Most students of Japanese swordsmanship or history will come across the name Miyamoto Musashi. This 17th-century warrior can be found in countless depictions across various media. He wrote one of the most famous martial arts treatises of all time: Go Rin no Sho, or The Book of Five Rings, a manual of bearing, swordsmanship, military strategy, and philosophy organized into five books representing the five elements of Japanese cosmology: Ground, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void.
Miyamoto Musashi: Life of the Sword Saint & Author of the Book of Five Rings
Miyamoto Musashi was born close to the end of the Warring States Period. We don’t know his exact birth year but general consensus puts it around 1584. He was the son of a low-ranking samurai named Munisai. One day when Musashi was 13, an itinerant Kashima-ryu swordsman named Arima Kihei came to Musashi’s village of Miyamoto and issued an open challenge. Musashi eagerly accepted. They came to grips and Musashi threw Kihei — who was using a wakizashi (a small sword) — to the ground and killed him with repeated blows to the head with a bokuto (wooden sword).
At the age of 16, Musashi is thought to have fought at Sekigahara, but this is likely dramatic license taken by Eiji Yoshikawa in his serial novel depicting Musashi’s life. He was in fact on Kyushu at the time; far from the plains of Sekigahara. The young swordsman was conducting his musha shugyo, a customary journey undertaken by samurai to train and improve their fighting skills.
When he was 21, he went to Kyoto and challenged the Yoshioka sword school, which is the point at which Musashi made a real name for himself. Still later, he would fight his duel with famed warrior Sasaki Kojiro, then became a retainer for hire for various daimyo and develop/master his own sword style, Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu. Toward the end of his life, Musashi wrote Go Rin No Sho before dying from cancer at the age of 61. Posthumously he became known as a kensei (a sword saint).
The Book of Five Rings: A Summary
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The Book of Five Rings outlines his way of viewing the world, his philosophy, and martial arts. The title of this article refers to him as the Bruce Lee of Japanese martial arts and the two share quite a few similarities; mainly an exhortation to not hew too heavily to established traditions and to use what is most effective. “Think only of cutting the enemy.” Musashi also repeatedly emphasizes the need to practice regularly; every passage or lesson in the book ends with some variation on the idea of “You must study this deeply.”
Each of the five sections of the book has a different focus: Ground deals with the basic tenets underlying the “Way of Strategy” (as Musashi refers to swordsmanship). Water is the most straightforward swordplay instruction dealing with grip, stances, and various actions and concepts. Fire addresses concerns of larger-scale strategy such as situational advantage and disrupting enemies’ timing; Wind points out Musashi’s issues with how other schools of swordsmanship teach, and Void is a spiritual musing on the ideal state of mind. Here follows an analysis of each of the five sections of Go Rin no Sho.
“From one thing, know ten thousand things.”
The Book of the Ground lists the core precepts of Miyamoto Musashi’s Way of Strategy: The idea of using both the katana and wakizashi in tandem, rather than focusing on a single weapon, the use of an appropriate weapon for a given situation, and the staying firm to one’s study of the Way, among other things. Like Bruce Lee’s criticism of traditional martial arts forms, Musashi points out that most sword schools of the time had become too focused on form and trivialities of techniques at the expense of battle effectiveness.
The chief difference in the way Musashi used swords versus many others is that he advocated use of a one-handed grip when possible. This method grants more freedom of movement to left and right and allows actions with the off-hand, assuming a wakizashi was not in play. Another reason for training with the wakizashi is that indoors, it would be the only sword a samurai would have to hand; the katana was only worn outdoors. If a situation called for fighting indoors and a samurai had not trained well with the applicable weapons, it would be a rather bad day for him. In the image above, Musashi is using his signature style, having been victorious against some of the Yoshioka fighters.
Miyamoto Musashi wrote that the broad principles of the Way of Strategy should inform not just fencing, but everyday life. It’s why The Book of Five Rings is considered a must-read for leaders in both civilian and military roles; especially apt considering that many samurai in the post-Edo Period shifted their focus to business rather than warfare. The section comparing a military general to a foreman of a group of carpenters exemplifies this.
The nine maxims that Musashi provided for those wanting to learn the Way of Strategy are as follows:
“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 judgment and understanding for everything.
Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
Pay attention even to trifles.
Do nothing which is of no use.”
“To wield the long sword well you must wield it calmly.”
This section of Miyamoto Musashi’s treatise deals the most directly with fencing. He explained the proper method for gripping a sword (pinky and ring fingers tight, middle finger neutral, thumb and index finger loose), stance (hips square with the enemy), movement (the same as walking), and the Five Attitudes. These are Middle, Upper, Lower, Left, and Right, roughly analogous to the five main postures of Japanese swordsmanship. Musashi discouraged waiting in any of the Attitudes. In fact, he often stood naturally in a posture called Mu-no-kamae, with swords held neutrally at his sides.
