The martial artist who penned The Book of Five Rings incorporated tons of timeless wisdom into his work. This tutorial will help you glean maximum meaning from the ancient text.

Ask a martial artist who’s up on his history to name the greatest warrior of all time, and chances are he’ll say Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary Japanese swordsman who cut down 60 men with his blade. No doubt there have been many other fighting men — both before and after Musashi’s day (1584-1645) — who killed more enemies, but undocumented knowledge seldom outlives those who possess it. What makes Musashi special is that he accumulated an incredible amount of experience and committed his wisdom to paper in the form of a timeless classic titled Go Rin No Sho. We know it as The Book of Five Rings. On cursory examination, the text appears to be a simple work designed to educate young swordsmen. Yet it embodies a plethora of between-the-lines observations and advice that will enthrall anyone who reads it with a warrior’s eye. Its prose captures an old warrior’s perceptions of the world around him and conveys the lessons the master deemed essential for a young warrior’s survival. It’s important to remember that when Musashi put pen to paper, he was very old. He knew that for him, there would be no more battles and, therefore, no need to hold anything back in an effort to keep enemies from learning secret fighting methods and using them against him. Much of the content of The Book of Five Rings is specific to combat in old Japan, yet Musashi has plenty to teach 21st-century martial artists. We may carry a tactical folder and a Glock instead of a wakizashi and a katana, but fighting is fighting regardless of the year, and much of Musashi’s wisdom still applies. His text is divided into five parts: Ground, Water, Fire, Wind and Void. A full discussion of their modern applications is beyond the scope of this article, so I’ll focus on the most poignant lessons. Ground “Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest and the deepest things as if they were a straight road mapped out on the ground,” Musashi wrote. His meaning is clear: Success in combat requires planning. A lesson frequently learned early in a martial artist’s training is that those who are destined to win do so by first studying and then fighting. Those who are destined to lose tend to fight first and then study why they lost. Although no one can accurately predict the outcome of every battle and prepare specifically for it, you can certainly stack the deck in your favor.


Download a free guide titled "Miyamoto Musashi: Samurai Weapons Legend, Creator of Niten Ichi-Ryu and Author of The Book of Five Rings" here!

You must develop a realistic understanding of your skills and capabilities. Study the dynamics of conflict until you possess a basic understanding of how combat unfolds. It’s crucial to approach this with a 21st-century focus since modern-day assailants don’t always use weapons that existed in ancient Japan. Musashi compared the way of the warrior to the way of the carpenter. The carpenter plans everything with great specificity, and you, as a martial artist, should do the same — both inside and outside the dojo. You may know exactly how you would spar with a classmate who likes to lead with a roundhouse kick, but do you have a plan in the event of a home-invasion robbery? How about a car jacking or mugging? Being prepared means you’ll never be a deer in the headlights, frozen by the savagery of the world. Leave nothing to chance. Water In the second section of his treatise, Musashi wrote: “Water adopts the shape of its receptacle. It is sometimes a trickle and sometimes a wild sea. Water has a clear blue color. By the clarity, things of [my] school are shown in this book.” One of the most difficult attributes to develop is adaptability. A wise martial artist uses techniques and tactics that fit the circumstances of the fight. His goal is to hit his adversary, not necessarily to execute his favorite technique. Knowing which kick or punch to throw as a fight begins — and being able to change course at a moment’s notice — is essential.

"Learn the Lesson of Compassion From Japanese Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi" by reading this post.

