Lessons from the Gorin no Sho
by Robert Wolfe
The following article has a very long history. It was originally written in 1977 as a paper for a college course examining Japan from the perspective of cultural anthropology. In 1981, it was accepted for publication in The Bujin, and it became my first writing credit. A reworked version later appeared in the second issue of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, in 1992. I continue to receive requests for the article, and since I’ve promised a number of people I would oblige them at some point, I offer it again here.
A glance at the rack of new bestsellers in any book store will reveal a rash of “self help” books, all of which profess to offer the reader a practical guide to everyday life. These books advocate every conceivable behavioral pattern, but they share the common factor of having been written, for the most part, by persons who have no more than an academic claim to any special way of life. In contrast, consider the following: almost four hundred years ago, a guide to kenjutsu, strategy, and life was written by an old hermit who lived his last years in a cave. He based his observations on experiences gained over a lifetime spent surviving one of the most violent eras of human history, the years leading to the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan. Musashi’s Gorin-no-Sho is unique, in that it treats fighting, strategy, and life as one, condensing the underlying principles that are common to each.
Although most modern editions of the Gorin-no-Sho contain a cover blurb alluding to “The Real Art of Japanese Management” or something of the kind, implying the book is essential to understanding Japanese business, in reality, Japanese executives rely on Musashi about as often as western businessmen refer to Machiavelli. The typical Japanese gained his “knowledge” of Musashi from the popular (and highly embellished) novel by Yoshikawa; few ever read the Gorin-no-Sho.
Still, the Gorin-no-Sho is of great interest to the student of traditional martial arts. In our modern age of “been there/done that” hype, Musashi stands as a clear example of a man who repeatedly placed himself in harm’s way for the sake of his art. The historical record of Musashi’s life is complete enough for us to examine Musashi’s writings in the context of his actions and the impressions — in some cases incisions — he made on others. While we may judge him unkempt, savage, and seemingly devoid of compassion, we are also forced to recognize his accomplishments as a poet, artist, and apparently invincible swordsman. Gorin-no-Sho is the product of an exceptional life.
Shinmen Musashi-no-kami Fujiwara Genshin, known as Miyamoto Musashi, was born in 1584 and fought his first duel at the age of thirteen, killing an experienced and mature swordsman. From that point until he was 61, Musashi won another 59 duels and participated in five major battles. Although certain legends hold that he occasionally spared an opponent, documented accounts report Musashi’s foes in formal duels were ushered on to the “Great Void.”
Musashi’s radical and seemingly unbeatable kenjutsu was based on training in the simultaneous use of both the long (katana) and companion (wakizashi) swords. The style was eventually formalized as the Niten Ichi-ryu (Two Heavens School). Many fictional works depict Musashi fighting his duels with two swords, but I’m not aware of any record of this actually happening. The reports we have indicate Musashi fought with a single katana or bokken — the primary intent of his training methods was the development of a swordsman who could wield a sword with equal effectiveness in either hand.
An unusually skillful swordsman of Musashi’s time, after having developed his own style and proven it in personal combat, often opened his own dojo for the instruction of wealthy lords and their sons. Musashi, on the other hand, dedicated himself entirely to training and a “warrior’s pilgrimage.” Most of his duels took place during this period of wandering and introspection.
Musashi semi-retired from dueling at the age of 30 and spent the remainder of his life instructing, meditating, painting, and considering the Way of strategy. Total understanding, according to Musashi, came at the age of 51.
The final two years of his life were passed in meditation at the Reigendo cave in the mountains of Kyushu. Several weeks before his death in 1645, Musashi composed the Gorin-no-Sho and presented it in a letter to his student, Nobuyuki Teruo.
Musashi believed that strategy was not an entity unto itself. If a person could master strategy in one area of endeavor he could, by the perception he had gained, understand the strategy applicable to any aspect of life. The Gorin-no-Sho addresses kenjutsu, but the lessons contained in the book can be related to almost any undertaking. According to Musashi, practice with swords leads initially to mastery of the self and, later, to mastery of interactions with others.
