When it comes to martial arts and strategy, only a few books are considered must-reads. One of them is The Book of Five Rings (Gorin-no-sho) by Miyamoto Musashi. Written between 1643 and 1645, it remains a source of ageless wisdom.
The recent publication of The Complete Musashi: The Book of Five Rings and Other Works, translated by Alexander Bennett, includes the well-known text along with other important writings by the famed samurai.
The book’s release seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out why, after hundreds of years, the philosophy of the master swordsman is still studied and why it still rings true. Luckily, Alexander Bennett was able to speak with me about his martial arts career, the legend of Miyamoto Musashi and why Musashi is still relevant today.
Way of the Sword
In addition to being a gifted writer and translator, Bennett has extensive martial arts credentials: kendo (7th-degree black belt), iaido (5th degree), naginata (5th degree), jukendo (6th degree) and tankendo (6th degree), as well as ongoing training in three kobudo arts. As such, he is perhaps the most appropriate person to bring the legendary samurai’s wisdom to the world.
Bennett’s personal story has the makings of a great warrior’s legend. Traveling to Japan from his native New Zealand as an exchange student, he was in the perfect place to study the way of the sword in the land of Musashi. After his host mother suggested doing something Japanese as an activity, he found kendo.
Bennett described his first impression of the art: “That just blew me away. It was just crazy stuff going on in there. I’d never seen kendo before, but as you can imagine, a young, impressionable 17-year-old seeing people pretending to be samurai was pretty cool, so I thought I may as well give that a go.
“And that was where it all started, with not much intent at all other than just to go in there and have a bit of a laugh, really. As I got into it, it was a bit like the Hotel California: I sort of checked in and didn’t check out again, and here I am, still here.”
The demanding, and sometimes brutal training, which took place seven days a week, was physically and emotionally taxing, but it led Bennett to great personal growth. “You start to realize after a while it’s all a matter of your frame of mind,” he said. “If you put your mind to something, it doesn’t matter what the hell it is — you’ll get through it.”
After decades of studying kendo, it almost seems fated that he would tackle the daunting task of sorting fact from fiction in the legend of Musashi.
Legend of Musashi
Book of Five Rings
upload.wikimedia.org / Book of Five Rings
Although The Book of Five Rings is a revered text, Bennett pointed out that the original manuscript no longer exists. Subsequently, a plethora of versions, hand-copied through the ages and likely containing errors, made it difficult to find the most authentic one.
“Trying to sort of identify which one is the closest to what Musashi wrote originally — that was the work of Professor Uozumi, whom I’ve known for many, many years. So I was able to reference his work to get to the closest version of Musashi’s original.”
Though the errors of transcribers can be corrected, the myths surrounding Musashi are harder to correct, Bennett said. “Part of the reason for writing this book is to dispel a lot of the myths surrounding Musashi because the truth of the matter is, without the myths, Musashi’s life and his career and Musashi as a person are absolutely fascinating.
“What he’s created, his career, is just phenomenal in its own right.”
Some may wonder about the value of reading Musashi in the modern era. As delineated in the book, the samurai was not talking about just swordsmanship.
“Musashi goes to great pains to point out that it doesn’t bloody matter if you’ve got a sword or not,” Bennett said. “And if you’ve got a sword, it doesn’t matter how big it is; it’s how you use it. That’s the point. So he’s very clear about saying, ‘This is not just about one-size-fits-all kenjutsu. This is applicable to everything.’”
This quote from Bennett’s translation of The Book of Five Rings may be recognized by some readers, and it’s quite possibly the best template for mastering skill:
“One thousand days of training to forge, 10,000 days of training to refine. Be mindful of this.” (Musashi, 104)
Whether you’re a swordsman, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, an IT specialist or anything else that requires skill, you will find value in the message of Musashi: You have to work in your field for a long time to develop skill.
Bennett explained the famous quote further: “You can learn the basic movements in three years — 1,000 days is give or take three years. But to truly master them and refine them properly so that they become a part of you takes 10,000 days of training — 30 years. That’s figurative, of course, but that’s something that in my own experience as a martial artist I find to be very true.”
The road to a high level of skill and understanding is long, and Bennett crystalized the essence of Musashi’s message perfectly: “Anybody that wants a quick fix and wants to go and buy their McDojo black belt down the road — well, they’re just fooling themselves. If you really want to understand this world of the martial arts, then this is something that you have to prepare to spend a life doing.”
Musashi, M., 2020. The Complete Musashi, The Book of Five Rings and Other Works. Translated by A. Bennett. Tokyo: Tuttle.