A timeless lesson in strategy.
The Book of Five Rings is a study of conflict. It was written by a samurai swordsman, but its insights aren’t restricted to the martial arts.
Over the centuries, it’s been read by philosophers, politicians, and business leaders. Today, it’s as likely to be found on the bookshelves of athletes and CEOs as it is in the libraries of karate or aikido practitioners.
That’s hardly surprising. Miyamoto Musashi was a gifted swordsman, but he was also a subtle and penetrating thinker. What he has to say about the mindset required to achieve victory speaks to anyone whose life involves conflict.
Learn to focus on the essential.
It was well past midnight on October 10, 1643, when Miyamoto Musashi began writing the five scrolls which immortalized his name not only in Japan but far beyond his own place and time.
It was late in another sense, too. Musashi, now 60, understood that his life was nearing its end. His strength was dwindling; time, he knew, was short.
The leaves were already yellow and red when he left the bustling castle town in which he’d lived that fall. He climbed a forested mountainside and entered the cave in which he planned to spend his final days. It was a sacred place devoted to Kannon, the compassionate deity in Japanese Buddhism who guides deceased souls into paradise. For two years, Musashi meditated on his life and recorded his thoughts in the cave. The result of his life’s final labor was a manuscript distilling his insights into the nature of conflict and strategy.
Before we turn to that manuscript, though, we need to rewind a little. To understand Musashi’s ideas, we need to say something about the time and place in which he lived.
Musashi was a samurai. The word comes from the Japanese verb saburau, meaning to “serve as an attendant.” Originally, that’s what samurais were – the servants of Japan’s noble rulers. They defended their lords’ estates and policed their subjects. Over time, though, the samurai class grew more ambitious. By the twelfth century, the emperor who nominally ruled Japan was little more than a ceremonial figurehead. Real power belonged to military dictators drawn from the samurai class known as shoguns. The centuries that followed were marked by power struggles, rivalries, and civil wars. The samurais’ warrior ethos was forged in this period.
In the early seventeenth century, one warlord overshadowed all others – Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1603, Ieyasu established a new centralized state with its capital in Edo, today’s Tokyo. He was able to do something no other shogun had: he disarmed his rivals. Potential usurpers were forced to minimize their contingents of warriors, resulting in large numbers of unemployed samurai. Their training and culture had prepared them for a life of battle and bloodshed; now they faced an uncertain future in a nation that was discovering the virtues of peace.
Some samurais became priests or doctors. Others turned to crime – one of the period’s great social problems. A third group became ronin or “wanderers.” These masterless men practiced the martial arts of old, lived by ancient codes of honor and discipline, and traveled from town to town in search of paying students – and sparring partners.
Born in 1584, Miyamoto Musashi was one of these wandering samurais. He taught martial arts and practiced his true vocation: swordsmanship. Many of the biographical details we have about Musashi’s life were recorded by his students. It’s thanks to them that we know that he never married, made a home, or fathered children. They also tell us that he never combed his hair or took a bath – a precaution against being caught unawares without a weapon to hand. These accounts also give us a glimpse of his temperament. One student, for example, recalled bringing the 50-year-old Musashi a pile of bamboo poles. How could one tell which ones were suitable for flag poles, he asked. A simple problem, Musashi replied. He picked up one pole after the other and smashed it against the ground, discarding those that shattered and keeping the rest – an “unquestionable method,” as the student noted. As we’ll soon see, such directness and pragmatism was one of Musashi’s defining traits.
As a swordsman, Musashi was undefeatable. Between the ages of 13, when he had his first bout with another samurai, and 30, when he retired, he fought 60 duels, winning all of them. Duels played an important part in samurai culture – it was a means for swordsmen to hone their skills and demonstrate technique. Usually, they were fought with wooden training swords called bokken and ended when the victorious samurai drew first blood. But when honor or political power was on the line, duels were fought to the death. In these bouts, Musashi typically wielded a katana, the curved, single-edge steel sword worn by all samurai, but he was also capable of inflicting mortal wounds with a bokken.
By his own reckoning, Musashi possessed no extraordinary skill as a swordsman. Nor was he especially fast or fleet-footed. What had brought him victory time and again, he said, was his way of focusing on what was essential and discarding everything inessential. That was what he hoped to pass on to the readers of The Book of Five Rings.
The warrior’s true purpose is to triumph, not to die honorably.
There were competing schools among the wandering swordsmen. Each claimed theirs was the true way. It was said that the founders of these schools had been enlightened by gods or demons who’d revealed secret stances and styles of cutting opponents down. These claims weren’t debated – the followers of these schools settled their arguments by fighting duels.
For all their differences, though, these schools shared a worldview. They drew their philosophy from the deep well of samurai culture. In this way of thinking, a warrior’s purpose was to serve his master – the lord who paid the samurai and supported his family. This lord was the head of the social unit – the clan – which gave the warrior his identity. To die while fighting for the clan was the highest good: that was how a samurai consummated his identity.
For him, this was a philosophy of dying that had mystified the warrior’s true purpose. Death, he said, comes to everyone eventually. A farmer, artisan, or maid can meet it with as much resolve as a soldier. But if death doesn’t set the warrior apart from other classes in society, what does? Musashi’s answer was characteristically pragmatic: the warrior distinguishes himself by overcoming his opponents. He wins. Why else would a lord give a man a sword and stipend? Honorable deaths don’t bring victory on the battlefield. Musashi told his students that their intent should always be to triumph – not to die with weapons worn uselessly at their side.
