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#134895 - 01/10/02 04:12 PM Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
As was noted in the Book Talk introduction, the first book we'll be discussing is Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings." The book is broken up into five sections (scrolls), so I thought we could approach our discussions based on the following schedule...

Jan. 28th - Begin discussion by covering the "Earth" scroll, as well as discussing Musashi himself.

Feb. 4th - Discussion of the "Water" scroll.

Feb. 11th - Discussion of the "Fire" scroll.

Feb. 18th - Discussion of the "Wind" scroll.

Feb. 25th - Discussion of the "Void/Emptiness" scroll (different publications of the book will sometimes interpret the title of this scroll somewhat differently).

Of course there may be folks who join the discussion in the middle, so this schedule is not set in stone -- feel free to post a discussion topic/point from an earlier section even if we're in the last week of discussing the book. (Plus, you never know what topics might spark more interest than others and carry over into another week.)

I'm excited to see how this discussion goes, and look forward to hearing from my fellow martial artists on this interesting text.

Andrea Yarbrough

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#134896 - 01/28/02 12:26 PM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
When I first read Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings" (Gorin no sho), I'm not sure if I truly expected for it to contain any wisdom/information that I could really use in my martial arts study (more or less my everyday life). After all, it was written in feudal Japan way back in the 17th century by a ronin (masterless samurai). Musashi's is not merely a book on sword fighting, in it he presents his martial strategy (which is relevant to martial arts in general, not just the sword arts). Not only has Musashi created a work that speaks to all martial artists, but he has written it in very straightforward terms. He even tells us that he has chosen not to use the language of Buddhism or Confucianism (as was the style of some of the other martial arts treatises written around his time -- a style that often shrouded the true lessons behind the jargon). Instead, he says it is with a "sincere heart" that he sits down to write. And anyone who sits down with the same sincere heart to read and learn from Musashi's writings won't come away empty-handed.

Musashi calls his first scroll "Earth" because in it he lays out the general principles of his martial strategy -- the "groundwork" or preparation needed to set those who are seeking on the "straight" (or true) path. Does anybody have any thoughts about the "path" or "way" that Musashi is teaching? (For example, his concept of winning at all costs -- is this still the aim/path of martial artists today? Should it be?)

Musashi uses the metaphor of the master carpenter to convey some of the precepts of his strategy. In this example, he is teaching (among other things) the importance of using the "right tool" for the job (using the right weapon for the situation, using the right technique based on your opponent and the situation, and even utilizing the right person for a specific task). Musashi's school of two swords indicates this belief. He says that no one should be content to die without having used all the tools at his disposal.

As martial artists today, what does it mean to you to use all the tools at your disposal? How can we acquire the necessary tools for a complete toolbox? (What's your opinion about cross-training in the martial arts?) (Christopher Caile has written an interesting article on this very subject for this site entitled, "Gripping Budo By More Than One Corner.")

Musashi also talke of the master carpenter keeping his tools sharp. How do you keep your tools sharp? (What are some practice habits you've picked up over the years that really help keep your tools sharp?)

As we're talking about practice, it's important to note that Musashi uses the example of the carpenter using the same care and mastery whether he's building the largest thing (a house) or the smallest and seemingly insignificant (a pot cover). He's talking about focusing on the details -- without focusing/mastering the footwork, body posture, hand position, etc of a larger movement (kata, self-defense set, etc), you can never master that larger movement. (What are your thoughts and opinions about the importance of mastering each small detail in the martial arts?)

This is just a broad look at the Earth Scroll. I'll post other ideas/topics later, and I encourage any and all comments/ideas on the book so far.

Andrea Yarbrough

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#134897 - 02/05/02 04:57 PM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
Water Scroll discussion - The Water Scroll is a natural progression from Musashi's first section, The Earth Scroll. In his Earth Scroll, Musashi lays the groundwork for a "road that will lead to the straight path," then in The Water Scroll he lays out the steps that can take the reader/practitioner along that path.

