I fairly recently read Miyamoto Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings (五輪書, Go Rin no Sho). Short background: Musashi was a samurai who defeated over 60 enemies before retiring to a cave to write this guide to strategy then die. It’s composed of five books: The Book of Earth, The Book of Water, The Book of Fire, The Book of Wind, and The Book of Void. More background and a nice summary here.
There are many interesting quotes and ideas in the writing that I’m keeping here to look back on. The book definitely seems like one that gets better after reading it multiple times so I’ll surely revisit it in the near future. I highly recommend reading it for yourself.
“Whoever thinks deeply on things, even though he may carefully consider the future, will usually think around the basis of his own welfare. By the result of such evil thinking he will only perform evil acts. It is very difficult for most silly fellows to rise above thinking of their own welfare.”
- This is an excerpt from “Hidden Leaves” (Ha Gakure) by Yamamoto Tsunenori, though it was inserted in my copy of Five Rings to elaborate on Musashi’s statement that “the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.”
- Also included in the “Hidden Leaves” excerpt is the chilling, “If you keep your spirit correct from morning to night, accustomed to the idea of death and resolved on death, and consider yourself as a dead body, thus becoming one with the Way of the warrior, you can pass through life with no possibility of failure and perform your office properly.”
“The strategist makes small things into big things”
“What is big is easy to perceive: what is small is difficult to perceive.”
- Duh, but also, huh.
- I felt on a few occasions that Musashi’s words were not necessarily enlightening or brilliant in that they introduced me to an incredible new idea, but great in that they made me notice something that I normally paid no attention to and think about it in a way I otherwise wouldn’t have. This is a prime example of that.
“If you are following the true Way and diverge a little, this will later become a large divergence.”
“Strategy is different from other things in that if you mistake the Way even a little you will become bewildered and fall into bad ways.”
“When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally.”
- This was written as a description of the fifth book of Five Rings, the book of the Void. Musashi claims “the Way of strategy is the Way of nature.” I’ve recently become especially fascinated with humankind’s affinity for creating stupid shit that throws off the balance of the natural world, so it’s refreshing to read that someone else thinks that nature is the perfect paradigm.
“You should not have a favourite weapon. To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as not knowing it sufficiently well.”
- Do not think dishonestly.
- The Way is in training.
- Become aquainted with every art.
- Know the Ways of all professions.
- Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
- Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.
- Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
- Pay attention even to trifles.
- Do nothing which is of no use.
- Musashi states that this is the Way for men who want to learn his strategy.
- I think that point 3 is especially worth noting and it’s one that echoes the ideas I’ve had a lot of recently; that becoming a specialist in a field is important, though having at least a basic knowledge of many areas is extremely useful. That sentiment is a huge driver for my plans to change my university major from International Business to a more broad major that I’d create; one that studies the principles of human design and decision-making to better understand how we can improve in a variety of areas.
“In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be any different from normal. Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined through calm.”
“Be neither insufficiently spirited nor over spirited. An elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak. Do not let the enemy see your spirit.”
“Small people must be completely familiar with the spirit of large people, and large people must be familiar with the spirit of small people.”
“When you cannot be deceived by men you will have realised the wisdom of strategy.”
“Perception is strong and sight weak.”
“In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”
“When you take up a sword, you must feel intent on cutting the enemy.”
- This is the first reference to the idea that ended up becoming my main takeaway from this book: that every action must be carried out with the spirit of following through with that action. Doing something is not enough; doing something thoughtfully and intentionally is what will result in success.
“Whatever attitude you are in, do not be conscious of making the attitude; think only of cutting.”
“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement… you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.”
“Fixed formation is bad.”
“When you attack and the enemy quickly retreats, as you see him tense you must feint a cut. Then, as he relaxes, follow up and hit him.”
- I expected to read about the importance of timing in a book of strategy, though this point is especially interesting to me because it deals not only with taking advantage of an opportunity in timing, but with utilizing that opportunity to create another one.
