“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:
Author Edward McKeown is a writer and editor