Even though Musashi discusses some very specific sword-wielding techniques and postures in this scroll, it is important to note that the main concept to be garnered from this scroll is the importance of keeping a fluid, free mind and body, and never losing focus of the primary aim of defeating or killing one's opponent. This water-like fluidity applies to one's mind (don't be set on one specific technique, be prepared to flow between techniques as the situation dictates), one's body (don't be set on one sword position -- each position should easily blend into another as the situation dictates), one's hands on the sword (as is still taught in modern kendo, Musashi suggests a grip where only the ring and pinky fingers grip tightly with the middle gripping a little looser and a very light grip with the index and thumb, allowing a greater freedom of movement of the hands), and even the gaze of one's eyes (Musashi recommends that one's eyes be slightly narrowed and their focus be broad -- so that you can see everything but look at nothing).

Musashi says, "fixation is the way of death, fluidity the way of life." This is another way his teachings are applicable to every day life today. Does anybody have any comments on living with an open mind as compared to being unbending? Looking at an example in nature here in North Carolina, I can tell you from experience what trees survive a hurricane...it's the supple/bending ones, not the stiff/unbending ones!

I'd be very interested to hear from some fellow martial artists on, not only what you think about Musashi's concept of fluid mind/body/spirit, but also hearing some ways you work to keep yourself fluid in your art. I've heard some debate on where to focus the eyes in sparring. Some people say look at your opponents eyes, others say look at the trunk of the body in order to peripherally see all motion, etc. -- What do you think? Also, are there any techniques you've discovered to keep your mind the same in combat as in everyday life? (I've never been in a life-or-death combat situation, so I can only equate combat to sparring in karate or geiko in kendo vs everyday life.) Musashi is pretty clear on the main way to obtain this sort of fluidity...practice, practice, practice.

These are just a few observations from The Water Scroll. I'll post more later and look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas.

Andrea Yarbrough

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#134898 - 02/14/02 02:30 PM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
Fire Scroll Discussion -

In The Fire Scroll, Musashi talks about combat. He lays out combat tactics that go beyond the small (like the flick of a wrist, or relying on speed). He lays out tactics that are relevant to both a large scale battle situation and one-on-one. In this scroll, he applies the theories he's discussed in his earlier scrolls.

Musashi gives practical advice about controlling your physical situation like: keep the sun to your back, stand on higher ground than your opponent, don't give your opponent a chance to fully access his/her surroundings, and chase your opponent into uneasy ground/obstacles. Does anybody have any comments about these tactics? Have you ever had a situation in which you used any of these tactics?

Along with controlling your situation in regards to your physical surroundings, Musashi also talks about controlling the rhythm of combat. He lays out 3 different ways: 1) forcefully initiating the attack, 2) waiting to see what your opponent will do/how he will react before you attack, and 3) attacking simultaneously with your opponent.

Even given these 3 methods of controlling the situation, one must have keen insight for them to be of any use. He says you must closely observe your opponent...to "know" them. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that if you know yourself and your opponent, then you'll win 100% of the time. If you only know yourself or only know your opponent, then your chances of victory or defeat are 50/50. And if you know neither yourself, nor your opponent, there is no way you'll win. Does anyone have any thoughts/ideas on how we as martial artists can hone our skills of "knowing" both our opponents and ourselves?

Musashi does say not to become too preoccupied with reading your opponent, making yourself passive. He makes it clear that it is through training that you can learn to take control and obtain victory. Through practice, you can control the situation without conscious effort (or with an "empty mind"). I'd love to hear any thoughts you might have on the idea of empty mind...in some ways similar to the concept of "Beginner's Mind" in Zen philosophy.

Much of Musashi's strategy is mental. He speaks several times of "empty mind" -- it is only through this calm, relaxed, fluid state of mind and body that victory is achieved. (With an empty mind, that is fluid and constantly changing based on the situation, it is impossible for your opponent to read you and thus defeat you.) Musashi's concept of "empty mind" is both a necessary state to achieve victory and to avoid defeat -- he's giving us offensive/defensive advice all in one idea.

