“Words of the Sword Saint” by Edward McKeown
Musings on Miayamto Musashi and the Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No
A long time ago in a land far, far away, there lived a very strange and dangerous
man. He is known to as Miyamoto Musashi also called the Kinsei or “Sword Saint” though a better translation might be Master of the Way of the Sword as his use of the weapon was hardly
saintly in the Western Tradition. To those in the West he is hardly known outside of Japanophiles and martial artists. The most common image arises from a series of movies usually referred to as the samurai trilogy which show the growth of Musashi from a common ruffian to the “beau ideal” of the samurai warrior.
He lived and fought from 1584 to 1645 in the Edo period in feudal Japan. Having accomplished much on the field of battle he retired to a cave in Reigando to there ponder the meaning of his
violent existence. Among his final acts was to gift us with the Book of Five Rings or (Go Rin No Sho.) This book is now know mostly in martial arts circles but became popular during the business craze of the 1990s when movies like Red Sun Rising gave us dire warnings about how the Japanese were going to wipe up the economic floor with us. We searched through the writings of their scholars as earlier generations had looked into China to come up with Sun Tzu and his "Art of War." We later learned that their success was a mixture of a totally rebuilt industrial base (the originally one having been fire-bombed out of existence) an educated and cohesive populace and tremendous financial leverage that blew up leaving them with a moribund banking system and “lost decades.”
The question is, does the Book of Five Rings have meaning in our modern world, in
the martial arts as we practice them and even in life more generally?
It’s important in reading the Rings to understand what Musashi has to say to our
modern world and what he does not. As such it’s useful to remember the context and perspective of his writing of this short and comparatively crude and repetitive series of ramblings.
Musashi was a brutal warrior in a brutal time and place. Note that I say warrior, not a soldier. Soldier is an occupation/job, usually not a lifelong one; warrior is a way of life. Musashi was a warrior, while he studied other skills, including calligraphy, metal-working and painting, even in these he saw the Way of the Sword and studied them to know the Way of the Sword better. First and foremost, Musashi was man-killer. He looked for opportunities to kill other warriors in the same way a carpenter looks for chances to build a table and for the same reason, it’s what he does and all that he does. His skill improves only with application and training only takes one so far.
Musashi killed to kill. It was an end in itself. He didn’t kill just to protect others or because his opponents were evil and he was not. It was simply an application of his skill and did not need a moral context. He was not a wandering knight writing wrongs. He was a guy looking to fight. In that respect the movies and books of Musashi usually romanticize this warrior and his way of life. Truth was that he lived by the sword and expected to die by the sword.
To Musashi there was only winning and dying, anything that won a fight was good. Anything that did not conribute to winning a fight was useless. The concept of a “fair fight” was unknown to him. Musashi sometimes fought other opponents with wooden swords. He did not do this, as a Westerner might assume, to make the fight, “fair” or give the other guy a chance to kill him. He did it to see if he could kill his opponent armed only with a wooden sword. It was a test of his skill and an effort to gain greater skill. Magnanimity and chivalry did not enter into it and he would have thought those concepts stupid.
Musashi mercilessly killed his opponents, unless it was in a situation where he was in a “friendly duel”really more of a teaching exhibition. Even there, had he killed a student or other fighter, he would have shownno regret, nor been chastised or imprisoned. That would just be bad luck during
How much of this can we apply to the modern Dojo of soccer moms, office workers and children? What can we risk in a world of American lawyers and lawsuits?
Musashi ws in the business; to the extent he trained people, of turning out killers. He lived a life, often devoid of physical comfort or compassion. He never married, nor had children, though he adopted one. The adoptive son, vassal to the Himeji lived only four years after that act, committing seppuku because of the death of his own lord.
Musashi disdained comfort and wealth, spending his last few years living in a cave, contemplating the universe. One can be tempted to dismiss him as a psychopathic serial-killer. But that is too simple an analysis. He literally lived by the sword in a world that provided him few options.
Clearly while neither a giant in strength or size- he was naturally gifted with hand/eye coordination and likely was one of those individual for whom physical fear was not a big factor.
