An insight into the ascetic mindset of Japan's legendary undefeated swordsman
Japan's Greatest Swordsman
Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), was a legendary swordsman, duelist, strategist, philosopher, and writer. Musashi lived during the turbulent Sengoku Jidai (warring states period) and Tokugawa/Edo period of Japanese history (1603–1867).
From the Jaws of Defeat
Musashi’s career as a duelist began early in life when, at age 13, he killed a man in single combat. In 1600 he was on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara (which paved the way for establishing the Tokugawa shogunate). Being on the run from the Tokugawa forces resulted in him becoming a rōnin (masterless samurai).
Musashi was on the losing side of the battle of Sekigahara (1600) and was forced to go on the run.
Having nothing to lose, Musashi decided to seek his life’s ambition and become a shugyosha. A shugyosha is a samurai who wanders the land on a solitary quest called musha shugyō (warriors quest). This involved partaking in deadly duels to improve his reputation as a fighter and hone his skills. Musashi spent the next several years roaming Japan, living rough. Wandering into towns to challenge students at various Ryu’s and Dojos around the country.
Musashi preferred using a wooden, training sword (known as a bokken) and in later years almost never fought with a real weapon. In duels, he was infamous for outfoxing his opponents or turning their own strength against them. He was a master of psychological warfare, often angering his opponents into rash behavior and making them attacking in rage. He developed nitō Ichi-ryū, a style of fencing with two swords (most Samurai preferred to fight with a single katana). Musashi fought in more than 60 individual sword fights, many of which were to the death and all of which he won. The specifics of most of these duels were lost to history.
Musashi embarked on a ‘Musha Shugyo’ (warriors pilgrimage). Travelling around Japan and challenging various opponents and schools to duels in order to improve his skills and technique.
Decline and Death
In the final days of his life, Musashi retreated to a cave called the Reigandō. (Spirit Rock Cave) At Reigandō, he spent the final months of his life in quiet contemplation. It was during this period of seclusion from the world, that he wrote two books for which he is famous. These works are known as the ‘Go Rin No Sho’ (Book of Five Rings) and the Dokkōdō. The Book of Five Rings contains wisdom and strategy from his days as a swordsman. The Dokkōdō on the other hand contains his very essence and spirit. It drew much from his Zen Buddhist-inspired values and belief systems. Both of the books are the result of many years of experience as a warrior.
Musashi in later life (self portrait) and Musashi’s grave site in Japan.
A week before his death, he gathered his friends and family, said goodbye, and gave away his possessions. To his closest pupil, he handed the Book of Five Rings and the Dokkōdō.
Miyamoto Musashi, died on June 13, 1645.
Musashi is Japan’s most venerated swordmaster and has since become one of Japan’s most famous cultural icons. Versions of him have been portrayed in many books, tv shows, films, and even anime and manga cartoons. He has since been venerated and even canonized becoming a Kensai (sword-saint).
Musashi in popular culture. (left to right) Anime Musashi in ‘Vagabond’. Japanese screen legend Toshiro Mifune as Musashi in ‘Duel at Ichijoji Temple’. Musashi in the hit TV show ‘Westworld’.
An Introduction to the Dokkōdō
The Dokkōdō means ‘The Path of Aloneness’ or ‘The Way to be Followed Alone’. Musashi wrote this work a week before his death in 1645. The book is very short, indeed it contains just 21 lines! Although very concise, the book is full of wisdom. Each line addresses a different aspect of life with Zen-inspired advice regarding how a warrior should conduct themselves. Effectively distilling Musashi’s philosophy and way of living into 21 precepts. Incredibly, the original manuscript survives to this day, and it remains as relevant as it was four centuries ago.
Musashi was a solitary man who dedicated his life to the study of swordsmanship, strategy, philosophy, and Zen Buddhism. He was disciplined, humble, and contemplative in his study and pursuit of self-mastery. Thus the “Dokkōdō” can be interpreted as a guidebook to humility, self-discipline, asceticism, and personal development.
Woodblock art depicting Musashi in his duels.
Musashi abided by these 21 precepts to groom himself into becoming Japan’s greatest swordsman. Throughout the centuries these tenets have been studied and are still very popular today by those in pursuit of self-mastery. These include ambitious businessmen, martial artists, self-help gurus, and people just looking to improve their mindset.