“when the enemy attacks and you also decide to attack, hit with your body, and hit with your spirit, and hit from the Void”
- Go big or go home.
- An insert in my copy of the book goes into more detail on the phrase “No Design, No Conception,” the name of this cut: “Munen Muso” — this means the ability to act calmly and naturally even in the face of danger. It is the highest accord with existence, when a man’s word and his actions are spontaneously the same.
- I think this deals heavily with that “emotional intelligence” phrase that has been getting thrown around a lot lately.
“When you cut, your spirit is resolved.”
“…approach the enemy through a gap in his guard… Approach with the spirit of bouncing the enemy away, striking as strongly as possible in time with your breathing.”
- The eyes of yoga instructors around the world lit up when they heard that Musashi recognized the importance of moving with one’s breathing.
“your spirit is intent… If you are intent on stabbing at his face, his face and body will become rideable.”
“There are many enemies” applies when you are fighting one against many… Waiting is bad… cut the enemies down as they advance, crushing them in the direction from which they attack. Whatever you do, you must drive the enemy together”
“Teach your body strategy.”
“through fighting with enemies you will gradually come to know the principle of the Way.”
“Step by step walk the thousand-mile road.”
“Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.”
“Even if you kill an enemy, if it is not based on what you have learned it is not the true Way.”
- I thought that this was a debatable claim at first, but I now realize it’s really not. It’s very unlikely one will become successful by surviving on the flukes that have worked in their favor.
- Achieving a goal is great, but I don’t think successful people set goals because they want something but rather because they want to learn on their path to achieving it. Casey Neistat kinda talked about this in a video he uploaded today. (Crazy timing.)
“When the enemy gets into an inconvenient position, do not let him look around”
“…using the virtues of the place to establish predominant positions from which to fight.”
“You cannot beat a good swordsman, because he subconsciously sees the origin of every real action.”
“When the enemy makes a quick attack, you must attack strongly and calmly”
“Or, if the enemy attacks calmly, you must observe his movement and, with your body rather floating, join in with his movement as he draws near. Move quickly and cut him strongly.”
“In contests of strategy it is bad to be led about by the enemy. You must always be able to lead the enemy about.”
“The spirit is to check his attack at the syllable “at…”, when he jumps check his jump at the syllable “ju…”, and check his cut at “cu…”.
“suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions.”
“”Crossing a a ford” means, for example, crossing the sea at a strait, or crossing over a hundred miles of broad sea at a crossing place. I believe this “crossing at a a ford” occurs often in a man’s lifetime. It means setting sail even though our friends stay in harbour, knowing the route, knowing the soundness of your ship and the favour of the day. When all the conditions are meet, and there is perhaps a a favourable wind, or a tailwind, then set sail. If the wind changes within a few miles of your destination, you must row across the remaining distance without sail.”
- Thankfully, Musashi explains this example in greater detail (below)
“Discern the enemy’s capability and, knowing your own strong points, “cross the ford” at the advantageous place…”
“know the enemy’s disposition in battle.”
“You must achieve the spirit of not allowing the enemy to attack a second time.”
“Everything can collapse.”
“If you fail to take advantage of your enemies’ collapse, they may recover.”
“In large-scale strategy, people are always under the impression that the enemy is strong, and so tend to become cautious. But if you have good soldiers, and if you understand the principles of strategy, and if you know how to beat the enemy, there is nothing to worry about.”
“In large-scale strategy, when you cannot see the enemy’s position, indicate that you are about to attack strongly, to discover his resources.”
“when the enemy embarks on an attack, if you make a show of strongly suppressing his technique, he will change his mind.”
“Make a show of complete calmness, and the enemy will be taken by this and will become relaxed.”
“Many things can cause a loss o balance. One cause is danger, another is hardship, and another is surprise.”
“It is difficult to move strong things by pushing directly, so you should “injure the corners”… If the corners are overthrown, the spirit of the whole body will be overthrown.”