He lived in a world without antibiotics, where any penetrating wound was likely fatal, fighting with weapons that would shear off an arm or a leg, in armies or individual fights where quarter would neither be asked nor given.
In this world without mercy he expected to die by the sword at any time and a central tenet of his warrior ethos is that you must be prepared to die, in an instant. Death will arrive unexpectedly. You must have already chosen and resigned yourself to face death beforehand so your spirit is
settled when the moment comes, or you will be weak and flinch; seeking to live, which is not the way of the warrior. Death and defeat are the same thing.
When Musashi says, “Aim at death” he does not mean embrace it casually, or try and get yourself killed, he means to expect that this will be the outcome of your profession, discount it. This advice is less esoteric then it seems. By not flinching, or seeking to live, you increase your odds of surviving by daunting your opponent. If his spirit is not settled, seeing yours as resolute will cause him to flinch, to use improper technique and to thus lose. In short the one who embraces death is less likely to actually die in the fight. Hard to believe perhaps but this is in essence the distilled wisdom of a professional fighting man. He knew of what he spoke.
Sometimes his advice seemed basic or even trite. “To cut and slash are two different things. Cutting, whatever form of cutting it is, is decisive, with a resolute spirit. Slashing is nothing more
than touching the enemy. Even if you slash strongly, and even if the enemy dies instantly, it is slashing. When you cut, your spirit is resolved. You must appreciate this. If you first slash the enemy's hands or legs, you must then cut strongly. Slashing is in spirit the same as touching. When you realize this, they become indistinguishable. Learn this well.”
At first glance does it seem like great wisdom? Yet this is life and death, the most basic and primal of struggles. Lose this struggle and what else matters? It was through such mastery that Musashi lived to 61 years of age undefeated in single combat.
This is true on the macro scale as well. The victorious army, the resolute winner usually suffers far less casualties than the defeated. When Alexander the Great defeated his enemies it was in the rout that followed the battle where the true casualties were incurred. With discipline broken and men not supporting each other Alexander’s disciplined legions harvested their enemies like wheat. It would have been the same in 1615 the defeat of the Toytomi Hideyori’s Army of the West from which Musashi was lucky to escape.
We are not dwellers in the same world. Few of us will ever actually fight, almost none of us will fight to seriously injure or kill, but rather even if we are attacked, we will seek to ward off. But there is wisdom from the old boy. Much of what he painfully learned in how to master himself and others can be applied to business, daily life and the martial arts.
Know a something about a great deal of different things. You never know what scrap of information will help you succeed and survive. Be as good a parent as you are a fighter. Devote yourself to other pursuits with the same fervor you apply to martial arts, whether it is writing, biking, dancing etc.
Do nothing that is useless. I suspect he would regard TV, video games and other passive entertainment as useless. How many of us see a little boy boasting about how many video dragons he slew, when he can neither do a push up or a shoulder roll?
Musashi would urge drill, drill and more drill followed by some drill. Your 50th kick should be as good as your first. The only way to learn to punch is to punch, a lot. Martial art is not in the head. It is in the well-conditioned body with its trained reflex reactions
Don’t do calisthenics or warm up in his thinking. Do drill or forms slowly until warm, then speed up to fighting levels. No one ever won a fight with a jumping jack. Don’t run to get into shape for martial arts. Do the martial arts. The art is all. It contains warm-ups and cooldowns in the tempo. Much time is used up in a modern dojo on things that are not fighting. It doesn’t mean it must all be grim and cheerless. When your students are throwing the red squares at each other and giggling like mad, they are none the less learning the basic principles of throwing a weapon and dodging a thrown weapon. They just don’t realize they are working.
Musashi advocated having a very varied inventory of fighting techniques and never using the same ones. Be unpredictable, be unorthodox, and be decisive. Attack first, while others dither, or do not attack at all, but be the one controlling the pace of the fight. Always have the initiative.