A common theme within the Dokkodo is that of non-attachment. In simple terms, non-attachment is the ability to detach yourself from negative influences in life. The things that control or affect us in ways that are unhelpful to our life’s progress. Negative thoughts, feelings, influences, etc. It’s essentially about learning how to let go of the thoughts and emotions that create suffering.
Some Musashi Wisdom
“When you decide to attack, keep calm and dash in quickly, forestalling the enemy…attack with a feeling of constantly crushing the enemy, from first to last.”
“When in a fight to the death, one wants to employ all one’s weapons to the utmost. I must say that to die with one’s sword still sheathed is most regrettable.”
“The path that leads to truth is littered with the bodies of the ignorant.”
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”
A quote for every occasion, be it battle or just everyday life.
Pursuing a comfortable life, accumulating possessions, holding grudges, being egocentric, all made you weaker in Musashi’s eyes. Another theme for Musashi was the practical value of material items. ‘How does that help your training? How can that help you improve yourself? To Musashi, if an item does not improve your mental, physical or spiritual development, then it is worthless.
There is a reason Musashi’s works are still studied today. That is they are as relevant now as during his lifetime. In a world of overabundance, many see the importance of detaching themselves from the 21st century every now and then. Distancing ourselves from the continuous bombardment of digital noise, adverts, live streams we are surrounded with. To do so is to gain focus and optimize your own power.
Enjoy our look into Musashi’s philosophy and examine whether such musings might have some impact in your own life.
The 21 Precepts of Dokkōdō
(Click on the icons for detailed explanation)
Some things just cannot be changed and must be accepted just as they are. There’s no point living in denial about your current circumstances or your past. Equally, some things cannot be changed in the external world, human nature, the past. Accept everything the way it is. Don’t have a very rigid worldview. Try to be flexible in your understanding of ideas and concepts you are not familiar with.
Accepting the reality of things, will help us adapt to the world. This is rather than us wishing in vain for the world to adapt to how we want it to be. Don’t dwell on or become overwhelmed by things you can’t control. Focus on what is within your sphere of influence. The time spent dwelling on things beyond your control is better spent on improving yourself. Pain, suffering, and hardship are essential parts of life. We should freely and readily accept this truth of human nature. Don’t look for an easy life, because that does not exist.
For Musashi, this precept may have developed for the way his life twisted and turned. Maybe he wished he had been on the winning side at Sekigahara. Maybe he wished he had chosen the more prosperous path of serving a Daimyo (Lord). With his later life adoption of Buddhism and Zen concepts perhaps he came to accept that wasn’t his path. You can direct where you want to go in life only so far. Sometimes life has other plans for you. You just have to surf life’s waves and go wherever they take you.
Musashi advocated an ascetic life of self-discipline, pursuing only what was meaningful and practical to everyday life. In his case the mastery of dueling and swordsmanship. He renounced pleasure-seeking, knowing it would distract him from what was essential. For him, it was an obstacle that would hinder his progress. Becoming detached from pleasure-seeking allowed him to discover his true power. These concepts are important in Zen Buddhism and undoubtedly were so for Musashi.
Pleasure in itself is not a bad thing, if you get satisfaction from something then enjoy it. However, problems only occur when we start to become hooked on pleasure. Indeed, many people crave a comfortable pleasure-filled existence. Sadly, living a hedonistic lifestyle can create many problems in life. It can make us lazy, uninspired, unmotivated, and distracted if left unchecked. In time, it can even lead to addiction as in video game playing, gambling, substance abuse, and sex addiction.
The Illusion of Pleasure
Seeking pleasure for its own sake is like chasing the end of a rainbow, it’s something you will never be able to reach. It is like a mirage, once you attain the pleasure then you immediately feel unsatisfied. So you go after it again and again on a loop, trying to recreate the first initial feeling. Eternally chasing that dopamine hit in a bid to constantly stay happy.
Many great people sought their pleasure through the process of striving towards their goals. Athletes and fighters, past and present, all starting with nothing and putting in the work to reach the top. For many of them the work, the process, and the journey proved to be the true pleasure, the true reward. A person who has fought to the top and earned their success will feel far greater pleasure than the person simply handed their victory. (Would you rather receive a trophy for being the best or a participation medal?)
Ultimately, the best pleasures are the pleasure that is earned. When you chase pleasure for the sake of it, it only fulfills the body and the mind short term. To gain pleasure from hard work and effort fulfills the mind, body, and spirit.
