The Book of Five Rings was written by 1643 by the famous swordsman and samurai, Miyamoto Musashi. The Book of Five Rings is Miyamoto Musashi’s life’s work in identifying and sharing his secrets for success, or “way of strategy.”
Although Musashi’s Book of Five Rings is aimed at teaching combat skills, the wisdom presented in this book has a universal nature, and can be applied in any endeavor.
In this article, we will explore Miyamoto Musashi’s background, a brief summary of The Book of Five Rings, elaborate upon each section of Miyamoto Musashi’s philosophy, and how you can utilize this wisdom to achieve your goals more easily, and with more efficiency.
The way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of deathMiyamoto Musashi
A Brief History of Miyamoto Musashi
Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) is a famous Japanese soldier and artist of the early Edo period. Musashi began his fighting career in his adolescent years, when he killed a man in combat at the age of 13. In the year 1600, Miyamoto Musashi became a rōnin, or “masterless samurai.”
During his time as a samurai, Miyamoto Musashi began his personal quest to develop the perfect sword fighting technique. Musashi later developed his own fencing style, now known as nitō ichi-ryū, a style of fencing with two swords.
Miyamoto Musashi claimed to have defeated over 60 individuals in sword fights, and later wrote his strategy for this success down on his deathbed. The book is now known as, The Book of Five Rings.
In each “book” or chapter, Miyamoto Musashi share some vital components of the strategy (Way) that he used to defeat his opponents. Each chapter provides insight into Musashi’s tactics and mindset.
If you want to learn the craft of war, ponder over this bookMiyamoto Musashi
The Book of Five Rings Summary and Insights
The Book of Five Rings opens up with Miyamoto Musashi’s own introduction into his background and shares how he had defeated multiple sword fighters (strategists) from the age of 13 to 29.
Musashi says that at the age of 30, he decided to look back on his past and realized that his victories were not due to his mastering of strategy. Musashi declared that his victories must have been due to something beyond him, perhaps the order of heaven or natural ability.
At age 30, Miyamoto Musashi began his personal quest of identifying this “Way of Strategy” that he had subconsciously been utilizing throughout his successes. Musashi admitted that he had lived without following any particular way, so it proved difficult to boil his methods down into a concise and replicable strategy. Though at the age of 50, Musashi had realized his strategy, or his “particular way.”
The Book of Five Rings is divided into five Chapters
1. The Ground Book
The Ground Book chapter opens with Musashi’s explanation of what a “Way” is: “there are various Ways. There is the Way of salvation by the law of Buddha, the Way of Confucious governing the Way of learning, the Way of healing as a doctor, as apt teaching the Way of Waka, tea, archery, and many arts and skills.”
Musashi claims that even if a man does not have natural ability, he can become a warrior by sticking assiduously to the Way of the warrior (a twofold Way of both pen and sword).
Immature strategy is the cause of griefAnonymous, quoted by Miyamoto Musashi
Musashi names his Way, the “Way of Strategy,” and begins by comparing it to the Way of a carpenter who builds houses. A carpenter’s knowledge of a housing plan, and that of architecture, represent the commander’s understanding of waging war.
The carpenter must understand natural rules, rules of the country and rules of houses. The commander must understand these rules as well. The foreman carpenter needs to have full understanding of how a house is constructed, from the types of wood to use, how to cut it, how to organize it, and in what order to contract. The foreman carpenter must also know his workers’ skill-sets and limitations, and which roles to give them according to these. He must also take regular checks of their spirit and morale, and encourage when necessary.
In the same way as a carpenter, a trooper sharpens his tools and carries an equipment box and works under the discretion of his foreman. When the carpenter becomes very skilled in his work, he may one day become a foreman. Musashi encourages us to think deeply about these parallels.
The Ground Book later introduces us to Musashi’s famous sword technique, that of using two swords- a long sword and a short sword. He names this method of sword fighting “Ichi Ryu Ni To” (One School – Two Swords)
Musashi elaborates upon the importance of wielding two swords, and also shares the proper applications of other weapons such as spears, halberds, bows and wielding a sword from horseback. The lesson here, is to master all weapons, and know the proper applications of all of them. The definition of a “Strategist” is that of someone who has mastered the long sword, in the same way that a master of the bow, is called an “Archer.”
