Ep. 042: Miyamoto Musashi, Mystical Master Swordsman

Zen and the art of killing people

This page contains links to books for sale on Amazon. It will really help me keep this going if you make your purchase through The Temple Guy! Remember:

"As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases."

And that's a good thing!

Musashi Miyamoto with two wooden quarterstaves (Wikipedia)

One of the first introductions I had to Japan's depths was Zen and Japanese Culture, a deceptively simple little book by the great interpreter of Zen to the west, D. T. Suzuki. Two of the book's eleven chapters are dedicated to swordsmanship, and another to the Samurai culture in general. Several times, mention is made of the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645). Wait: swords and samurais in a book on Zen? Yup! Find out more in this episode of--


In Kumamoto

Kumamoto Castle, home of the daimyo whom Musashi came to town to serve

Several times the company I worked for in Tokyo sent me to teach English to tax officers in Kumamoto, on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands.

For many martial arts fans, Miyamoto Musashi--who could have schooled the guys at Benihana's in handling blades--was Kumamoto's most famous resident, though he only spent the last few years of his life there. On the second of my four one-week sojourns, in January of 2000, I took time out to visit the cave where Musashi wrote the summation of his life's work, Go Rin no Sho, or The Book of Five Rings. On my fourth and final visit to Kumamoto, a year later, I went to Musashi's burial place--or one of them, anyway, as the usually-frugal Japanese are pretty prodigal when it comes to graves. (Read more about that in Episode 032.) Musashi is known to have had several gravesites, but the main one is Musashizuka, or "Musashi's Mound," in a park in the center of Kumamoto.

Musashizuka, where Miyamoto Musashi was buried standing up

Let's take the grave first, as it offers a key insight into Musashi's character. In his will, the aged warrior (he died at 62--I'm now older than he ever got to be) specified that he was to be buried on the road that his Daimyo (Lord) would take on the biennial procession to Edo (now Tokyo) to check in with the Shogunate. (This check-in was meant by the Shoguns to keep the daimyos honest, and--as it was costly to mount a protocol-ridden procession every other year--it depleted their treasuries to the point that they couldn't build up armies to challenge the Shogun's power).

Anyway, Musashi's wish was to be buried right there, where he could keep watch over his Lord from the afterlife. Furthermore, he specified that he was to be buried in full armor, and standing upright, so as to be ready for anything. Even in death, he was a man for whom duty came first--though this loyalty seems to be a late development, as he had been a ronin, or rogue samurai--one without a master--most of his life.

The second site I want to mention (though I visited it first) is the cave lying in the mountains far to the west of the city. Reigando, the "Cave of Living (Spirited, Animated) Rock," was where Musashi literally holed up the last two years of his life, meditating and penning his masterpiece, The Book of Five Rings. It's said he turned it over to one of his students just a week before he died.

The opening of Reigando, where Musuashi wrote The Book of Five Rings

At least one source says that, although Musashi's career (and book) were not unknown--there were already legends about him in his own lifetime, after all, and numerous popular plays staged about him--the militaristic Japanese government in the early 20th century (the one that led ultimately to the Asian aspect of World War II) really boosted his image for its own ends. Eiji Yoshikawa's book Musashi was serialized in the newspapers in 1935, a few years after the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria. It seems this noble warrior was exploited as a propaganda tool, being held up as "the perfect Japanese."

That's not really so surprising. One of Yoshikawa's inventions is a relationship between Musashi and the Buddhist monk Takuan (after whom a pickled radish is named). The relationship is entirely fictional, but as with any good fiction, contains perhaps more "truth" than any historical account. The real Musashi insisted that he had had "no teachers," but he most certainly must have, and Yoshikawa's delightful fabrication fills in the gaps. Picture Takuan hanging Musashi upside down in a tree for several days to calm him down, or locking him up in a castle donjon for several years!

Somewhere in my reading--for the life of me I cannot remember where--I read an anecdote that reveals the character of these two men. It's said that Takuan led Musashi to the side of a stream, where they sat down to meditate. While they were deep in concentration, a snake slithered out of the woods. As Musashi watched in horror, afraid to move for fear of provoking it to attack his friend, the serpent went right over Takuan's lap, as if he were a stone; becoming aware of the snake, Takuan smiled gently. But after initially preparing to strike Musashi, the snake gave his seated figure a wide berth! Even a snake could tell the difference...

The "Facts" about Musashi

But what brought Musashi to the point of scribbling that book in a mountain cave? Here, lightly edited and paraphrased from the Victor Harris translation of The Book of Five Rings, is Musashi's own brief account of his life:

The face of Musashi (detail of the statue below)

I have been many years training in the Way of Strategy, and now I think I will explain it in writing for the first time. It is now 1645, and I have climbed Mount Iwato in Kyushu to pay homage to heaven, pray to Kannon, and kneel before Buddha. I am Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Geshin, a warrior of Harima Province, 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. When I was sixteen I struck down an able opponent. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of opponents, never once failing to win in many contests.

After that I went from province to province dueling with opponents 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. After that I studied morning and evening searching for the principle, and came to realize 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. 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 of this Ichi* school as it is mirrored in the Way of heaven and Kannon.

(*Musashi called his two-sword technique Niten Ichi or "two heavens as one," but also called Nito Ichi, "two swords as one").

The Legend of Musashi

In his own introduction, the translator Harris enumerates these "many arts and abilities" learned "with no teacher" as including ink painting, calligraphy, sculpture in wood and metal, and the writing of poems and songs (no copies of the latter have survived).

