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The Book of Five Rings    by Miyamoto Musashi order for
Book of Five Rings
by Miyamoto Musashi
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2002 (2002)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Miyamoto Musashi is a legend in Japan, where 43 films have been released since 1908, based on his life. Beginning at age thirteen, Musashi fought (and won) over sixty duels before he was thirty, and was also involved in three major battles. Born around 1584, he was a multi-talented individual, with impressive skills in painting, sculpture and metallurgy, as well as the martial arts. The Book of Five Rings is Musashi's final masterpiece and legacy. This version was translated into English by William Scott Wilson, who also wrote an excellent biography of Musashi, The Lone Samurai.

In his Foreword, which is preceded by a reproduction of Musashi's remarkable painting of Shrike on a Withered Branch, Wilson emphasizes the opportunity the book gives us 'to be conversant with the wisdom learned from intense experiences that very few of us will ever have', saying that 'its study will be of value for anyone whose life encompasses conflict.' After this, Wilson includes 'The Way of Walking Alone', twenty-one maxims that Musashi wrote for his disciples at age sixty on his deathbed. They include: 'Consider yourself lightly; consider the world deeply' and 'Respect the gods and Buddhas, but do not depend on them.'

The five chapters of Musashi's great work - on The Earth, The Water, The Fire, The Wind, and The Emptiness - are introduced by elegant calligraphy.

In The Earth, he tells us that '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.' He speaks dismissively of those calling themselves martial artists, who 'are generally only teachers of sword techniques', quotes a saying that 'the immature martial art is a source of great injury', and reminds us that 'the teacher is the needle, the student the thread.' He speaks of the rhythms of the martial arts - of balance, contact, spacing, and the rhythm of resistance to rhythm. He concludes with nine rules including 'Understand what cannot be seen by the eye.'

In The Water, the swordsman speaks of frame of mind, posture, observation (which he distinguishes from seeing), movement of feet, stances, and the 'Way of the Sword' (techniques have evocative names like Lacquer and Glue). He exhorts readers to practice to 'learn the heart of each step' and advises, 'no matter whom you fight, know his mind.'

In The Fire, Musashi addresses contest in battle - place of combat, taking the initiative, keeping it ('Pressing Down the Pillow' and 'Stepping on the Sword'), knowing the opponent's style and so on. These precepts reflect his application of psychology to his Martial Art, as in a comment that 'the heart of fear is in the unexpected.' In The Wind, Musashi outlines other styles, emphasizing the advantages of his own Two-Sword Style. He concludes with The Emptiness ... 'In Emptiness exists Good but no Evil. / Wisdom is Existence. / Principle is Existence. / The Way is Existence. / The Mind is Emptiness.'

There is much wisdom, for both the martial arts and life in general, in The Book of Five Rings. It's a volume to read and re-read for better understanding, focusing in particular on the many parts where the legendary swordsmaster notes 'You should investigate these things thoroughly.'

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