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As others have already written very complete reviews, I just had a few miscellaneous comments, mostly on how to understand Musashi's seemingly paradoxical ideas about technique.
This has become a legendary book. Written by the famous swordsman, sometimes referred to in the west as "The Lone Ranger of Japan," Musashi claimed to have been in over 60 sword battles, triumphing each time, so it's no wonder Musashi's name has become legendary in both Japan and the west.
The book sets out Musashi's philosophy and correct Way of the Sword. But the principles Musashi espouses are bound to sound perplexing to many people. Musashi says that the best stance is no stance, that too much strength is bad (your sword may shatter when clashing swords), and that even too much speed is bad (it may upset your balance), and that none of these are the true Way of the Sword. The best technique is, in fact, no technique.
This sort of philosophy is bound to be more than a little confusing, so I'll see if I can clarify it a little. I'm not sure I understand Musashi either, although I've studied martial arts for many years and have read my share of eastern philosophy, but I'll give you my ideas on how I relate to them just in case you find them useful.
Basically what Musashi is saying is that once you've learned a technique and committed it to memory and especially "muscle memory," it becomes fixed and is no longer adaptive. Your body becomes channalized into this form or technique, which then becomes limiting, preventing you from achieving true mastery, which is the ability to adapt and flow with any of the infinite number of situations you may encounter. Fixity is therefore dysfunctional and is not the true Way of the Sword. This might be what Musashi means when he speaks of the Way of Emptiness being his way and the true Way of the Sword. In other words, his technique is no technique because it is empty of all fixed, unchangeable, and unadaptive aspects.
There is an analogous principle in Zen. In Zen, the highest level of technique is called "the technique that can't be seen." This doesn't mean that the technique is so fast it's invisible. It's that the technique is so advanced and subtle that its principles aren't obvious and easily seen. Musashi's ideas seem to reflect this Zen Buddhist principle also.
Interestingly enough, this idea has some support from western research into learning and the brain. In learning theory, there is the idea of "stereotyping," (which has nothing to do with social or racial stereotypes), where motor movements that have been learned become fixed into a certain sequence or pattern, but which is not necessarily the most efficient or effective. My learning theory instructor used the example of shaving strokes. He realized after some years that he always did his shaving strokes in the same way, after having learned how to do them, but that they weren't necessarily the best way to shave, anymore. Now that he'd been shaving for years, he "re-engineered" his shaving strokes so that they were more efficient.
This may apply to the martial arts too. After we've learned a certain movement and achieved a certain level of skill with it, we may become complacent and never go back and question the movement again. All because we believe we've achieved a level of "skill." I notice Paul Vunak, an important martial artist in Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do and the Filipino martial arts, also emphasizes the learning of principles rather than "technique," and specifically mentions this in his seminars. The idea is that once one has learned the principle behind the technique, one can do an infinite number of those techniques, depending on the situation.
Another interesting physiological principle that is almost as paradoxical as Musashi's ideas has been found by western science. There is a phenomenon in neuromuscular physiology known as reciprocal inhibition of flexor-extensor pairs. This means that during muscle activity the opposing muscle tension is inhibited to reduce effort on the flexing muscle. So if you're trying to do a straight punch, the tricep tenses and the bicep relaxes, thus reducing resistance. The paradoxical aspect arises from the fact that by performing a small jerk backwards in the opposite direction to the punch the outward extensor motion can be speeded up. In kinesiology they refer to this as a "pliometric jerk," and is how basketball players jump higher. But it also has equal application to the martial arts, and I've had good results using this to get more speed and snap in my own techniques and for my students.
Anyway, I just thought I'd offer a few suggestions from my own experience on Musashi's book, although I can't say I fully understand it either. But I hope you find them helpful in some small way in your own understanding and training.
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Walter E. Kurtz
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Book of Five Rings is a fencing manual with a dose of philosophy added for good measure. It is considered to be a classic, but after reading it I cannot see why, for the book is of very limited use to the wider audience.