“The voice shows energy.”
“If the enemy thinks of the mountains, attack like the sea; and if he thinks of the sea, attack like the mountains.”
- I do wish that Musashi wrote a bit more about how to understand what the enemy is thinking to achieve things like this. So much of what he recommends is preventative rather than reactive though knowing the enemy in order to prevent something is pretty tough.
“Whenever we have become preoccupied with small details, we must suddenly change into a a large spirit, interchanging large with small.”
“think of the enemy as your own troops.”
“There is a spirit of winning without a sword. There is also the spirit of holding the long sword but not winning. The various methods cannot be expressed in writing. You must train well.”
- The phrase “you must train well” or “you must study this” or something similar appears dozens of times throughout this text. I penciled in three question marks next to the above paragraph.
“When you have mastered the Way of strategy you can suddenly make your body like a rock, and ten thousand things cannot touch you.”
“The true Way of sword fencing is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing other than this.”
- I really like this sentence because it reaffirms my belief that minimalism should be put into practice in not only in physical spaces, but in one’s own mind as well. I think some distractions can be annoying and other distractions can be deadly.
“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.”
“In my doctrine, I dislike preconceived, narrow spirit.”
“Whenever you cross swords with an enemy you must not think of cutting him either strongly or weakly; just think of cutting and killing him.”
- This minimalist thought process makes sense though it’s tough for me to figure out how one can do this while maintaining a strong spirit, as Musashi has said is necessary in combat.
“The sure Way to win thus is to chase the enemy around in a confusing manner, causing him to jump aside, with our body held strongly and straight.”
“killing is not the Way of mankind. Killing is the same for people who know about fighting and for those who do not… cutting down the enemy is the Way of strategy, and there is no need for many refinements of it.”
- This was written in regards to the many different schools that have many methods of using the long sword. I think this idea of a common goal having what should be a common train of thought is important though rarely seen today. Musashi writes that the many methods exist in order to gain the admiration of beginners, which makes sense. There’s a lot of emphasis today on new things that will make us happy even though the thought processes that go into designing those different things should be pretty similar. (If they’re based on good research.)
“Attitude is the spirit of awaiting an attack.”
“When you have become accustomed to something, you are not limited to the use of your eyes.”
“In single combat you must not fix the eyes on details.”
“In my strategy, the footwork does not change. I always walk as I usually do in the street.”
“the master of strategy does not appear fast.”
“If you try to cut quickly, as if using a fan or short sword, you will not actually cut even a little.”
“When your opponent is hurrying recklessly, you must act contrarily and keep calm. You must not be influenced by the opponent.”
- It becomes easier to keep this in mind when you remember that many of Musashi’s tactics utilize the fact that the enemy tends to react to your movements. If the losing samurai is the one that is led by the enemy, you probably don’t want to catch yourself following your enemy.
“You must simply keep your spirit true to realise the virtue of strategy.”
- Consideration of this likely varies on one’s spiritual beliefs. It’d probably be a good idea to know the spirituality of the enemy in addition to his disposition as mentioned somewhere in that mess of paragraphs above.
The Book of the Void
The Book of the Void is nuts. It is a single page long. Its word-to-meaningfulness ratio is absolutely out of this world. (By that I mean if there are 100 words, the meaningfulness of those words is equal to like 1000 words.) It is undoubtedly timeless. If I read The Book of the Void every day for the rest of my life, I firmly believe I will learn something new every single time.
“What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man’s knowledge. Of course the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.”
“People in this world look at things mistakenly, and think that what they do not understand must be the void. This is not the true void. It is bewilderment.”
“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.”
“When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.”
“if we look at things objectively, from the viewpoint of laws of the world, we see various doctrines departing from the true Way. Know well this spirit, and with forthrightness as the foundation and the true spirit as the Way. Enact strategy broadly, correctly, and openly. Then you will come to think of things in a wide sense and, taking the void as the Way, you will see the Way as void.”