To learn how to win with the long sword in strategy, first learn the five approaches and the five attitudes, and absorb the way of the long sword naturally into your body. You must understand spirit and timing, handle the long sword naturally, and move your body and legs in harmony with your spirit. Whether beating one man or two, you will then know values in strategy.
Study the contents of this book, taking one item at a time, and through fighting with enemies you will gradually come to know the principle of the Way.
Step by step walk the thousand mile road.
Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men. 1
The “spirit of the warrior” is one of the foundations upon which rest Musashi’s theories of fighting. It is also the basis of a spiritual bearing that will aid the individual in any situation.
In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be any different from normal. Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken. Do not let your spirit be influenced by your body, or let your body be influenced by your spirit. Be neither insufficiently or over spirited. An elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak. Do not let the enemy see your spirit. 2
Zen Buddhist influences are apparent in Musashi’s references to spirit. What he desires is a state of mind that is as neutral as possible. The most frequently given example is that of a mind like water. Water always seeks balance while shaping itself to any container it enters. Musashi directs the student to develop a spirit that will maintain itself in equilibrium, a spirit that by virtue of its unbiased nature will enable the warrior to react in any manner that circumstances may require.
It could be said that the development of correct spirit is intertwined with all other aspects of the Gorin-no-Sho. For example, kenjutsu practice will help build “warrior’s spirit” while the discipline of spirit will complete a circle by enhancing one’s swordsmanship. A similar relationship exists between spirit and the nine rules of personal behavior outline by Musashi:
1. Do not think dishonestly.
2. The Way is in training.
3. Become acquainted with every art.
4. Know the Ways of all professions.
5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
6. Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything.
7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
8. Pay attention even to trifles.
9. Do nothing which is of no use. 3
These rules are one of the most significant sections of the Gorin-no-Sho — they bridged the gap between kenjutsu and everyday life for the Japanese warrior of the 1600s and continue to be valid to this day. The common sense nature of Musashi’s precepts are perhaps the best support for his belief that fighting, strategy, and life are all related, and that the principles of one are necessarily the principles of the others. When the student of budô understands these underlying principles, he will be able to act with confidence and skill in any area of life.
Conducting oneself with assurance can be augmented by taking full advantage of one’s strengths. Water never goes over anything it can go around, and yet, few things can stop it. In like fashion, the warrior must learn to recognize the most advantageous path before him. Musashi terms this strategy “crossing at a ford.”
“Crossing at a ford” means, for example, crossing the sea at a strait, or crossing over a hundred miles of broad sea at a crossing place. I believe this "crossing at a ford" occurs often in a man’s lifetime. It means setting sail even though your friends stay in harbor, knowing the soundness of your ship and the favor of the day. When all conditions are met and there is a favorable wind, or a tail wind, then set sail. If the wind changes within a few miles of your destination, you must row across the remaining distance without sail.
If you attain this spirit it applies to everyday life. You must always think of crossing at a ford. 4
It is important to note that while Musashi advocates taking advantage of one’s strengths, it is not the same thing as “taking the easy way out.” When the best path is identified, one must dedicate oneself to it. Musashi directs the student of budô to take advantage of what he can, but to remain always prepared to do the real work himself. In the example given by Musashi, a shift in the wind does not cause the warrior to turn back his boat. Rather, the warrior hauls out his oars and sets his back to the task.
Pursuing vigorously whatever decision has been made is a theme Musashi returns to time and again. In the “Water Book” of the Gorin-no-Sho, the section that describes specific kenjutsu techniques, Musashi explains the importance of directing a settled spirit to decisive action.
To cut and slash are two different things. Cutting, whatever form of cutting it is, is decisive, with a resolute spirit. Slashing is no more than touching the enemy. Even if you slash strongly, and even if the enemy dies instantly, it is still slashing. When you cut, your spirit is resolved. You must appreciate this. 5
In the passage above, Musashi addresses several layers of meaning simultaneously, tying kenjutsu, strategy, and life into one bundle.