The Book of Five rings was written by a man named Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi lived in feudal Japan in the first half of the seventeenth century. Today he is a semi-legendary figure, and like all semi-legendary figures, most of the tales surrounding his life are more fiction than fact. What is known for certain is that Musashi came from very humble background. Most likely his parents were simple peasants or something similar. From very early age, he was fascinated (obsessed, one could say) with combat. He trained himself to be a warrior. When he reached early twenties, he started to travel the land far and wide, seeking renown warriors and challenging them to see who is better. It is estimated that he fought some sixty duels, all of them victorious. Many of the men he had defeated and killed were warriors of great prowess. Some were even (before meeting Musashi) thought to be the best fighters in all of Japan. Aside for duels, Musashi had also fought in a number of battles and other violent engagements.
By the time he had reached late thirties, Musashi had something of a spiritual revelation. While he did continue to train with weapons for the rest of his life, he gave up on violence and started to learn other crafts, such as tea ceremonies (a big thing in Japanese culture) and poetry.
Musashi died in his fifties from natural causes (most likely cancer). Shortly before dying, when he could feel death coming for him, he wrote the Book of Five Rings.
So much about the man; now about his book. Five Rings is martial arts manual first and philosophy treaty second. Most of the advice given in it is strictly of technical nature. For example, Musashi talks about how you should hold the sword one-handed rather than two-handed, or how you should position yourself in such a way that the sun stays behind you at all times. Most of the advice is about wielding a sword.
This part of the book would certainly be of interest to anyone practicing fencing and other martial arts, but few of it is revolutionary. For example, Musashi talks about constantly pushing your opponent onto difficult terrain. That is hardly a revolutionary idea. Even someone who has no fighting experience whatsoever would recognize this as common sense.
The other part of the book talks about conflict in general. Most of the advice can be boiled down to “study your opponent carefully, use his weaknesses and strengths against him, and always do the unexpected.” This is all good advice that can be used in any conflict from waging war to negotiating a business deal, but it is hardly revolutionary.
Five Rings does have some interesting general philosophical thoughts and advice, however. For example, Musashi says that combat is a way of life, but other people (craftsmen, artists, etc.) also have their own way of life, which is no easier or harder than the path of the warrior. Every occupation should be respected, and even be learned from. Musashi also says that in the end we must rely only on ourselves, that we should not seek out to acquire material possessions or money and, this one is my favorite, not to regret all the roads we have walked in life.
We all have made decisions at some point that we wish we could take back. We all have committed mistakes and, perhaps, even done shameful things. While I do believe that we should seek to atone for the bad things we had done in the past, making mistakes teaches us a lot. No matter what road you and I have walked in life, it had taught us many things and made us into who we are today. Even if you believe that the road you took was the wrong one, at least walking it helped you to come to that realization and now all that accumulated experience and knowledge can be used to walk a better road and make better choices in life.
I also liked the fact that after dispersing each piece of advice, Musashi says: “this should be studied thoroughly.” He recognizes that his book is not a repository of some secret, revolutionary wisdom that will all by itself change the reader’s life. It is an instruction manual, yes, but true understanding will come from practice, practice and more practice. Just as with modern martial arts manuals, they can show you detailed schematics of various combat moves, but staring at the illustrations won’t make you into a martial artist. To acquire skill in combat, you need to get your hands dirty and practice (with trained professionals, of course).
This humility on Musashi’s part is refreshing. Nowadays, many self-help books and other manuals claim that all you need to do is read them and your life will suddenly change for the better. Yeah, right.
To conclude, Book of Five Rings would certainly be of interest to people studying martial arts, especially sword fighting. As for other people, although it does contain useful tidbits of information and philosophy, you will need to dig through page after page and layer after layer of advice about combat to get to the interesting parts. If you are looking for life advice and eastern philosophy, there are better books out there.
But, in all fairness, I did enjoy this book nevertheless. Plus, it is short and to the point, which for me is always a good thing. I’ll be generous and give it four stars.