It's not only our mind that Musashi says should remain fluid/ever changing...but our fighting techniques as well. He talks about the concept of "Becoming New", where if one tactic/technique doesn't work, change your gameplan and try something different. This is sometimes hard to make yourself do in a sparring match -- either you have those few techniques that you like to consistently rely on, or you feel that you're playing someone else's karate/kendo/judo, etc. if you change in reaction to a situation they've caused. (Note: I use the word "play" above for lack of a better one...noting that some fights are far from play and the martial arts are not a game.)

I won't go into the other individual tactics he discusses in this scroll, but would like to hear any thoughts you may have about them.

Keep reading...keep practicing...keep on the path that leads to the Way.

Andrea Yarbrough

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#134899 - 02/21/02 10:24 AM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
Wind Scroll discussion -

In the Wind Scroll, Musashi talks about other schools of Martial Arts with the purpose of promoting better understanding of his own school. (Sound familiar? Know your opponent...know yourself.) Through these discussions of other styles, we learn that the primary focus of Musashi's school is to win at all costs.

One of the ways he advocates to help one win at all costs is keeping an unbiased, open mind (not being confined to the use of only one particular type of weapon, only one style, etc). As he has in past scrolls, Musashi tells us to first observe each situation and then act accordingly (using the most appropriate weapon/tactic) -- remaining fluid.

In talking about the schools that utilize mainly the short sword, thus relying on defensive tactics (parrying, eluding, etc), Musashi admonishes us to fight in a straight forward way...to manipulate the opponent/situation, not vice versa. He also says not to focus on the guard position because it will force you to have to wait, rooted, thus letting your opponent control the action.

I find it interesting that modern Kendo focuses on just this -- straight forward attacking, with little elusive tactics. Yet in Karate, often some of the hardest opponents to beat are those that fight defensively. Any opinions on this? Is a strong offense the best defense?

I read with interest the part about eye focus. I'm constantly struggling with where to fix my gaze in sparring/keiko. Musashi's answer -- to focus on your opponent's heart and mind -- is very insightful. Now remains the task of developing that skill. Any suggestions on developing these powers of observation over seeing?

In talking about both footwork and speed, the underlying concept Musashi is teaching is rhythm/timing. Again, he says to adjust as the situation dictates...in rhythm with your opponent/the situation. Finding your own rhythm and learning to adjust that rhythm to the circumstances takes practice. Within the art(s) you practice, do you have any suggestions/comments on developing this sense of rhythm/timing? I know one thing that has helped me in both Karate and Kendo is kata. Does anybody else value kata in this same way?

Looking forward to your comments.

A. Yarbrough

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#134900 - 02/27/02 10:47 AM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
The Emptiness/Void Scroll Discussion --

Although this is the shortest scroll of the Book of Five Rings, The Emptiness/Void Scroll is definitely the hardest for me to "wrap my mind around."

It is very fitting that Musashi addresses the Void last, as it is the embodiment of his ultimate achievement from his lifelong following of the way of the samurai.

In this scroll, he's saying that human skill, knowledge, and even martial strategy are limited, but the realm of void/emptiness is limitless. When he speaks of the void, he speaks of something positive and boundless -- something far greater than the individual and the world we live in.

Musashi speaks of the void as the state where there is no confusion -- in Zen terms, this would be a state of enlightenment. He says that the way to attain this level of understanding/awareness is through constant practice and study -- in other words, faithfully following "The Way".

Much like his strategy for fighting, Musashi says the way to obtain understanding of The Way (to enter into a state of emptiness/void) is to pursus it in a straightforward manner with sincerity.

I find it intriguing that he's speaking here in his practical, easily understood way of something that on the surface seems so complex that it will take a lifetime to understand, yet at its center is simple truth. In other words, I can "see" what he's talking about, but in no way can I have full "understanding/awareness" of his words without my own lifelong journey. We've all read parables giving numerous exapmles of others on a quest for enlightenment or knowledge that find what they're seeking only through their personal pursuit/search. These are things that the masters can point us toward, but they're not disclosed in easy answers -- we can't be told -- instead, we must continue to follow our chosen way with sincerity until we achieve the state of void Musashi is talking about here.

I have a feeling (if I even half-way understand some of the Zen teachings I've read) that once we do attain a void state, we'll find ourselves back at the beginning!