The five sections of the Gorin-no-Sho are woven together by means of one, common consideration: timing. When all other elements of strategy are removed, timing is what remains. It is the factor that blends spirit, ability, and resolve to produce invincibility.
There is timing in everything. Timing in strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of patience.
There is timing in the whole life of the warrior, in his thriving and declining, in his harmony and discord. All things entail rising and falling timing. You must be able to discern this. In strategy there are various timing considerations. From the onset you must know the applicable and inapplicable timing, and from among the large and small things and fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing, otherwise your strategy will become uncertain. 6
Musashi’s references to “rising” and “falling” timing would seem to indicate a Taoist influence. He speaks of the timing of the Void in various sections of the book, and his allusions to this timing being a “non-timing” that is parent to spontaneous action are similar to passages found in the writings of Lao-tzu. As in all other lessons, Musashi indicates to the student that what must first be consciously practiced will eventually become automatic.
In Musashi’s world of 1645, as in our modern world, men and women who demonstrate ability to manage themselves are often put in charge of managing others. Maintaining the spirit of universal application found in other sections of the Gorin-no-Sho, Musashi asserts that the rules for handling others are the same as those principles discovered in personal practice. With such knowledge comes the ability to take command skillfully.
The foreman carpenter allots his men according to their ability. Floor layers, makers of sliding doors, thresholds and lintels, ceilings and so on. Those of poor ability lay the floor joists, and those of lesser ability carve wedges and do such miscellaneous work. If the foreman knows and deploys his men well, the finished work will be good.
The foreman should take into account the abilities and limitations of his men, circulating among them and asking nothing unreasonable. He should know their morale and spirit, and encourage them when necessary. This is the same as the principle of strategy. 7
When the student of budo masters himself and thereby gains mastery of interactions with others, he reaches the pinnacle of training and ability. Musashi posits that success in any area of endeavor is dependent only on practice and knowledge of the Way.
To master the virtue of the long sword is to govern the world and oneself, thus the long sword is the basis of strategy. The principle is “strategy by means of the long sword.” If he attains the virtue of the long sword, one man can beat ten, so can a hundred men beat a thousand. In my strategy, one man is the same as ten thousand, so this strategy is the complete warrior’s craft. 8
Although Musashi’s examples and teachings utilize the long sword, he makes it clear that practice and diligent investigation of any martial Way will yield equivalent results.
The Japanese seem to have always been better at perceiving and appreciating Ways than westerners. In Japan, martial ways have from the earliest days been viewed as vehicles for introspection, self discipline, and the enhancement of health, rather than simply as means for winning fights. European fencing schools contemporary to Musashi taught swordsmanship almost exclusively for practical combat. In the four old, European manuals I have had a limited chance to study, I have been surprised both by obvious analogs to Japanese strategy and tactics and by the relative absence of spiritual implications in the statements of the fencing masters. (It’s also interesting to note that not a single Western school of swordsmanship has been preserved — all present-day schools teaching fencing as a European martial art are presenting arts that have been reconstructed from the old manuals and an incredible amount of contact sparring.)
Musashi and other Japanese swordsmen whose manuals are preserved tend in their writings to imply a totality of existence, and the theory that exploration of a part can lead to mastery of the whole.
Musashi was not concerned with describing the world — he was interested in passing on his method for dealing with it. Although the Gorin-no-Sho is, on the surface, a kenjutsu manual, it can be viewed as much more. The content of Musashi’s work, the underlying principles he illuminates, can be regarded as more significant than the kenjutsu techniques he overtly addresses. As a work that goes beyond itself to speak to martial artists of all times and Ways, Musashi’s Gorin-no-Sho is unsurpassed.
Any student of martial arts trying to draw strategic or technical insights from translated sources operates under a considerable disadvantage. The Harris translation of the Gorin-no-Sho is most often cited as a reference in research utilizing secondary sources, since it was the first version of Musashi’s work widely distributed in English, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most reliable or accurate version available. While the author’s biographical notes on the dust jacket report that Harris practiced modern kendô both in England and for three years while teaching mechanical engineering at a university in Japan, there is no indication of the depth of his training, or any reference to direct experience with kenjutsu.
