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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“This book is about fighting,” Musashi wrote. “The spirit of …