Book review: The Book of Five Rings
Title: The Book of Five Rings
Author: Miyamoto Musashi
Published by: Kodansha International Ltd
English translation: Wiliam Scott Wilson
Modern Japanese Translation: Matsumoto Michihiro
First edition: 2001
Miyamoto Musashi, it is one of the most-known swordsmen in Japan history. The place and the date of his birth are unclear. According to his book, he was born in Harima in 1584. During his life he engaged in more than sixty sword fights and won them all. Also, he was the creator of the famous “two-sword” style.
It was later in life when Musashi used his way of martial arts to engage in philosophy, writing, painting and sculpting. He believed that “through intense study and practice of the way of the martial arts, the ways of all the other arts would be understood”. He acquired his knowledge through self-experience and reliance, without having any lord or master.
My decision to read The Book of Five Rings was underlined by several criteria. I was interested in a book containing information about Japanese culture and its impact on modern business world in Japan. To get familiar with the particular society, it’s important to understand the cultural basis and values of that society.
The Book of Five Rings was written to serve as core for martial arts disciples. Yet, it had a much larger impact as it still serves as a guidebook to many executives and business people nowadays.
The Book of five Rings has been written to serve as the foundation for the so called “true way” in martial arts. This edition includes three different languages: original Japanese text, modern Japanese translation and English translation. It was written at the end of the period of Kyoto Renaissance (1550-1650), during which Japan recovered economically and artistically. It was a period during which architecture blossomed, a new interest in poetry and painting rose, Tea Ceremony reached its heights and martial arts spread and evolved as never before.
Miyamoto Musashi excludes having anyone teaching him the “right way” of martial arts. He states that it was his own practice and discipline which brought him victory. At the end of every chapter he suggests reader to investigate thoroughly each technique and master it on its own.
This book was written at the end of Musashi’s life. He believed that death equals sincerity. It was before his death, when he was ready to share his “way” with others.
The Book of Five Rings is a detailed description of “the way” to victory. Musashi believes that victory it is only acceptable outcome. “The way” consists of series of strategies on how to defeat the opponent. Yet, we should always begin from defeating our own sins by practicing through spirit, awareness and discipline.
The book is divided into five parts: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and The Emptiness.
The Earth chapter (Timing/Rhythm) provides a general overview of the martial arts and introduces to the reader the “two-sword” technique. Author believes that every warrior should: know his style, understand the meaning of martial arts, understand the value of armor and the rhythm. He highlights numerous times that the power is in our mind. “Rhythm” plays a special role in this chapter, as there are two kinds of: rhythm of success and rhythm of failure. It is important to differentiate them and practice thoroughly.
At the end of the chapter, Musashi provides nine rules of putting martial arts into practice:
1. Think without any dishonesty.
2. Forge yourself in the Way.
3. Touch upon all of the arts.
4. Know the Ways of all occupations.
5. Know the advantages and disadvantages of everything.
6. Develop a discerning eye in all matters.
7. Understand what cannot be seen by the eye.
8. Pay attention to even small things.
9. Do not involve yourself with the impractical.
The Water chapter (Balance/Flexibility) describes the approach to swordsmanship, which contains a range of important elements in martial arts. It includes: appearance, the use of the eyes, the use of the feet, posture, mobility, etc. Here we learn to differentiate between observation and seeing. Seeing, is considered to be weak, when observing is essential. We must learn to observe through with the closed eyes by meditating. We also learn to never step with only one foot. The use of both feet is called “Ying-Yang” and is important for flexibility. There are five stances in martial arts. The middle is the best. It’s critical to be ready and flexible in any position. Musashi says that in order to “surpass today what you were yesterday”, “go beyond those of poor skill tomorrow, and exceed those who are skillful later”. Knowing the Way of the Sword, means being in control of our mind and body and to achieve that we must practice daily. (p.109)
In the Fire chapter (Methods), Musashi characterizes different methods of the interaction with the opponent and attacking techniques. To engage in a battle, three initiatives are possible: of attack, of waiting and body-body initiative. It should be our decision which initiative to use. For that we need to apply the so called, “knowing condition”, which implies in becoming your opponent and being able to read his mind. It is not suggested to use the same tactic repeatedly. To completely confuse and intimidate the opponent, we might use our voice. Lighting is also important. The sun or any other light should always be at our back, or in the worst case on the right.
The Wind chapter (Knowledge of Self and Opponent) mainly consists of the comparison between Musashi’s way and “the way of others”. Here, he contrasts different approaches and techniques. As an example, the other martial arts schools consider being an advantage the use of the long sword and recommend doing it forcefully. Musashi contradicts this approach, as he believes that the true warrior needs to be unpredictable and use both swords, depending on the situation. Also, Musashi believes that the other schools are focusing too much on the artistic side of the martial arts and introduce too many unnecessary techniques, which might confuse the warrior. He supports that practicing other arts may corrupt the “true way”.
The Emptiness (The Unseen/Human Nature), is described as the absence in our hearts of anything shaped and therefore unable to influence our emotions. The true emptiness is when our minds can fill our hearts with the “true way”.
“In Emptiness exists Good but no Evil.
Wisdom is Existence.
Principle is Existence.
The Way is Existence.
The Mind is Emptiness.” (p.191)
The Book of Five Rings is a masterpiece, which still serves as foundation to many conflict-solving situations existing nowadays. Written four centuries ago, it is still actual and applicable in modern work and everyday life. Its simple language and clear structure makes it easy to understand the message author wanted to deliver to the reader. However, at times I found myself being lost in many technical details and sometimes even confused, as I found few of the concepts contradictory. Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and suggest others to read it.