Recent postings to an iaido mail list on the Internet — in particular one by Karl Friday of the Department of History at the University of Georgia — point to glaring inaccuracies in the historical introduction of the Harris book which compromise one’s confidence in the fidelity of the translation.
A somewhat more freshly translated edition of the Gorin-no-Sho was published in 1982 by Bantam Books. In this case, the translation was performed by a team of two Japanese and two Americans, at least one of whom can claim formal training in Zen Buddhism and Shorinji Kempo. The disparity in translator perspectives in these two versions of the Gorin-no-Sho is readily apparent, and can be illustrated by comparing the following to the “Crossing at a ford” section of the Harris translation quoted in my paper:
When one speaks of “crossing the expanse” it can be in the context of crossing a sea or crossing a channel. It can be a short distance or a long distance. In the course of a lifetime there are usually a number of difficult situations which could be likened to crossing an expanse. The “expanse” is crossed by piloting the boat, by researching the location of the “expanse” if it is located on a sea route, by knowing the performance capabilities of the boat, by knowing well the favorable and the unfavorable points regarding the weather conditions, by making the necessary adjustments according to the conditions, regardless of whether another boat or boats will be accompanying your boat, by relying on a crosswind or by being pushed by a tail wind, and if the wind direction changes, by rowing for three or five miles, all with the intention of reaching the port.
In order to pass through life, there is the need to have a spirit, to be decisive about exerting all of one’s energies to overcome difficulties. 9
Rather than presenting a case for taking advantage of whatever opportunities are afforded by a particular situation, as in the Harris version, the Bantam Books edition describes overcoming difficulties through careful preparations and unshakable determination to achieve the objective. That’s more than just a minor variation in flavor — it’s a completely different message.
Just as interesting is a comparison of the sections addressing what Harris describes as “To cut and slash are two different things.” The Bantam Books version contains a typographical error in the third sentence that seriously confuses the meaning of the paragraph:
To utsu and to ataru are separate. To utsu is “to consciously deal a blow, regardless of the way in which it is dealt.” To ataru has the meaning of “to come by” regardless of how strongly one does this so that it is to *utsu* even if it be strong enough so as to instantaneously kill the opponent. To utsu is to do so consciously. This should be researched. 10
Replace utsu with ataru (as is shown in a Japanese language version of the Gorin-no-Sho I have), and the third sentence is more similar to the Harris version. Even so, the Bantam Books version includes a more complete presentation of what Musashi apparently wrote in that section:
To ataru against the hands or the legs of an opponent is first of all to ataru and this is done so as to be able to utsu afterward. To ataru means to come into contact with one’s opponent. Practice in order to be able to differentiate between these two. One should learn to improvise. 11
While the Harris version implies “cutting” is clearly superior to “slashing,” the Bantam Books team conveys the two concepts as independent strategies, each of which has its uses. Once again, a critical difference in meaning.
Definitely avoid compounding the confusion by depending on an additional layer of mere opinion, as is the case with The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings, by “Hanshi” Steve Kaufman (you’re getting the picture already, aren’t you?). Kaufman took an English translation of the Gorin-no-Sho — I think the Harris version, but it’s been awhile since I (very briefly) looked at this title in a book store — and “interpreted” the work for students of sport karate. It’s a real stretch, by just about any measure.
Of the different English versions of the Gorin-no-Sho I have seen to date, including the translation by Thomas Cleary, the Bantam Books edition has proven to be the most useful to me.
1 Miyamoto Musashi, trans. by Victor Harris, A Book of Five Rings (New York: The Overlook Press, 1974), p.66.
2 Ibid., p. 53.
3 Ibid., p. 49
4 Ibid., p. 73.
5 Ibid., p. 61.
6 Ibid., p. 48.
7 Ibid., p. 42.
8 Ibid., p. 46.
9 Miyamoto Musashi, trans. by Nihon Services Corporation, The Book of Five Rings (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), p. 64.
10 Ibid., p. 45