The Book of Five Rings
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The Book of Five Rings (五輪書, Go Rin No Sho?) is a text on kenjutsu and the martial arts in general, written by the samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi circa 1645. It is considered a classic treatise on military strategy, much like Sun Tzu‘s The Art of War. There have been various translations made over the years, and it enjoys an audience considerably broader than only that of martial artists: for instance, some business leaders find its discussion of conflict and taking the advantage to be relevant to their work. The modern-day Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū employs it as a manual of technique and philosophy.
Musashi establishes a “no-nonsense” theme throughout the text. For instance, he repeatedly remarks that technical flourishes are excessive, and contrasts worrying about such things with the principle that all technique is simply a method of cutting down one’s opponent. He also continually makes the point that the understandings expressed in the book are important for combat on any scale, whether a one-on-one duel or a massive battle. Descriptions of principles are often followed by admonitions to “investigate this thoroughly” through practice, rather than try to learn by merely reading.
Musashi describes and advocates a two-sword style: that is, wielding both katana and wakizashi, contrary to the more traditional method of wielding the katana two-handed. However, he only explicitly describes wielding two swords in a section on fighting against many adversaries. The stories of his many duels do not seem to reference Musashi himself wielding two swords, although as mostly oral traditions their details may be rather inaccurate. Some suggest that Musashi’s meaning was not so much wielding two swords ‘simultaneously’, but rather acquiring the proficiency to (singly) wield either sword in either hand as the need arose.
The five books
Although it is difficult to grasp it from the book, Go Rin No Sho, these books are actually the teachings which Musashi preached to his students in his own dojo. Despite the ideas from others, the books are not based on any other school of teaching.
The five “books” refer to the idea that there are different elements of battle, just as there are different physical elements in life, as described by Buddhism, Shinto, and other Eastern religions. The Five books below are descriptions by Musashi of exact methods, or techniques which are described by such elements.
The term “Ichi School”, which is referred to in the book, Go Rin No Sho, when referring to such books, refers to “Niten No Ichi Ryu”, or “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu”, which literally translated, means “Two Swords, one heaven”, although the translation could be seen by many as “Two Swords, One spirit”, or “Two Swords, One Entity”. However, the translation of “Two Swords, one Dragon” was thought to be a transliteral misinterpretation of the Kanji “Ryu”.
- The Ground chapter serves as an introduction, and metaphorically discusses martial arts, leadership, and training as building a house.
- The Water chapter describes Musashi’s style, Ni-ten ichi-ryu, or “Two Heavens, One Style”. It describes some basic technique and fundamental principles.
- The Fire chapter refers to the heat of battle, and discusses matters such as different types of timing.
- The Wind chapter is something of a pun, since the Japanese character can mean both “wind” and “style” (e.g., of martial arts). It discusses what Musashi considers to be the failings of various contemporary schools of swordfighting.
- The Void chapter is a short epilogue, describing, in more esoteric terms, Musashi’s probably Zen-influenced thoughts on consciousness and the correct mindset.
The Ground Book
The ground book, according to Go Rin No Sho, is mentioned as the book which refers expressly to Strategy which was taught by Musashi at the Ichi School, and is said to be the way to distinguish the way through “Sword-Fencing”, or “Swordsmanship”. The idea of strategy mentioned in this book is that of situational strategy, such as techniques and “tricks” to use when fighting indoors, outdoors, on a horse, or in various conditions. The book, or Discipline is that of strategies taught to Ichi school students who would be encouraged to be very astute in their study and strategy:
- Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things. As if it were a straight road mapped out on the ground … These things cannot be explained in detail. From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of strategy there will not be one thing you cannot see. You must study hard.
Upon their mastery of Strategy and timing listed in the five books, Musashi states that you will be able to defeat ten men as easy as you could defeat one, and questions “When you have reached this point, will it not mean that you are invincible?”
The strategies listed in this Discipline, or book, relate to situations requiring different weapons and tactics, such as indoor weapons. Musashi states that the use of halberd-like Naginata and Spears are purely for on the field, whereas the longsword and accompanying short-sword can be used in most environments, such as horseback, fierce battle, and others.
Musashi also mentions the Gun as something which has no equal on the battlefield, it being the supreme weapon on the battlefield, until swords clash, at which point it becomes useless. He also notes that the gun is somewhat lesser than the Bow, as particularly at that time, guns were not very accurate at ranges any longer than point-blank, as well as the obvious disadvantage that you could not see the bullet and adjust your aim as you would with a bow.
