously competent of that which we do not know. That is, we should all be humbled by the fact that no matter how hard we train and no matter how much we learn there will always be a vast universe of things we do not know and do not understand. In light of this great ignorance, we will still need to be able to function in this collective sea of the unknown. Therefore, we, as Musashi suggests, should embrace the void, merge with the void, blend with the void, so as to successfully live as we must, at times, within the void.
“The Void is where there is nothing or any form. Man cannot have knowledge of the Void because it is nothing. Since we have knowledge of what is, we therefore know what is not. That is the void.”
After reading the opening paragraphs of the Void Book several times and trying to wrap my head around this concept, I kept hearing Vizzini from the movie, The Princess Bride in my mind say, “So, clearly I cannot choose the wine in front of me!”
In my opinion, the void is much like the sub-conscious mind. It is not located anywhere because the mind is intangible and we can’t see or definitively say the subconscious exists because if we could then it wouldn’t be sub-conscious, it would be conscious. But, we can theorize and deduce that the sub-conscious exists, and, therefore, it does exist, at least as far as a discussional device.
Similarly, we know what “is not” through contrast and deduction. Acknowledging the void, by deducing its existence, allows us to make subjective decisions that otherwise cannot be made without some kind of arbitrary value. When we can tell what is from what is not, perhaps then we stand the best chance to know ourselves. For now we can, in our own estimation, “definitively” say who we are and who we are not; what we are and what we are not.
“Make sure you base your practice on a wide foundation, and learn a large number of martial arts. This way, you will understand the Void as the Way, and you will see the Way as the Void.”
As we train and study a diversity of martial studies, we are constantly humbled and directed to the Void by acknowledging how much we still do not know. In this context, again, conscious ignorance, then, may, in fact, be the true Way. Perhaps another way of expressing this would be to say that at one time we may have been consciously ignorant. That is, we were fully aware of how much we did not know. Perhaps then, knowing the true Way, as Musashi articulates it, means that we become consciously, humbly ignorant, in that we are now aware and in awe of how much we do not know and smile at that fact because it means that we never have to experience boredom, we never are “finished” with our studies.
“The void is good. It contains no evil.”
Musashi closes this book with the notion that the void is good and contains no evil. This, of course, is a common human condition: the reconciliation between the known and unknown. Most people fear the unknown and find certainty and safety in the known. But, of course, too much of the known can lead to boredom, which many people call a prison. Others choose to embrace the unknown as freedom and find comfort in the variety the unknown brings to life. I believe Musashi is asking us to reconsider our dependence on the known and to embrace the unknown – the void – as a source of freedom. The Void is freedom. The Void is good. The Way is good. From Musashi’s perspective, the Way and the Void are two sides of the same coin. And, to know the Way and not to know the Void, is to not really know the Way at all.
Is your head spinning yet? Mine is. I’ve got to sit down now.
If you enjoyed these articles on The Book of Five Rings, then you'd probably also enjoy our new series on the classic Japanese text Bushido: The Soul of Japan.