Monday, May 13, 2013


'You can only fight the way you practise.'
- Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings.

The classic 370-year old text Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings), by the Japanese swordsman and rōnin Miyamoto Musashi, is one of my all-time favourite books. It is so much more than a treatise on Japanese swordsmanship (kenjutsu) and the martial arts in general, although it certainly is that.

And yes, like that other grand opus The Art of War, the work contains much useful information for business executives, political leaders and strategists of all kinds on conflict resolution, decision-making, strategy and tactics.

I have several different translations of the text, and whenever I go to Japan I return home with yet another seemingly better translation. In this post I’ll be using several different translations rather indiscriminately, so please forgive me.  

Those into meditation would be aware that The Book of Five Rings also contains much useful, insightful advice on the subject, and, in particular, on what is known as mindfulness. For example, in 'The Water Scroll' we get this solid advice:

·         Let the mind be ‘open and direct, neither tense nor lax, centering the mind so that there is no imbalance’
·         ‘Calmly relax your mind, and savour this moment of ease thoroughly so that the relaxation does not stop its relaxation for even an instant’
·         ‘Let there be neither insufficiency nor excess in your mind’
·         Keep your mind ‘free from subjective biases’
·         Let your inner mind be ‘unclouded and open.’

Then there’s this advice. We are to maintain a ‘normal, everyday mental attitude at all times.’ More specifically, we are told that when we are physically calm we are to be ‘mentally alert’; conversely, when we are physically active, we are to maintain a ‘serene state of mind.’

Musashi urges us to be ‘attentive at all times to all things without being overly anxious’ and to ‘perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.’ The phrase ‘bare attention,’ in the context of mindfulness, means just that---just enough attention to stay alert and to be aware, but not so much attention as would inevitably lead on to analysis, judgment, labeling, and so forth. It is all about ‘effortless effort’ and ‘pure [choiceless] awareness.’ As respects the latter, Musashi speaks of an ‘all-seeing, imperturbable awareness’ such that ‘one should be able to see the distant like the near, and the near like the distant.’ He writes:

It is most important in the knightly arts to know your opponent’s sword, without looking at it at all. … It is also important to see either side without moving your pupils to the side at all. If you are taken up with the world, you cannot expect to learn the secret in a short time. Take to heart what I have written here, and always practice fixing the gaze in this way, so that it does not waver. …

We are told to ‘accept everything just the way it is,’ and ‘in all things [to] have no preferences.’ And here's a real gem:

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.

Got that? Seek nothing outside of yourself. No god, guru, saviour, or teacher has anything of value to offer you, except perhaps this one piece of advice---look within. If a teacher tells you that, listen to him or her. Otherwise, tell them where to go.

And what are we to make of the many references in the text to one's 'opponent' or 'enemy'? Well, when it comes to the practice of mindfulness---and most things in life for that matter---one's most real and formidable opponent or enemy is within, that is, within one's own mind. We have many inner opponents and enemies, so to speak. One's many 'false selves' that wax and wane but constantly seek our attention, for starters. But we can be victorious. They are not us. Here's some really good advice from the book: 'If you wish to control others you must first control yourself.' The 'others' include the false selves (the innumerable 'I's' and 'me's') within us.

In the last section of the text, ‘The Scroll of Emptiness,’ we are given these pearls of wisdom:

·         We are to ‘diligently cultivate the spirit and the mind, as well as awareness and the physical eye, every day and every hour’
·         We are to make those things---wait for it---‘cloudless and free from all delusions.’

Writes Musashi, ‘then you may be sure that you have attained the spiritual state of true “emptiness”.’ Yes, ‘taking emptiness as the Way, you see the Way as emptiness’:

In emptiness there is good but no evil. Wisdom exists, logic exists, the Way exists, mind is empty.

Ah, the ancient wisdom again---emptiness!

I will finish with this. Do not try to be, or remain, alert, for if you think about being alert, or staying alert, you will not be. Let yourself---without conscious effort or any act of the will---be mindfully awake, and fully relaxed, ready to accept whatever arises. As Alan Watts used to say, we need to learn ‘how not to use the mind.’ Got it? Yes, it’s a paradox. Being mindful is, well, being ‘un-mindful’ of any thing in particular.

Here's an illustration that I've shared with you before. In Zen there is the story of the master who says to his pupil, ‘One must never think of the white monkey, if you want enlightenment.’ You can guess what happens. Thinking about not thinking about the white monkey is the same as thinking about the white monkey.

So, don’t try to be mindful---and don’t try to be un-mindful either.


1 comment:

  1. Really glad to find this. I am a counsellor and my favourite hobby is Kenjutsu, and they are interrelated. I wrote a blog on martial arts a while ago:
    I am in the process of researching for a more extensive article, hence I came across this blog post.
    Thank you!