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

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.


Alex Sawit
Makati City, Philippines

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

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

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

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

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 <> for this purpose).


Alexander Sawit
Makati City, Philippines

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