The ability to become a tactical chameleon requires exposure to different fighting styles. Witness the generally poor showings made by one-dimensional fighters who enter MMA competitions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In that kind of limited-rules environment, the fighter that triumphs is the one who has trained in every conceivable method, from ground grappling to kickboxing and all ranges in between. Musashi’s moral: Study everything, keep what is useful and do not limit yourself to any one system. Fire “This book is about fighting,” Musashi wrote. “The spirit of fire is fierce, whether the fire be small or big. And so it is with battles.” I once saw a well-trained martial artist get his rear end handed to him by an untrained yet much fiercer street thug who had no concerns about getting beaten up or killed. That illustrated to me the importance of ferocity. Being in great shape or having trained under a renowned master is simply not enough. Becoming a fierce fighter doesn’t mean you have to live an austere existence like Musashi did — never washing your body lest you let down your guard, never sleeping on a pad lest it make you weak and so on. It means getting your mind oriented correctly in terms of life-or-death combat. As he wrote, “The way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.” In medieval times, Japanese warriors cultivated a fatalistic approach to things. In other words, they trained to die. As a modern-day warrior, you need not seek out your own demise in the service of another, but you must make friends with the idea of sacrificing your life so that in the midst of the fight, you aren’t distracted by thoughts of self-preservation. Of course, you should endeavor to preserve your life, but you should do so with the strength that comes from having a resolute acceptance of death and the purity of focus that accompanies it. Wind “In strategy, you must know the ways of other schools, so I have written about various other traditions of strategy in this, the Wind Book.” Musashi focused much of his study on the martial ways of his adversaries. He isn’t the only historical figure to have done that; commentators as geographically and culturally diverse as Carl Von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have penned similar admonishments. Who are the likely adversaries of the 21st-century martial artist? Gang members, criminals and terrorists, for the most part. You must learn who they are, how they operate and what they wear. In a self-defense situation, you won’t find yourself face-to-face with a kendo student holding a samurai sword or with a kickboxer who announces himself and bows as though he’s part of a Hollywood fight flick. The opponent you’re most likely to confront today is a person skilled at taking you by surprise and willing to deprive you of your life without a moment’s hesitation. “Some of the world’s strategists are concerned only with sword fencing and limit their training to flourishing the long sword and carriage of the body,” Musashi wrote. “But is dexterity alone sufficient to win? This is not the essence of the way. … In my doctrine, I dislike preconceived, narrow spirit. You must study this well.” The lesson is obvious: Don’t be limited in your studies. If you take taekwondo, consider adding wing chun and Brazilian jiu-jitsu to expand your horizons. If you focus on unarmed fighting, spend some time learning knife and gun methods. If you’re a shooter, dabble in jeet kune do as a supplement. Remember that narrow-mindedness kills. “Cutting down the enemy is the way of strategy, and there is no need for many refinements of it,” Musashi wrote. Nevertheless, some martial arts teachers romanticize combat. Those of us who have been there and done that know it’s a foolish thing to do. Combat has an ugliness, a reality and a finality that cut through all the dogma, doctrine, style disputes and miscellaneous clap-trap that clogs our consciousness. It’s simple, violent and animalistic. Understand it and accept it. Void Musashi wrote: “To attain the way of strategy as a warrior, you must study other martial arts and not deviate even a little from the way of the warrior. With your spirit settled, accumulate practice day by day, and hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit [of] heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze [of] perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.” This passage typifies the Book of the Void, and throughout it, two aspects stand out: the mental, which Musashi calls “spiritual,” and the technical.

“Samurai Weapons Philosophy: How the Samurai Sword Can Enhance Life Rather Than Simply Take It” is the title of a free guide you can download right now. Click here to get started.

Mental: After a particularly violent gunfight, a superior asked me if I’d been scared. I said, truthfully, that I had not been. Then I qualified my answer: My lack of fear hadn’t stemmed from my being particularly brave or particularly stupid, but from being completely occupied with winning. I had trained myself to fight as well as I could, and I had a firm understanding of the rules of engagement. Additionally, I had a fall-back plan for any after-action eventuality that might crop up. Quite simply, I had a focused spirit, which is the essence of the void Musashi described. Technical: In the November 2001 issue of Black Belt, I wrote an article titled “Enough Is Enough! The Case for Keeping Your Self-Defense Arsenal Short and Sweet.” It discussed how knowing too many techniques can be a liability because any move that’s unnatural or overly complicated will not be physically memorized. And if it’s not physically memorized, you’ll never use it in a fight. That concept of physical memorization and subconscious programming is not new. The Japanese sword master Yagyu Tajima No Kami wrote: “Learning and knowledge are meant to be forgotten, and it is only when this is realized that you feel perfectly comfortable. The body will move as if automatically, without conscious effort on the part of the swordsman. All of the training is there, but the mind is utterly unconscious of it.” Yagyu was referring to swordsmanship, but the concept is entirely valid for modern combatives. Likewise, Musashi’s Go Rin No Sho, which is more than 350 years old, remains a valid guide for the education of modern practitioners of the self-defense arts. (Photos by Rick Hustead) Gabriel Suarez is president of Suarez International Inc., a Prescott, Arizona-based training and consulting group that teaches modern combatives courses around the world.
SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
Keep Reading Show less

Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

Keep Reading Show less

Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: StevensTKD@aol.com or go to www.StevensTaeKwonDo.com

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter