Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) also known as Shinmen Takezo, Miyamoto Bennosuke or by his Buddhist name Niten Doraku, was a famous samurai swordsman, ronin and Zen philosopher during Japan’s feudal era in the 17th century. He was known as an excellent and unrivalled swordsman during his day as he fought over 60 duels without losing a single one. He was the author of ‘The Book of Five Rings‘ (Gorin no Sho), which is a book about strategy, tactics and philosophy, a book which he supposedly wrote the days before he died. The book became a classic – not just for martial artists and those interested in Eastern philosophy, but also for politicians and businessmen looking for an competitive edge in these modern times.

Musashi was born in 1584 in a Japan that was struggling to recover from centuries of internal strife. The traditional rule and power of emperors had significantly diminished and Japan found itself pretty much in a continuous civil war, a war between the provincial lords, warrior monks and brigands, all fighting each other for land and power. These wars were responsible for impeding trade and impoverishing the whole country.

The Life of Miyamoto Musashi

When it comes to the life-story of Miyamoto, we get some of the details from his own writings. For example, according to Miyamoto, we know that he developed an interest in strategy and that began dueling early in his life, as early as 13 years old:

From youth my heart has been inclined toward the Way of strategy. My first duel was when I was thirteen, I struck down a strategist of the Shinto school, one Arima Kihei. When I was sixteen I struck down an able strategist, Tadashima Akiyama. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of strategists, never once failing to win in many contests.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – Introduction)

When Musashi turned 7 he came to live with his uncle Dorinbo and his wife Tasumi near the village of Hirafuku. By the couple he was trained in Buddhism and acquired basic skills in writing and reading. In 1599, at the age of 15-16, that is about three years after Musashi’s first duel, he left his village and all of his family’s belongings, furniture, weapons, family documents and other items with his sister and her husband. Musashi spent much of his time traveling and participating in duels.

In his early to mid-late twenties, that is from 1605 to 1612, Musashi traveled extensively throughout Japan in what is known as Musha Shugyo (武 者 修行), a samurai pilgrimage, during which he honed his skills by participating in several duels and visiting different schools. He preferred not to kill his opponents by dueling with a bokken or bokuto, a wooden katana. Musashi is known for frequently coming late to his planned duels, which irritated most of his opponents. Perhaps this was one of his many subtle tactical maneuvers which he had in his arsenal.

self portrait of miyamoto musashi

Musashi in his later years, a self-portrait painted by Miyamoto Musashi himself

Musashi is believed to have fought about 60 duels without suffering a single defeat. However, some scholars, consider this to be a conservative estimate because this number, most likely doesn’t include the “duels” or fights which he had during the battles he was part of.

In 1611, at the age of 27, Musashi started practicing Zazen, a form of sitting meditation that is aimed to stilling the mind in Zen Buddhism. Aside from his studies of Buddhism, swordsmanship and martial arts. Musashi was also a skilled artist, sculptor and calligrapher. He made several paintings inspired by Zen, calligraphy images and sculpted in wood and metal. In The Book of the Five Rings, Musashi wrote that the samurai must master other professions, skills and artforms besides the warfare and military. It is safe to say that Musashi lived by example.

Musashi died at the age of sixty-two years. He is believed to have died of lung cancer after completing writing “Dokkōdō” (the way to progress alone or the path to self-confidence), which consisted of twenty rules in self-discipline to guide future generations.

Lessons and Insights

Here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned from studying the wisdom and life story of Miyamoto Musashi:

  1. Awareness. Keep your mind expansive, unburdened and open to all possibilities, like the vast sky. The more aware you are the more you can contain within yourself and the deeper you can perceive. When you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things. Know the way, and your awareness will grow to encompass all things.
  2. Acceptance. Accepting life as it is and not confusing our projections about life with how it actually. This is an attitude which is a sort of humbleness combined with inner fortitude. We have to understand that life is what it is, to adapt and learn from circumstances that we did not necessarily choose, but that we must live with anyway. If we do not accept reality, we end up suffering as is also a fundamental understanding in Buddhism. This denial of existence leads to an inner struggle that we will always lose. When you accept things as they, you can learn from all things under the sun.
  3. Honour is important. Though it is a word and concept that we rarely use in today’s day and age, it’s almost like the word and what it means for has been forgotten. I sense that many people make the mistake of equating and mixing honour with pride, I know I do sometimes, which is perhaps one of the reasons the word has been lurking in the shadows. Nevertheless honor is more about self-respect and a certain form of love and understanding for self. Which further means not letting yourself behave in a way that comes into conflict with your values and philosophy of life. Heck in some ways honor and integrity are the most valuable features a person has.
  4. Discipline and focus. Without discipline and focus you’ll never master a skill or artform, pick your sacrifice and go all the way.
  5. Make use of everything at your disposal and do nothing which is of no use. For example, as mentioned earlier, Musashi frequently came late to his duels, which irritated his opponents more often than not. Supposedly he went as far to wait for certain times during the day when the sun was shining bright to use it for blinding his opponents, or top escape from his enemies by planning for the tides. Talk about strategic.

The Book of Five Rings Quotes & Excerpts

Having said that, here are a handful of insightful quotes by Miyamoto Musashi to expand your mind:

If you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Earth Book, 1645)

Do nothing which is of no use.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Earth Book, 1645)

Each man practices as he feels inclined.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings, 1645)

Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Earth Book, 1645)

All things entail rising and falling timing. You must be able to discern this.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Earth Book, 1645)

The principle of strategy is having one thing, to know ten thousand things.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Earth Book, 1645)

Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Earth Book, 1645)

If you do not look at things on a large scale it will be difficult for you to master strategy.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings, 1645)

You win battles by knowing the enemy’s timing, and using a timing which the enemy does not expect.
Miyamoto Musashi

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.
Miyamoto Musashi

Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Water Book, 1645)

It is difficult to realise the true Way just through sword-fencing. Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings, 1645)

There is no fast way of wielding the long sword. The long sword should be wielded broadly, and the companion sword closely. This is the first thing to realise.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings, 1645)

These things cannot be explained in detail. From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of strategy there will not be one thing you cannot see. You must study hard.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings, 1645)

There is timing in the whole life of the warrior, in his thriving and declining, in his harmony and discord. Similarly, there is timing in the Way of the merchant, in the rise and fall of capital. All things entail rising and falling timing. You must be able to discern this.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Earth Book, 1645)

The Way of strategy is the Way of nature. 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. All this is the Way of the Void. I intend to show how to follow the true Way according to nature in the book of the Void.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings, 1645)

It is difficult to know yourself if you do not know others. To all Ways there are side-tracks. If you study a Way daily, and your spirit diverges, you may think you are obeying a good way, but objectively it is not the true Way. If you are following the true Way and diverge a little, this will later become a large divergence. You must realise this.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings, 1645)

This is the Way for men who want to learn my strategy:
Do not think dishonestly.
The Way is in training.
Become acquainted with every art.
Know the Ways of all professions.
Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything.
Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
Pay attention even to trifles.
Do nothing which is of no use.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings – The Earth Book, 1645)

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