Life lessons from a legendary samurai

Miyamoto Musashi was a Japanese swordsman who was born in the late sixteenth century. He got very famous in his time for besting many opponents and has remained famous for having written a short book on his fighting stances and attacking techniques as well as his philosophy and outlook on life. Musashi comes across as someone whose honor and principles are of great importance, to the point that several times during the book you get the feeling that he’s reluctantly writing it, that in the back of his mind he’s still considering if any of it is worth being shared. Above that feeling of doubt, what he tries to avoid with great care is inducing us to trust the reading in detriment of trying things ourselves. He puts practice and research above all else.

“Language does not extend to explaining the Way in detail, but it can be grasped intuitively. (…) You must train sufficiently to appreciate this.”

Musashi’s reservations and fears as he excuses the book, presumably not as sure of this writing effort as of his sword fighting skills come across continuously. He confesses that he wrote a book about what he had on his mind, writing as ideas came to him.

“This is the first time I have written about my technique, and the order of things is a bit confused. It is difficult to express it clearly. This book is a spiritual guide for the man who wishes to learn the Way.”

Understanding this inner conflict, we have to appreciate his effort to put all his thoughts down to writing, perhaps motivated by the sense that a complete swordsman would develop his writing alongside his craft.

“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.”

Having had as many as sixty encounters, some of which against multiple opponents, he still questions if his early accomplishments could be explained by his natural ability or if they were instead divine luck, superior methods and preparation or a mix of all the above. At the same time he makes it a point to let us know that “the Way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death”, which less dramatically we can interpret as him telling us that it is only by accepting the fact that lack of preparation, bad luck or any number of circumstances might put you face to face with failure, and you have to accept the possibility completely if you want to succeed, as to not get jinxed by bad thoughts. This obsession with the perfection of the craft and it’s link to nature and life is remarkable. Numerous times he speaks of practitioners of sword fighting with no connection to the “Ways” and refers to them not as strategists but just “sword-fencers” who are to worried about the techniques and aren’t able to appreciate the true value of the craft, making sure we understand how much deeper the understanding of human nature, motion and spirit must be in order to achieve the “Way of Strategy”.

Early in the book Musashi tries to slot men into four “Ways”, one of which the Way of the warrior, which is to master the virtue of his weapons. Instead of going on to define what this might be, this is left as an exercise for the reader and he goes on to make an analogy which is as intemporal as they come. While comparing the Way of the foreman carpenter to the warrior he explains some of the things one has to keep in mind and pay attention to and drops this nugget:

“The foreman carpenter allots his men work according to their ability. (…) If the foreman knows and deploys his men well the finished work will be good. The foreman should take into account the abilities and limitations of his men, circulating among them and asking nothing unreasonable. He should know their morale and spirit, and encourage them when necessary.”

Amazing how a samurai master 400 years ago on top of a mountain was giving advice that could be found in a self-improvement management book like the five-minute manager. Not only is knowing your people and your abilities of great importance, empathy is given a special place under the spotlight, not only when assessing yourself and your allies but also when dealing with adversaries.

“Small people must be completely familiar with the spirit of large people, and large people must be familiar with the spirit of small people. Whatever your size, do not be misled by the reactions of your own body.”

Having the ability to mold yourself depending on the situation is a common advice in martial arts and fighting techniques. Centuries later Bruce Lee would tell us to “be shapeless, formless, like water”, but more than this Musashi wants us to have a wide gamut of experiences and perspectives. Being able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and analyze situations from all possible vantage points, to not be as bogged down by what directly affects us and instead view things as they are.

“In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of closed things.”

To think like the enemy is to become the enemy, and when we force ourselves to be in his position, we can better appreciate his and our limitations in the present landscape. This is true in battle and in life. To understand it is only the first step though, the next is to use it to our advantage.

“If the enemy thinks of the mountains, attack like the sea; and if he thinks of the sea, attack like the mountains. You must research this deeply.”

And that is what strings Musashi’s “Way of strategy” together, the five books of Ground, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void. This is what inspires the title of the book, which until now has gone unmentioned, “The Book of Five Rings”.

Going back to the idea that the most important thing in order to master a craft is through experience, Musashi repeatedly gives us brief instructions about an approach to a problem with little justification, always being conscious that proving it too much would stop us from actually trying to reach these conclusions for ourselves. All knowledge must be acquired through experience and reading it in a book isn’t going to cut it.

“From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of Strategy there will be not one thing you cannot see. You must study hard.”

To say that the idea of continuous improvement and practice is the predominant theme of the book is an understatement. A good chunk of the central part of the text is dedicated to an exhaustive list of stances and attacking techniques which form the basis of an essential repertoire which includes descriptive titles such as “The Red Leaves Cut” or “To Stab at the Heart”. At every section, no opportunity is missed to tell us that we must research, practice, train. When this is over, we get a nice thought resembling the oft-repeated Jerry Rice’s quote, “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.” It reads:

“Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.”

If we are able to not have Dwight Schrute come to mind speaking of “lesser men”, we can probably appreciate the truth in the sentiment. At some point we’re even given what sounds like startup advice in very simple fifteenth-century warfare terms.

“One of the virtues of the bow is that you can see the arrows in flight and correct your aim accordingly, whereas gunshot cannot be seen. You must appreciate the importance of this.”

We’re not being told this for some kind of Japanese nostalgia for more pure weapons, but rather it is a perfect illustration of getting constant feedback from all activities in order to improve. Doing things in a vacuum, not caring about their impact, not learning from previous outcomes will not allow us to progress. It is by constantly trying new things that we can know what works best, and how. Getting comfortable in one way of doing things is as poor an approach as not practicing enough.

I throughly enjoyed this book, it’s a very quick read and I used it as an exercise in highlighting and taking notes while I read, which was something I was curious to try. I’m not sure I’ll keep doing it as it is somewhat distracting from the reading, and the Kindle user interface is much slower than scribbling something on the side and folding the top of the page. It gets a 5/5 as well as the need for knowing more about Musashi. I’ve since enqueued “The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi” on to my to-read list, although I’m not sure when I’ll get to it.