Legendary Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi lived by principles many successful people use today.
Everyone who has heard of Musashi knows that he was much more than a skilled swordsman. That makes Musashi iconic, even mythical, beyond Japanese borders.
The Way Of The Warrior
Judging by his calligraphy and ink drawings, he was a top calligrapher and master of Sumi-e painting. But, he was also engaged in sculpture and the making of wooden and metal swords. In addition, he participated in the planning and construction of medieval fortress cities.
Such versatility should come as no surprise as true samurai aspired to develop the warrior and their artistic side. So many of them were also masters of painting, calligraphy, tea ceremonies, and other arts inspired by women.
Miyamoto Musashi himself said about this:
"The Way of the Warrior is said to be twofold: the Way of the Sword and the Way of the Brush, and the rule is to practice both. Even if there are no natural inclinations for these paths, the warrior is expected to manifest his abilities in various other skills and arts as well."
He showed this by his own example. He created masterpieces of calligraphy and Sumi-e painting, some of which are considered national treasures. At the same time, they symbolize the samurai spirit, the one who dedicated himself to "walk the path of the sword." In Japan, this is called Kinsei, meaning "saint of the sword."
Becoming A Legend While Still A Child
The primary source of information about Miyamoto Musashi is a memorial plaque erected by his adopted son Miyamoto Iori nine years after his death in Kokura. The plaque mainly talks about his achievements.
Miyamoto Musashi's first biography, Niten-ki, published by Kagehide Toyota in 1776, is based on his grandson's memory, who was the second generation of Musashi's disciples. We also learn about Miyamoto Musashi's duels from the Tales of the Deceased Master (Hyoho Senshi Denki) written by his students.
But as Musashi's life grew into a legend over time, today we do not know for sure the place and date of his birth or who his parents were because there are often contradictory data. According to the accepted story, he was born in 1584 as the son of samurai Munisai Shinmen from the village of Miyamoto near today's Osaka. His father was a skilled fighter, a master of jitta and sword handling. Even the shogun declared him the best swordsman in Japan. Miyamoto Musashi's mother is believed to have been Munisai's second wife.
Some records say that his parents died while he was still a child. This is questionable because he learned the first secrets of fencing from his father, according to the Book of the Five Rings. Despite the confusion in the data, when Miyamoto Musashi turned seven, his uncle Dorinbo, a Buddhist priest, took him. He was assisted by another uncle, Tasumi, who taught Miyamoto Musashi basic skills such as writing and reading.
Miyamoto Musashi wrote that he started fighting at a very young age and won his first duel at thirteen. At sixteen, he left the village and went on a musha-shugyo, "warrior pilgrimage," in the direction of Kyoto. He had since traveled through Japan, taking part in many duels in which he reportedly used bokken, a wooden sword.
Miyamoto Musashi won each fight, becoming a legend while still a child.
The pilgrimage of warriors was common in Japan at the time. The traveling warrior consciously sought an opponent to perfect the skills and prove their fearlessness. Such duels were also a kind of competition between different schools of fencing. The master of swordsmanship overcame fear and doubt and was ready to die honorably in battle. It was an integral part of the Way of the Sword. Miyamoto Musashi wrote:
"The path of a warrior is a resolute and unconditional acceptance of death."
Records say he was a man of unusually strong jawbones, strong cheekbones, and a pronounced nose. He had long hair that he sometimes tied with a string, not caring too much about his appearance. He was 175 centimeters tall, an exceptional height for the Japanese at the time.
Musashi's body was strong, robust. He was left-handed, though he used both hands equally well. They say he spoke very softly, almost in a whisper. Legend has it that he never entered a bathtub not to be caught without a weapon.
One duel was a significant turning point in Miyamoto Musashi's life. When he defeated his biggest opponent Sasaki Kojiro, at around 29, he stopped fighting. He realized that such duels do not reflect the true meaning of the samurai's journey.
The Way Of The Sword
In the Book of the Five Rings, he later wrote:
"At the age of thirty, I looked back on my life so far. The cause of my past victories was not that I had mastered the art of fencing perfectly. Maybe I possessed a natural talent, or maybe it was a gift from heaven, or maybe schooling in other schools was worse. After this, I tried to gain a deeper understanding of heiho (The Way of the Warrior)."
Since then, he had become even more isolated and dedicated his life to searching for the true meaning of the Way of the Sword. As he said:
"Around the age of fifty, I was confronted face to face with the true path of heiho… The true path of heiho is such that it is applied at any time and in any circumstance."
There is little record of these twenty years of Miyamoto Musashi's life. It is only mentioned that he tried to enter the service of a nobleman on several occasions, but he was not successful.
In 1615 he received an appointment with Tadanao Ogasaware of Harima Province. Being renowned for his versatility and responsibility, at Ogasawara's request, he became an overseer in the spatial planning and construction of the Akashi Fortress City. It still houses the garden he designed and bears his name. After that, he worked on the planning of the city-fortress of Himeji.
After this service, he continued a series of journeys to expand his skills and knowledge. That led him to connoisseurs, artists, artisans, and priests. At the same time, he tried to find accommodation with the shogun. In 1633, he entered the service of the great Hosokawa Tadatoshi in Kumamoto. She soon became his official companion and friend.