This last scroll circles around itself and gives much to ponder. What are YOUR thoughts? I'd love to hear them, and I hope that all who've read (or will read) this book get as much out of it as I have.

A. Yarbrough

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#134901 - 05/02/02 03:43 AM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
Sanjuro Offline
Newbie

Registered: 05/01/02
Posts: 8
Loc: Makati City, Metro Manila, Phi...
Dear A. Yarbrough,

It's been a very long time since I last read "The Book of Five Rings."

Although I genuinely regard Musashi's work as a valuable exposition on swordsmanship and the Way of strategy, I have to say that over the years I have become more critical of the author's legend as Japan's greatest swordsman. Much of what we know about Musashi's life story is based on folklore and unsubstantiated written accounts. In contrast, there is a wealth of historical information on the great swordsmen of the post-Tokugawa era; under modern scholarly scrutiny, great masters such as Yamaoka Tesshu and even Takeda Sokaku may be just as deserving of the acclaim traditionally accorded to Musashi.

Still, whether Musashi deserves his peerless reputation or not, this issue does not detract from the validity of many of the insights he set forth in "The Book of Five Rings."

That said, please accept my thanks, Ms. Yarbrough, for the refreshing clarity of your discussion on Musashi's book. Your synopsis should serve as a commendable guide for those who would be reading Musashi's treatise for the first time. I, for one, certainly enjoyed this Book Talk series.

regards,
Alex Sawit
Makati City, Philippines

PS: In your discussion of the Wind Scroll, you asked for suggestions on how one might develop the ability to focus on the opponent's heart and mind during sparring.

Musashi, in the scroll's section about "Fixing the Eyes," talks about how football players will 'see' the field rather than consciously focus on the ball all the time. Interestingly, modern ball sports such as basketball and soccer are exactly like this. Good players don't fix their eyes on the ball; instead they see and feel the flow of the game on both offense and defense. Thus, on defense they anticipate where the ball will be passed and are able to steal it from the ooposing team (ask any good goalie who plays soccer or hockey and you'll understand why they must anticipate an opponent's mind well in advance). On offense they read the openings in their opponent and are able to score accordingly.

Truthfully, one learns these things intuitively by playing and playing and playing. Would you be willing to play a favorite ball sport as part of a regular team?

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#134902 - 05/02/02 03:40 PM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
Alex,

Thank you very much for your comments in discussion of "The Book of Five Rings."

You are right on target with your observation that we should be wary of taking all accounts of Musashi's life at face value, as the bulk of the biographical information about him is unsubstantiated and has reached legendary status through repeated retelling. Just recently I was loaned a copy of the fictional novel "Musashi" to read, and although it was an interesting, well told story, I had to keep reminding myself that it was mostly just that...a story -- for entertainment and not to be studied as fact. I'm actually glad that I read "The Book of Five Rings" first so that I didn't have the temptation of trying to see the ideas of the real Musashi through the eyes of the character Musashi.

I'll show my ignorance here in that I'm not familiar with Yamaoka Tesshu or Takeda Sokaku, but they are now next on my list of historical figures to research. Do you have any recommendations of sources to read about these two master swordsmen? Did they author any books that are accessible today? Thanks in advance for any further information about these two swordsmen.

Great analogy of seeing the entire field of play (not merely the ball) in modern team sports as a way to teach/explain where to focus the eyes in martial arts practice. Thinking back on experiences playing basketball, I see you're very right -- to be even remotely successful you can't focus only on the ball (or even focus solely on the person you're guarding on defense). You have to feel where everyone is going and anticipate their next move. These are things I've both forgotten and neglected to apply to my martial arts training (especially as they apply to sparring).

One thing you said above all else is key (and echoes the lesson learned from "The Book of Five Rings") -- you said, "Truthfully, one learns these things intuitively by playing and playing and playing." This I think is the essence of the way -- keep playing, keep practicing, keep studying. These actions are what will get us all where we want to go!

Not that it matters, but I'm curious, what sport(s) do you play, and what martial art(s) do you practice? Thank you again for your insight and help.

