The Warrior-Poet Miyamoto Musashi

The original kensei or “sword saint”, the man commonly known as Miyamoto Musashi is without a doubt one of Japan’s greatest heroes, and most revered artists. His life as a wandering samurai is an odyssey that spans six wars, countless battles, and scores of victorious contests. When he at last felt he had found the answer to his life’s question, he put down his weapons and began to wield the pen and brush with the same unwavering focus and intensity.

The boy fated to become the legend of Musashi was orphaned at the age of 7, and raised by his uncle, a priest. Likely on account of either his uncle’s urging or his own boisterous nature, he took to Kendo early and aggressively. By his own account, Musashi fought his first duel at the age of 13, slaying Arima Kihei, a travelling duelist, with a wooden stick. His next contest followed at 16, after which he set out upon his “Warrior’s Pilgrimage”, a journey of combat and contemplation that would last until his 50th year. 

Musashi was famously unkempt, eschewing all trappings of comfort in single-minded devotion to the sword. He never took a wife, dressed his hair, nor even bathed according to legends that claim he didn’t want to be taken by surprise while washing. He had a deep understanding of human psychology, unsettling his opponents and confounding their expectations with his wild appearance, unconventional tactics, and overall mastery of the element of surprise. 

So confident was Musashi in his skills that he used wooden practice swords as often as steel weapons when facing opponents, and gave up the use of blades in duels altogether around the time of his most well-known contest, against the famous swordsman Sasaki Kojiro and his Turning Swallow technique. En route to the island where Sasaki impatiently awaited, Musashi carved a weapon from a spare oar. 

Arriving more than 3 hours late, he taunted Sasaki, sending him over the edge into a blind rage. Sasaki was in fact doubly blinded, as Musashi landed a fatal blow to his forehead after employing the glare of the sun ―carefully timed to hang behind his approach in the afternoon sky. This also aided in his quick withdrawal after the victory, avoiding any attempts at retribution by Sasaki’s many followers.

Musashi's signature niten ichi ryu style, famous for its distinctive use of long

Musashi’s signature niten ichi ryu style, famous for its distinctive use of long and short swords together.

Musashi declares that he arrived at the Way of Strategy only after a lifetime of battle.

…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 practice many arts and abilities - all things with no teacher.

Crafting sculptures of wood and metal, writing poems and songs, producing masterpieces of ink painting, there seemed to be no limit to Musashi’s creative reach. 

   A landscape by Musashi.

   Sword guards by Musashi. The design on the left depicts a catfish and a gourd, a

In the final years of his life, he secluded himself in a cave to write his masterpiece, Go Rin No Sho, The Book of Five Rings. It is ostensibly a guide to sword and war strategy, but to the attuned reader Go Rin No Sho functions as a meditation with much wider implications.

The true value of sword-fencing cannot be seen within the confines of sword-fencing technique 

The five rings are individually Ground, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void, and together make up the spectrum of the niten ichiryu Way of strategy. “As if it were a straight road mapped out on the ground”, the reader is introduced to the journey ahead in the Ground book, which begins by defining the “four ways in which men pass through life: as gentlemen [warriors], farmers, artisans and merchants.” Musashi goes on to explain their guiding principles:

1) The farmer- With an eye on the changing seasons, sees springs through to autumn. 
2) The merchant- With an eye on the rise and fall of capital, striving always to make a profit.

3) The warrior- To master his weapons.

4) The artisan - Mastering his tools, laying accurate plans and executing his work according to the plan.

Comparisons between the Way of the warrior and artisan are made, with the carpenter’s floor plan analagous to the campaign plan of a general. Both the general and the foreman carpenter must draft and execute their plans with an understanding of the natural conditions of the area, the materials at hand, and the abilities and limitaitons of their teams.

In another allusion to the battlefield, Musashi stresses that the measure of success in a carpenter’s work is that it is “truly planed so that it meets well and is not merely finished in sections.” The execution of one’s plans must always be carried out with careful thought to the proper timing, a key ingredient in any endeavor.

