One of the more colorful and enigmatic figures from Japanese history was legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. It’s been estimated that by age thirty he had defeated 60 swordsmen in single combat, under a variety of awkward conditions. Even more impressive was the fact that in many cases his weapon of choice was a piece of wood, improvised into a practice sword. The additional fact that this was during an age when typically only the winner walked away only punctuates the intensity of the world in which Musashi navigated. Safe to say, survival in seventeenth century Japan was serious stuff but that’s only part of the story of Musashi and his life’s work.
Musashi lived almost two generations before Benjamin Franklin, more than a generation after Leonardo Da Vinci and totally isolated from both worlds, but his life and his ideas share many features of those Western culture icons. Like Franklin and Da Vinci, Musashi was a self-made man; In addition to being a master swordsman, he was a highly skilled military leader. He led troops, devised battle plans and survived six major battle engagements of the feudal period in Japan. He was a renowned painter and artist. He was a city planner. He was a politician. He was a writer as well as a teacher. And like Franklin and Da Vinci before him, much of his writing reflects the idea that sustaining excellence in any field whether business or science, art or anatomy, swordsmanship or combat all begin with the pursuit of self-mastery.
A System Ahead Of Its Time
Shortly before his death in 1645, Musashi sequestered himself inside a cave known as Reigando or “spirit rock” at the top of Mt. Iwato to spend his final days in meditation. Just prior to that, he attempted to summarize all of his previous writings and life experiences into one comprehensive yet concise set of documents. The result was what he called the Gorin No Sho, commonly referred to today as The Book of Five Rings. In it Musashi introduces several concepts central to his theme that he called, “Strategy”;
- That natural ability, while helpful, is not critical to achieving & sustaining excellence in an endeavor.
- That daily training, practice, skill set/mind set development, etc. is essential but not enough to maintain or even achieve mastery in an endeavor.
- That tools and technology are useful but always have limits. They can be either asset or liability if they are too heavily relied upon.
- That continuous learning both inside and outside ones profession keeps the mind sharp, flexible and open in a constantly changing environment.
- That achieving and maintaining excellence requires a map, a model or a formula of sorts that incorporates mind, body, skills and learning in an organized fashion.
- Such a formula is active and cyclical in nature, like the sun and planets orbiting in the solar system. It is not a linear path from beginning to destination.
Martial Arts as metaphor
Warfare, combat, swordsmanship, they were Musashi’s trade, his profession. So naturally one of Musashi’s objectives would be the transmission of his craft to future generations. Martial Arts then, would be the obvious metaphor from which he would write about a larger concept and his life experiences. The Book of Five Rings however, is often studied outside the context of Musashi’s own life and many of the subtle concepts and metaphors are often overlooked.
The central theme of the book is “Strategy” or the idea of a system for sustaining excellence in almost any endeavor. Combat just happens to be his central theme, the necessary point of reference from which Musashi writes. In the book itself, he makes the comparison to the profession of carpentry and how, although much different than combat, the same system can be applied to sustaining excellence in other professions. One of his more famous quotes from the book implies that very idea;
“From one thing, know ten thousand things”
In other words, one strategy applied to ten thousand different endeavors in life…both personal and professional. One system to cultivate many mind sets, skill sets and even spiritual pursuits.
Musashi’s life, outside of the text, further illustrates this idea; He was considered a world-class painter, even in his own time, having been commissioned to do several high profile pieces by various rulers and dignitaries. Additionally, he was an accomplished calligrapher. He was also contracted to several civil planning projects and he was obviously an accomplished writer. So it’s evident that he had been applying his principles of strategy to other areas of his life for some time. It was not common practice for the Japanese warrior class of the time to cultivate such a diversity of skills and interests.
These are all examples of what made Musashi stand apart from other historical warriors of feudal Japan. There were in fact several other renowned swordsmen with much higher tallies of victories, some as high as 200. None of which have ever made it to the table of comparison with the likes of Da Vinci and Ben Franklin. Even his eccentric appearance, with his “Einstein like” hair, made him stand apart from all of his contemporaries. There is even evidence to suggest that this too was by design, a part of his strategy.
Ironically, many who have studied The Book of Five Rings have been caught up by a narrowed focus on certain aspects of the book, particularly in the West. Martial artists get preoccupied with the sword fencing tactics. Business people get preoccupied with the book as a military manifesto to help ‘crush the competition’. Scholars and historians get preoccupied validating the accuracy of Musashi’s life and exploits. As a result, much gets overlooked both in subtleties and in the macro of Musashi’s system of strategy.