Even though one of the values of the Ni Ten Ichi Ryu style is that one should be versed in many weaponry skills, Musashi indicates that within battle you should not overly use one weapon, as it is as bad as using the weapon badly, probably because it would be easy for an enemy to find a weakness in your style after countless uses of the same weapon.
Timing as explained by Musashi is the core principle in strategy which is listed in the Ground Book. The idea of timing explained within the ground book is that you must be able to adapt your strategy to timing with your skill, in that you must know when to attack and when not to attack.
In The Book of Five Rings he writes on timing:
- “Timing is important in dancing and pipe or string music, for they are in rhythm only if timing is good. Timing and rhythm are also involved in the military arts, shooting bows and guns, and riding horses. In all skills and abilities there is timing…. There is timing in the whole life of the warrior, in his thriving and declining, in his harmony and discord. Similarly, there is timing in the Way of the merchant, in the rise and fall of capital. All things entail rising and falling timing. You must be able to discern this. In strategy there are various timing considerations. From the outset you must know the applicable timing and the inapplicable timing, and from among the large and small things and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing. This is the main thing in strategy. It is especially important to know the background timing, otherwise your strategy will become uncertain.”
The Water Book
The water book concerns strategy, but various other factors which perhaps a warrior reading the book should take into consideration; Factors such as spirituality, religion and your outlook on life. The meaning of “Water” is that you should absorb the ideas explained in the “Water Book” or discipline.
The spiritual bearing in strategy, which Musashi writes about concerns your temperament and spirituality whilst in the midst of, or in formulation of a battle. Being a buddhist, most of what is written in the section concerning spirituality refers to principles of calmness, tranquility and spiritual balance;
- In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be any different from normal. Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm.
This balance, refers to what could be thought of as Yin and Yang within yourself when fighting. The over-familiarity or over-use of one is not recommended by Musashi, as it would be seen to reveal your spirituality to your enemy, and thus your boistrousness, or over-calm; the idea being a perfectly balanced spirit is also a perfectly balanced physical presence, and neither creates weakness nor reveals it to your enemy.
The spirituality and balance is something which Musashi notes that you should take advantage of during battle. As small people know the spirituality of Big people, they can thus note differences and weaknesses between each other. This is something which although seems easy, is said to change when on the battlefield, as you must know to both adjust your spiritual balance according to what is around you, and to perceive the balance of those around you, and take advantage accordingly.
Again, as your spirit should be balanced, so too should your various techniques be honed to a perfectly balanced demeanour. In terms of stance, much like balance within the trooper, Musashi notes that stance is an important part of strategy, or battle; Adopt a stance with the head erect, neither hanging down, nor looking up, nor twisted.. This is part of what Musashi notes as Wedging in.
In regards to the Gaze of someone, he notes that a person must be able to perceive that which is all around him, without moving their eyeballs noticeably, which is said to be a skill which takes an enormous amount of practice to perfect. He notes that this is again one of the most important parts of strategy, as well as being able to see things which are close to you, such as the technique of an enemy, or far away, such as arriving troops, or enemies, as that is the precursor of battle, in that your actions go off what you see.
Attitudes of swordsmanship
- Right Side
- Left Side
The five attitudes of Swordsmanship, are referred to as the five classifications of areas for attack on the human body, areas which are noted for their advantages when striking at an enemy, and are said to be thought of by the strategist when in situations where, for any reason you should not be able to strike them, then your mind should adjust accordingly;
- Your attitude should be large or small according to the situation. Upper, Lower and Middle attitudes are decisive. Left Side and Right Side attitudes are fluid. Left and Right attitudes should be used if there is an obstruction overhead or to one side. The decision to use Left or Right depends on the place.
As each is thought of as an attitude, it could be thought of that Musashi means to practice with each “attitude” so that you do not become over-familiar with one, something which Musashi repeatedly notes as being worse than bad technique.
“No Attitude” refers to those strategists who do not particularly go with the use of the “Five Attitudes”, and prefer to simply go without the attitudes of the long sword, and focus entirely on technique, as opposed to focusing on both Technique and the five attitudes, similar to basically “taking chances” as opposed to “making chances”.
The attitude of “Existing – Non Existing”, mixes the Five Attitudes with the Attitude of “No Attitude”, meaning that the user of the longsword uses the techniques and principles of both at whichever moment he or she finds most opportunistic.
