art of war logoIn the 'Art of War', General Sun Tzu recommended a strategic method to win that rarely required actual war.
The literally unbeatable samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote the 'Book of Five Rings', a classic book about his strategy that is still used by executives and martial artists. This site is about these books.
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The Book of 5 Rings

Parts of the book make references to Chinese classics and sayings that would be obvious to educated Japanese of that era.  It would be similar to advise, "above all, be true to yourself."  Anyone would know you were paraphrasing Hamlet.

Similarly the book's name and structure is a reference to the Buddhist elements.  The Buddhist cosmology recognises five elements: Ground, water, fire, wind, and emptiness.  These are symbolised in the Japanese, Tibetan-style Stupas.  The Tibetan characters on the side are the names of the elements.  The one on the right is recently made and standing in front of a Buddhist temple.  The one on the left is from Musashi's period.  These stupas are called Five Ring Towers (Go Rin To - ) while the book is literally five Ring Book (Go Rin Sho- ).

Book of 5 Rings - Ground Book

The ground book () describes the whole book itself and the key points of Musashi's school of martial arts.

Japanese carpenter's tools of Musashi's era Japanese carpenter's tools of Musashi's era

Musashi explains that carpenters makes use of every kind of timber, even those that appear useless.  The measure carefully and maintain their tools well.  Similarly, he recommends intelligent use of resources. 

 In explaining the the Two Sword technique he describes its usefulness when facing multiple enemies.  This is an interesting and recurring theme in the book.  Musashi assumes you are going up against a numerically superior force.  This makes his ideas particularly useful if you are outnumbered. 

 Next Musashi talks about rhythm.  This means understanding cycles of growth and decline and timing generally.

Lastly he explains nine rules for studying his path.  This is one of the great parts of the book because each one could easily be made into a book itself.  If only modern business manuals condensed their knowledge this effectively.  Musashi used a very short form of expression here so each character had many implications.  Accordingly you need to think deeply about each point here.  None of them have only a superficial meaning:

 Think honestly

 Practise the martial path assiduously

 Get to know the arts

 Learn the ways of craftsmen

 Discern the cost and benefit of all things

 Develop your perception

 Perceive the things not visible to the eye

 Pay attention, even to small matters

 Don't do useless things


Book of 5 Rings
Water Book


The heart of Musashi's ideas is the mind.  The Mind should be pure, uncontaminated by self-serving distortions and preconceived ideas.  The mind should be flexible, able to change shape according to the situation without resorting to rote learning.  This is why he described his ideas in the water book ().  Water is pure and flexible.


About footwork, Musashi says we should always move right-left right-left.  Never move just one foot.  The implication is that we should have a correct, balanced stance and always assume it.  To move only one foot would affect our balance and ability to move suddenly.  It effectively decreases the value of our starting point for any future action.


When holding the sword, we need to maintain our method regardless of wether it is a practice, an execution or a battle.  The implications of this are obvious.


Further, he says we should maintain flexibility in our grip.  Flexibility is life, inflexibility is death.  You have to think he is paraphrasing Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, written in China 2,000 years earlier.  To quote:

Living plants are flexible,
In death, they become dry and brittle.

Therefore, stubborn people are disciples of death,
but flexible people are disciples of life.

He would certainly have been aware of the Tao, and could have read it easily, since the old Chinese writing style still heavily influenced Japanese writing in the 1600's.


The Water book also has some classic aggressive Musashi quotes.  My personal belief is that Musashi exaggerates proactive, aggressive ideas, because the defensive ones will come naturally and even dominate you when your life is on the line.  By starting out to dominate and destroy the opponent, we will find a balance between defence and offence naturally, rather than starting out with defensive thinking that can turn to fear, driving us to run away. 

Form your own opinion.  As Musashi says: You should study this yourself thoroughly!

"It is critical that you think everything is an opportunity to kill."

Importantly, after explaining stances for sword fighting, he explains that on a larger scale, the placement of people is equivalent to a stance.

Amitabha Buddha is the Buddha of the Fire Element Amitabha Buddha is the Buddha of the Fire Element

Book of 5 Rings - Fire Book

The fire book () describes battle itself.  The similarities to the Art of War are striking.  This shouldn't surprise.  Strategy is universal or there wouldn't be any point in us reading these old books now.  There's no way to know if Musashi copied the ideas, discovered them independently, or was paraphrasing.  Musashi advocates driving the enemy towards difficult terrain and to "win through the use of the place itself".

He explains something called "Holding down the pillow" that you can in any Kendo Dojo.  Kendo is Japanese fencing.  Sometimes you get a chance to fight Japanese players well over 50 years old fight the 20 some things.  In spite of their aged physique, they always win.  At the end of the 3 minute round the young player takes their mask off and you can see their red, sweaty face panting.  The older player will have little more than a mild sweat.  This is because they understand "Holding Down the Pillow".

The point is to allow your opponents' useless actions.  These actions use their resources and achieve nothing.  Instead, cut off their useful actions before they are even executed.  This requires speed and perception, but it is easier if you allow their useless actions.  By the way, a Japanese pillow looks like this porcelain example on the right.


This chapter also has the popular river crossing lesson.  The idea of this lesson is that sometimes in life we make a plan to do something significant.  This is likened to crossing a river at a ford.  Although the thing is difficult to do, we have planed and the time has arrived, so we need the courage of our convictions.  We need to cross. 