Andrea Yarbrough
Raleigh, NC

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#134903 - 05/03/02 10:20 PM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
Sanjuro Offline
Newbie

Registered: 05/01/02
Posts: 8
Loc: Makati City, Metro Manila, Phi...
Dear Andrea Y.,

I'm pleased to be of help. Here's some information that should be useful to you for future research on Yamaoka Tesshu and Takeda Sokaku.

Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888) was the founder of the Itto Shoden Muto Ryu (The "No-Sword" School). An enlightened practitioner of the sword, Tesshu was also a teacher of Zen and an outstanding calligrapher. Such was his mastery of the Way that, in Japan, many consider Musashi to be the only other practitioner worthy of comparison. But unlike Musashi, who won his fame by wantonly spilling the blood of his rivals, Tesshu only needed to manifest the power of his imperturbable mind in order to humble his opponents during a match. There are many biographies about Tesshu in Japanese, but as of now I am only aware of one in English. This is "The Sword of No-Sword" by John Stevens (Shambhala Publications). Though it can be a little taxing to read because of the way the narrative diverges from one stream of thought to another, the book also includes many translations of Tesshu's own writings.

Takeda Sokaku (1858-1943) is best known as the 20th century's supreme exponent of Daito Ryu "Aiki" Jujutsu, the martial art from which modern Aikido developed (aikido founder Ueshiba Morihei was Sokaku's student). Often overlooked, however, is that Sokaku is also considered the last of the great samurai swordsmen (he belonged to the last generation of samurai born and raised before the Meiji Restoration). I'm unaware, though, whether any of his writings have been published. An excellent source of info about Sokaku is the official Daito-Ryu Aiki Jujutsu Home Page (www.daito-ryu.org). Its websmaster is Derek Steel, a Nidan-ranked practitioner based in Tokyo who is both an English translator for and one of the top foreign students of Kondo Katsayuki, head instructor of Daito-ryu.

If you need additional help, feel free to contact me at <saiyan@i-manila.com.ph>.

best regards,
Alex Sawit
Makati City, Philippines

Postscript: Regarding my martial art background, I recieved my certification in the traditional martial art of Hwa Rang Do from Grandmaster Yum Ki-Nam of South Korea (senior disciple to Supreme Grandmaster Lee Joo-Bang). In addition, I am also helping fellow Filipinos promote classical Filipino martial arts both at home and abroad. And, like most other Filipinos who grew up with basketball as the national past-time, I try to shoot hoops whenever I can.

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#134904 - 05/29/02 12:16 PM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
Dear Alex,

Thank you for the additional information on Yamaoka Tesshu and Takeda Sokaku.

Out of curiousity, I typed both names (separately) into my web browser and have found many interesting sites with more information about them both. Some of the calligraphy of Yamaoka Tesshu that is posted on the web is very beautiful, as well as interesting (especially one with the picture of a skull drawn at the bottom -- I'm not sure why this one struck me as so unusual, but it really caught my attention).

I'm definitely going to get a copy of "The Sword of No-Sword" to read.

Both of these men make for interesting study, even though they seem to have very different character traits. While Yamaoka Tesshu seems to embody many of the ideals of Zen and the martial arts, some of the biographical information I found on Takeda Sokaku showed him as very much a man who marched to the beat of his own drum (to the extent that one article I read about him alluded to negative opinions others had of him).

Besides finding much additional information about these two men, I also stumbled upon some martial arts related sites that are of interest to me as well (especially some kendo-related sites that came up when I searched for Yamaoka Tesshu, as well as some on-line martial arts journals).

So, thank you again for your help and your information in pointing me one step further down the path in my martial arts studies.

Andrea Yarbrough

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#134905 - 07/18/02 02:51 PM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
Sanjuro Offline
Newbie

Registered: 05/01/02
Posts: 8
Loc: Makati City, Metro Manila, Phi...
Dear Andrea Yarbrough,

I was recently watching a documentary (National Geographic Channel-Asia) that I believe would have interested you as there are opinions expressed in it that bring to life ideas from “The Book of Five Rings.” With your permission, I'd like to recount some of those opinions here in your discussion.