To sum up his philosophy, “Train as you fight and fight as you train.” Musashi would not understand a great deal of what we do in a modern martial art school. Protective equipment would have been ridiculous to him. If you would expect to fight in armor, you would train in armor. The modern person will be attacked in street clothes and wearing shoes. Why are you training with equipment you won’t use in a fight?" Note that equipment, gloves, cups and other padding, changes the way you fight, particularly as to grabs and any other type of strike other than a backfist or punch and therefore the equipment is harmful to training.
Musashi would despise point-sparring as it generates bad technique, essentially a martial arts game of tag. The only blows worth delivering are those that will injure or destroy and opponents. Anything else is a waste of energy and you might as well kiss them.
We often say, don’t kick above the waist in a real fight, Musashi would say, “Then why are practicing high kicks at all?” Hwever he would also disagree with the principal, “Never kick above the waist in a real fight.” Kick above the waist if you are sure you will connect.
Musashi would tell a student not to have a preferred weapon (whether that is a club,
knife or foot) but to attack well with whatever is available. For example if you are great longswordsman or high-kicker, what good does tht do you fighting in a narrow alley or small room? If you can just box, what will you do when the opponent is kicking for your knees and sweeping you?
A central principal that we can learn from Musashi is that effective fighting trumps tradition and form. In this respect he is like Bruce Lee. A good technique is simple and effective and can be applied without thought. He felt that there were only five ways to strike with a sword. All others were ineffective and you could use an infinite variety by combining the five differently.
Musashi was a strange man who lived a hard life. But he was victorious in the field as an army leader and in over sixty individual combats. He knew what he knew down to his bones. We can
apply some of his lessons to the world we live in and always need to bear in mind that the hard cold merciless world that he lived in can spring to life around is in riot, terrorism, crime or war. Br
This is the Way for men who want to learn my strategy:
This has been handled wonderfully as in Ray Bradbury’s “It Came from Outer Space” and miserably as in
an episode in the latest “Star Trek” when Captain Archer, informed that an alien ship was approaching, idly deferred the meeting of civilizations to a subordinate.
After I finished howling abuse at the screen for the unpardonable sin of making first contact boring, I forswore any further involvement with the franchise. When we return to women in go-go boots armed with phasers, call me.
Carl Sagan and others testified that the technological achievement of crossing interstellar distance would be matched by a spiritual growth that would make conflict unlikely. He also believed there
would be no practical military or economic way for war to be waged given the immense distances. While the vast reaches of interstellar space are immensely more challenging then the air or sea , it must be noted that we have fought in every medium we have ever encountered.
Mankind is not simply a logical or economical creature, and indeed, wars among our species are far more often started for reasons of religion, race, and culture then through any cool, rational analysis of goods wagered and material and life lost. Hitler declared war on us not because he was obligated to do so (or felt any obligation to honor the Tripartite treaty) he was simply that contemptuous of American fighting ability and staying power. So while it will not be easy for first contact to occur, or for conflict to come from it, bad karma may find a way.
First Contact in SF usually means conflict, either by misadventure, or failure to communicate. In Larry Niven’s brilliant “Footfall” we are attacked because the aliens evolved from herd animals, and assume that on the meeting of two herds there will be a battle and the loser will then become part of the herd. Their surrendered soldiers assume that they are part of the human herd now and work for us. They simply cannot understand why we won’t become part of them. Biology has made their actions, nonsensical to us, imperative. With them it’s attack first, talk later and there are no recriminations because we are all one big happy herd now.
Niven has given us plausible aliens in a greater array and with more originality then any other writer (in my humble opinion), from Puppeteers, Slavers, Bandersnatch and Trinocs to Protectors. While First Contact was rarely the subject of his work, it was brilliantly handled when pacifistic
humans met carnivorous aliens called the Kzinti, who evolved ( or in his later work are revealed to have been tampered with) from something like a felinoid hunting animal. Niven didn’t settle with
making them big cats. He works out the psychology of creatures that see life as divided into predator and prey. A Kzinti will kill you for smiling at him; it would never occur to him to bare teeth in friendship. All his relationships are expressed in domination. Even more unusual, only the males of his species are sentient. It won’t occur to him to chat up Madeline Albright.
