Miyamoto Musashi is thought of in many circles as one of the best swordsmen to have ever lived. In actuality, there have been many other men both before and after who have killed many more men in combat than Musashi’s humble score of 60. But undocumented knowledge does not outlive
the one who possesses it. Nonetheless, what Musashi did, that perhaps his colleagues of the sword failed to do, was to document his findings in the form of a book – Go Rin No Sho, or as we know it,
The Book Of Five Rings.
Read literally, it is a simple book intended for a young swordsman in ancient Japan. Yet, there
is a great deal of “between the lines” information for one who reads it with a warrior’s eye. The amount of operational information the book yields is equal to volumes several times it size. It captures an old warrior’s perceptions of the world, and of what he thought was important for warriors to know. It is important to know that Musashi was writing at an advanced age and for him, there would not be any more battles. A warrior in his prime might be expected to hold something back lest his enemies get hold of his methods. Additionally, Musashi intended the volume for his son, thus the key points which he mentions as important take on an even
more serious tone as they are intended to perhaps save the life of one important to the writer.
Much of the book is specific to combat in old Japan, yet old Musashi has much to teach our 21st Century men-at-arms. We wear Glocks now instead of katana, but fighting is fighting regardless of the history, and the lessons of Musashi still apply today.
Musashi divides his book into parts. Namely Ground, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void. A full discussion of the modern applications of Musashi’s work would take a great deal more space than is
permissible in a magazine article, so we are keeping to the most poignant lessons.
Musashi writes, “Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest and the deepest things. As if it were a straight road mapped out on the ground”. The entire Ground book is intended to teach planning.
In my youth as I first began the study of the martial arts, I learned that those who are destined to win, study first, then fight. Those destined to lose, fight first and then study why they lost. Outcomes in combat cannot be predicted, yet we can certainly “stack the deck” in our favor as much
We can train ourselves so that we have a realistic understanding of our capabilities and skills.
We can study the dynamics of conflict so that we have a basic understanding of how combat develops and unfolds. It is important to do this with 21st Century focus since men do not fight the same way to day as they did back in ancient Japan.
Musashi compares the way of the warrior to the way of the carpenter. The carpenter plans
everything out with great specificity. We must do the same. How many of you readers have a plan in the event of a violent home invasion? How about an attempted car jacking, or other violent assault? If you are a family man, have you made plans with your family in case of one of these events? Don’t be like the deer in the headlights frozen by the savagery of the world. Be prepared. Be like the carpenter who plans everything as much as he can. In other words, avoid leaving anything to chance.
Musashi’s second book is titled the Water Book. “Water adopts the shape of its receptacle, it
is sometimes a trickle and sometimes a wild sea. Water has a clear blue color. By the clarity, things of the Ichi school are shown in this book”.
One of the most difficult things to teach is adaptability. The wise fighter knows how to pick what fits. His goal is to hit his adversary, not to execute a certain technique. Adaptability, knowing what
fits in each confrontation, whether at the outset, or in mid-fight is essential. This ability to become a tactical chameleon will only come from exposure to various fight systems. Witness how poorly narrowly trained fighters do in mixed martial arts, or UFC fights. It is the fighters who have trained in all conceivable methods, from ground grappling to kick boxing, and all ranges in between that do well. And that is only for a combat sport in the controlled environment of a ring/cage, where there are no weapons and no reinforcements standing in the wings ready to kick your skull in at the first opportunity. Study everything, absorb what is useful, and do not limit yourself to any one system.
“This book is about fighting. The spirit of fire is fierce, whether the fire be small or big: and so it is with battles.”
I once saw a very well trained “martial artist” get his rear end handed to him by an untrained yet much fiercer street thug who had no concern over getting killed, much less beaten up. Its not enough to be in great physical shape, nor to be trained by all the masters of the day. If you lack a warrior’s ferocity, you will be wasting your time.
This doesn’t mean that you have to live like Musashi, never washing lest you let down your guard, living in a cave, etc. What it means is that getting your mind right in terms of the fight is essentially important above all else. Musashi writes, “The way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death”. We must understand that the ancient Japanese warriors had a fatalistic approach to
things. They trained to die, whereas the European warriors did not. Nevertheless, both had this resolute acceptance of the worst case situation. That is not say that we seek this out, but we must “make friends” with the idea so that in the midst of the fight we are not distracted by thoughts of self-preservation. We will certainly preserve our lives, but we will do so in strength, not by having a wandering attention. The resolute acceptance of death allows a purity of focus in combat that is remarkable.
