Meditations on Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings By John Steele

I have read samurai, Miyamoto Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings (1645) many times over my life. It is one of the profound books that one can keep coming back to. The five rings, relates to the Way of strategy, not only for combat in a physical sense, but in life and politics, which is why this book, along with Sun Tze, The Art of War, are studied in commerce schools and business management, I suppose to get the young cubs interested in the history of business warfare, and the animal spirits of capitalism, flowing.

The five ways are each covered in a “book” which for us is a chapter: Ground, Water, Fire, Tradition/Wind and Void. Musashi’s own approach to sword fighting, and he went around Japan fighting duals to the death, is the Ichi Ryu Ni To School: One School-Two Swords. He is dead against fighting using only one sword, which is a symbol I suppose of not using one’s full potential. The Ground book gives the essence of his philosophy, which is about knowing the weakness of an enemy, timing, when to attack, and how to neutralise them: “If you master the principles of sword-fencing, when you freely beat one man, you beat any man in the world.” The sword is a metaphor for that which is of ultimate value, including life itself, a symbol of the spiritual essence of the warrior, not merely a piece of steel. 

Along the way Musashi has some great warrior quotes; “Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” No, it is not about maximising one’s consumer experience, but living with honour, and dying an honourable death, rather than from heart disease from too many pastries and beer. What would the ancient samurai think of the so-called “men” of today, even Japanese men, who have become perhaps even more cucked than young blocks in the West?

I cannot claim to have grasped the meaning of the book, which is difficult for a modern to understand, but here are some informed comments from the highly scholarly Wikipedia site, beloved of sall academics, who never cite it, but use it all the time.

The Book of Five Rings (五輪書, Go Rin no Sho) is a text on kenjutsu and the martial arts in general, written by the Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi around 1643. There have been various translations made over the years, and it enjoys an audience considerably broader than only that of martial artists and people across East Asia: for instance, some foreign business leaders find its discussion of conflict and taking the advantage to be relevant to their work in a business context. The modern-day Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū employs it as a manual of technique and philosophy.

Musashi establishes a "no-nonsense" theme throughout the text. For instance, he repeatedly remarks that technical flourishes are excessive, and contrasts worrying about such things with the principle that all technique is simply a method of cutting down one's opponent. He also continually makes the point that the understandings expressed in the book are important for combat on any scale, whether a one-on-one duel or a massive battle. Descriptions of principles are often followed by admonitions to "investigate this thoroughly" through practice rather than trying to learn them by merely reading.


Musashi describes and advocates a two-sword fencing style (nitōjutsu): that is, wielding both katana and wakizashi, contrary to the more traditional method of wielding the katana two-handed. However, he only explicitly describes wielding two swords in a section on fighting against many adversaries. The stories of his many duels rarely refer to Musashi himself wielding two swords, although, since they are mostly oral traditions, their details may be inaccurate. Musashi states within the volume that one should train with a long sword in each hand, thereby training the body and improving one's ability to use two blades simultaneously.

Although it is difficult to grasp it from the book, Go Rin No Sho, these books are actually the teachings which Musashi preached to his students in his own dōjō. Though ideas are taken from other sources, the text is predominantly seminal.

The five "books" refer to the idea that there are different elements of battle, just as there are different physical elements in life, as described by BuddhismShinto, and other Eastern religions. The five books below are Musashi's descriptions of the exact methods or techniques which are described by such elements.

The term "Ichi School" is referred to in the book, Go Rin No Sho. When referring to such books, it refers to "Niten No Ichi Ryu" or "Ni Ten Ichi Ryu", which literally translates to, "Two heaven, one school". Alternative translations include "Two Swords, One spirit", and "Two Swords, One Entity". The translation, "Two Swords, one Dragon" was thought to be a misinterpretation of the Kanji word Ryu.

