The Book of Five Rings is a well-known text written by master Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi in the seventeenth century. Although its primary focus is on the art of swordsmanship, its lessons can be used in broader combat, and in our normal lives. I have recently finished reading it, and I would certainly suggest it to anyone that is a fan of Japanese culture, martial arts, books on philosophy, or books on strategy. It is a text that can be read in a day, but its contents may take a lifetime to truly understand. I do not claim to have full understanding of Musashi’s Way, and I may have misinterpreted some of the text, but after reading and dissecting it, these are the eight lessons within that resonate the most with me (as I have interpreted them, of course).
1. Diversifying Skills and Knowledge is Crucial
“Become acquainted with every art.”
When I was a college student, I did not see the value of having a multifaceted education. Instead, I saw the elective courses and mandatory multi-cultural psychology, literature courses, foreign languages, et. al. to be another way for the university to suck more money out of my pockets. I still believe this to a degree, but I have learned the importance of learning things outside of our primary professions to become well-rounded and to incorporate tangent skills into our professions.
2. “Do Nothing Which is of No Use”
This quote speaks for itself. Everything that we do should help us towards reaching our ends, if it is not an end in and of itself.
3. Following Through with Our Actions
“When you take up a sword, you must feel intent on cutting the enemy.”
This is Feudal Japan’s equivalent of saying “When you pull a gun on the man you had better be smart enough to pull the trigger.” Of course, this is not to be taken literally (at least not in the context of this article); what is meant here is that if we embark upon something, then we should intend to see through it to the end. We should not waste time playing willy-nilly with things that we do not truly intend to see through.
4. Take the Reigns and Do Not be Led by Others
“In contests of strategy it is bad to be led about by the enemy. You Must always be able to lead the enemy about.”
When our adversaries control our options, we know that we are in bad shape. Instead, it would be advantageous to be in control of the destinies of those that oppose us, or at least our own destinies.
This is something that it would behoove Black men in particular to learn. Who controls our image, our access to land, and access to the resources that we need to survive?
5. Try to See Things from Other People’s Perspective
“‘To become the enemy means to think yourself in the enemy’s position.”
When interacting with others, it is often helpful to see things from their perspective. The advantages offered are twofold. First, when putting ourselves into the other party’s shoes, we can gain an understanding of their desires, and “paint” ourselves in a manner that will gain their favor, and ultimately get us what we want; we may also learn that we will never have the value that the opposing party desires, and that it will be fruitless to continue pursuit. Secondly, we can prepare ourselves for the possible reactions of the other party that we are dealing with, similar to thinking several moves ahead in chess.
6. On Playing the Hand That We’re Dealt
“Surely we need not necessarily be defeated if we are using a short sword, and have no long sword?”
Being a Black man, I was dealt a shitty hand, particularly given that my aspirations go beyond dating fat chicks and working at the bottom tier of society to prop up the lives of others. However, unless I decide to take a side trip to South Korea later this year to take advantage of their master plastic surgeons, this is the hand that I will have to play. Thus, I will have to develop and employ tactics in order to get what I want out of life. We all have to play the hands that we are dealt in life using the tools that we have at our disposal. Despite extreme difficulties, victories can still be crafted; fight to win them.
7. The Importance of Practice
“The Way is in training.”
Throughout the text of The Book of Five Rings, Musashi constantly tells us readers that we must practice the teachings therein in order to develop a true appreciation and mastery of The Way. In fact, we are told this so much it is almost as if the author was practicing telling us to practice! He is correct, however. Just about any skill that we wish to master we are going to have to practice until it becomes an innate part of us. Most skills and even mindsets can atrophy if we do not use them, so we should make a frequent effort to put the techniques and mentalities that we wish to advance ourselves in to use.
8. Studying Alone Will Not Produce Mastery
Despite laying the groundwork of Musashi’s Way of Strategy, The Book of Five Rings is a rather short read that can probably be completed in a couple of hours at most. However, the text states many times that simply studying without putting what has been learned into practice will not make one a master strategist or swordsman. Instead, we are to conquer ourselves as we were yesterday before conquering lesser foes, and eventually, conquering greater foes. This is a path that many of us may recognize on our roads of personal development.
“Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men…”
Ultimately, The Book of Five Rings is an interesting and philosophical read, but it is quite open-ended (at least to my understanding). I personally believe that personal development and philosophical literature should be open-ended and prompt thought, or at most gently persuade or present ideas rather than bash readers with concrete and absolute ideas, which makes it a more interesting read in my opinion. Each individual or unit must forge their own path rather than treading the same path etched out by others, which we may not have the means the navigate, or worse yet, may not lead us to our desired destinations.