You should not have a favorite weapon. To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as now knowing it sufficiently wellMiyamoto Musashi
Timing: Musashi closes out the Ground Book chapter by sharing the importance of timing. He emphasizes that there is timing in everything, and timing strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of practice. Musashi regards timing as a force that exists in all practices, as an example, the merchant understands the rise and fall of capital.
All things entail a rising and falling, and Musashi says that the warrior must be able to discern this to be successful. The warrior “must know applicable timing and inapplicable timing, and from the large and small tings and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing.” (The Book of Five Rings, Pg. 6)
In order to build a solid foundation to learn Miyamoto Musashi’s strategy, he gives the following commandments:
- Do not think Dishonestly
- The Way is in training
- Become acquainted with every art
- Know the Ways of all professions
- Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters
- Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything
- Perceive those things which cannot be seen
- Pay attention even to trifles
- Do nothing which is of no use
2. The Water Book
Do not let the enemy see your spiritMiyamoto Musashi
The Water Book chapter introduces us to Musashi’s idea of the spirit’s application in the Way. He teaches us how we must carry our spirit in order to succeed: “Both in fighting and everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed, do not let your spirit slacken. An elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak.”
Musashi suggests that the warrior must be ever increasing in wisdom and spirit, and to distinguish between good and evil.
Later in the Water Book, Musashi goes into detail on sword fighting techniques. These techniques include the stance, gaze, grip of the sword, footwork, and striking styles.
The lesson here, is that water flows and fits into a container, much like a person should learn to flow and adapt with their surroundings. Do not remain rigid and awkward, and always be adaptable to the variety of situations that may present themselves. Much like the applications of different weapons in the Ground Book, a person must too remain adaptable, and prescribe the right attitudes and methods to each situation.
3. The Fire Book
The Fire Book focuses on Musashi’s methods of fighting. Although the book doesn’t provide any specific techniques it does look at martial arts from a bird’s eye view- instructing the practitioner to observe their surroundings, process the situation, and act accordingly.
Musashi gives the example called “stand in the sun.” This is the idea to be fully aware of your surroundings when in a fight, and utilize each aspect of the environment to your advnatage. In this example, Musashi recommends to keep the sun at your back, or to your right- thus making it more difficult for the enemy to see your movements. He also share more examples of this concept, regarding different environmental factors.
The primary lesson of the Fire Book, is to use your environment to your advantage, and constantly seek to push your enemy to a disadvantageous spot- whether this means having the sun in their eyes, or seeking higher ground than them.
In the Fire Book, Musashi says that one man can defeat one man, and also one man can defeat 10,000 men. This ability comes down to the mastery of The Way. Musashi says that anyone who polishes this skill, becomes free of self, and realizes their extraordinary ability, can possess this miraculous power.
4. The Wind Book
“Whenever you cross swords with an enemy you must not thing of curing him either strongly or weakly; just thing of cutting and killing him. Be intent solely upon killing the enemy.” Miyamoto Musashi
The Book of Wind’s primary lesson is that understanding the Way, is an all encompassing path, and that it is important to focus on it holistically, rather on one particular strategy or method.
In this chapter, Musashi emphasizes that the strength of his teaching is that it teaches someone to absorb the mindset of success, rather than focusing on developing one particular skill. To summarize this concept, Musashi says that some schools of study only teach skills and techniques, and are missing the core essence of what is required to win- which is not the essence of the Way.
5. The Book of the Void
By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.Miyamto Musashi
Miyamoto Musashi says that the way of the warrior requires one to be fully dedicated to their craft, and not deviate even a little from the Way. Regarding the void, Musashi elaborates upon the difference between bewilderment (areas one does not know about regarding their craft), and the void (knowledge that is acquired by mastering the spirit).
Musashi says that in order to see the void, one must “with their spirit settled, accumulate practice day by day, and hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.” (Book of Five Rings, pg. 45)
The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi, provides one-of-a-kind insight into the mind of a master samurai. Although this book is primarily focused around Musashi’s fighting techniques, the wisdom in this book is universal, and can be applied to any endeavor.
Despite being a bit difficult to understand during a first read, with study, this book begins to make more and more sense on a subconscious level. If you do read it, and decide to absorb this knowledge, as Musashi recommends, you may find subtle pieces of his wisdom rising to greet you on your endeavors.
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