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The Book Of Five Rings (Gorin No Sho) by Miyamoto Musashi by Rob Jacob

      I read this book years ago, and have re-read it again several more times since. Before starting this paper, I purchased several different versions of this book, in addition to the copy I already owned, each with a different translation. The one that I liked best was from Bantam Books, and was translated by Nihon Services Corporation. This is the version I used mostly.
      This volume presents so many ideas, each of which needs to be interpreted, and considered on multiple levels, that it will take many more readings, much consideration, and practice before I can begin to truly, and fully understand most of it. For example, the part titled Letting Go The Hilt (Tsuka O Hanasu To Iu Koto) at the end of the Fire Book, which consists of a single paragraph, could be expanded into an entire chapter, if not an entire book. This being the case, I will attempt to discuss only what I feel are the central themes of the various ideas that Musashi presents in his wonderful book.
      One of the points Musashi makes is that the main objective is to cut (beat) the opponent. Use your whole mind, body, and spirit to do it. All else is superfluous. Do not fixate on the small details, but on the larger picture. It is not important how you cut the opponent, only that you cut him. He talks about this many times throughout the book. Starting in the Earth Book, he states “The spirit to be able to win no matter what the weapon, this is the teaching of my school of Heiho.” In the Water Book, he says, “In all events, it is important to think of all things as a means for cutting.” Musashi says in the epilogue of the Fire Book “The true way of swordsmanship is to fight opponents and win the fight. Can it be anything other than this?” And in the introduction of the Wind Book, he says others schools are weak, because they limit themselves to certain styles, or methods (i.e. large long swords), and that they have no understanding of the principle of “winning in whatever manner necessary”. Again in the Wind Book he says, “When you are trying to cut and kill someone, you are not thinking about cutting with strength, nor, of course, are you thinking about cutting weakly; rather, one is totally involved with getting the opponent to die.” And again “In terms of the different ways, there is really no difference whether one thrusts or plows down the opponent. Since it is the way of Heiho to cut down the opponent, there are not that many ways by which to accomplish this.”
      Use ALL of your resources. Try to use every possible means to move the odds to your favor. An excellent statement from the Earth Book is “When in a fight to the death, one wants to employ all one’s weapons to the utmost. I must say that to die with one’s sword still sheathed is most regrettable.” In the Fire Book, he talks about trying to gain advantage by selecting the site of the conflict. Throughout the book he points out ways to move the odds into your favor, and away from your opponent, such as in the quote “It is important to suddenly do something that the opponent does not expect, and to take advantage of his fear to defeat him.”
      Train hard, so that strategy will be reflexive, and automatic. Everywhere in the book he says things like “One must practice diligently”; “One must study this well”; “This should be well thought out”; “This should be carefully and thoroughly studied, and practiced.” In fact, these appear on almost every page of the book. At the end of the Water Book, he says “Practicing a thousand days is said to be discipline, and practicing ten thousand days is said to be refining.”
      Make strategy your everyday attitude. Early in the Water Book he states “The mental attitude in Heiho is no different from that of the everyday attitude.” Shortly thereafter he says “In all the martial arts, it is essential to make the everyday stance the combat stance, and the combat stance the everyday stance.” Towards the end of the Water Book, he says, “It is important to practice diligently, and to make this Heiho a part of yourself.”
      Keep an open mind. Be open to change. Be dynamic, not static, and not predictable. Confuse the enemy. Musashi states in his Wind Book “In my Niten Ichiryu there is a dislike for narrow-minded spirit”. He also talks against having preferences for specific weapons, and quotes an old saying “the greater embraces less”. In the Fire Book when discussing a dead-locked situation, he says “In Heiho as it pertains to one-on-one also, it is necessary to change your designs, ascertain the opponents’ condition, and achieve victory by other useful means.” Also “and by means of the mental power of my Heiho confuse his mind in various ways as to whether you intend to move here or there, this way or that way, fast or slow.” In Mountain And Sea Change (Sankai No Kawari To Iu Koto) he warns about repeating the same tactic. “…if the opponent expects mountains, give him the sea; if he expects the sea, give him mountains. Taking people by surprise is a teaching of Heiho.” Show your opponent only what you want him to see, not your true intent. In the Water Book he says, “act in such a way as to not reveal the depths of your spirit to others.”