“In-One Timing” refers to the technique of biding your time until you can find a suitable gap in the enemies’ defense, to which you will deliver one fatal blow to the enemy. Although this is said to be difficult, Musashi notes that masters of this Technique are usually Masters of the Five attitudes because they must be perceptive of weaknesses. It is rumoured that Musashi disgraced a former sword master by using such a technique with a Bokken, although there are no descriptions mentioning “In one” timing.
“Abdomen Timing of Two” refers to feinting an attack, then striking an enemy as they are retracting from an attack, hitting them in the abdomen with the correct timing of either two moves or two seconds. Although the technique seems relatively simple, Musashi lists this as one of the hardest techniques to time correctly.
“No Design, No Conception” refers to When word and actions are spontaneously the same.. Aside from this philosophical approach to the meaning, the technique is relatively simple to explain ; if you are in a deadlock with the enemy, using the force from the cut, you push with your body, spirit, and using Disciplines outlined in the Void Book, to knock the enemy over.
- This is the most important method of hitting. It is often used. You must train hard to understand it.
“Flowing Water Cut” technique refers to if you come into a fight with an enemy of a similar level to you in swordsmanship. When attacking fast, Musashi notes that you will always be at stalemate, so like Stagnant water, you must cut as slowly as possible with your long sword. At the beginning of this technique you and your opponent will be searching for an opening within each other’s defense. When your opponent either tries to push off your sword, or to hasten back as to disengage it, you must first expand your whole body and your mind. By moving your body first and then that of your sword, you will be able to strike powerfully and broadly with a movement that seems to reflect the natural flow of water. Ease and confidence will be attained when this technique is continuously practiced upon.
“Continuous Cut” refers to when you are again faced with stalemate within a duel, where your swords clasp together. In one motion when your sword springs away from theirs, Musashi says to use a continuous motion to slash their head, body and legs.
The Fire Book
The fire book refers to fighting methods, mostly away from specific fighting techniques listed in the Water book. It goes into a broader scope in terms of hints as to assess a situation, as well as specific situational instructions.
He notes obvious advantages of Armor, as well as preparedness before a duel or battle. This does not apply to just one man, but a whole group of men;
- As one man can defeat ten men, so can one thousand men defeat ten thousand. However, you can become a master of strategy by training alone with a sword, so that you can understand the enemy’s stratagems, his strength and resources, and come to appreciate how to apply strategy to beat ten thousand enemies.
The dependence of location according to the Go Rin No Sho is crucial. you must be in a place where Man-made objects such as buildings, towers, castles and such do not obstruct your view, as well as facing or standing in a position where the sun or moon does not affect your vision. This is purely so that your vision is focused on nothing but the enemy, and thus there is more concentration upon the enemies’ stratagems. Musashi also seems to note the age old strategy of the High Ground ;
- You must look down on the enemy, and take up your attitude on slightly higher places.
Other kinds of tactics which Musashi tells of are way of ensuring that the enemy is at a disadvantage ; Forcing yourself on the bad-side of a trooper; The left side being difficult for a Right handed soldier or warrior. Other disadvantages, such as forcing enemies into footholds, swamps, ditches, and other difficult terrain which forces the enemy to be unsure and uncertain of his situation.
- These things cannot be clearly explained in words. You must research what is written here. In these three ways of forestalling, you must judge the situation. This does not mean that you always attack first; but if the enemy attacks first you can lead him around. In strategy, you have effectively won when you forestall the enemy, so you must train well to attain this..
Ken No Sen, or “Attacking”, is the most obvious method of forestalling an enemy, in that a head on collision forces both parties to a standstill. Although it is not mentioned, Musashi must have been well aware that this method would also be the most probable to have a higher death count to others, due to the sheer mass of enemies, where more than one enemy can attack a single soldier or trooper.
As the name suggests, Tai No Sen (Waiting for the Initiative) is invented for very opportunistic and decided battles between parties. The main idea being to feign weakness as to open a weak spot, or Achilles’ heel in the opposing force, and then regrouping to exploit such a hole by attacking deep within the enemy’s party. Although it is not mentioned, this would most likely be to kill the Officer of the highest rank, as an attempt to remove the tactical centre of a group of soldiers; a method particularly useful for Musashi or others if attacking a general directly, which would signal the end of the battle upon his defeat.
Only a small amount of text is written about Tai Tai No Sen (Accompanying and Forestalling). Albeit very confusing, the idea of Tai Tai No Sen is circumventing an ambush or quick attack from the enemy by taking the initiative, and attacking in full force. Musashi admits himself that this is a difficult thing to explain.