Every role in life, Musashi said, has its own distinctive purpose or way. The doctor’s way is to heal the sick. The carpenter’s way is to organize materials so that they’re useful to humans. The Buddhist’s way is to help people discover the nature of reality. The warrior’s way is to excel others in all he does. Defeating enemies, in other words, is one expression of an attitude and purpose which guides his behavior in every aspect of life. He always seeks to win.
That connection between excellence and victory had been forgotten by many schools of swordsmanship, Musashi thought. They taught useless, showy techniques, which amounted to training students to die with attractive form. Wielding a sword without knowing how to use it to cut down an enemy was, for Musashi, a form of meaningless theater. He preferred the plain flower which develops into a fruit to the beautiful flower which withers on the branch.
The warrior who seeks victory must be fluid in mind and body.
Water is one of the five elements which make up the Universe in Japanese Buddhist thought. Unsurprisingly, it represents all fluid, flowing, and formless things. Water is always water, but it can take on different shapes. It follows the form of the container into which it’s poured. In a bowl, it’s wide and shallow. In a vase, it’s tall and narrow. It can be a single drop of rain or an ocean. Water, in short, isn’t preoccupied with attaining a certain state – it’s responsive.
The true warrior, Musashi taught, moves like water. He responds to what’s in front of him. He adapts. One of the reasons Musashi disliked showy techniques is that they got in the way of responsiveness. The swordsman whose mind is focused on his own footwork or executing certain combinations of cuts and thrusts loses sight of his opponent. It’s as though he’s reading from a preprepared script. But a battle isn’t a theater play. It’s improvised and dynamic. The swordsman must watch his opponent’s movements and respond accordingly. He must be fluid.
How does the warrior attain such fluidity? Musashi’s answer is that he brings the same mindset to battles as he brings to every other part of his life. This idea is rooted in Zen Buddhism, which teaches that the everyday mind is the true way. Let’s break that down.
Zen Buddhism holds that outstanding or exceptional states of mind are unnatural, and the unnatural is unreal. These states run against the grain of human psychology. In Musashi’s words, they require an unsustainable tautness of mind. They’re moments of extraordinary focus that can rarely be maintained for long. Military strategists down the centuries have recognized that soldiers usually fall back on their training rather than rising to outstanding feats. Under the stress of battle, they revert to what’s normal and everyday – the practices that have become intuitive through constant drilling. The swordsman, too, must train until his movements become as natural as walking or sleeping or any other everyday action. When these movements are second-nature, he’ll be able to use them without any great thought. His mind will be attentive to his situation and his body will follow effortlessly.
The way of victory is in devising difficulties for your opponent.
A duel wasn’t only a physical meeting of bodies and swords – it was also a psychological struggle between minds. Battles, Musashi wrote, could be won or lost on this latter terrain.
That was something he knew well from experience. When he was 28 years old, Musashi was challenged to a duel by his greatest rival – Sasaki Kojiro, a swordsman known for his use of a particularly long blade. Technically, Sasaki was unrivaled. Musashi certainly felt that he was the more gifted swordsman. But Sasaki’s technical prowess also concealed weaknesses.
The duel was scheduled to take place early in the morning on April 13, 1612. A small island near the castle town of Kokura – today’s Kitakyushu – was chosen as the site.
Sasaki and his entourage were punctual. Musashi, though, slept late. The sun was high and it was already hot when he rose. By the time Musashi’s boat appeared on the horizon, Sasaki, who’d been all but boiled alive in his heavy ceremonial dress, was incandescent. His mood worsened even further when Musashi finally landed. Rather than carrying a steel sword, he’d whittled an oar into a crude wooden bokken that was considerably longer than Sasaki’s own weapon. His blood boiling and his nerves unsettled, Sasaki unsheathed his sword and flung his scabbard into the waves. Musashi, who’d remained silent until now, remarked that his opponent had already lost – only a man who expected to die had no need for his scabbard.
He was right. Both warriors swung their weapons, but it was Musashi’s wooden sword which connected. Sasaki fell to the floor, stunned; Musashi killed him with a second blow to the ribs.
Emotions belong to the realm of the third element out of which all things are composed: fire. In the third scroll, the Fire Scroll, Musashi turned to psychology and its role in battles. Many things can agitate us, he wrote. For example, a feeling of danger or the feeling that something is beyond our capacity. The unexpected can also be unnerving. The sources of agitation are worth studying deeply, Musashi advised, for they can help you knock your enemy off balance.
He must have thought about his duel with Sasaki as he wrote these words. The technically more gifted swordsman had been defeated because he’d allowed Musashi to get into his head. Sasaki’s strong sense of dignity had been deliberately offended, and his anger had clouded his thinking. The carved wooden sword had thrown him, too – as Musashi had calculated, turning up to duel with such a crude weapon also offended Sasaki. Its length, meanwhile, undermined his confidence – he’d grown used to wielding the longer weapon in fights. Sasaki had, in short, been defeated psychologically before the duel began. As Musashi put it, victory is the fruit of devising difficulties for your opponent. Wage psychological war on him effectively enough and he’ll defeat himself.
The warrior’s purpose is to achieve victory. That’s as true on the battlefield as off. Really, the warrior’s defining trait is a will to excel in everything. The means of achieving this excellence? Mindset. If you understand your enemy’s psychology and remain fluid, you’ll be able to respond quickly and effectively to every conflictual situation you encounter.