Today, I want to talk about the Go Rin No Sho or The Book of Five Rings. I want to focus on the first portion. The copy I’m currently using is the graphic novel version by Sean Michael Wilson and Chie Kutsuwada. It’s important to note that there are many versions of this book worldwide and so many interpretations. I’m going to talk about what it means to me at this current juncture in my life and where I am at in my martial arts training. I fully expect to revisit this post and study different versions of the book many times in the future.
There are many ways to do anything in the world whether it is the practice of salvation through participation in a religion, the honing of a skill such as sword making or making clothing, medicating oneself against physical or mental disease, and training for sport, theatre, or combat. Whatever you learn in anything you do can be applied to other seemingly unrelated situations.
Miyamoto Musashi is purported to have said, “There are many people who, even when studying the Way of the Martial Arts, think that these skills will not be useful in real situations. In fact, the true Way of the Martial Arts is to train so that these skills are useful at any time and to teach these skills so that they will be useful in all things.”
Back in my roller derby days, I was quick to learn how to use my toe stops and my balance was decent for a beginner. It took awhile before people figured out how to take me off my skates. The reason was, in part, because of my training in stances and running around a dojo with my weight balanced in such a way that I could move and change direction easily. In karate, we rarely put our weight on our heels and kept it on the balls of our feet. This was something I just naturally did when I put skates on.
When I’m driving my car, I often know when someone is likely to change lanes even if they are not signalling nor edging towards the line. I’m not psychic. I’ve been trained to look for cues, but also I pay attention regularly to what others do all along the highway. In certain locations people often change lanes more than in other spots. In martial arts, we call this Zanshin. It is the awareness of your surroundings, the people in it, and the possibilities that relate to a given situation. It is the ability to be in a state of alertness while being calm. Many parents of young children do this.
Paying attention is also extremely helpful as a writer. Not only do we observe others, but we eavesdrop and we pay attention to our feelings. Every situation can give us what we one day need in order to write a scene in a book or movie script. When we see eyes that are such a brilliant shade of blue that it reminds us of the ocean, we want to write a colour down that depicts that rather than simply saying blue. Maybe that character isn’t the protagonist or antagonist, but in order to fully flesh out all your characters, they can have something about them that is strikingly beautiful. Just because they are less important, doesn’t mean they don’t impact the story. The secondary helper often does things that are necessary to put the protagonist on the path. Gandalf sticks out like a sore thumb, yet it is the hobbits that are the focal point of The Lord of the Rings.
In the chapter on Earth, Musashi talks about the early beginnings of his martial arts journey. How he won a match at age 13 simply because the opponent didn’t take him seriously. If the dates are correct, this first battle would have happened around 1597, just six years before Japan’s Edo period began where peace time became the focus. Musashi is said to have continued to duel others until he was 28 or 29 and have defeated 60 men in that time. Whether or not they all lost their lives is a subject of debate for some.
He didn’t believe his wins had anything to do with having extraordinary skill in the martial arts, but that perhaps he either had a natural talent or other styles were lacking. It says he began writing the book on the 10th day of the 10th month during his 50th year just after the hour of the tiger. That should mean he began writing the Go Rin No Sho on October 10, 1634 around 4:30 a.m. assuming that Japan didn’t have a different calendar during that time period such as a 13-month pagan calendar which could skew the dates.
Six years later he began teaching martial arts with the support of Lord Tadoshi. He spoke of the increasing specialization in the martial arts as something that exalted one technique and damned another when the two worked best together. We talk about this concept at my dojo. Sensei has often said that you need techniques from all of them because different situations and distances require different techniques. If I’m a swordsperson and I’m in too close to fully draw my blade, I better have other options to win the fight when my back is against a wall and I can’t back up to create the space I need.
And when our backs are metaphorically against the wall in life, we need to figure out how to get money for a venture or how to avoid starving to death when we become jobless. When automation takes away most jobs, we will need to be ready with another option in order to continue to survive.
Musashi talks about there being only four types of jobs. There are warriors or military personnel, farmers and other food services, artisans or builders, and merchants. The world has changed as new jobs have been created since his time, but those same professions are going strong. He also didn’t mention sex workers like geisha and prostitutes, but I suppose they could be considered merchants in a way.
He talks about farmers having to pay extra attention to the changing seasons, sake merchants having to try different ways of making sake, and warriors having to be skilled in many different types of combat and many different types of weapons.
He then goes on to say that the artisans combine the methods from all three and seek to do the best at all times. He says this is the way of martial arts. To become great, one must practice without end. I infer this to mean that one must always be a student.
Musashi says, “It is truly difficult to grasp the Way by swordmanship alone. By knowing the large, you know the small; and from the shallow, you reach the deep.”
He then goes on to talk about Niten Ichi-Ryu, his famed two-sword style. He says that when you put your life on the line, you want every weapon you have to be of use. As he stated above, this can mean far more than literal weapons. It can mean every skill you know.
Years ago, I took social work in college. As part of our diploma, we took certification in Applied Suicide Intervention. We didn’t simply use the knowledge gained in our interviewing course to talk someone down off a ledge. We had to draw on everything we learned about social welfare, sociology, psychology, and our own ability to empathize.
Every weapon has advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation.
Musashi goes on to say that the sword is the foundation upon which the martial arts is based. By learning the Way of the sword, you learn the virtues that put yourself and society in order. He also says that in learning the Way of the sword, you will be able to understand the ways of others. I take this to mean that in learning martial arts, you will broaden your mind and enhance your worldview. I find this to be true, but only if you allow it. He goes on to say that both success and failure have their own rhythms and you must discriminate thoroughly between them. Then you must not show it outwardly lest your opponent defeat you. He then lays out his rules:
1. Think without dishonesty.
2. Forge yourself in the Way.
3. Touch upon all of the arts.
4. Know the ways of all occupations.
5. Know the advantages and disadvantages of everything.
6. Develop a discerning eye in all matters.
7. Understand what cannot be seen by the eye.
8. Pay attention to even small things.
9. Do not involve yourself with the impractical.
Successful business people say similar things. They say they’re always learning. They follow their passions and their gut. They do cost/benefit analysis. They don’t let their competitors know what they are up to. They guard their free time.
I feel like rule 8 and rule 9 complement each other. Without rule 9, one might get lost in the weeds and forget the purpose of whatever exercise they are undertaking. Small things like commas can be important, but if you’re on your first draft it is likely many of the words will change, so it doesn’t make sense to stress about them until your book is about to go to print. If you spend too much time on them in the early stages, you might never finish writing the story.
If you’re ready for more of the Go Rin No Sho check out the other parts linked below.
III: Fire (coming soon)
IV: Wind (coming soon)
V: Emptiness (coming soon)