This basically translates as ‘look before you leap!’. Keeping a clear head and making sure that the mind is not fogged by biased thoughts, prejudices, or preconceived notions. To keep the focus on what is before you, the task at hand. To be cautious or extra vigilant if uncertain. If you are unsure about something or someone, take a step back and rethink your strategy or approach.
For Musashi, acting on a partial feeling could be a threat to his life. If he called it wrong with a mindless attack in a duel then it could have been fatal. Likewise, Musashi had many enemies, who continually sought to ambush him with numbers and overwhelm him. If he had been too casual in his approach on certain paths it could very well have led to his death. Musashi had a sixth sense, his intuition, his gut. Often he could sense whenever his opponents planned to ambush him and would frustrate them by not playing to their plans. Likewise in duels, he would strike decisively with conviction when he felt the time was right.
In Buddhist thought is the concept of the elimination of the self or the Ego. According to Buddhist thought when the ego dominates, a person views themselves as the center of the universe. Being self-absorbed and ego-centric allows us to see only our own individual goals and dreams. It is all too easy to overstate your own importance in the great scheme of things. If we only walk around with this egocentricity, we miss the details of the world around us.
Musashi advocated putting the ego/self to one side and meditating on the wider world. To be humble and to pay attention to the outside external world around us. To consider the roles that other people play in the outside world. How we affect them and they affect us. What can we offer them and what in turn can we learn from them? To consider even the little things. To take in how small and insignificant each of us actually is in the great scheme of things. The vastness of the cosmos, the power of nature, the ever-changing nature of reality. By achieving this you begin to see the world through new eyes.
Another Buddhism-inspired Musashi sentiment, which foreshadows some of his later rules.
Try to avoid lusts and desires of all kinds. For example, the desire to be viewed favorably by others, lusting after sexual partners, egotistic desire for material riches, the desire to surpass others or to defeat them.
Granted everyone has desires and it’s impossible to renounce them entirely. Indeed, they push us to strive to better ourselves, but can also all too easily lead us astray. The point is to not get so attached to them that we lose perspective. Desire can leave us open to manipulation and mistakes.
Practicing detachment can help us maintain a presence of mind to focus on what truly matters. Live your life to be content, have goals but don’t let them rule you. Don’t dwell on what others have.
Musashi may (or may not) have desired to have taken up a role as a Samurai under his Daimyo. If he had he would have had lands, titles, money, a wife, maybe concubines, heirs and maybe even a legacy. Yet he accepted that he was on a different path and all these things were illusions. He stayed true to the path he was on, which in itself bought its own glory.
Do not regret your past actions, everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect. However, you cannot change the past. Regret is literally an empty emotion, a waste of energy. If you feel guilty over something, make a note of it and learn from that mistake.
Try to understand your actions and don’t continually dwell on the past or let yourself become bitter. As painful as it may be, sift through the discomfort of painful events to find the underlying lesson. Try to learn what you can from your mistakes then close the door on that error for good. Leave it behind having learned a valuable lesson. Instead of having it weighing you down like an anchor around your neck. If it’s a missed opportunity, be quicker and more decisive next time. If it’s a shameful/embarrassing incident, evaluate where you went wrong and ensure that you don’t make that mistake again. Mistakes are valuable lessons in life, learn the lesson and then be done with that chapter in your history.
For Musashi perhaps this could be his reflection on the mistakes he had made in his life. By some accounts, he regretted killing some of his opponents in duels. In particular his final opponent, a fight after which he retired from dueling forever. Perhaps it was him reflecting on not choosing to serve a lord and retire with riches. Regardless, he accepted his fate and his path and would not look back.
Musashi will have understood from his Buddhist beliefs the toxic power of envy. Jealousy provides you with nothing but a simmering fury over the fact that someone has some perceived advantage over you. It doesn’t matter what that advantage is. Another person may have more resources than you, be more skillful, or more intelligent than you. This is life and you are always going to find people in more advantageous positions than yourself. The question is what are you going to do about your situation?
Jealousy is ultimately a waste of time. All that time spent whining about another person when the energy could be used more productively. It cripples you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually Leaving you in a limbo of constant comparison, self-pity, and indignant seething rage.
Getting past envy
Instead of feeling threatened by a person/s, you should be looking at ways past your own disadvantages. Ways to improve your own situation. So someone has more resources or finances than you? So what. Your battle to the top may be longer, but a harder-fought victory is its own reward. Victories handed to persons are empty and pointless. You should feel sorry for the other parties.