If things go badly, and we are near the goal, we need to try harder.  This is compared to crossing in a sail boat when the wind stops.  We must simply start rowing.  Musashi's metaphor brings to mind another old Japanese saying: "When the tide rises so does the boat."  That is, when circumstances require it, we must increase our efforts.

Book of 5 Rings - Wind Book

The wind Book describes other schools of martial arts in Musashi's time.  He is generally dismissive.  They have different weapons and techniques.  the key point he makes is that longer or shorter swords are fine, but relying on them or preferring them is not the way.

Japanese Spears

Musashi advocates knowing and using all weapons and preferring none.  Although Musashi is famous for his two sword technique, several times in the 5 Rings, he explain as when it is better to use a single, long sword or short sword.

Also in the Wind Book, Musashi advises against developing unusual stances or hand techniques.  to Musashi these are distortions of correct stances and the beginning of defeat.  After all, the point is to get your opponent to be off balance while you maintain the balanced position.  Always preserving the balances mind and body of a true strategist is Musashi's preoccupation.

17th Century Japanese Firearm

Perhaps the greatest example of Musashi's style was in his most famous fight with Sasaki Kojiro.  Sasaski was known for his very long sword and technique.  Both swordsmen were considered unbeatable.  A match was arranged with Musashi at a local beach.  Musashi slept in. When awoken, he rinsed his face, wrapped his hair in a towel and got on a boat to go to the site of the duel.  While in the boat he used his knife to fashion a bokken wooden sword used for training, from one of the oars (how he negotiated this and what the ferryman said about his strange behaviour is not recorded).  Arriving quite late, Musashi bowed to Sasaki and struck a fatal blow with the bokken.  Musashi's towel fell off.  It had been cut off by Sasaski's sword, barely missing Musashi's face.

The controversy continues today.  Arriving late is just not on in Modern or ancient Japan.  Was this then as fair fight?  To a peacetime, armchair samurai?  Probably not.

15th Century Japanese Sword blades.

Looking at the Five Rings we get a different perspective. 

That Musashi slept in and his casual attire shows his mind was unaffected by his impending fight.  

Also Sasaski relied on his weapon of choice and had no answer when Musashi showed up with something different.  Musashi probably could have won using his tried and tested two sword technique, but he was not overly attached to using two swords even thought it had made him famous. 

That Sasaki was able to cut Musashi's towel, but not his face shows Musashi's skill at judging his opponent's reach, allowing Musashi to close in to inflict maximum damage while maintaining a safe distance. 

Also Sasaski thew away his scabbard just before the duel.  Most commentators take this as a sign that he knew he was beaten before the fight.  Musashi explains repeatedly that the psychological victory is as important as the physical one.  Sasaski had been disturbed by Musashi's tardiness, manor and weapon of choice to the point of losing sight of victory.  Lastly, to Musashi, turning up when expected in the style that is expected and the weapon that is expected is an anathema.

Similarly, getting flustered because the enemy arrived late is a serious fault on the part of the strategist.  History is full of wars that we lost by people  whose defence was "the other side didn't fight in the expected way".  Japan was to learn this lesson 200 years later when Perry turned up in his black ships outclassing Japan's dated military methods and equipment.  To the samurai, Perry was not following the rules.  Musashi would have understood.

Edo Period Zen Garden Edo Period Zen Garden

Book of 5 Rings
The Emptiness Book

Musashi's condemnation of reliance on tradition is simultaneously strongest and most subtle in the enigmatic "Book of Emptiness".  The Emptiness Book is by far the shortest as befits its Zen

influences.  To understand it let's have a look at the Zen concept of Emptiness using the metaphor of the Zen Garden:

All things have an ultimate nature.  A real existence that ordinary people's minds are unprepared to see.  For example, when ordinary people see something, they immediately classify and label that thing.  They are unable to make sense of reality without this process.  It's like trying to think of the sky without thinking of the word "sky" or "blue".  This conceptualization process is based on our subjective experiences and always causes gross distortions.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is fashion.  The things we wore 20 years ago look dated and even humorous now.  The clothes didn't change.  Since the climate and manufacturing materials are about the same as 20 years ago, we can conclude that the clothes' functionality didn't change.  Our minds changed.

Here's the connection to the Zen Garden:
It is as if we look at the rock, but only see the rings around the rock.  Knowing where the rings are is useful information.  The rings tell us a lot about the rock's size shape and location, but it is very far from seeing the rock directly.  Similarly, ordinary perception is useful in day to day life, but is a poor second to seeing reality directly.  We think we see the rock, but we can only see our subjective, emotional, reaction to the rock.

Here's the connection to Strategy:
Illogical subjectivity can get you killed on the battlefield.  In the Wind book Musashi explained why preferences are bad.  Now he is explaining the theoretical structure of the alternative.  Clearing your mind of bias and ego lets you see through fashion, pier pressure, preconceptions, so you can perceive the truth.

This lack of reliance on preconceived ideas is what enabled Musashi to take out two swords to beat 30 men.  It enabled Suleiman to carry his boats overland past the blockade of Constantinople.  It can enable us to see beyond what our piers are talking about when we formulate strategy in business, sports or personal endeavours.

Perhaps, the next time you see a Zen Garden you can ask yourself, in my life, am I looking at the rocks or the rings around the rocks.

These photos by the way are from the Ryuan Zen Buddhist Temple in Kyoto, Japan.  The garden was well respected in Musashi's time, so there's a good chance he visited it.


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