The 1997 NHK documentary is entitled, “Kendo’s Grueling Challenge,” and follows the events of the 8th-dan kendo exam held that May at the Kyoto Martial Arts Centre. The exam is held twice a year, once in Kyoto and once in Tokyo, and is described as the most difficult test of any kind in Japan (the average pass rate is less than 1%).

In order to qualify for the exam, a candidate must be at least 46 years old and should have spent at least eight years in 7th-dan. The exam itself consists of two elimination rounds of matches against other candidates in order to reach the final round. In the first round, each match is presided over by seven judges; to qualify for the next round, a candidate must receive the votes of at least five of them. In the second round, the number of judges is doubled and candidates need at least ten of the fourteen votes to reach the finals. What is most significant is that passing has nothing to do with winning or losing. Instead, judges will only acknowledge a candidate if his strikes show that he has truly matured as a kendoist.

One of that year’s candidates was former All-Japan Champion Ishida Kenichi of Osaka. When he was still an active competitor, Mr. Ishida was feared for his amazing agility and uncanny ability to strike from any angle. Even at age 48 (in 1997), his skills remained undiminished. Still, his previous attempts at passing the exam had been a struggle. On his very first attempt, Ishida failed because he tried to score hits as furiously as used to do as a competitor. On the next attempt, he tried to deliver strikes with deliberate, perfect form, after hearing someone say that style was important in passing exam; the judges, however, disagreed. On another attempt, he tried to emphasize delivering only meaningful blows, but this only made him nervous during his matches. After his last attempt, Ishida became convinced that his competitive instinct to win, which once brought him so much success in tournaments, had now become a wall thwarting his efforts to pass the exam. This led to a fateful decision: now on his fifth attempt, Ishida committed himself to effortlessly unleashing his strikes, moving casually in a natural manner.

“At the risk of sounding grandiose,” Ishida reflected, “I’d say the ultimate goal is to master a strike in which the mind, sword and body are united as one. When [they] become one, you can strike as freely as you wish. It’s not something you try to do – it just happens. That’s what’s difficult about it. The more you’re self-conscious about it, the less possible it is to deliver.”

He did exactly that in the first elimination round, striking effortlessly and naturally. But for Ishida the feeling was unfamiliar; it did not feel as if he had done anything special. On top of which, he had faced very tough opposition and could only produce scores that were very close. After completing the round, he assumed the worst. Indeed, he had already showered, changed and packed his bags when it was announced that he had qualified for the second round! It was the first time in five attempts that Ishida had cleared the first screening. Encouraged that his approach had been validated, he got back into gear and did as in the previous round, striking effortlessly and naturally but now clearly outscoring and trouncing his second round opponents, on his way to qualifying for the finals.

For all intents and purposes, Ishida is articulating the state of “Empty Mind” that every swordsman strives for. He speaks of striking spontaneously with undivided mind and sword (or mind and body, since the sword is just an extension of the body).

The concept of “Empty Mind” often mystifies students. Yet this is something we use all the time in daily life. Take the simple act of typing on a computer keyboard. Most people learn by “punch” typing (looking at and hitting one key at a time). Gradually they learn to hit the keys without constantly looking down to see where they are. Eventually, those who get used to it no longer take their eyes off the screen. Without looking at the keyboard and consciously thinking about it, keystrokes flow freely as the words come to thought. Mind and fingertips strike as one. This is “Empty Mind.”

But while a keyboard won’t hit back, a sword-wielding opponent will. The thought of retaliation, of suffering negative consequences for one’s actions, can cloud a swordsman’s mind. Such a swordsman cannot act single-mindedly. He will act with indecision or hesitation. This is what makes attacking with “Empty Mind” difficult.

The master swordsman Tesshu believed that a warrior who is like this is subconsciously hoping to escape getting hurt or even killed. But Tesshu says escape is an illusion. In a sense, there is no escape from injury or death. Only if you embrace this idea can you attack single-mindedly. Only when your heart is resolved to accept injury or death, without regret, can you attack with “Empty Mind.”