“In strategy you must know the Ways of other schools, so I have written about various other traditions of strategy in this the Wind Book.”
Musashi focused much of his study on the ways of his adversaries. This concept is not limited
to Musashi, as commentators as geographically and culturally diverse as Clausewitz and Sun Tsu have written like admonishments. In terms of us today, who are our adversaries? Gang members, organized criminals, cult-oriented terrorists?
Learn who they are. Learn how they operate, how they dress, what they do. You won’t be facing a fencer from another sword school, or an “exponent” of a boxing school who will announce themselves and bow like it was some Hollywood flick. The opponents you face today will come by surprise, and kill you without a second thought or any doubt that they themselves are doing what is right.
“Some of the world's strategists are concerned only with sword fencing, and limit their training to flourishing the long sword and carriage of the body. But is dexterity alone sufficient to win? This is not the essence of the Way.”
Without the ever present thought that the study is of life and death, and the result of losing is your death or that of your loved ones, it is NOT a “martial” art.
“In my doctrine, I dislike preconceived, narrow spirit. You must study this well.” The lesson is
clear. Do not be limited in your studies. If you study Tae Kwon Do, add Wing Chun and Brazilian Ju Jitsu to the mix to be come less "narrowly focused". If you focus on unarmed fighting, learn the knife and the gun. If you are a gun man, study JKD. Narrow mindedness kills.
“Anyway, cutting down the enemy is the Way of strategy, and there is no need for many refinements of it.”
I’ve seen some martial arts teachers try to romanticize or beautify combat. I think that those of us who have been-there-done-that know this is a foolish thing. Combat has an ugliness, a reality, and a finality about it that cuts through all the dogma, doctrine, style disputes, and all the miscellaneous clap-trap that clogs our collective combative consciousness and professional journals. It is simple, violent and animalistic. Understanding and accepting this is an important part of development.
Book of the Void
Musashi writes, “To attain the Way of strategy as a warrior you must study fully other martial arts and not deviate even a little from the Way of the warrior. With your spirit settled, accumulate practice day by day, and hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the
twofold gaze perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void”.
This passage typifies the Book of the Void. As I read it for today’s fighter there are two aspects to this, one mental (Musashi calls it “spiritual”), and the other one technical.
Mental - was once asked after a particularly violent gunfight if I was scared during the event. I answered truthfully that I had not been. I qualified my answer by adding that I was not scared because I was particularly brave, nor was it because I was particularly stupid. Rather, I was not scared because I was too busy winning the fight to think about it either way. I had trained myself to fight as well as I could, and had a firm understanding of the rules of engagement as they existed
at the time. Additionally, I had a fall back plan for any after-action eventuality that I might have faced. Thus I had a focused “spirit”.
I am no longer involved directly in “the business”, and now focus on teaching others. One of the
principles that I try to hammer into my students is the concept of Purity of Focus. I believe this purity of focus is indicative of the spiritual void that Musashi writes of.
Technical - A few years ago I wrote a piece for Black Belt titled Enough is Enough discussing how having too many ways, or too many techniques was not an asset but a liability. A technique that either is not natural or too complicated will not physically memorized. If it is not physically memorized, it will never be used in a fight.
This concept of physical memorization and subconscious programming is not new. The Japanese sword master Yagyu Tajima No Kami wrote: Learning and knowledge are meant to be forgotten, and it is only when this is realized, that you feel perfectly comfortable. The body will move as if automatically, without conscious effort on the part of the swordsman himself. All of the training is there, but the mind is utterly unconscious of it.”
Yagyu was, of course, writing about swordsmanship, but the concept is just as valid for modern combatives.
Although The Book Of Five Rings was written many centuries ago, the study of personal combat, when boiled down to its essentials has remained surprisingly unchanged. Musashi’s book is one man’s perception of those essential elements as experienced through a lifetime of combat.
As such, it is essential study for today’s modern warriors.