Value Systems : Musashi's Book of Five Rings

Sage runs an online destination for information about Alaska, including information about Alaskan Natives, original Alaskan art, and book reviews (non-Alaskan specific). He wrote this review of the "Book of Five Rings", which adds to mick's Musashi comments.


The Book of Five Rings 

This book was originally written many centuries ago, in feudal Japan, a period of "great social change." The country was united, and many samurai were out of work. Therefore, master-less samurai roamed across Japan looking for other samurai, against whom to test their blades (swords). Miyamoto Musashi was one of these master-less samurai. However, Musashi was also a philosopher, a sumi-e painter, and a sculptor. Sumi-e, for those who are unfamiliar, is a form of Japanese painting, that emphasizes the white space in the painting, as well as the lines painted.

When Musashi was an old man, he was able to write down coherently, the philosophy that had determined the course of his life path. This writing is the Book of Five Rings. Reader's knowledgeable about Zen thinking will find Musashi's philosophy to be familiar. For those don't know, Zen is a philosophy, that focuses on being aware of one's surroundings, and of knowing intuitively how to respond to events. Zen, unlike Buddhism, is a philosophy that believes you can achieve enlightenment in the present lifetime.

Heiho, Musashi's philosophy, is predicated on this belief. It is also, as Musashi explains, "necessary to keep in mind that the essence of Heiho is to build an indomitable spirit and an iron will; to believe that you cannot fail in doing anything." It is a demanding but optimistic philosophy.

One of the most refreshing things about Miyamoto Musashi is that his philosophy is more practical than theoretical. Therefore it is possible to practice the philosophy to a greater or lesser extent. Musashi himself ostensibly lived this philosophy. We are given evidence, for instance, that this is the case, from multiple sources, including Musashi himself, that he was undefeated (in combat) in his lifetime.

The Book of Five Rings is a book for warriors who are seeking enlightenment. But it is also a book for people, in general, who are concerned with discovering the truth in things, and with living life to the fullest. Is the book that good? Is the philosophy that remarkable? To both questions I say yes. Musashi recognizes that their are many paths in life. He emphasizes four such paths, including that of the artisan, that of the merchant, and the path of the farmer. Of course his (Musashi's) path is the fourth one, and the most rarely followed. Interestingly enough, Musashi posits that, whichever path you choose, you should remember to apply your knowledge to other things. Specifically, he says, "To know one thing is to know 1,000 things." If you are a financier, to take a random example, you should be able to apply your knowledge as a financier to the study of other occupations, and to the understanding of how many things work, generally.

Whatever path you choose to follow, Musashi says, you should seek to learn as much as you can about that field. This includes knowing the tools, skills, and knowledge of that path. If you desire to become a master of the field you choose then your studying should be even more rigorous. To become a master swordsman, is to know intimately the ways of the swordsman, to know the tools of the swordsman, and to know the swordsman's enemies. Ultimately however, it is to follow the path of Heiho.

Musashi compares the path of the warrior to that of a carpenter in an interesting and plausible analogy. He also compares the path of the master warrior to that of the master carpenter. He illustrates how the master carpenter must be intimately familiar with his or her tools and should certainly be able to use them for any given (carpentry) purpose. The master carpenter should also know the types of wood to use for a given project or aspect of a project, such as the doors of a house. Furthermore, the master carpenter must know how and where to construct a house, keeping the landscape and the location of the site firmly in mind. To become a master, Musashi reminds us, requires great determination, learning and experience.

Musashi points out, that when you have mastered your own craft, you must also master the crafts of your enemies. "Unless," Musashi says, "one is familiar with the other schools, my Niten Ichriyu [Heiho] school cannot be fully mastered." For Musashi it meant knowing the various martial arts extant at the time. It also meant knowing the various weapons employed by practitioners of those arts. It is a daunting task to be sure. But, as Musashi calmly reminds the reader, his school of philosophy is vastly superior to any of his opponents' philosophies.

Musashi goes on to describe the other schools. He also devotes two large chapters to a discussion of the various attacks and movements available to a warrior. Some of the more interesting names that Musashi comes up with for his moves include, "crossing the expanse", "to restrain the pillow," and "to become the enemy". He also describes briefly, the various weapons one might use, such as the sword, gun, and halberd.

What Musashi does not do, is describe the various other weapons one may use in combat. These weapons include any device that you can think of. Bizarrely enough, Musashi was known to use a variety of weapons including fence posts and sticks (when swords were not available). Musashi believes that it is important to surprise the enemy and to use innovative techniques. Innovation, he stresses, is one key to winning. The other is knowing the rhythm of a situation and acting appropriately.

The Book of Five Rings is a short, but challenging read. It will probably be most appreciated by practitioners of the martial arts, and others who want to learn a specific method of applying Zen-like principles to their everyday existence. I doubt that anyone will be able to fully grasp the meanings and intricacies of this book after one reading. Small matter though, because it's about the size of a back-pants pocket and is great reading material on the bus, the subway, or elsewhere. 

Book of Five Rings
Translation and Commentary by Nihon Services Corporation
Bantam Book: New York. 1982  
©  2000 Sage Adams

blog comments powered by Disqus