He also detailed the Five Approaches, which represent five kata (martial arts forms) that describe the ideal way to use each of the Attitudes. He advocated, like Bruce Lee did, being like water, able to flow and adapt to the situation as needed and not using any contrived stances. The ideal way Musashi instructs cutting with the katana is by using full extension of the body, arms, and wrists in a loose, flowing motion, returning the sword along its same path. Excessive force robs the cut of its power and risks loss of control that an enemy could easily counter.
One of the most important skills to foster when studying the Way is to see more than is evident; in other words, to learn to make full use of peripheral vision and not give away focus. Musashi stated that the ideal samurai should be able to keep his motives completely hidden, including that which was conveyed through where he was looking.
With the fundamentals covered, the Water book then lists various cuts and tactics to win a duel. The common theme linking the cuts goes back to the idea of emulating water: fluid and broad motion, able to adapt to the enemy. By keeping the body relaxed until the moment of action, muscles remain loose and can move efficiently. When done powerfully enough it is possible to disarm an enemy, as in the Fire and Stones cut. The section labeled “There Are Many Enemies” instructs how to use the katana and wakizashi to chase multiple fighters around and keep them in each other’s way, making it easier to cut them down.
“If the enemy thinks of the mountains, attack like the sea; and if he thinks of the sea, attack like the mountains.”
The Fire book shifts its focus to large-scale strategy, thinking from the perspective of a military commander directing troop maneuvers, but the concepts can also apply to single combat. Most of these principles, such as knowing how to discern an enemy’s timing, are spoken of broadly.
The most important idea in the Fire book is to take the initiative. Most often this means to attack first, but it can also mean to begin dictating the pace of the fight by immediately leading the enemy where desired.
A passage in the Book of Five Rings that applies to both fencing and life is the idea that Musashi expressed of “crossing at a ford”. It means to take opportunities as they arise, or the exact wording: “This ‘crossing at a ford’ occurs often in a man’s lifetime. It means to set sail even though your friends stay in harbor, knowing the route, the soundness of your ship and the favor of the day.”
Musashi wrote that the only way to be fully trained in swordplay was to fight earnest life-or-death duels because nothing else could be adequate preparation. In the view set forth in his writings, dojo sparring was too limited and did not encompass all the possibilities of action. He also acknowledged that fights don’t take place in a vacuum; the environment plays a factor. The text advises fighting from a high place; having to work against gravity can give the enemy a critical disadvantage. Another tactic involves fighting with the sun or a fire to the rear. Sun Tzu advocates similar things.
Miyamoto Musashi describes several tactics that involve breaking the enemy’s timing and rhythm; a body that is not in rhythm is weak. Cutting with the sword moving out of time with the body, or breathing out of time with movement, weaken a fighter’s ability. The concept of “body of a rock” is discussed in the text, the idea of keeping one’s own intentions (referred to as spirit) hidden and acting in such a way as to provoke the opponent to reveal theirs. The section labeled “Mountain-Sea Change” discusses this, reflected in the quote above.
“The true master of strategy does not appear fast.”
It isn’t clear what connection between the Book of Wind and tradition is, but in this section of The Book of Five Rings, Musashi goes into detail about some of the drawbacks he perceived in other schools. He doesn’t name the schools in question. In Wind, Musashi decries the preference for longer swords (nodachi) and short swords (kodachi). With a longer sword it is easy to rely too much on the range and not be effective should an enemy close in. With short swords, it is easy to get caught in a defensive position. There is nothing wrong with learning to use these weapons; as mentioned, Musashi advocated that a fighter learn to use multiple weapons and to perform as the situation demands but have no preference.
He also disparaged schools that would flourish the sword in large repertoires of techniques. Going from partnered forms to free sparring drastically reduces the number of tactics available in muscle memory, and going from sparring to a duel with lethal intent does so exponentially more. Also, there are only so many ways one can attack with a sword. The more basic movements should be practiced endlessly to drill them into muscle memory. Just like Bruce Lee again: “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks one time, but the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.”
Void: Last Part of Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings
“When your spirit is not in the least clouded and the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true Void.”
This book is more philosophical than the others. It delves into the proper mindset a warrior should have: mushin, or Mind of the Void. There should be no preconceived notions, plans, ideas, or desire for a given outcome. The warrior should, in Musashi’s mind, act instinctively according to the skills drilled into them through constant practice, with the only goal being to cut down the enemy standing before them regardless of how it must be done. To live entirely in the moment at hand enables one to act and react to changing circumstances.
In the image above, Musashi is sparring with the sword master Zuioken, who is using pot lids to parry Musashi’s swords like miniature shields. Without the mindset of mushin, that may not have occurred to him. After the duel, Musashi apologized to him and briefly became a student.