Miyamoto Musashi: The Book of Five Rings

The style of Karate-do that I practice is not much concerned with ”Eastern wisdom”. Our sensei Mitsusuke Harada has consciously tried to translate our art into western idioms to avoid the extremely common problem in martial arts that fairly everyday terms gets mistranslated into some abstract western term like ”life force” and thus creates loads of nonsense.

Still, it is interesting to get some sense of the tradition of Asian martial arts and this is one of the most important Japanese classics. Musashi was a 17th century master swordsman with at least 60 kills on his record (I realize this is a bit of a departure from the Hauerwas-centred writings on this blog lately), and in this little book he develops a very no-nonsense approach to sword fighting.

It is no-nonsense in several ways. One, it is not very philosophical, and reading it reinforces my feeling that most of the talk of martial arts philosphy, of high minded ideals and deep, almost spiritual, aspects to fighting is mostly Western orientalism. The point here is how to cut your opponent down. Of course this requires a mindset, that Musashi calls ”the emptiness”, obviously a zen-reference, but not a philosophically very complex one. The idea is simply that if you have made up your mind about how to attack, your foe, if accomplished, can read you and thus counter. If you have an ”empty” mind, and base your attack on the moment, your opponent will in a sense be blind.

Even though my karate is very far from the swordfighting Musashi writes about there is a lot of stuff that is relevant, especially when it comes to what I call ”the Game” i.e. the part of practice that is about creating mental advantages over your partner, taking initiative and so on. In fact a lot of it seems very familiar to the way we practice. I guess our style is quite no-nonsense too, in the second way Musashi is, that is, he is not impressed with fancy techniques and tricks. If it doesn’t work its useless.

However, what I find the most interesting about this book – that at least in the translation by William Scott Wilson reads quite beautifully – is a basic pedagogical stance. Musashi does not go into great detail, but for each theme he indicates a basic way to think about the theme, and the finishes with ”You should investigate this thoroughly”.  I feel tempted to make this into a motto – more when I teach theology than when I teach karate, actually.

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