  • The Book of Earth chapter serves as an introduction, and metaphorically discusses martial arts, leadership, and training as building a house.
  • The Book of Water chapter describes Musashi's style, Ni-ten ichi-ryu, or "Two Heavens, One Style". It describes some basic technique and fundamental principles.
  • The Book of Fire chapter refers to the heat of battle, and discusses matters such as different types of timing.
  • The Book of Wind chapter is something of a pun, since the Japanese character can mean both "wind" and "style" (e.g., of martial arts). It discusses what Musashi considers to be the failings of various contemporary schools of sword fighting.
  • The Book of the Void chapter is a short epilogue, describing, in more esoteric terms, Musashi's probably Zen-influenced thoughts on consciousness and the correct mindset.

The Book of Earth

The Earth book, according to "Go Rin No Sho", is mentioned as the book that refers expressly to the strategy taught by Musashi at the Ichi School. It is said to be how to distinguish the Way through "Sword-Fencing", or "Swordsmanship". The idea of strategy would be encouraged to be very astute in their study and strategy:

Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things. As if it were a straight road mapped out on the ground ... These things cannot be explained in detail. From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of strategy there will not be one thing you cannot see. You must study hard.

Upon their mastery of the strategy and timing listed in the five books, Musashi states that you will be able to defeat ten men as easily as you could defeat one, and asks: "When you have reached this point, will it not mean that you are invincible?"

The strategies listed in this discipline or book relate to situations requiring different weapons and tactics, such as indoor weapons. Musashi states that the use of glaive-like naginata and spears are purely for the field, whereas the longsword and accompanying short-sword can be used in most environments, such as on horseback or in fierce battle.

Musashi also remarks on the gun as having no equal on the battlefield, until swords clash, when it becomes useless. He does note that the gun had the disadvantage of being unable to see a bullet and adjust aim as one would with a bow. He writes, "The bow is tactically strong at the commencement of battle, especially battles on a moor, as it is possible to shoot quickly from among the spearmen. However, it is unsatisfactory in sieges, or when the enemy is more than forty yards away. For this reason there are nowadays few traditional schools of archery. There is little use for this kind of skill."

One of the principles of the Niten Ichi-ryū is that one should be versed in many weaponry skills. Musashi indicates that during battle you should not overuse one weapon—this is as bad as using the weapon poorly since it becomes easy for an enemy to find a weakness in your style after countless uses of the same weapon.

Timing, as explained by Musashi, is the core principle in strategy which is listed in the Earth Book. The idea of timing as explained within the Earth book is that you must be able to adapt your strategy to timing with your skill, in that you must know when to attack and when not to attack.

In The Book of Five Rings he writes on timing:

"Timing is important in dancing and pipe or string music, for they are in rhythm only if timing is good. Timing and rhythm are also involved in the military arts, shooting bows and guns, and riding horses. In all skills and abilities there is timing.... There is timing in the whole life of the warrior, in his thriving and declining, in his harmony and discord. Similarly, there is timing in the Way of the merchant, in the rise and fall of capital. All things entail rising and falling timing. You must be able to discern this. In strategy there are various timing considerations. From the outset you must know the applicable timing and the inapplicable timing, and from among the large and small things and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing. This is the main thing in strategy. It is especially important to know the background timing, otherwise your strategy will become uncertain."

The Book of Earth ends with nine basic principles -- the "ground" upon which the samurai must rely. These are "practical" or "worldly," each intended to help develop an understanding of strategy (while the other books focus on tactics and movement). These rules are for his students, and are complemented by the 21 "spiritual principles" for all to follow, which are found in the Dokkōdō (Musashi's final work). The principles are:

  1. "Do not think dishonestly."
  2. "The Way is in training."
  3. "Become acquainted with every art."
  4. "Know the Ways of all professions"
  5. "Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters."
  6. "Develop an intuitive judgement and understanding for everything."
  7. "Perceive those things which cannot be seen."
  8. "Pay attention even to trifles."
  9. "Do nothing which is of no use."

These are good principle by which to live, not just for fighting with a sword or any weapon; principles for fighting the contest of life. I am still pondering all of this, and will do in moments of mystical insight, inspired by alcohol after diner, cooked on the camp fire, for what time I have left.



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