There he finally found peace and devoted himself to practice and painting. He also wrote Thirty-Five Instructions on Military Doctrine (Hyoho Sanju go Kajo) during this period, dedicated to Tadatoshi and short writings on the Sung and Yuan periods.
But Tadatoshi soon died, so in October 1643, Miyamoto Musashi retreated to the Reigando Cave. The cave is behind the Unganzenji Temple, dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon. He lived as an ascetic with the permission of a priest and took a brush, a shower, and a paper supply with him.
For two years, he wrote, living only on what his acquaintances and priests brought him. According to the dates he put on each piece of writing, he worked only on the concept for two years. Yet, he wrote almost the entire text of the Book of the Five Rings in a single day.
At The Moment Of His Death, He Rose
A week after the last ideogram was printed (May 19, 1645), this great master of the sword and brush died. In the short period between the completion of the Book of the Five Rings and his death, he also compiled a short, moralistic treatise, Dokkodo. In it, he gave his students concise but clear instructions and advice.
This writing is a starting point for an easier understanding of his life philosophy and the Book of the Five Rings.
The work, The Story of the Deceased Master, describes Miyamoto Musashi's death:
"At the moment of his death, he rose. He had his belt tightened, followed by a wakizashi (short sword). He sat with one knee raised vertically, holding a sword in his left hand and a stick in his right. He died in that attitude at the age of sixty-two."
He was buried with all his weapons and in full armor at his request. Yet, he never put the armor on during his life. His tomb is located in the village of Yuge on Mount Iwato. It is right next to the road that his master Hosokawa once passed while traveling to Edo.
The Wisdom Book Of The Five Rings (Gorin-no-sho)
Gorin-no-sho means "Record of the Five Rings" or circles. The circle is also a symbol of perfection in Japanese culture. The title of this work could be interpreted as a record of the five embodiments. It is also reminiscent of the Chinese teaching of the five elements. Similarly, Musashi titled parts of the book: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void.
Although Miyamoto Musashi wrote that he did not directly use the classic works of the East when writing, their wisdom emerges in the book. Namely, Musashi was well acquainted with the philosophical and religious teachings of the time: Japanese classics, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism.
Musashi became well acquainted with Confucius' teachings as he befriended Confucian scholar Yagyu Munenori. Munenori was a master of swordsmanship. In addition, Musashi practiced zazen at the Myoshinji Temple.
Miyamoto Musashi left us his life experiences and wisdom summed up in every sentence. He dedicated the book to Terau Magonoya, one of his students.
On his warrior journey, Miyamoto Musashi created his sword school called Niten-Ichi, "Two Heavens - as one" or Nito-Ichi, "Two swords - as one." Miyamoto Musashi taught the use of two swords simultaneously, which was not the custom among samurai of the time, hence the latter name. But he also said the following:
"A spirit capable of victory, regardless of the type of weapon, is the teaching of my school."
The first name, "Two Heavens - as one," has its roots in Buddhist teaching. It speaks of the harmonization of human consciousness (heaven) with the consciousness of all nature (Heaven), which becomes one.
Path Of The Warrior
This double name indicates that for Miyamoto Musashi, martial arts had a deeper meaning than mere technique. Moreover, he wrote:
"If one deals only with the technique of fencing, it is not possible to find out the true path of heiho."
In the first chapter of the book, entitled The Earth, he presented the foundation of his philosophy for those who seek to follow the Path of the Warrior:
1. Think about what is right and true
2. Practice and perfect your science
3. Get to know the skills
4. Learn the principles of the craft
5. Understand the pros and cons, gains and losses in all things
6. Develop the ability to perceive truth in all things
7. Develop the ability to understand the truth about all things
8. Don't be careless, even in small things
9. Don't get involved in useless business
According to Miyamoto Musashi, to follow the Way of the Warrior, it is necessary to build an invincible spirit and a steely will. But he did not distinguish between a fight and everyday life. It is crucial to make the everyday attitude a fighting attitude and an everyday attitude in all military skills.
The Wise Words Of Miyamoto Musashi
He emphasized that properly understood principles do not hinder but broaden the spirit. When you are genuinely free within the Way of the Warrior, incredible strength comes from within. As he said:
"Having learned the principles of heiho, I began to apply them to various arts and skills and in nothing, I needed neither a teacher nor a master."
Throughout his Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi pointed out that a true warrior has perfected many skills other than fencing. He wrote about the usefulness of knowing the diversity of paths, the need to expand knowledge, and to refine and deepen your own way.
He sought answers to the great questions of life by learning from different people and improving himself. However, he warned of the danger of easily getting lost by practicing various skills. It is crucial that a person practices different things but only improves in one.
Miyamoto Musashi thought that the sword does not serve to conquer the outside world but one that is far closer to us. To master oneself, one must live by certain moral principles:
"If you want to follow the path of the samurai, you must properly understand the path of fencing skills, adopt different techniques, lose sight of anything, keep a pure heart, practice diligently every day and every hour, gain wisdom, and to exercise the power of the spirit, to acquire the power of reason and vigilance, to free oneself from every illusion. (…) By training your power of judgment, you will learn to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil."
Those are the wise words of Miyamoto Musashi, a fearless samurai from whom we can still learn today.