      Avoid extremes, stay in the middle ground, where you can go either way. In the Water Book, he says “One must understand that the best position, the secret of this school, is the chudan position [middle position]. The chudan position is the essence of this school.” A little later in The Teaching: Postures And No Postures, he builds on this by talking about the ability to shift to the other positions from the middle position. In the Wind Book he mentions footwork saying, “…keeping my footwork under control, and without allowing it to become too fast or too slow.” A few lines later, he says “As the saying goes ‘Haste makes waste’, and the timing is upset when one proceeds too quickly. Of course, too slow is also bad.” From the middle ground, one can speed up, or slow down as is necessitated by the conditions.
      Try to see from the opponent’s point of view. Mushashi says is the Water Book “Small men must know thoroughly what it is like to be big men, and big men must know what it is like to be small men.” He later details this point in the Fire Book in To Become The Enemy (Teki Ni Naru To Iu Koto) saying “’To become the enemy’ is to think as if one were the enemy” and “you ought to put yourself in the opponent’s position.”
      Have an indomitable spirit. In the introduction of the Earth Book, Musashi says “In order for a warrior to follow the path of Heiho, it is necessary to keep in mind that the essence of Heiho is to build an indomitable spirit and an iron will; to believe that you cannot fail in doing anything.” This is one that I personally like very much. In the Fire Book, in the section titled The Three Yells (Mitsu No Koe To Iu Koto), he states “Yells show spirit.” Maybe this is why I have such loud kiais. This is another one that I like very much.
      Attack from your strength, at your opponent’s weakness. He details this in Crossing The Expanse (To O Kosu To Iu Koto) in the Fire Book. He talks about crossing the “expanse” by “knowing well the favorable, and the unfavorable points”, and “making the necessary adjustments according to the conditions.” In the very next section To Know The Prevailing Conditions (Keiko O Shiro Iu Koto), he says “In one-on-one conflicts it is essential to understand the flow of the opponent’s personality, to find out his strengths and weaknesses, and to plot against the opponent’s expectations.” I believe he is saying fight your fight, not your opponents fight. You must take the initiative to do this. He says in the Wind Book “In the path of Heiho taking the initiative at all costs is the most important thing.”
      See your opponent’s intent, not what he wants you to see. In To Restrain The Pillow (Makura O Osayuru To Iu Koto) he states “he who is well versed in my Heiho, when crossing swords with an opponent, and regardless of what the opponent does, will know in advance the designs of the opponent.” In To Move The Shadow (Kage O Ugokasu To Iu Koto), he says that if you cannot see the opponents intent, feint a strike, so the opponent will reveal his true intentions.
      Follow up. Continue to attack as opponent is collapsing. Do not give the opponent a chance to recover. In the Fire Book, he explains “If you lose the moment afforded by the opponent’s collapse, the opponent may recover.” Later in the same book, he states “when the opponent is less experienced than you, or his timing is flurried and he seems to be on the verge of fleeing, one must crush him at a stroke without giving him pause to take a breath or to exchange glances. Most important, you must allow him absolutely no chance to recover himself.” In the next section, he warns, “The opponent, if left with spirit, is difficult to defeat.”
      The principles of strategy given by Musashi are scaleable. Many times throughout the book he states that the principles of strategy he presents are the same in one-one-one combat, or in large scale battles. A good example of this is in the Fire Book in To Injure The Corners (Kado Ni Sawaru To Iu Koto), where talks about attacking the exposed strategic points. In single combat this might mean to strike at the hands, and feet, and shoulders. These strikes will weaken the opponent, and he will be easier to beat.
      The principles are applicable to any situation. “The true path of Heiho is such that it applies at any time and in any situation.” This is the reason why this book is usually found in the business section at the bookstore. The principles of strategy can very easily be applied to business. The principle of To Injure The Corners, could be applied to any problem solving situation, such as computer programming. There have been many times when I have been faced with a very large programming task, which seemed insurmountable. But I would start working on the parts that were easy to do. As I finished these, other parts became obvious, and easy to accomplish. After a while of this, most of the program was done, and the rest was easy to complete.

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Rob Jacob is the author of: Martial Arts Biographies - An Annotated Bibliography.


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