’I am Shinmen Musashi no Kami, Fujiwara no Genshin, a warrior born in the province of Harima, now sixty years old’
‘Musashi’, as he is popularly known, was a 17th century samurai, undefeated in combat. A strength of the Book of Five Rings is that Musashi wrote it as an old man, having attained all of that experience and meditating upon it before writing it down. It is two books in one: what it is about, and what it all means. The former is straightforward enough, the latter almost endless.
Ostensibly it is a strategic guide to battle in 17th century Japan. The book is divided into five chapters or ‘scrolls’ (the ‘rings’ of the title, though the more literal ‘spheres’ would seem a better analogy as it allows for a conceptual overlapping of the various scrolls). Each scroll is devoted to a specific approach to martial strategy.
‘With Heaven and Kanmon for mirrors, I take up the brush and begin to write, at 4:00 A.M. on the night of the tenth day of the tenth month, 1643’.
How wonderfully ‘Japanese’ of Musashi to give us the precise moment when he ‘takes up his brush’. And of course, a samurai is up and at it at 04:00 A.M. Because he is a badass samurai. And you are not. So listen up.
‘Let the teacher be the needle, let the student be the thread.’
‘Because the straight path levels the contours of the earth, I call the first one the Earth Scroll’.
Being a good samurai, Musashi is also not averse to a certain poetry in his writings, as for example his reasonings for naming each of his books. The Earth Scroll gives the basic outline of Musashi’s school. Musashi uses the analogy of carpentry to push the notion of the martial arts as a true craft
Water conforms to the shape of the vessel…it can be a drop, it can be an ocean…Because of the purity of water I write about my individual school in this scroll’.
The Water Scroll contains specific swordfighting tactics. Here we get into the classical ‘Zen-like’ aphorisms which to Western ears sound almost comical: ‘The Rhythm of the Second Spring’, ‘The Flowing Water Stroke’, ‘The Body of the Short-Armed Monkey’. Many are very specific to swordfighting (grips, strokes, stances, etc) but some are more generally applicable:
‘Determine that today you will overcome yourself of the day before, tomorrow you will win over those of lesser skill, and later you will win over those of greater skill.’
‘Fire may be large or small, and has a sense of violence, so here I write about matters of battle’.
That ‘large or small’ is critical to this particular book: a key theme is to learn to see the large in the small, and vice versa. Scale of action is irrelevant if the underlying principles are sound. The purpose of this, as it pertains to training armies, is that If one well-trained warrior can defeat ten men, so ten well-trained warriors can defeat one hundred men, and so on in scale.
Here Musashi compares his style to that of other schools, for as he states: ‘Unless you really understand others, you can hardly attain your own understanding’.
Upon initial reading many of the aphorisms in this section seem applicable only to military operations. However, if you can replace the military references, they may be able to be applied more broadly. And it is in this section that is perhaps most applicable to the jiujitsu player.
Some may call the vague interpretation of these aphorisms a Zen approach, with its implications of impenetrable Eastern mysticism. In the Western tradition it would be called an exercise in lateral thinking. The former approach viewed as religion, the latter approach as science. In truth they are neither, being instead merely thought experiments and ways of viewing the world. In other words, philosophy.
SCROLL OF EMPTINESS
The final scroll is the shortest (less than two pages) and perhaps less directly applicable, intended as it is as an all-encompassing philosophy of the previous four scrolls. It has been the most difficult for me to summarise, and yet its message has lingered the longest:
‘As long as they do not know the real Way, whether in Buddhism or in worldly matters, everybody may think their path is sure and is a good thing, but from the point of view of the straight way of mind, seen in juxtaposition with overall social standards, they turn away from the true Way by the personal biases in their minds and the individual warps in their vision. Knowing that mentality, taking straightforwardness as basic, taking the real mind as the Way, practicing martial arts in the broadest sense, thinking correctly, clearly and comprehensively, taking emptiness as the Way, you see the Way as emptiness.’
The Book of Five Rings, and to an even greater extent, The Art of War, were rediscovered and popularised in the 1980s by the business community, who saw in their battle tactics an analogy for their own corporate battles. Perhaps there can be some relevance, as Musashi himself seems to desire a broader application of his principles:
‘The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things.’
However, I would caution against too broad an application. It is important to keep in mind that Musashi was writing for martial artists, not advertising executives: his goal was for martial artists to bring their martial tactics to bear in other areas of their life, not to secure the McDonald’s account.
An initial reading of the Book of Five Rings is a bit like beginning jiujitsu. You’re not really sure what it is you’re seeing, it’s all a bit baffling. You have a sense that it’s powerful, but you’re not sure how or why. Taken at face value the techniques (i.e. aphorisms) are simplistic. And after a while they can all seem to run into one another, so that there is a tendency to gloss over the details in order to try to figure out the bigger picture, to understand the end point.
But upon the multiple reading necessary to construct this review – the repetitions, if you will - I noticed that there is a subtle precision in Musashi’s writings: the fine distinctions are there, the details are important. There is a reason they are laid out in such a way. Understand each word and why he is using it. The strategies can at times seem a bit vague, but perhaps therein lies the flexibility of their application. Interpret them how you will, but you must be open. It certainly explains the longevity of the Book of Five Rings (as also for the Bible and Shakespeare).
You don’t need to be a 17th Century samurai to get something out of this book. Physiologically, we are the same as Musashi. He is merely interpreting the events of his life and times through his personal experience and the things that he knows best, which in his case is swordsmanship. What this teaches us is that we all, no matter what our life experiences, have a store of knowledge with which we can begin to formulate a personal strategy for dealing with life.