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

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