The guiding principles of the Niten Ichiryu school strategy are laid out as a starting point for students:
1) Do not think dishonestly.

2) The Way is in training.

3) Become acquainted with every art.

4) Know the Ways of all professions.

5) Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.

6) Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.

7) Perceive those things which cannot be seen.

8) Pay attention even to trifles.

9) Do nothing which is of no use.

The Water book is on the surface a description of the school’s long sword method, but as all things in Go Rin No Sho, the teachings resonate in daily life when properly reflected upon. For instance, Musashi on the proper gaze and sword grip:

In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things. It is important in strategy to know the enemy’s sword and not to be distracted by insignicant movements of his sword…

…Generally, I dislike fixedness in both swords and hands. Fixedness means a dead hand. Pliability is a living hand.


The Fire book continues with further discussion of combat technique, stressing the importance of understanding the place and the enemy’s capabilities and employing proper strategy and timing in accordance. Musashi describes strategy as a matter of “crossing at a ford”, or acting where it is most advantageous to do so, just as a ship’s captain crosses the sea at a strait armed with knowledge of the route, his ship’s sound condition, and the weather conditions of the day.  

Here is a brief summary of some of the tactics presented:

♦ Know the Times- Put yourself in a position to observe the spirit of the enemy’s men. Recognize their strategy, strengths and weaknesses, and act in an unexpected manner.

♦ Know Collapse- Recognize when the enemy is off-balance and weakening, and finish them decisively, lest they recover and learn from their mistakes.

♦ Become the Enemy- Imagine yourself in the enemy’s position.

♦ Release Four Hands- When facing off against an enemy with the same spirit at an impasse, you must win through an unexpected alternative.

♦ Move the Shade- When you are unable to discern the enemy’s position, feign a strong attack to make them reveal their resources.

♦ Pass On- Just as a yawn is passed on from person to person, so do we mirror each other. Assume the posture you want the enemy to adopt, and strike accordingly when it is passed on.

 Frighten- Intimidation can make a small force seem large. 

♦ Soak in- When in a position where you cannot advance, entangle yourself with the enemy. 

♦ Injure the Corners- Attack the corners of the enemy force to cause collapse. 

♦ Throw into Confusion- Attack with varied techniques to upset the enemy’s rhythm.

♦ Penetrate the Depths- Superficial victory is not enough. You must crush the enemy to the depths of his spirit. 

♦ Rat’s Head, Ox’s Neck- When stuck, interchange your focus on small and large. Get fresh perspective.

The character for wind in Japanese also carries the meaning, “style”, and so the Wind book lays down Musashi’s critique of other fencing styles. Overall, he seems to stress the importance of fluidity and a disdain for preconceived, universally applicable techniques. Musashi’s Way is to read into the situation and lead before being led, to train the spirit and let the technique follow naturally. 

The Book of the Void concludes Go Rin No Sho by stressing the absolute importance of constant training, to “polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze perception and sight.” Only through diligence, objectivity, and the employment of an open and correct strategy can one attain the Way.

In the void is virtue, and no evil. Wisdom has existence, principle has existence, the Way has existence, spirit is nothingness.

They had nothing to say to each other. It was almost as if they didn’t see each other. Maybe they never had. Maybe they were realizing this, that in facing off they had been barking at funhouse mirrors, chasing their own mangy tails, scratching at an insatiable itch. They were exhausted, so they stopped.

They sat and drank and saw themselves across the table. They didn’t like what they saw. Illusions drowning in emptiness. The bottle on the table was an hourglass in reverse. The silence called all bluffs, cancelled all debts, until they were left nothing but what they came in with. They ordered another bottle.

Eyes open and close like swinging doors.

Fingers scratch at scalps and chins and other fingers and tap at keyboards.

Lips flap and stories are just noise unless they break through eardrums and sneak through swinging doors to seduce escaping attention into another box.

Bodies rot in buried boxes, but life and death is an open silence that stories can’t contain. 

De todo como en botica.