Niven and Pournelle create another alien culture in the “Mote in God’s Eye” where creatures are so at the mercy of their biology that it determines their history and fate in a never-ending cycle of boom and bust. What we do with machines, they do with evolution. Woe to us if they ever get out of their home system.
In a lesser effort, “Independence Day,” the aliens are xenophobic locusts and the attack is brought on because they are migratory, seeking resources, and other life forms are merely targets. It may be that they do not have a word for friend. Certainly the concept does not appear to exist for those outside their species. Hostility is immediate and without quarter. Similarly in the various versions of the HG Wells, “War of the Worlds” in book, audio and video and in the versions of Campbell’s, "Who goes there?” AKA the “Thing” first contact merely means attack. We are too different to have anything in common but to act as a food source for the hostiles. Andre Norton
often depicted such aliens, positing that some creatures would have such radically different ways of thinking and being that to merely consider them would drive humans mad, as in “Inherit the Stars.”
Particularly upsetting is Ridley Scott’s, “Alien.” First contact with this creature consists of being raped then murdered as a food source for its young. It’s unclear if the aliens are sapient though they, in the adult stages, exhibit degrees of intelligence. I think they were someone’s bio-ordnance that got loose and I hope it ate their butt first.
CJ Cherryh, is one of the greatest sociological and anthropological creators of aliens. Her creatures THINK alien even if they usually look like us. There are the Iduve, for whom the words
“help” and “hurt”mean essentially the same thing. They exist in a society somewhere between a wolf pack and feudal Japan. The Mri, absolutist aliens who are incapable of change and have thus remained culturally intact through uncounted ages. The Regul, ugly mercantile aliens who casually destroy and torment their young. The Atevi, who have no word for friend or love, only manichi, a complex web of obligation and social interactions that sometimes functions the same as love and friendship and sometimes leads humans into the dangerous gulf of alieness because it is neither of those emotions.
Cherryh deftly creates aliens who you can insult merely by existing or love, even while knowing that, while they will die for you (as in the case of Jago the Atevi bodyguard and Bren her human diplomat charge) they are incapable of loving you back.
Her catlike aliens are not as much fun as Larry Niven’s Kzinti, but her depiction of a feline society is interesting. She deals with an alien society beyond the warrior stage, begging the question: Are there alien accountants, insurance adjusters, used car salesman? “In the Pride of Chanur,” males battle for harems of hard-working, starship-running female traders. “Pride” has a double meaning in this title.
First contact with humans sets the wheels in motion for one canny trader to remake her civilization when she decides she likes her male, doesn’t understand why he should die and she should become chattel to some younger stud.
In terms of the
awesome effect of First Contact, CJ probably takes the prize.
No one else so clearly conveys the sociological effect of first
contact. One society or both will
be drastically and permanently remade.
It starts with making certain assumptions. There is no point in preparing for an overwhelming attack by an invincible enemy. If it happens, we’ll wake up in heaven and maybe somebody will tell us what it was all about. Similarly we can’t engage anyone in deep or midspace and even in near
(orbital) space. Our prospects for doing anything significant to an enemy are minimal. If they want to “nuke us from orbit, since it’s the only way to be sure,” then we are toast.
We have to hope that whoever is coming wants the planet in relatively good condition, infrastructure and environment intact. In short, they are going to have to come down, get out of the ships, and engage us directly. This will play to the only strengths we will have in such a situation. We know this planet and we were specially made to live and fight here. Beyond that, we will have the numbers.
Here’s where you can do some high-level conflict planning. Everything depends on the exchange ratios. You may divide these into high, medium and low:
At the low level the alien’s technology is only marginally better than ours. They either lucked into
stardrive or it’s the main area where the technology is better. This makes us competitive with them. Take an analogy that makes this simple. Swedish King Gustav Adolphus in 1631won the battle of Breitenfield (Thirty Years’ War) with a force of 40,000 men using the weapons of the day which included matchlock-firing musketeers and cannon. If his force of 40,000 encountered a modern American infantry battalion of 1000, what would the result be? In essence the
weapons of the 16th century Swedes are the same as the weapons of the 101st Airborne, gas-operated projectile weapons of various calibers firing bits of accelerated metal. What differs
is the efficiency.
