The book of five rings

In the book of the five rings, the great warrior Miyamoto Mushashi, lays down a set of principles for a person who wishes to learn about the way of the warrior. Some of these principles are general like his thoughts on the management of one’s spiritual energy while others are more specific to sword fighting.

He encourages the reader of the book to apply the general principles to other aspects of his life to fully grasp their meaning. Where as the instructions that deal with the specific art of sword fighting are more or less useless outside of their context and must be practiced only within the domain that they are applicable in.

It goes without saying then that studying the general principles gives one far more benefits than trying to practice sword fighting techniques with a bamboo stick. That is to say that even if one learnt about the “flowing water cut” technique, and even if one allowed for the fact that samurai moves are cool, one wouldn’t find much use of it in our modern society. In fact I have a suspicion that the mere act of brandishing a broomstick out in the open might raise a few eyebrows and it wouldn’t be long before one finds oneself being banned in the community park and receiving fewer invitations to birthday parties.

Since sword fighting is more or less redundant I feel that it would be prudent for us to neglect the instructions pertaining to fencing , preserve our popularity and focus our energies on principles that can be applied to other aspects of life.

Miyamoto Musashi a warrior of Harima province,now sixty,in the year 1645 climbs atop Mt. Iwato to pay his respect to Godess Kwanon and the Buddha and proceeds to distill the lessons learnt during years of training in a book he calls “Go Rin No sho”(A book of five rings).

He begins with a reflection on his past. At 13 he won his first battle. Between the ages of 13 and 28 he fought many duels against all kinds of warriors and never once suffered a loss. However at 30 he became dissatisfied with his accomplishments.

This dissatisfaction he attributed to not having mastered the way of strategy. He believed that his victories were either due to a natural ability or due to the inferiority of other schools of strategy or maybe due to fate.

With this conclusion he resolves to dedicate the rest of his life in search of “the way” and he realizes his goal twenty years later at the age of 50.

The way is not unique. Each man follows his own path. There is the way of salvation laid down by Buddha. There is the way of governance by Confucius. There’s the way of healing as practiced by the doctor. In short there are as many ways as arts and skills. Everyone practices the way as they feel inclined.

The way of the warrior is the way of “pen and the sword”. It’s a resolute acceptance of death. The warrior’s strategy is based on overcoming men and gaining victory by crossing swords. Even a person with no natural ability can be a warrior by sticking to the way.

One of the major themes in the book is to apply one strategy to many aspects of life. “Having one thing, learn ten thousand things”. By truly studying an art and the principle behind it one can learn to apply those princples in situations where the art has no use. Musashi illustrates this point by comparing the art of master carpenter to a general in the war and novice carpenters to his troops.

A strategy can’t be learnt is haste. One has to practice one’s art deeply. Learning of a strategy can’t be sold just as one can’t haste the blooming of a flower. Immature strategy is the cause of grief.

To learn the strategy he lays down a few principles

  1. Do not think dishonestly.
  2. The Way is in training.
  3. Become acquainted with every art.
  4. Know the Ways of professions.
  5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
  6. Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything.
  7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
  8. Pay attention even to trifles.
  9. Do nothing which is of no use.

He places emphasis on research and devoting time to learn. “One must know that smallest of things and the biggest of things. The deepest of things and the shallowest of things.”

The book is divided into five chapters outlining different aspects of strategy:

  1. Ground Book: The ground book outlines the way of the strategy. What it takes to acquire knowledge and how one has to proceed about the task of acquiring knowledge “as if it were a clear road mapped on the ground.”
  2. Water Book: The water book is about flexibility and the need to adopt according to the situation. Just like water which always assumes the shape of it’s container.” Sometimes it’s just a trickle. At other times it’s a wild raging see. The spirit of the warrior must be like water”. Calm or wild as the situation calls for.
  3. Fire book: The fire book embodies the spirit of fighting. Fire is fierce and so must be the warrior. When in a battle the intention to defeat the enemy must be absolute. Any action that does not set up for a victory in the battle is futile and a waste of energy.
  4. Wind Book: The wind book is concerned with traditions. It’s important to study the old ways so that one may learn new. One can’t know oneself if one does not know others. Studying the tradition will help the warrior is staying the course and not diverging from the path.
  5. Book of the void: Void is nothing. And so attaining this principle is not attaining this principle. Once one learns to understand the rhythm of situation the right movement follows naturally.

Musashi places big emphasis on not getting attached to any particular weapon. Or more generally to any one particular way. It’s important to change approach when the situation calls for it.

This is a truth: when you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn.

Managing the spiritual energy is of prime importance. In all affairs one must be determined but calm.The body should not have any effect on the spirit and the spirit must not have any affect on the body. Both elevated and low spirits are weak.

Different people have different spiritual energies and it’s important to be familiar with the people of different spiritual energies. With an unrestricted spirit one must learn to look at things from a higher point of view.

Learning must not be limited to the training grounds. Real learning comes from experience. Experience comes from action.While it’s important to train hard it’s equally important to have real world experience.

“In my strategy, the training for killing enemies is by way of many contests, fighting for survival, discovering the meaning of life and death, learning the Way of the sword, judging the strength of attacks and understanding the Way of the edge and ridge of the sword.”

The way of the strategy and the principles behind it must be diligently practised day and night. The way can’t be learnt simply by reading. It must be internalized and digested thoroughly. One must crush any resistance that obstructs one’s movement along the way. Today is victory over self. Tomorrow victory over lesser men.

Do nothing which is of no use



  • On January 26, 2020