The Book of Five Rings continues to inspire martial artists today, and is occasionally mentioned within the walls of our own dojo during one of Sensei’s digressions on weapons techniques. It was authored in 1645 by one of the most famous (maybe even the most famous) swordsmen in Japanese history, Miyamoto Musashi, then aged 60, as a reflection of what he learned throughout his lifetime. Musashi had fought and won about 60 duels, often against those who regarded themselves as highly skilled swordsmen, though it wasn’t until he was about age 50 that he discovered what he called the ‘Way of Strategy’.
I have been reading Victor Harris’ translation of this work, which introduces the main body of work with some background about Japanese society during the lifetime of Musashi.
Did Musashi contribute to the martial art that eventually became Aikido? While the pedigree of Daito-ryu Aiki-jutsu might be uncertain, it appeared in the public domain as a developed fighting system that appears to be in agreement with what he taught. In multiple places he appears to make oblique references to Aiki without actually revealing the secret. For example, he mentioned that by mastering the Way of Strategy ‘you can suddenly make your body like a rock, and ten thousand things cannot touch you‘, and that this was passed on through oral tradition – I cannot authoritively say whether this is widely taught outside my own style of Aikido, but the oldest among us were very close to Ueshiba in terms of pedigree.
Our sword techniques came to us, it seems, through Morihei Ueshiba’s study of the Kashima Shinto Ryu instead of from Takeda Sokaku (that is according to a study of Admiral Isamu Takeshita’s journal), and we handle the katana/bokken exactly as Musashi described, gripping only with the two fingers and never with the index finger (there are at least two technical reasons for this). Also, he refers to something called ‘Attitude-No Attitude’, that techniques are simply a means to learn something more fundamental, such as Aiki, that cannot easily be passed on through words.
In any case, I think there’s a lot in the Book of Five Rings of importance if we’re practising any martial art. It challenges us to question the utility of what we’re taught.
What is the Way of Strategy that Musashi referred to? Advocating simplicity and a utilitarian approach, his general point was: ‘The true Way of sword fencing is is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing other than this‘.
Strategically dealing with the adversary, his psychology and the circumstances is a surer way to success than merely fighting against his weapon, and the Way of Strategy suggests practical ways this could be done. In the Wind Book, he compares his Way with the schools that claim secret and obscure teachings, that place too much importance on traditions, and states: ‘the way to understanding is through experience, I do not speak of interior or gate‘.
The Ground Book
Defining ‘strategy’ and the ‘Way of Strategy’, Musashi compared it with the way tradespeople, such as carpenters, work to some design or plan. Followers of the Way of Strategy should be methodical when fighting adversaries, and make use of the conditions, circumstances and the environment.
Also important is timing, knowing the right moment to attack, and this comes only with much practice with a range of opponents. Determine the rhythm of the adversary and use it to your advantage.
Lastly there is perception, in terms of being able to see a wider and detailed picture, both in terms of studying martial arts and in terms of not paying attention solely to the opponent’s weapon in a fight.
The Water Book
This section contains something of a syllabus for sword fighting, and starts with at least two prerequisites. The ‘Stance in Strategy’, is a core principle of Aikido – stand upright, with shoulders lowered and weight underside. Musashi recommends practising this every day, making it the way you normally carry yourself. Of course, we also recommend making relaxation and co-ordination a habit outside our dojo.
As for gaze, I take Musashi’s words to mean developing peripheral vision and the ability to judge the body language and intention of the adversary instead of just the movement of the weapon. Strategy and timing isn’t possible without this, especially the strategy of interrupting an attack just as the opponent is about to move.
Though mastery of the katana is fundamental to the Way of Strategy, one shouldn’t be overly fixated on any particular weapon. Later on he warns that the ‘blade path is large, so the long sword is an encumberance‘ and a shorter sword might be more appropriate to a situation.
Musashi argued for the use of two swords in fighting – the katana and wakisashi in each hand, and against holding either with both hands unless it was necessary.
As with martial arts in general, there are a finite number of ways someone could attack, and consequently the number of entries is sufficiently finite to form the basis for any martial arts syllabus. The ‘Five Attitudes’ Musashi wrote about are counters to the five possible ways an adversary might attack using the sword – this is roughly the number of sword/bokken katas I practiced during my short time at an Iwama dojo, incidentally. When countering, one should use the whole body to defend, and immediately following up with something else.
Eventually, when the syllabus is mastered, there’s the realisation that there are no techniques or ‘attitudes’. Techniques are not Aikido, but rather the method for learning it. As Ueshiba himself one said: ‘There are no techniques. What you express each time is a technique.‘
Then there is the principle of ‘Crossing at a Ford’, which means crossing the metaphorical ‘ford’ where the path and conditions are easiest. For fighting, this means knowing the adversary’s strengths and weaknesses, and adjusting our techniques to them, so that we’re fighting along the path of least resistance. An example of this would be applying a technique into practice precisely when the opponent is off-balance, or redirecting the opponent’s attacks through the path of least resistance, or ‘taking the opponent’s mind’ before striking.
The Fire Book
Where the Water Book covers personal techniques and disposition, the Fire Book deals with the actual strategy, the ways of gaining advantages and exploiting weaknesses. Often strategy is determined by maintaining distance. This is understandable, as you want to keep your distance to avoid getting hit, while maybe looking for an opportunity to strike the opponent the moment he’s within range.
Instead, Musashi suggests basically rushing the opponent to prevent his gaining the opportunity to fight strategically, while chasing him into positions in which it’s awkward to fight. For example, it’s possible to affect the opponent’s visibility by standing with your back to the sun, or by chasing the opponent into places where his view and movements are obstructed, or by moving the opponent onto ground that makes it harder to move quickly.
It is also possible to manipulate a person’s psychology, perhaps by forcing a change in his timings, making him agitated, making him over-confident or impatient.
The Wind Book
In this section we find technical criticsms of what other martial art schools were teaching. In particular the focus on things he felt were unnecessary.
The Book of the Void
Wisdom is knowing that one knows nothing – the more learned we are, the more we’re aware of how little we know. This seems to be the main lesson in the Book of the Void. What don’t we know as we’re progressing in a martial art? What conceivable situations are we not training for? What can we adopt from the other martial arts?
For this reason Musashi recommended studying a wide range of martial arts and sword schools, learning what’s worth learning, while remaining true to the Way of Strategy.