Although there are other methods, they are mostly situational methods relating to the crossing of rough terrain, and battling within such rough terrain. Although it spreads over two or more paragraphs, most information is common sense, relating to caution and avoidance of such situations.
The idea of timing, as with singular battles, is known as the most important part of attacking next to the skill of participants. However, the type of timing in this instance is somewhat different to the timing noted in The Ground Book, as it notes looking at the various physical factors which affect an enemy during battle, such as determining if the strength is waning or rising within a group of troopers.
The idea of treading down the sword is a very simple technique; Quashing an enemy’s attack before it starts by using a form of charging and then attacking under the veil of gunpowder smoke, and arrow fire, the initial attacks used when starting battles.
Like Musashi mentions in his philosophical style, there is causality of collapse; the collapse of houses, empires, and so on. As there is collapse within an enemy, such as waning in his numbers, Musashi notes that to observe such events and use them to your advantage, such as by gaining from loss, or vice versa.
Interestingly, he notes that an enemy’s formation can fall if they lose rhythm. It was known that in such battles, drummers drummed a tune for their other fellow soldiers to march to, should the rhythm be lost, leading to “collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged.”
The Wind Book
Whereas most of the information given in the previous books is useful in such a way that it could still be applicable today, this book is primarily concerned with the specific details about other strategies that existed at the time. The broader lesson from this book is that an important part of understanding your own way is to understand the way of your opponent as precisely as possible.
Musashi notes that although most schools have secret and ancient strategies, most forms are derivative of other martial arts. Their similarities and differences evolved through situational factors, such as indoor or outdoor duelling, the style adapting to the school. He indicates that his appraisal may be one sided because the only school he had interest for was his own, and, in a way, he does not see parallels to his own creation and work. However, he still admits that without basic understanding of these alternate techniques, you will not be able to learn Ni Ten Ichi Ryu, probably for reasons of finding the wrongs in other techniques, and righting them within yourself in Ni Ten Ichi Ryu.
The main difference that Musashi notes between the Ichi School and other Strategists and schools, is that other schools do not teach the “broader” meaning of strategy, that above sword-fencing; “Some of the world’s strategists are concerned only with sword-fencing, and limit their training to flourishing the long sword and carriage of the body. ” The book has many paragraphs on the subject of other school’s techniques, and much of the text lists the ways that other schools do not conform to the ideals which he himself writes about in the Book of five rings, such as Over-reliance, or over-familiarity with a weapon, as well as to do with footwork, sight, and other methods described in previous disciplines.
The Void Book
Although short, the void book lists, philosophically, the nature of both human knowledge and other things. The void book expressly deals with “That which cannot be seen“;
- “By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist.”
The void, according to Musashi, is the true meaning of the strategy of Ni Ten Ichi Ryu; it seems very esoteric in nature, in that he seems to note that you must learn to perceive that which you cannot understand or comprehend. He notes that in this Void, what can be comprehended are things which we do and see, such as the way of the warrior, martial arts and Ni Ten Ichi Ryu. At the same time, in the Void, things we do not do or see (which he calls Spirit), are part of the information which we perceive on a conscious level, but with which we have no physical relationship. It’s arguable whether Musashi is referring to religious spirituality or if he is actually explaining a way to live your life and process thoughts.
- “In the void is virtue, and no evil. Wisdom has existence, principle has existence, the Way has existence, spirit is nothingness.”
In the above quote Musashi speaks of “virtue and no evil.” This may mean “goodness and banishment of evil” or “purpose and non-existence of good and evil”, and the exact meaning is open to debate.
References in literature
The Go Rin No Sho is a key element in Wielding A Red Sword, by Piers Anthony, as well as The Ninja, by Eric Van Lustbader. Robert Greene quotes from The Book of 5 Rings in both The 48 Laws of Power and The 33 Strategies of War, two large treatises on war, power, and strategy.
- Sun Tzu
- Philosophy of war
- List of military writers
- Thirty-Six Strategies
- On War
- The 33 Strategies of War
- The 48 Laws of Power
- Legend of the Five Rings
- Read the complete Japanese text online at: http://artofwar.thetao.info/japan/gorinsho.htm
- Information on understanding Go Rin No Sho by Imai Masayuki Nobukatsu, 10th sōke of Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū
- Miyamoto Musashi and the “The Book of Five Rings” (English) – (Italian)