An experience of one of Tesshu’s students provides an entertaining example. Kagawa Zenjiro was undergoing one of his teacher’s ultimate marathons: a seven-day fencing challenge that pitted trainees against each other until each had completed 1,400 matches. After day one, Kagawa succeeded in completing two hundred matches; yet he still received a message from Tesshu informing him that he was slacking off. “On the second day,” Kagawa recounted, “I resolved to give it everything I had. Tesshu had also ordered my opponents to give me no quarter. By mid-afternoon I was in great agony because of fatigue. I was somehow able to complete the required number of matches and limped home. My legs were so badly swollen that I couldn’t stand up to go to the lavatory. Near the end of the third day, I was staggering around the training hall, barely able to stay on my feet. It was at that moment that a former student entered the hall, readying himself as one of my opponents. This guy was a sneaky, ill-mannered jerk, notorious for his dirty tactics; there was nothing he enjoyed more than seriously injuring his opponents. My pain and fatigue disappeared. I was now totally focused on my treacherous foe; even if he were to smash my skull, he would be struck down as well. Raising my wooden sword above my head, I was about to leap across the training hall to intercept him when Tesshu suddenly yelled, ‘Excellent! Excellent! Stop now.’” The next day, to Kagawa’s astonishment, Tesshu exempted him from finishing all the remaining sessions. Tesshu saw that he had finally attained a state of undivided mind, unperturbed even by fear of injury or death. Since this awakening was the ultimate goal of the marathon, Kagawa was judged to have fulfilled the challenge.

As one might expect, in “The Book of Five Rings” Musashi expounds on the same idea. “Generally speaking,” he says in the Ground Scroll, “the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death. Although [other kinds of people] have been known to die willingly in the name of duty or out of shame, this [resolute acceptance of death by the warrior] is a different thing. The warrior differs from other people because studying the Way of strategy is based on defeating opponents.”

What Musashi describes is not some kind of death wish, but what he believes is a prerequisite for all those who wish to study the Way of strategy. If you seek to defeat your opponent, you must first accept death in your heart. Once you do so, you no longer become self-conscious about how to act; unburdened by worries of what may or may not happen, you strike without hesitation. Without ‘thinking,’ you just know where to strike, how to strike, and when to strike – I should say you can feel where, how and when to strike. Thinking and doing happen as one and the same thing. This is “Empty Mind.”

There are, of course, those who rely purely on physical strength or technique to win. Because their advantages allow them to act with impunity, they fight without fear or doubt. However, this is not genuine. Such individuals fight casually only when facing an easy opponent, but when they are suddenly confronted by a superior foe they become demoralized or even cowardly. This is why Tesshu believed that all students, regardless of natural ability, must be pushed toward a moment of truth – a “do or die” situation so to speak – through relentless training. “One must depend on spiritual strength,” he wrote. “This is true swordsmanship.”

Which brings us back to Ishida’s grueling kendo exam. Of the 721 candidates who took the exam that year, only Ishida and five others managed to reach the finals. Exhausted after two rounds of battling against the best kendoists in the land, the six remaining candidates had one last hurdle: a written test. They were asked to reflect on the maxim, “The sword is the mind.” It was a fitting theme for a challenge that had tested the spirit of each candidate. In the end, all six passed and were awarded the new rank of hachi-dan.

Looking back, Ishida’s undertaking admittedly required a significantly different level of skill to overcome. Yet there are lessons here for students of all levels (and of all martial art backgrounds). I personally like reflecting on how Ishida packed his bags and almost went home after the first round, perhaps thinking that his approach looked too easy to be true (it’s funny how great players always seem to make things look easy without realizing it). But that’s what “Empty Mind” is about; you stop being self-conscious of whether you will win or lose and just do it.

Ultimately, and I think you will agree, the greatest lesson is that attacking with “Empty Mind” is a leap of faith that needs to be nurtured by training faithfully. Whether it requires a “fight to the finish” (as Tesshu might describe it) or not is the only thing the student needs to think carefully about.

“The most important thing in kendo is a flexible mind,” wrote Ishida at the conclusion of his exam essay, “which makes one humble enough to recognize one’s own weakness and to overcome it through practice.”

Here’s to practicing, then, that we may all continue to train with single-minded determination.

