By: Mick Yates
The Book of the Five Rings explores winning strategy in the context of Samurai swordsmanship, but it is equally applicable to leading modern business. Musashi believed the teaching would not only help warriors, but would also be useful to artists, laborers,merchants or bureaucrats, as an adjunct to their own separate, disciplinary study.
"The Way of the warrior does not include other Ways, such as ... certain traditions, artistic accomplishments and dancing. But even though these are not part of the Way, if you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything. Men [and women] must polish their particular Way".
(Musashi defending himself, V&A Museum)
Whilst we do not condone his life of violence, Musashi firmly understands his own value system, and sees it as the basis for everything he does. His life exemplifies striving for both excellence and balance in all we do - a state of mind that today we all too often discuss and very rarely achieve. A brief evaluation of the Samurai value system is included in this website.
Musashi was born in the Mimasaka province of Japan in 1584. His father was a Samurai, so not surprisingly Musashi had great interest in swordsmanship, and he studied all he could.
"From youth my heart has been inclined toward the Way of strategy. My first duel was when I was thirteen, I struck down a strategist of the Shinto school, one Arima Kihei. When I was sixteen I struck down an able strategist Tadashima Akiyama. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of strategists, never once failing to win in many contests".
Musashi was never an important General, but was a rather solitary warrior. Perhaps it is a stretch to think of Musashi as a leader, but it is easy to see how some of the things that he said and did provide lessons for today's leaders.
In particular, his ability to achieve excellence in both martial and artistic endeavours shows an enviable and disciplined appreciation of balance. His eloquent mastery of both large and small scale strategy provides object lessons for today's business leader's. And his combination of physical and psychological skills in fighting duels shows a real understanding of how to deal with other people.
Probably Musashi's most famous duel was against Ganryu (Sasaki Kojiro) in 1612. This Long Sword expert was beaten by Musashi with a wooden pole, after a certain amount of psychological outmaneuvering - Musashi's lateness made Ganryu loose self control. This combination of skill and psychology became his trademark.
From 1603 the Shogunate of Tokugawa Ieyasu brought an end to years of civil disorder in Japan, and began the Edo era. Whilst violence was still common, broadscale war was a thing of the past, replaced by bureaucratic rules, and most of the big armies were disbanded.
Musashi was a ronin (an unattached Samurai), seeking duels to test his skills. He developed a unique, two-handed sword fighting style, which became known as the "Ni Ten Ichi Ryu" school. Many details of his life are sketchy. Most authors believe that he fought and survived against the Tokugawa forces in the early 1600's.
Throughout his life, Musashi continued to duel, to test his skills, and to teach. He increasingly spent his time seeking the wider truths of his "Way". He continued his study of Zen Buddhism, although it is not clear whether he saw Zen as a pursuit in its own right, or as merely a way to improve his sword fighting skills. It is quite probable that he never fully realized Zen-enlightenment.
Nevertheless, Zen clearly played a major role in Musashi's life and writing..
Despite his warrior profession, there was a clear balance in Musashi's life. He successfully blended his fighting philosophy with skill in the Arts. In fact, Musashi's artistic output remains highly prized today, not just as symbols of an historically significant individual, but as aesthetically attractive works in their own right. Whilst Musashi says that his "Way" is purely about warriorship ...
"cutting down the enemy is the Way of strategy, and there is no need for many refinements of it"
He also wrote .....
"It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way".
Rather than resolving the relative "weighting" of warriorship, Zen and the arts to Musashi, it is more important to note that this complex man had several critical but clear themes in his life and in his writing. The balance of opposites itself is the key to understanding his work.
He thought nothing of killing, yet he had a strict ethical code. He would rather have died himself than break this code. He was an invincible swordfighter, with great strength, yet he was an accomplished sumi-e (Zen brush) painter, and a fine craftsman in wood and metal.
(Bodhidharma painting by Musashi, in Tokugawa Art Museum)
He was a man who preferred action, yet his writing shows great thought and penetrating analysis. He was essentially a "loner", but he clearly understood how to deal with other people.
Here was a man at peace with himself and with his surroundings, despite the dilemmas and apparent contradictions of his way of life. Interestingly, whilst it was most usual in those days to seek a Zen teacher or guide, Musashi appears to have been quite self-sufficient.
Musashi’s start point is that, unlike the "Way" of other disciplines,
"The warrior is different in that studying the Way of strategy is based on overcoming men"
We view this somewhat belligerent statement as one of the keys to understanding of Musashi, as it underpins his focus on the individual's role. He goes on to list the nine essential attitudes and skills of good "strategists".
1. Do not think dishonestly
2. The Way is in training
3. Become acquainted with every art
4. Know the Ways of all professions
5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters
6. Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything
7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen
8. Pay attention even to trifles
9. Do nothing which is of no us
Most of the items on the list are self-evident. The first four stressing the need for training and broad learning .. and development of wisdom.
Point 5 really means to be discrete in one’s dealings with others. The Japanese have a concept of "tatemae" and "honne" - truth, in relation to other people. "Tatemae" is what is expected to be done or said, and may not be what one really thinks. It prevents loss of face all round. "Honne" is the real truth, and you share that only with people with whom you have built a trusting relationship over time. Musashi would say "stick to the tatemae" on the battleground, against your competitors.
The last four points on Musashi’s list stress how to work day to day - with economy of action, but with deep penetration of the facts.
Book of Five Rings
The "Book of Five Rings" was the result of Musashi’s lifelong search.
It was written in the form of a letter to a pupil; it is his personal Zen "Heiho". It is quite short, gives a lot of personalised advice, and features both tactical and strategic teaching. Its themes are examined further in Samurai Leadership.