If someone is more skilled than you then you should be wishing them the best. Instead of looking for chinks in their armor you should be learning from them and gaining inspiration. Get past the constant comparison, appreciate their strengths but then attend to your own business. We can learn a great deal from peers and role models. Listen to their advice and take from it what you can. Take every opportunity in life to gain a foothold and propel yourself forward, even from rivals. So they have done well, good for them. Now how can you improve your own situation?
Musashi spent the majority of his life traveling, perfecting his technique in the duels he engaged in. This would have inevitably made it difficult to develop strong relations with others. This appears to be something that Musashi was willing to sacrifice. His detachment from significant others in order to focus on mastering himself.
We are often blinded in life by the thought that all things will last forever, and when they don’t this causes pain. Every relationship and event inevitably comes to an end. Separation is inevitable. People come and go. Men and women live and die. Remember them, keep them close to your heart and they are always with you. But never be bogged down by pointless feelings of grief or despair.
Musashi advocated a life of detachment in the Zen tradition. To concentrate the focus on the here and now, perfecting himself and letting go of things outside of his control. This allowed Musashi to be fully present in the moment and to live a life of urgency.
Way of the Warrior
Furthermore, as part of Japan’s Warrior class, Musashi would have had resolute acceptance of death within his life. Indeed, Bushido, the warrior code of the samurai, at its most basic was said to be the ‘Way of Dying’. By this what is meant is to be living with an intense familiarity of death, as captured in The Book of Hagakure. Having participated in numerous duels, death would have been something that was prevalent in Musashi’s life. He therefore could appreciate how short and fragile life truly is, knowing he could be here one minute and gone the next.
Musashi would not allow the feelings of separation to distract him from his goals. Ultimately he was a shugosha and had to be prepared to lose it all at any moment. Friends, family, his life, undoubtedly these meant something to him but he wasn’t prepared to let them hold him ransom and stall his progress. Grief, despair, desire were all put on the back burner as he pursued his higher path.
Resentment and complaint Musashi viewed as a waste of energy. Distracting you from your focus. Try to hold no grudges against yourself or others. Anger and hatred cloud your judgment and impede clarity and presence of mind. Musashi once again viewed these negative emotions as obstacles hindering his pursuit of the Way. The victim mindset only slows us down and diminishes our focus.
In the Buddhist tradition, it is important to let go of these negative fetters. To forgive is to free ourselves from unnecessary attachments, casting all the bullshit aside so we can refocus. Moving on in the direction that we need to be heading, unburdened by the additional emotional baggage.
It is much better to focus our energy on self-improvement than lashing out wildly at things beyond our control.
There are no accounts of Musashi ever being in a relationship. It’s almost as if he were solely dedicated to becoming a master swordsman and nothing else! In Musashi’s eyes, if you let your mind drift off in pursuit of sex or love, it distracted your focus from training. For Musashi, any attachment was an indulgence, and indulgence leads to distraction.
Granted, being celibate may be near impossible for the majority of us to pursue. That is except the most dedicated extreme, ascetic types among us today! 😀 However, this can be scaled down into meaning don’t let your life solely rotate around the pursuit of passions.
Perhaps balance is what is needed here? Clarity of thought when in a relationship and not being guided by the whimsical demands of emotion. If you are in a stable relationship with a person who cares about your well-being then it shouldn’t be an obstacle. Indeed, your goals and pursuits will undoubtedly be figured in this person’s thoughts. To them, it should be an accepted part of who you are and what you do.
Self-respect comes into play here, not to be anybody’s whipping boy (or girl). If you are in a relationship where you are having to sacrifice everything (including your self-development) for acknowledgment. Is it worth it? Love will come and go, Don’t do something for someone you wouldn’t do for yourself. Avoid emotionally draining, materialistic relationships where the price is the sacrifice of time, money, and resources.
The key takeaway is not to let the feeling of lust or love dominate your thoughts. Act with respect for yourself. Practice detachment, and pursue the presence of mind in your pursuit of mastery and whatever your higher purpose is.
Musashi remained undistracted by glamour and luxury. Instead, he advocated staying focused, disciplined, and detached. Granted, everyone has their little luxuries and creature comforts in life. However, sticking to favorites and having pleasures can narrow our perspectives and make us fussy, entitled, weak, and even lazy. Over time we can get too used to our little luxuries. We become irritated if things aren’t tailored exactly the way we like them.
