Introduction to The Book of Five Rings

Detail of a statue at Musashi's gravesite:
The face of Musashi?
Like many ancient works, Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings starts out with a brief autobiography (whether by his hand or someone else's).

Here it is in its entirety, as given in the Victor Harris translation. The footnotes (in parentheses) are his.

The title of Go Rin no Sho in kanji (Wikipedia)
I have been many years training in the Way (1) of strategy (2), called Ni Ten Ichi Ryu, and now I think I will explain it in writing for the first time. It is now during the first ten days of the tenth month in the twentieth year of Kanei (1645). I have climbed mountain Iwato of Higo in Kyushu to pay homage to heaven (3), pray to Kwannon (4), and kneel before Buddha. I am a warrior of Harima province, Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Geshin, age sixty years. [actually 62]

From youth my heart has been inclined toward the Way of strategy. My first duel was when I was thirteen, I struck down a strategist of the Shinto school, one Arima Kihei (5). When I was sixteen I struck down an able strategist, Tadashima Akiyama. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of strategists, never once failing to win in many contests.

After that I went from province to province duelling with strategists of various schools, and not once failed to win even though I had as many as sixty encounters. This was between the ages of thirteen and twenty-eight or twenty-nine.

When I reached thirty I looked back on my past. The previous victories were not due to my having mastered strategy. Perhaps it was natural ability, or the order of heaven, or that other schools' strategy was inferior. After that I studied morning and evening searching for the principle, and came to realise the Way of strategy when I was fifty.

Since then I have lived without following any particular Way. Thus with the virtue of strategy I practise many arts and abilities--all things with no teacher (6). To write this book I did not use the law of Buddha or the teachings of Confucius, neither old war chronicles nor books on martial tactics. I take up my brush to explain the true spirit (7) of this Ichi school as it is mirrored in the Way of heaven and Kwannon. The time is the night of the tenth day of the tenth month, at the hour of the tiger (8) (3-5 a.m.)


(1) Way: The Character for Way is read "Michi" in Japanese or "Do" in Chinese-based reading. It is equivalent to the Chinese "Tao" and means the whole life of the warrior, his devotion to the sword, his place in the Confucius-coloured bureaucracy of the Tokugawa system. It is the road of the cosmos, not just a set of ethics for the artist or priest to live by, but the divine footprints of God pointing the Way.
(2) Strategy: "Heiho" is a word of Chinese derivation meaning military strategy. "Hei" means soldier and "Ho" means method or form.
(3) Homage to heaven: "Ten" or heaven means the Shinto religion, Shinto--a word compounding the two characters "Kami" (God) and "Michi" (Way)--is the old religion of Japan. In Shinto there are many Holies, gods of steel and fermentation, place and industry, and so-on, and the first gods, ancestors to the Imperial line.
(4) Kwannon: God(dess) of mercy in Buddhism.
(5) Arima Kihei: of the Shinto school. See note 15 [not given in this excerpt].
(6) All things with no teacher: There had been traditions instituted for the arts in the Muromachi period, system of grades and licenses and seniority, and these were perpetuated perhaps more rigidly under the Tokugawa bureaucracy. Musashi studied various arts in various schools, but when after his enlightenment he pursued his studies he had become separate from traditional guidance. He writes his final words in the book of the Void: "Then you will come to think of things in a wide sense, and taking the Void as the Way, you will see the Way as Void."
(7) Spirit: "Shin" or "Kokoro" has been translated "heart", "soul", or "spirit". It could be put as feeling, manner. It has always been said "The sword is the soul of the samurai."
(8) The hour of the tiger: Years, months and hours were named after the ancient Chinese Zodiacal time system.

For more on Musashi and his Book of Five Rings, see the Listing.

Created Sep. 25, 2017

Musashi's "Dokkodo": A Paraphrase

Detail of a statue at Musashi's gravesite:
The face of Musashi?
Miyamoto Musashi, author of The Book of Five Rings, wrote several shorter works as well. These pithy, early examples of "listicles" are more useful (to my mind) than the weighty and obscure Five Rings.

However, since they have been translated only fairly recently, it's hard to find copyright-free versions on line.

So I took several examples of one of them, the "Dokkodo" or "Way of Walking Alone," and formed my own paraphrase.

Meditating on each item is likely to bring some benefit. (Note that numbers 4 and 20 are omitted from some ancient copies.)

A copy of the "Dokkodo" in the
Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art
  1. Accept things as they are, and act accordingly.
  2. Do not be distracted by seeking pleasure.
  3. Approach everything and everyone with impartiality.
  4. Don't take yourself too seriously; but be serious about others, and the world.
  5. Do not be attached to your desires.
  6. Have no regrets.
  7. Do not be jealous.
  8. Do not dwell on those you cannot be with.
  9. Do not bear grudges or be resentful.
  10. Do not be a fool for love.
  11. Do not judge or make choices based on attraction or repulsion.
  12. Do not dwell on places you cannot be; "wherever you go, there you are."
  13. Do not make choices based on the taste of food; eat to live.
  14. Do not cling to things that are no longer useful to you.
  15. Do not be bound by custom or tradition; act as your own reason and conscience dictate.
  16. Do not waste time or resources acquiring goods or knowledge that are not useful to you.
  17. Do not let fear of death prevent you from living.
  18. Do not store up treasures against your old age; live now.
  19. Respect the gods, but do not depend on them.
  20. Protect your reputation; "death before dishonor."
  21. Never stray from what you know is right.

For more on Musashi and his Book of Five Rings, see the Listing.

Created Sep. 25, 2017

Two Poems from T.S. Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations

These two poems, "Preludes" and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," were the source materials for the song "Memory" from the Broadway musical Cats (DVD), as described in the Classics Calendar for October 8. They are number 3 and 4, respectively, in the 1917 Prufrock and Other Observations (free online) (paperback), which was named for the famous poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

If you know the lyrics of "Memory," see if you can find them here!


by T. S. Eliot


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.


The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.


You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.


His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Rhapsody on a Windy Night

by T. S. Eliot

Twelve o'clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one,
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said, "Regard that woman
Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin."

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap.

Half-past two,
The street lamp said,
"Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter,
Slips out its tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter."
So the hand of a child, automatic,
Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.
I could see nothing behind that child's eye.
I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.

Half-past three,
The lamp sputtered,
The lamp muttered in the dark.

The lamp hummed:
"Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smoothes the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and old Cologne,
She is alone
With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain."
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars."

The lamp said,
"Four o'clock,
Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair,
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life."

The last twist of the knife.