Miyamoto Musashi is one of the best known swordsmen in history, and his legend is the basis for so many historical tales, as well as much of modern entertainment. Admittedly, Toshiro Mifune was (in my opinion) the best representative of the character… but I’m, admittedly, a little biased.
Musashi’s donations to history are without dispute – most martial artists have read the Go Rin No Sho (the Book of Five Rings) – but many people stop there, believing that this was his opus. His contributions to art are immense, specifically in the sumi-e genre, and his insight into the human condition (aka philosophy) has been underplayed (read: “predominately dismissed”) in light of the foundation upon which he discovered said insights… this is a theme / topic that I will likely return to at a later time but, for now, let’s just say that our modern society doesn’t understand the world in which Musashi lived and developed these understandings.
This, incidentally, is one of the pillars of this blog / website – to try to bridge the gap in understanding the historic world’s insights into the modern understanding of the human condition; to try to use classic wisdom to assist in our modern discernment process, training, and practice. Admittedly, this may sound a little presumptuous – asserting that I somehow hold a secret or esoteric knowledge – but this is not what I’m saying. What I AM saying is this – as a species, we haven’t changed much in millennia, and our modern (Western) world does not share the same innate level of threat or risk as humanity has experienced throughout most of its existence. Not saying it doesn’t experience any, that would be ignorant, but the underlying, persistent threats to life and limb are not as pervasive as they have been in history.
(Statistically speaking, you have a better chance of dying in an auto accident than being murdered, and you have a better chance of the latter due to jealousy or greed than dying in a duel based on honour…)
The point of this page is to bring two of Musashi’s works to the fore – Go Rin No Sho and the lesser known and utlized Dokkōdō (“the Way of Walking Alone”).
Paradoxically, we’re going to discuss the latter more than the former, as the Book of Five Rings is generally considered his opus, and therefore is assumed to include the very short list of precepts (below; A translation of the Dokkodo is in bold, and my input provided later in italics)… this work was written only a week or so before he climbed onto the stone he would sit and meditate, and die, on.
Dokkōdō – the 21 Precepts
- Accept everything just the way it is.
- Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.
- Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.
- Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
- Be detached from desire your whole life.
- Do not regret what you have done.
- Never be jealous.
- Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.
- Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself nor others.
- Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.
- In all things, have no preferences.
- Be indifferent to where you live.
- Do not pursue the taste of good food.
- Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.
- Do not act following customary beliefs.
- Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.
- Do not fear death.
- Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.
- Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.
- You may abandon your own body but you must preserve your honor.
- Never stray from the way.
And now, please accept my humble thoughts and explications:
- Accept everything just the way it is. The fact that this is the first precept is awesome – Musashi referenced Buddhism a lot, which referenced/borrowed from Taoism, and this simple statement is heavily founded on these belief structures. Specifically the concept that the human mind will flood a concept it doesn’t really understand with whatever it does, in order to try to make sense of it. The inherent nature of an object is not simply defined by the word that we ascribe to it…
What Musashi is saying here is that humans will inherently project its fears and insecurities into conversations, or its desires onto an object, or its expectations onto others actions, etc., etc. – but to understand the world around you, it behooves a person to let go of all of that, and see the world and everything in it as it is – not as we want it to be, or think it should be…
Don’t anticipate an attack, and believe that your prediction is right – anticipate based on what is there, not what you want to believe.
- Do not seek pleasure for its own sake. For a man who spent most of his life training and improving his training, this was simply a point of prudence – he was stating not to get lost in the search for (and enjoyment of) pleasurable activities. This is not to say that he didn’t experience pleasure, or seek out pleasing activities – he just didn’t do it for its own sake; mostly it was incidental, and an earned reward, but to seek out pleasure for its own sake was a distraction.
- Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling. This should be intuitive, but that would be ironic. Musashi is essentially saying “Don’t go off half-cocked” at the same time as saying trust your gut, but not without substantiation. This is an evidence thing – if you suspect something, follow that – don’t make assumptions on what has happened, or what may happen, based on the limited resource of just an assumption or feeling.
- Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world. If you take yourself too seriously, and dismiss the complexity of the world, then you forget yourself in the grand scheme of things…
- Be detached from desire your whole life. This is deeply rooted in Buddhism, specifically that “desire is the root of suffering”. The issue that the western world has with this is regarding personal drive and a sense of achievement – how can these be reconciled to “Desire is the root of suffering”?
- Do not regret what you have done. My old sensei used to say “No remorse, no regret”… If you make a decision or take an action (which, incidentally, is a decision) based on as much available evidence as possible, then this makes things easier – if you go off “half-cocked” and do something out of anger, or full of assumption, etc., then you can cause yourself more problems. When you’re calm, cool, and collected, and make a decision based on a holistic view of the situation, you are less likely to regret your actions. Don’t regret anything that you have done – make amends, and move on… and never allow yourself to do the same thing again…
- Never be jealous. A simplified version of many different belief systems – notably Buddhism (“Desire is the root of suffering”), and Christianity (“Do not covet thy neighbour’s ass”). Jealousy of another’s material goods or immaterial capabilities is only to your own detriment. Push yourself to be better than the you that existed yesterday, but don’t compare yourself to where someone else is on their journey.