Instead, we should keep an open mind for new things and experiences. As the saying goes “When in Rome, live like a Roman”. The same should apply to you wherever we go. Do what the locals do, drink what they drink, eat what they eat. Be ready to try all things and try to favor none. If you always act a certain way you will never experience anything new.
This kind of mindset can open up our view of the world and give us a broader perspective. We may even learn a few new things along the way that we might not have been open to previously.
Take everything as it comes and learn to adapt to all manner of situations. The pursuit of optimal performance in life is key to developing yourself. Everything else is window dressing. Keep things practical and learn to adapt to your circumstances no matter where you find yourself.
As you can probably guess, Musashi lived a frugal, itinerant life, holding onto a few belongings. Wherever he lay down to sleep was his home as he toured the country dueling.
We live in a world of abundance, where we take things for granted. We have luxuries in our houses that we don’t even need. In a consumer age, we are bombarded with adverts and social pressure in our bid to outdo our neighbors. Everyone’s home is their castle, and we have been conditioned to try and outdo each other in all things. More is better. We have the internet that can help us buy more and more shit that we don’t need.
Keeping up with the Joneses is a great distraction and an obstacle to us on the path to self-development.
Be practical, be spartan, be minimalist. Have few or no luxuries in your home. Satisfaction shouldn’t come from the items we accumulate. Avoid the distractions and be thankful for the simple things, light, warmth, shelter. Keep life simple. If you’re unhappy with where you are, then you can always move. Ultimately, it’s not where you live but how you live. Keep your focus on the training. Be at home wherever you are. Regardless of whether it’s a rundown house, a posh hotel, or a tent in a rainy field.
During his time traveling the roads between towns, Musashi would have known what it was like to go without food. For him, food was just a way to get sustenance and nutrition. Sticking to his zen-like, ascetic principles of avoiding overindulgence, Musashi considered being fussy with food as another weakness. In the same way, he renounced other luxuries in his life; he did not pursue exquisite foods. He would make do with whatever dish was available wherever he went.
Today, we have so many choices with what goes on our plates compared to life in feudal Japan. In fact, we probably eat far more nutritious food than the average person did in those times. It could be argued however that our particularities have made us weaker. You can see this in evidence today with our addiction to richer, fattier foods. Also evident today is our addiction to sugary foods and drinks. In feudal times they ate to stay alive, that is also true today however, the tastes of foods have become so much more prevalent. Pursuing solely good food for pleasure can be as harmful as any addiction.
The way of the warrior is one of spartan, harshness. Pursuing luxuries and comforts dulls the spirit. Musashi would have perceived daily life as a preparation for inevitable war and struggle. He knew that material conditions could reach levels of extreme privation during wartime and so always sought to be prepared.
During Musashi’s life wandering Japan, he knew possessions would slow him down and halt his progress. Musashi had made many enemies in his time (humiliated schools wanting revenge) so it was necessary for him to travel light. The less he carried, increased his mobility and made him less of a target. He did not care if he lost any of his items, to him the only tools he needed were his katana (swords). He did not value meaningless objects and perceived them as fetters for his soul. To dispose of them was not to attach any sentiment to them.
Musashi was not close to his family. Indeed given that he feuded with his own father, it is highly unlikely that Musashi was the sentimental sort. So for him, hanging onto family heirlooms and other sentimental trivia would not have been of importance. Musashi appreciated an item only as long as it had a practical use, after that he discarded it. Granted many of us will not feel the same and dispose of the framed family photo that mom sent us at Christmas! Again, maybe balance is needed here. Perhaps the takeaway from this is that too many belongings make us love the objects more than what they represent.
If you no longer need an item and it is of no practical value to your continued existence, get rid of it. It is a burden. Dispose of items you don’t need to someone who will appreciate it. Clutter and hoarding items are pointless (and frustrating having to surf through a sea of shit). There is something to be said for a bit of downsizing, getting rid of our unwanted junk is very relaxing. Freeing up space in your surrounding environment is like freeing up mind-space. It gives you the ability to think and concentrate more clearly. Free yourself from a materialistic mindset.
This precept is also translated as “have trust in yourself and avoid superstitious beliefs”. This is interesting given the superstitious, feudal period into which Musashi was born, that he should question this. However, Musashi was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism who rejected all superstitious beliefs, striving to try to see the world as it is.
