In continuing on with The Book of Five Rings, today I’m giving my perceptions on the third chapter: Fire. The meaning of this book can be nearly as versatile as the Bible, so people draw different conclusions depending on where they are in their martial arts journey and their life experience. I’ll undoubtedly see this chapter and the other completely different in the years to come. In case you missed the first two, they are linked below.
Part I: Earth
Part II: Water
Part III: Fire
Musashi said that being overly concerned with perfection is a waste of time in training for battle because focusing on getting a couple of extra inches distracts you from achieving the real goals of defeating your opponent and living to fight another day.
That sentiment is interesting to me. It can be applied to almost anything. If you spend every waking hour agonizing over every comma you use, you might never actually get a book written. If you worry too much about being behind in readings for school, you might not get your assignments done. If you put too much into having everything perfect in a relationship, it can never be free to blossom naturally and become something that may be flawed, but also full of love.
He said the most important thing is to practice in the morning and train in the evening. This will give free and easy strength.
I think practicing might translate to kata and training to sparring in today’s world of martial arts. In writing, one might practice making a list of descriptions about objects in a room or people that walk by in a mall during the day and at night write the novel or script as it plays like a movie in your head. Similarly, in music, one might practice rhythms and scales before they try the songs that they would like to be good at playing. For other sports, one might practice kicking a ball around cones to learn to control it then they might scrimmage to try their techniques out before game day.
Musashi advised keeping the sun/fire behind you when preparing for battle. I think this is partly to obscure your face in shadow, which gives you an edge in terms of intimidating your opponents. It also might hurt your eyes to look at people when the sun is right behind them. He said if the sun can’t be behind you, keep it on your right side. I think this is so any shadow can help you hide what you’re doing with the sword on the left side. He recommended ensuring there is nothing in the way behind you. That was probably so you can get out of the way of the opponent’s sword without worrying about tripping on something. The same is true at night time.
Metaphorically one could assume that fire means more than light. Perhaps it is passion. Maybe there is a child behind that you are protecting. Maybe you are being pushed into battle by something you are passionate about like the writer who writes because their soul needs to. Maybe it is simply saying to hide as much of your intention from your opponent as possible.
Musashi then talked about chasing your opponent to your left and using the terrain against him. This, I believe, is because you want him in an easy spot to attack him and the further away he is from the back right corner, the more likely you are to win the fight. That back right corner is the hardest to deal with as a swordsperson.
He said to keep the opponent occupied so they don’t have a chance to assess the situation. Something politicians are good at is distracting everyone while they do something worse than what they allow us to find out about. Keep everyone talking about whether or not tipping should still be a thing and they won’t have time to talk about or stop more serious things.
He also talked about the three initiatives; attack, waiting, and body-body. These were about whether one attacks first or both attack at the same time. If you are the attacker, you must keep calm, be quick, and have complete focus. If you are waiting, you must be calm, appear weak, and watch for an opening. If you both attack, you want to mimic your opponent until you can disrupt their timing and cause them to falter.
He said to watch for signs that your opponent has intent to strike and suppress them as soon as possible unless the attack is a useless one. Then you let him do it. I’m betting this has to do with managing your own effort. Why expend energy you don’t have to? Basically, no matter what your opponent does, you find a way to make his efforts useless.
As if crossing a river, no matter what obstacles come, you keep heading towards your target. Others will undoubtedly give up, but you dig deep and keep going. Never give your opponent a second chance. It will likely be the end of you if you do.
Pay attention to your opponent’s weaknesses and use them to your advantage. You should always learn as much about your enemy as possible because you never know what will be helpful in ensuring your success in battle. In knowing them, you know which buttons to push to make them make a mistake.
He speaks of three voices. One voice is meant to intimidate your opponent; one is meant to align your spirit, sword, mind, and body; and the last is to celebrate victory.
One strategy is to set up a pattern then suddenly disrupt it to lull your opponent into a false sense of security before using a different technique to throw them off guard.
Many times you’ll have to utterly destroy your opponent’s spirit to win. In other words, you have to extinguish their fire with your own.