Musashi's GORIN NO SHO or Book of Five Rings

 Miyamoto Musashi

    The following selection is from the GORIN NO SHO or Book of Five Rings written in 1643 by the famous Samurai, swordsman, strategist, artist, and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi. In a prologue to the work itself, Musashi explains what transpired in his life prior to his attaining what he describes as a deep understanding of the path to enlightenment; what he calls Heiho.

    In Musashi’s view, Heiho literally means the path to enlightenment. It is not enlightenment itself. While enlightenment or fulfillment or success in accomplishing your objectives may be the goal, Heiho is merely the way to get there, Musashi’s way to get there. Musashi is convinced that using his Heiho will insure success in any field of endeavor. It is not the success, or the goal, but it is the methodology and approach that will lead to success. As a guide to winning strategy, Musashi’s work is revered in all Japanese business schools and appreciated by many outside of Japan. It is also considered the essential foundation to Japanese sword fighting and very important to many other Japanese martial arts including judo and karate.

    After 37 years of continuous study, following the single path of the sword, Musashi came to a profound realization about the nature of things in this world. His method of self-guided study had made him invincible under the sun. His skill advanced to the point where he would often forgo the sword. He would engage in duels armed only with a stick that he might have found along the side of the road, facing off in deadly combat against trained kenshi armed with razor sharp steel blades. Regardless of the circumstance he always emerged victorious.

    His enlightened method of study led him to new and innovative approaches. In addition to on occasion forgoing steel for wood, he is famous for founding a school based on fighting with two swords at the same time, the Nito Ichiryu. This was a radical departure from the traditional swordsmanship of the day, but the results obtained in countless life and death struggles proved the superiority of this approach. This is reminiscent of the revolution brought about by Jigoro Kano in the science of jujitsu. Kano took a rational approach, determining what was effective and what was not effective in traditional jujitsu training and from that derived the new and superior science of Kodokan Judo. Both men exemplify a pioneering spirit and dedication to what is true above all in their respective fields of study.

    Musashi’s Heiho is a method of self-guided learning based on enlightened observation, continuous practice, deep insight, and honest validation. After developing his Heiho in swordsmanship, Musashi began to apply it to many other diverse arts, including wood carving, metal working, writing, sumi-e brush painting and others. Following his Heiho he became gifted in all of these fields and many of his priceless works are still existent and appreciated to this day.

    Sumi-e is a Zen painting technique. Rather than using a model, the painter draws freely from his memory and imagination, using a brush and ink. Bold confident strokes are used in direct action without hesitation. When painting the least stroke made over another becomes the error visible after the ink has dried. In life, one cannot take back what has been done. Zen teaches that life must be seized at the moment, not before or after. Musashi became a very skilled and prolific Sumi-e painter. He made many fantastic paintings including full sized wall murals often depicting wildlife scenes. The analogy between the brush and the sword is obvious.

    In feudal Japan there was a strict caste system in society. It was required to have a teacher or master when studying any art or skill. A student were judged exclusively on how closely he could imitate his master. Musashi makes reference to the fact that having discovered his method of Heiho, he had no need of any teacher. He could apply his Heiho and follow the paths of the various arts without need of a guide. Therefore, in his Book of Five Rings, he did not extensively quote or copy from previous works or from scriptures to support his views as was the custom of the day. He simply set forth his ideas in a method that his own insight and experience dictated as best. This is a classic application of Musashi’s approach that anyone can appreciate regardless of their background or interest in the martial arts.

Text of Musashi’s Prologue

    I WISH TO put down in writing for the first time that which I have been disciplining myself in for a number of years, and to which path of Heiho I have given the name Niten Ichiryu. [Two Heavens-as-One School. Sometimes referred to as Nito Ichiryu, or the Two Swords-as-One School.] It is the early part of the tenth month of the twentieth year of the Kanei era [1643]. I climbed Mount Iwato in the domain of Higo in Kyushu to worship Heaven [reference is to Shinto, the native Japanese religion of ancestor and nature worship], pray to Kannon [Buddhist Goddess of Mercy], and to honor the dead. [Pay homage to departed teachers and elders.] I am Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshi, born a bushi of the domain of Harima [now the southwestern part of Hyogo Prefecture, near Kobe on the main island, or Honshu]. I have reached the age of sixty.

    I have devoted myself to the path of Heiho since my youth, and had my first match at the age of thirteen. This bout was against a swordsman named Arima Kihei of the Shintoryu school, and I was victorious. At the age of sixteen, I won against a formidable swordsman named Akiyama, of the domain of Tajima [now the northern part of Hyogo Prefecture].At the age of twenty-one, I went up to the capital [Kyoto]and met with swordsmen from throughout the country and had a number of confrontations with them, and not once did I fail to be victorious.

    After that, I went to different provinces, and met with swordsmen of the various schools, and had over sixty bouts with them. I did not lose even once. This was between the ages of thirteen and twenty-eight or twenty-nine.

    After passing the age of thirty, I reflected on the road I had been traveling, and came to the realization that I had won not because I had attained the full secrets of swordsmanship, but perhaps because I had natural ability for this path, or that it was the order of Heaven, or because the other schools of swordsmanship were deficient. After that I tried to attain a deeper understanding, and as a result of disciplining myself day in and day out, at about the age of fifty, I came face-to-face with the true path of Heiho.

    Since then, I have passed the time without needing any particular path to follow. [I need not look for another.] Having become enlightened to the principles of Heiho, I apply it to various arts and skills, and have no need of any teacher or master.

    Similarly, in writing this book, I have not quoted from the ancient words of Buddhism or Confucianism, nor have I used the ancient military chronicles about military tactics. In the light of the path of the Heavens and Kannon, at the hour of the tiger [four A.M.] on the night of the tenth day of the tenth month, I have taken up my brush and begun to write.

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