The lesson here is to think and act for yourself. Don’t accept anything at face value or because it is easier to follow the crowd. Question everything. Act how you think you should act, not how others say you should. You have one life so don’t kowtow to peer pressure, superstition, or groupthink just because it makes life easier. Read widely, all manner of topics from different viewpoints. Avoid the mainstream media, television, radio, newspapers. Consider all views independently and without influence and let your own views develop.
Tokitsu describes Musashi’s preparation for one especially dangerous battle:
“As he approached the place appointed for the combat, he passed a Shinto shrine and found himself before the altar to the god. He was just about to start praying to ask for divine help in his fight—which he could expect to come out of alive only with great difficulty—when he suddenly realized the significance of his gesture. “I was about to ask for the help of the gods just because I was about to face very powerful enemies, whereas ordinarily I never pray to the gods.” Musashi then withdrew his hand from the string of the shrine bell and kept himself from ringing it, as is done to awaken the mind of the god of the shrine.”
Essentially, it’s better to be highly skilled in the use of the sword alone than to be an apprentice in many weapons. Musashi prioritized specialization over being a generalist. (Although he was also trained in Shuriken-Jutsu (throwing stars/daggers) and the Jutte (iron truncheon).
In Musashi’s life as a wanderer, he valued practicality above all else. Everything he possessed he actually needed. A few belongings he could carry with him and the tools of his trade (his swords). Musashi sought to master the sword alone, and poured his concerted efforts into this, he did not get sidetracked training in other weapons. His swords were not collector’s items, they were not there for show. With Musashi, once a tool had exceeded their useful life, he would discard them without thought and move on.
The takeaway is not to be overly sentimental towards the material. The same could be said of many of the items we accumulate in everyday life. This, of course, includes our training equipment. Do we use it effectively? Is it of value to our training? Or is it just for show, cosmetics to boost our egos? Do we hang onto something for sentimental value? Even though it no longer has any practical value? How can that item improve our training or help us progress in life? If an item has no value and is clutter, maybe you need to consider a clear-out?
Perhaps the hardest of Musashi’s precepts to come to grips with for many. Everyone dies, there is no getting away from this. Everyone has an appointment with the reaper at some time and place. Everyone comes to terms with that differently. Some accept some struggle and many will run away from the concept of their own deaths their entire lives.
Many cultures value the idea of ‘momentum mori’, reminding yourself of your own mortality on a daily basis. To the warrior cultures of Japan, the Samurai, and the Ronin, death always surrounded them. Indeed the whole idea of the Musha Shugyo was to put your life on the line to perfect your mastery of the sword. Musashi was no different. In the 60 duels that he fought, he was constantly faced with death. During the actual duels against his opponents and afterward when he was frequently hunted by friends of the opponents, he had slain.
Musashi was more than willing to give up his life in his quest to become a Kenjutsu master. Having death constantly hover over him only served to make the experiences more profound, and the lessons more ingrained.
Whatever your training, career, or lifestyle it’s important to remember that we are on the clock. Life is finite, you have your end coming as I have mine. Be like Musashi and contemplate death on a daily basis. This will help create a sense of urgency, presence, and ambition and make the life you have left seem more vital.
A tricky one given the cutthroat, capitalist society we live in. We need to think there is respite at the end of our long working lives. A house that is ours, a plot of land, a porch to sit on and watch the sunset. Our little reward after years of toil and strife chasing the dollar.
Our capitalist society teaches us to save for pensions and savings to see us through to old age. However, Musashi argued against this kind of thinking. For him, the journey was the focus and everything else was window dressing. Prizes, rewards, goals were all elusive in the material world. You can never be happy chasing ever-elusive goals.
Musashi did not have much to hang onto. Indeed at the end of his life, Musashi gave away the few possessions that he owned. His reward lay in the study and teaching of the way of the sword. Towards the end of his life, he didn’t seek to amass wealth or land. Instead, he sought to finish his writings and philosophy and to pass on his teachings.
Granted this may be a little extreme for many of us to follow. To end up in a gutter with nothing at the end of a lifetime of work in our often callous society would be soul-destroying.
‘What gaineth a man if he gains the world but loses his soul?’
Perhaps balance is needed here on reflection. From Musashi, we can glean that extravagant houses and riches are nothing when all is said and done. We can take none of it to the afterlife with us. Many in Western cultures work all their lives, save money and hope for early retirement. Then when they reach retirement age they suddenly get ill or die.