Sincerely,

Alex Sawit
Makati City, Philippines

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#134906 - 07/29/02 04:35 PM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
A Yarbrough Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/01
Posts: 40
Loc: Raleigh, NC, USA
Alex,

What an excellent post! You're right, these two life lessons that you recount do perfectly exemplify the concept of "No Mind"/"Empty Mind" (Mushin) that is one of the main lessons of The Book of Five Rings. In fact, I so enjoyed the two stories and their lessons that I'd like to share them with everyone in my kendo club.

One interesting thing about Empty Mind is that anyone can obtain it. You don't have to be physically gifted, or trained by a certain master at a special school. As we have seen in the examples of Ishida and Kagawa, through years and years of tireless, sincere practice, we start to cultivate inside us the necessary elements of No Mind. We've practiced many techniques, thousands of times until we can perform them with precision without thinking (seemingly effortlessly). It is only through practice that we can fill our "toolbox" (to steal an analogy from Musashi) with all the tools necessary to outfit ourselves for any situation.

I especially liked the quote from Ishida, "The most important thing in kendo is a flexible mind, which makes one humble enough to recognize one's own weakness and to overcome it through practice." I think we could substitute any martial art for kendo and the saying would still hold very true.

I have received my own lessons in the importance of empty/flexible mind through kendo practice (unfortunately, what I've learned so far is that I usually have a fixed mind). These lessons come across most clearly when working with our main sensi, who is a 5th dan (go-dan). Many times in free sparring with him I will get "caught thinking" (as I like to put it). I won't realize it, but I'll be so focused on one certain strike that I want to execute that I'll miss many other open shots, as well as leave myself flat-footed and open to attack. One time his lesson actually made me burst out laughing, because he not only knew I was fixed in my focus, but he even knew exactly where, and he demonstrated the point to me by casually flipping my shinai out of the way to smack me in the head while saying, "The kote (wrist) isn't open." (Maybe having empty mind also allows one to be a bit of a mind reader as well :-). So, I obviously have many, many more years of practice to free up my mind and get my mind, body, and sword to become one.

Thoughts of the consequences of my actions also do get in my way in kendo. Many times when facing a stronger opponent, I'll see an opening that just seems too convenient and I won't strike (or I hesitate) because I think it could be a trap to draw me in. Notice I said, "I think", not "I sense" or "I know"...again, prime example of an inflexible mind.

All that said, thank you again for your insight...and here I go off to practice, practice, practice!

Andrea Yarbrough

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#134907 - 08/03/02 02:31 AM Re: Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi - Discussion
Sanjuro Offline
Newbie

Registered: 05/01/02
Posts: 8
Loc: Makati City, Metro Manila, Phi...
Dear Andrea Y.,

I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the story regarding the documentary, "Kendo's Grueling Challenge."

As a point of clarification, I correctly mentioned that 721 kendoists tested for hachi-dan that year. But since the exam is held twice each year, to avoid confusion I should have emphasized that this number specifically refers to the candidates who took the May exam in Kyoto and excludes those who tested at the next exam held in Tokyo.

It's worth mentioning that Ishida Kenichi, who won the All-Japan Championship in 1982, is a member of the Osaka Police. Their Academy dojo is home to one of Japan's top competition kendo teams (many top teams come from various prefectural police deparments); the documentary mentions that, at the time of filming, Ishida had recently returned from successfully coaching his Osaka team at the World Kendo Championships.

Additionally, there was a second kendoist featured in the documentary, one I did not include in my last post. At the age of 78, Miyamoto Kai (no relation to Musashi) was regarded as the most promising candidate for hachi-dan among the older applicants. His experience at the hachi-dan exam that year in Kyoto can serve as a springboard for Musashi’s ideas about the spirit of emptiness/the void (to quote from the last scroll: “When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.”).

In light of what I left out, you may want to see the documentary yourself. I recorded “Kendo’s Grueling Challenge” in its entirety, so if you’d like I can send you a copy (you can contact me at <saiyan@i-manila.com.ph> for this purpose).

Sincerely,

Alexander Sawit
Makati City, Philippines

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