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The Book of Five Rings summary

Miyamoto Musashi

A Classic Text on the Japanese Way of the Sword

4.6 (331 ratings)
18 mins
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    The Book of Five Rings
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    Learn to focus on the essential.

    It was well past midnight on October 10, 1643, when Miyamoto Musashi began writing the five scrolls which immortalized his name not only in Japan but far beyond his own place and time.

    It was late in another sense, too. Musashi, now 60, understood that his life was nearing its end. His strength was dwindling; time, he knew, was short.

    The leaves were already yellow and red when he left the bustling castle town in which he’d lived that fall. He climbed a forested mountainside and entered the cave in which he planned to spend his final days. It was a sacred place devoted to Kannon, the compassionate deity in Japanese Buddhism who guides deceased souls into paradise. For two years, Musashi meditated on his life and recorded his thoughts in the cave. The result of his life’s final labor was a manuscript distilling his insights into the nature of conflict and strategy.

    Before we turn to that manuscript, though, we need to rewind a little. To understand Musashi’s ideas, we need to say something about the time and place in which he lived.

    Musashi was a samurai. The word comes from the Japanese verb saburau, meaning to “serve as an attendant.” Originally, that’s what samurais were – the servants of Japan’s noble rulers. They defended their lords’ estates and policed their subjects. Over time, though, the samurai class grew more ambitious. By the twelfth century, the emperor who nominally ruled Japan was little more than a ceremonial figurehead. Real power belonged to military dictators drawn from the samurai class known as shoguns. The centuries that followed were marked by power struggles, rivalries, and civil wars. The samurais’ warrior ethos was forged in this period. 

    In the early seventeenth century, one warlord overshadowed all others – Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1603, Ieyasu established a new centralized state with its capital in Edo, today’s Tokyo. He was able to do something no other shogun had: he disarmed his rivals. Potential usurpers were forced to minimize their contingents of warriors, resulting in large numbers of unemployed samurai. Their training and culture had prepared them for a life of battle and bloodshed; now they faced an uncertain future in a nation that was discovering the virtues of peace.

    Some samurais became priests or doctors. Others turned to crime – one of the period’s great social problems. A third group became ronin or “wanderers.” These masterless men practiced the martial arts of old, lived by ancient codes of honor and discipline, and traveled from town to town in search of paying students – and sparring partners.

    Born in 1584, Miyamoto Musashi was one of these wandering samurais. He taught martial arts and practiced his true vocation: swordsmanship. Many of the biographical details we have about Musashi’s life were recorded by his students. It’s thanks to them that we know that he never married, made a home, or fathered children. They also tell us that he never combed his hair or took a bath – a precaution against being caught unawares without a weapon to hand. These accounts also give us a glimpse of his temperament. One student, for example, recalled bringing the 50-year-old Musashi a pile of bamboo poles. How could one tell which ones were suitable for flag poles, he asked. A simple problem, Musashi replied. He picked up one pole after the other and smashed it against the ground, discarding those that shattered and keeping the rest – an “unquestionable method,” as the student noted. As we’ll soon see, such directness and pragmatism was one of Musashi’s defining traits.

    As a swordsman, Musashi was undefeatable. Between the ages of 13, when he had his first bout with another samurai, and 30, when he retired, he fought 60 duels, winning all of them. Duels played an important part in samurai culture – it was a means for swordsmen to hone their skills and demonstrate technique. Usually, they were fought with wooden training swords called bokken and ended when the victorious samurai drew first blood. But when honor or political power was on the line, duels were fought to the death. In these bouts, Musashi typically wielded a katana, the curved, single-edge steel sword worn by all samurai, but he was also capable of inflicting mortal wounds with a bokken.

    By his own reckoning, Musashi possessed no extraordinary skill as a swordsman. Nor was he especially fast or fleet-footed. What had brought him victory time and again, he said, was his way of focusing on what was essential and discarding everything inessential. That was what he hoped to pass on to the readers of The Book of Five Rings.

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    What is The Book of Five Rings about?

    The Book of Five Rings (1643) is one of the most insightful texts to have ever been written about the nature of confrontation. Penned by a wandering samurai in seventeenth-century Japan, it’s a timeless study of the mindset of the warrior – literal and figurative.

    Who should read The Book of Five Rings?

    • Martial artists
    • Strategists  
    • Leaders

    About the Author

    Miyamoto Musashi was born in 1584. Renowned in his own time as a swordsman and teacher, he fought and won 60 duels before his retirement. Shortly before his death, he retreated to a mountain cave to compose the work for which he’s remembered – a study of the arts of war. Musashi died in 1645 at the age of 60.

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