Preparing for later life is fine, but also live life now!! Be vital, do things, explore your world and interact with others. We can concentrate on investing in our own spiritual development and training methods. To renounce the ornate and vanity seeking of the Ego. Keeping our possessions and goods to the essentials.
Read as ‘God helps those who help themselves’
Reflecting back to the earlier story of Musashi stopping at a Shinto shrine to pray for help before a duel. After starting his prayer, he suddenly stopped. Deciding for himself that he was going to rely solely on himself and not rely on assistance from the divine.
In this life, you can only rely on yourself. Relying on luck or divine intervention leads to failure. Have some responsibility, have plans in place, have backup plans for those plans. Have direction and motivation. Continually inspire yourself and push yourself hard. The truth is God has already helped us as much as he can. He has provided us with all the tools we need to make it through this life. It’s up to us how we use those tools.
Praying for strength or guidance is fine and can be a spiritual boost to connect with the divine. However, don’t rely on God to do all the heavy lifting for you.
The best way to honor God/the Gods is to give everything you have in everything you do. If you need to thank the creator then do it with effort, self-discipline, hard work, and perseverance.
Our actions define us, doing shameful or dishonorable acts impacts us in more ways than we realize. Spiritual people speak of ‘vibrational states’. You act positively in the world to your fellow humans and create a positive vibrational state. The same is true when we commit negative acts. To act in a hostile manner, to steal, to betray people, and generally cause misery to others. These acts crush us on a spiritual level. They tarnish our souls and make us weaker.
In feudal Japan, generally speaking, a warrior would rather lose their own life than act dishonorably. To steal, be cowardly, not undertake one’s duty – these were major no-nos for the Japanese warrior class. They were bound by a code of honor known as ‘Bushido’ (the Way of the Warrior). Samurai would avoid all acts that would bring shame to themselves, their lord, or their family name. Often Samurai would commit Seppuku (ritual suicide) if ever they found themselves in a state of disgrace.
(Seppuku involved the splitting open of one’s own belly. A second Samurai (a friend) would follow up by cutting off the Samurai’s head with a stroke of his Katana. Even in this final act, a Samurai would have to show no fear as he took his own life. To do so would be frowned upon as… you guessed it dishonorable).
Ok, so let’s not get too extreme, to cut open your own belly for a poor decision is a bit over-the-top. :D. Musashi, although a Ronin would have been raised to act according to Bushido. Like Musashi, we should try to refrain from engaging in acts that could be classified as immoral or unethical.
Your own code of ethics
Everyone has (to a degree) their own internal code of ethics. All of our life values, everything you have been raised to believe is right and good. From the 10 commandments to the Eightfold Path in Buddhism, to Stoicism and other philosophical schools of thought. Any code that puts forth a way to live our lives in a way that pushes us to excel whilst refusing to do it at the cost of others.
Whatever code of ethics we should stay true to it. Never turning our backs on what we believe is inherently right or from confronting something we believe is inherently wrong. To do so involves a kind of spiritual internal death. As we betray our own code and crush ourselves mentally and spiritually. Like the blade of a sword, keep the spirit sharp. Never let anything dull or tarnish the blade.
One of the reasons why Musashi was so effective and resolute was he never strayed from his principles. He was incredibly focused and driven by his Zen principles. When confronted by fame, riches, and a life of luxury he was simply not interested. He could have easily taken up service with a local Daimyo (lord) given his reputation as a swordsman. Undoubtedly with time, he would have accumulated wealth, land, titles, and other trappings. However, Musashi wanted none of those material things. He perceived them as anchors, weighing him down in his pursuit of excellence. His only goal was to be the best at what he was doing and aimed solely to be the greatest swordsman. 61-0 Undefeated.
The same holds true for the rest of us. Regardless of what discipline we train in or what philosophy or faith we follow. We should aspire to be the best that we can be. To put our full focus, concentration, and effort into what we want to do. If we want something badly, then we have to put in the work and get it done rain or shine. If we have a passion for something we should devote ourselves to the pursuit of excellence within it
Time is a thief, old age will soon be upon us before we realize it. So putting our full effort into everything we do will speed our progress and help us resist distraction.
On a mental and spiritual level, this last precept encourages the reader to consider all the preceding precepts as a whole. To have Zen-like mastery over your emotions, whims, and self-control. To put aside mindless distractions and have an utter focus on what you are doing and what you are trying to achieve.
If you are interested in reading Miyamoto Musashi’s guide to strategy the Book of the Five Rings click on the link below for a free PDF version.