- Never let yourself be saddened by a separation. Relationships were almost verboten for Musashi, as they would weigh someone down. He was selective in his relations and relationships, choosing the company of a companion, but never a wife, and adopting sons in his life rather than siring them… He felt for them all, I am sure, but he would never mire himself in their absence or distance. This can also be for when they have departed this realm, as he was one who would fight to the death, so life was immediately precious – and to lose oneself in sadness would render you ineffectual…
- Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself nor others. Throughout his life, Musashi had applied for many different positions (notably to be the Shogun’s Swordmaster), and he was not always successful in procuring those positions. History has touted Musashi as being one of history’s greatest swordsmen, yet he would not fully receive this honour in his lifetime. This was more of a recognition that it is un-gentlemen-like to complain about not getting what you wanted or otherwise worked hard for and did not get…
- Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love. Practical defence against being manipulated by emotions or biological imperatives – there are too many stories throughout history of how letting one’s biological imperatives or desire has been used to someone else’s advantage.
- In all things, have no preferences. Be willing to try new things, and don’t be stuck into a pattern… Also, sometimes you won’t have the option, and if you are not open to these options because of a blind adherence to other preferences or preclusion, it is best to otherwise keep one’s options open. This is not just in practical senses, but also in a martial context – don’t get stuck on preferred techniques. Instead, be open to all aspects of training, and be able to respond appropriately.
- Be indifferent to where you live. This is one of those statements that may be a little more difficult to accept in modern times, this is likely to mean more than simply the place you live – but also in the manner you do so. If you are stuck on one particular location or lifestyle, when things go south or otherwise difficult, recognizing the basest satisfaction of one’s housing needs is all someone truly needs… I wonder if he also meant this in an anti-regional/municipal identity?
- Do not pursue the taste of good food. This one seems to tie to “have no preferences”, and “Do not pursue pleasure for it’s own sake”.
- Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need. Material possessions were literally weight that someone would have to carry if and when someone needed to make a quick change in circumstance. For someone that spent as much time travelling as he did in any particular location, he would have to carry whatever he felt was necessary – superfluous ‘wants’ were just added weight that would slow him down. This lesson can be incorporated in a modern mindset by just simply decluttering, and only keeping what is practical… but ‘need’ is such a subjective word – and some memories/souvenirs may also be necessary…
- Do not act following customary beliefs. This is the part of the Dokkodo where Musashi shifts from the physically to the spiritually practical – it’s his way of saying “Just because this is how it’s always been done, doesn’t mean that it’s right.” Considering that his entire martial way was designed from experience, outside of the traditional and customary sword practices.
- Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful. Musashi, ever the pragmatic, remained steadfast in his utilitarianism – if it isn’t of use, don’t keep it. This parallels nicely to the ideal that one should not train in extraneous movements, or waste time; essentially, don’t collect more than your useful amount of weaponry, and only that you can carry. His guiding star was what he deemed useful – and having multiple daisho was a waste of space and time…
- Do not fear death. This ties directly to the ideal of the Samurai, especially as espoused by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the Hagakure – ” Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.”
It sounds rather depressing and nihilistic, but it’s actually rather liberating – imagine not fearing the one thing that is coming anyway, that most people try to impassively avoid or actively ignore?
- Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age. This is saying “don’t own land”, but I wonder if it also has the weight of “don’t try to save for your old age”? This would then immediately tie to “Do not fear death”, but also link to his non-attachment policies, likely learned/ borrowed from his discussions with the Buddhist Monk, Takuan Soho…
- Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help. Most martial artists will have heard the story of Musashi going to fight in a competition against the third heir of the Yoshioka clan, which was to be an assassination attempt against him… if you haven’t, the story (in a nutshell) is that Musashi fought the head of a well-known and respected sword school (the Yoshioka clan) and won – through tactics, preparation, and psychological manipulation. To save the family’s honour, the family challenged him to fight the successor – and he won again through the same means. The third challenge was a ruse; the second successor wouldn’t be expected to fight as the family had brought a small army to ambush Musashi and kill him before he got to the challenge. He won that skirmish as well, thoroughly trouncing the Yoshioka clan’s reputation… Regarding the final challenge, Musashi knew that the family was planning to ambush him – his students of the time did as well and offered their assistance, but Musashi knew that this would be tantamount to a declaration of war or an unlawful action that would get them all killed regardless of the skirmishes outcome, so he refused. While en route to the battle, Musashi stopped the Hachidai shrine (to Susano no Mikoto and two others) to pray for success in his upcoming contest. As he reached up to ring the bell to get the god’s attention, he let it go after he realized that he had never called upon the gods for help before, and now was not the time to start. This is the foundation for this part of the Dokkodo…
- You may abandon your own body but you must preserve your honor. Simply put – do as though wilt, but don’t do anything that would be dishonourable.
- Never stray from the way. The “way” here may not be the Tao as known in a religious sense, but rather self-referencing, meaning to not lose the way of the Samurai, and not stray from this path.