If the doughty Swedes pressed home their attack, expecting annihilation of their homes and even
of the species should they fail, they will cause casualties. If the rate is less than forty to one at the end of the day, the Swedes win. While the modern battalion’s firepower gives casualties at fantastic rates undreamt of by Adolphus, that battalion takes them the same way as the Swedes do. Here’s where numbers matter. A dead Swede is 1/40,000 of Adolphus power. A dead modern trooper is 1/1000.
We see this in current warfare. The armies of the Third World crumble under the impact of New World or Old World modern armies. Iraq was the fourth largest Army in the world each time the US and its allies shredded it. But the Western armies suffer disproportionate disruption from casualties. Though the casualties are almost never militarily significant in themselves, they are
demoralizing. Western troops are far from home and attrition by low tech ambushes is more of a danger than the enemy’s best troops. In addition, they are surrounded by unfriendly and uncooperative natives, who see them as aliens and will help the insurgent. Send 100 men down a road, they find nothing. Send five men, they don’t come back.
If it takes twenty-two “first line” fighter aircraft, or forty attack helicopters, to drop one Martian fighting machine, then the war-planner knows his needs. Submarines won’t do us any good, so don’t build them. Airfields will be too vulnerable to an enemy that holds the high ground
of near orbit, so VTOL fighters will be more valuable. These calculations can be made now with the assumption of a low level of technological imparity.
One area that the planner will have to consider is quislings and “peace at any pricers.” The higher the toll for humanity, the more humans there will be, who for reasons of expediency, belief or practical desire to survive, will aid and abet the enemy. Some will hope to gain power and privilege in what they see as the inevitable alien victory. Some will worship aliens for religious
and sociological reasons. Others will cooperate because the outside of the concentration camp looks better than the inside. Better to be the overseer than the field hand. Sometimes when we meet the enemy he will be us. Anticipate it and be ready to deal with effectively. You can guess what that means.
On a larger grand strategic scale if it takes us 100,000,000 human casualties to extinguish and alien invasion force of 1,000,000 that leaves only about 4,900,000,000 to carry on. We won’t like it and the planet won’t be much fun for a while but we will still hold title to it.
On a medium level, their technology is substantially better than ours and the practical effect is that
our current military is useless. Then we are reduced to developing new technology; as in “Earth versus the Flying Saucers” with sonic disruptors, or chemical and biological effects or weapons such as did for H.G Wells’ Martians, or finally, there is always the wonderful option of nuking ourselves and them. It is hard to imagine that any level of technology or metallurgy will provide protections against a ten-megaton bomb. If deflector screens are a reality…well, ouch.
Then there is the high level. Frankly we just lose. The only way we can affect the aliens then is follow the tactics of insurgents. “Hang on their belt buckle,” be too close to them for their superior
weapons to be used effectively. In this scenario we may have to decide between going out in a blaze of glory, where we all meet at Fiddler’s Green for a few brews at the Valhalla bar, or living on our knees in the hope that eventually something brings down our occupiers. Maybe we get their technology. Maybe as in John Christopher’s Tripod books, the other side gets old and sloppy. Perhaps out in the deeps of space our enemies have enemies who will be our friends. Or perhaps as in Brian Aldiss’ “Bow Down to Null” all we are capable of is inconsequential acts of defiance that keep our hope alive for another day.
I approached the Department of Defense to ask if there were such plans for possible alien incursions. I assume that there are at least theoretical plans in the Pentagon for conflict with every nation that exists. Perhaps that is an incorrect assumption but I would like to think that if the Belgians wake up cranky tomorrow, there is a plan to deal with that. Ihave not received a reply as yet. On the other hand there’s been this black suburban parked on my block all this week…;-)
Author Edward McKeown is a writer and editor