A "legendary" encounter, "Musashi on the back of a whale" (Wikipedia)

Harris also tells us that Musashi was orphaned at age seven (though this is questionable), and that in that first duel, when he was 13, "The boy threw the man to the ground, and beat him about the head with a stick when he tried to rise. [The opponent] died vomiting blood." After the battle at age 16, Harris tells us, Musashi set out on a "Warrior Pilgrimage," during which "he devoted himself with a ferocious single-mindedness to the search for enlightenment by the Way of the sword." This quest ended when he was 50 and settled in Kyushu.

Brush painting by Musashi, "Hotei watching a cock fight" (Wikimedia)

The legend of Musashi grew while he was still alive. He never took a wife, it is said, nor did he bathe, dress his hair, or pay the slightest bit of attention to any of the niceties of life, focusing only on his craft. By age 29, as he contends, he had bested 60 men. Also about this time, he abstained from fighting with real swords, using whatever was available--sticks, for example, and even the whittled oar of a boat--to take his opponents down.

The Book of Five Rings

The title of Go Rin no Sho in kanji (Wikipedia)

The five "rings" of Musashi's book are in fact chapters (called "books" in most translations); better than "rings" perhaps, the word rin might be rendered "circles" or even "spheres." Other possibilities are hoops, loops, elements, and wheels, but I like "spheres" best, as it bears the sense of "realms" or "areas of endeavor."

Each "ring" is named for one of the five elements in one version of Buddhist cosmology: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Emptiness (or the Void). Despite its affected structure, however, the book is notable for its brutally straightforward style, without the frills of most volumes produced in his day. It's all practical, drawn from his own experience. He was a warrior, not a scholar. Keep the light behind you, he admonished; and arrive late to "psych out" your opponent. For after all, one must "Be intent solely on killing the enemy." There is no other purpose in being a swordsman.

Statue of Musashi with two swords, near Musashizuka

This, however, is a kind of philosophy in itself, an example of the single-mindedness of purpose I found in many of my Japanese friends, whatever it was they were after: learning English, collecting American jazz records, or mastering the fine art of sake (I knew a banker who was a licensed sake-master).

The Zen ethos of paying attention comes into play in many of life's spheres. Polite table manners include not "waggling" one's chopsticks over a common dish. One is to decide what one wants, reach out and get it, and place it on one's plate, without hemming and hawing. This betokens focus and determination. This is Zen.

After the Introduction to Musashi's book come the "rings":

  • The Book of Earth contains the general approach to training, here pictured as the building of a house. One might say that the warrior should be grounded ("ground" being an alternate translation for "earth").

  • The Book of Water focuses on techniques. The warrior should adapt to the situation, as water adapts to its vessel, and have the clarity of water.

  • The Book of Fire discusses tactics. Fires can be small or big; whether fighting one man or an army, the warrior must be fierce as fire.

  • The Book of Wind deals with some of the other schools of strategy. "By Wind I mean old traditions, present-day traditions, and family traditions of strategy," he writes. (Huh? Clear as mud.)

  • The Book of Emptiness is a somewhat esoteric conclusion. As confusing as the Buddhist teaching of emptiness, it contains such koan-like gems as "Attaining this principle means not attaining the principle" and "By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is [emptiness]." Ooooo-kay.

The Way of Walking Alone

Musashi wrote several shorter works as well. These pithy, early examples of "listicles" are more useful (to my mind) than the weighty and sometimes-obscure Five Rings.

A copy of the "Dokkodo" in the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art

I offer here an original version of his Dokkodo or "Way of Walking Alone," paraphrased by yours truly from several online (and perhaps copyrighted) versions. Meditating on each item is likely to bring some benefit. (Note that numbers 4 and 20 are omitted from some ancient copies.)

  1. Accept things as they are, and act accordingly.

  2. Do not be distracted by seeking pleasure.

  3. Approach everything and everyone with impartiality.

  4. Don't take yourself too seriously; but be serious about others, and the world.

  5. Do not be attached to your desires.

  6. Have no regrets.

  7. Do not be jealous.

  8. Do not dwell on those you cannot be with.

  9. Do not bear grudges or be resentful.

  10. Do not be a fool for love.

  11. Do not judge or make choices based on attraction or repulsion.

  12. Do not dwell on places you cannot be; "wherever you go, there you are."

  13. Do not make choices based on the taste of food; eat to live.

  14. Do not cling to things that are no longer useful to you.

  15. Do not be bound by custom or tradition; act as your own reason and conscience dictate.

  16. Do not waste time or resources acquiring goods or knowledge that are not useful to you.

  17. Do not let fear of death prevent you from living.

  18. Do not store up treasures against your old age; live now.

  19. Respect the gods, but do not depend on them.

  20. Protect your reputation; "death before dishonor."

  21. Never stray from what you know is right.


And there ya go. A grave, a cave, and some subjects for pondering. What more could you ask for?

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

Subscribers to the Newsletter will see Questions at this point, and be invited to join the conversation in a "secret group" on Facebook. (Of course, if you don't use Facebook--sorry!) Want to get in on some of that? Hit that Subscribe button and send me your email!


You may unsubscribe to Temple Tales at any time by simply replying to this Newsletter and writing "Unsubscribe." You will receive one more letter as confirmation.

If you have any problems reading the Newsletter or accessing the Podcast, please write to me at TheTempleGuy@GMail.com, and I'll help you in any way I can!

In the next episode: We'll visit a unique spot sacred to some Native American groups, the Stone Lions of Cochiti.