For example, here are a few specifics;
Five Books, Five Elements
The original text of the Gorin No Sho was composed of five scrolls that Musashi named after the Five Elements of Buddhism; Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Void. He could have easily chosen more technical or generic titles for the scrolls. It’s likely that the titles were chosen very intentionally, to emphasize the idea that there is a philosophical and spiritual as well as a technical aspect to his strategy. Further, it punctuates the interconnectedness between ones personal and professional life, the individual and the world around them. The five elements represent balance, a symbiosis and the bigger picture.
Phrases that repeat
Throughout the book, Musashi uses open-ended phrases that repeat such as, “You must study this in detail”, “You must practice daily”, etc. Scholars and historians have frequently dismissed this as the ramblings of a sick and perhaps senile old man. The clarity and succinctness in which he describes sword tactics and other specifics, however, would contradict this assumption. Further, it’s documented that he had the draft of the book proof read by the local abbot/scribe who was a confidant. Although the text states that the abbot offered no changes in order to, “preserve Musashi’s original thoughts”, it’s highly unlikely that a trusted associate of this kind would allow embarrassing ramblings to be recorded for posterity.
A Book of “Five Rings”
In addition to repeating phrases, the title of the book itself implies the idea of circularity. “Gorin No Sho” translates to “Writings on the Five Rings”. Again it’s probably no coincidence here, Musashi could have easily adopted a more generic title, called it “Writings on Strategy”, or something similarly technical in nature. He didn’t however and much of this terminology evolved in his writings over the course of his life. This would suggest calculated contemplation, not scattered ramblings.
For his school of swordsmanship Musashi ultimately settled on the name, “Niten Ichi Ryu”, meaning essentially a school of two swords. This was likely done in order to create a distinction in Musashi’s combat system from all others…no one else at the time taught combat utilizing both swords or at least published it. For many years prior, however, Musashi used the name “EnMei Ryu” to refer to his school and on official documents.
The term, “EnMei” can be translated to “Bright Circle” so in this case meaning the “School of the Bright Circle”. Musashi was also a calligrapher and likely to be influenced by the tradition of drawing the Enso, or perfect circle of Zen Buddhism.
It is more than plausible that all of this reference to circularity and repetition was Musashi trying to convey the meaning of mastery. The idea that achieving and sustaining excellence in any endeavor is not a fixed linear path from beginning to destination but rather one that is circular and constantly changing. Of course it is from this, that the inspiration for the title ENMEI-21 came.
Catching up with the 21st Century
The Book of Five Rings, though one of a kind, unfortunately suffers from many of the ills of other historical works. First, Musashi and his contemporaries have all been gone over three and a half centuries so his writings are subject to more than a single interpretation. Anyone with first hand knowledge that could explain what Musashi said, meant or did, have long gone. Further, there is no known surviving original of the Gorin No Sho. What we read today is a second, perhaps third generation copy at best and that opens the possibility of alterations from the original text. This is compounded by the controversy around the life of Musashi himself. There are many historical documents to corroborate his general life events (specific duels, places he lived, lineage, etc.), but many details of his life are unconfirmed speculation. Even which side he fought on, the East vs. the West has been heavily argued. As a result, the value of the writing itself often gets lost in a sea of validation.
Additionally the book was written for 17th Century feudal Japanese society, many people today find it difficult to separate the violence of the times and the combat metaphors from the larger principles. Lastly, both the original and the copies were written in Japanese and translation can be a difficult proposition. Much of the author’s true meaning is left to the mercy and skill of the translator.
Ultimately, the life of Miyamoto Musashi and his writings serve as an inspiration to and not the foundation for the principles of ENMEI. Certainly the name was adopted as homage to his work and the insights into the concept of strategy, as well as the meaning of continuous learning. It is not meant to be however, a modernized version of The Book of Five Rings. ENMEI has as much influence from Western science and business as it does from Martial Science and Eastern thought.
Hopefully, if you have read this far, your curiosity has been sparked for more….
Sources: Tokitsu, Kenji; Miyamoto Musashi His Life and Writings Tokitsu, Kenji; The Complete Book of Five Rings De Lange, William; Origins of a Legend, THE REAL MUSASHI, The Bushu Denraiki De Lange, William; Origins of a Legend II, THE REAL MUSASHI, The Bukoden