Miyamoto Musashi is considered one of the greatest samurais to every live. Seven days before his death he wrote two books: Dokkōdō and The Book of Five Rings. Each is more than the summary of his life as Kensei, but advice on living and finding the Way.
The Book of Five Rings is officially one of the most influential books I’ve ever read.
But instead of doing a traditional review where I might talk about each of the 5 scrolls (earth, water, fire, wind, emptiness) or the 3 swords (killing sword, life-giving sword, no sword), I think giving a read of my favorite quotes will actually do the book more justice.
20 Quotes from the Book of Five Rings
I know in today’s world people want short, quick, pithy quotes. But I’m starting with a rather long one, and possibly the most important passage in the entire book.
I don’t think Musashi’s use of “heart” is to be confused with the modern westernized use of the word. It is not an emotional state or feeling as much as an intuition towards your natural state of being.
This path is not without hardship or suffering, but more importantly is your true path.
You don’t need to keep a concept in your head if you can express it.
Richard Feynman used to have this quote written on his chalkboard: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
I also think this video clip from The Social Network rightly embodies Musashi’s concept.
The idea being that if you truly understand something you can create it, and thus are no longer reliant on the idea, but are the idea.
While most people dislike Zuckerberg because of clips like this, it demonstrates that wisdom (being the action of knowledge) is much greater than knowledge (the idea of wisdom). Ideas must be attached to because they are not grasped by action.
In the chapter on “No Sword” Musashi goes on to talk about “striking with the mind.” And below you’ll see him talk about observation > perception.
Everything you possess is a tool to defeat your enemies (who don’t always have to be people, but can be internal demons like anxiety or depression, in which case you may consider the “mind’s eye”.)
I think this is something world class runners like David Goggins or Steve Prefontaine might grasp intuitively.
The meditative mind can travel great distances, and to cover great distances the mind must be still.
What I love about this quote is that Musashi goes onto say something like don’t reveal your mind. It’s not that you have to pretend not to be hurt from time to time, but that you should be mindfully strong.
Of course it was a political strategist that convinced many “perception is reality.”
While this was said by Musashi in the 17th century, it is merely an echo of an idea that dates back at least as far as Lao Tzu around 550 B.C.
I think it was Naval Ravikant who often discusses being proactive instead of reactive.
For example, when you start you day by reading news or Twitter you condition your mind to react to that which is occurring around you. You’re being maneuvered.
This is why people like Naval often recommend starting the morning in meditation.
This quote is similar to another quote I absolutely love (which I couldn’t find, so I’m recalling from memory:
“A boy on a farm sees a plane and dreams of far away places; a man on the plane sees the boy and dreams of home.”
It takes a great mind, a trained mind to see both perspectives at the same time.
This quote may make you think of something Bruce Lee said several centuries later…
How important this concept is and how greatly it could be applied in every day conversation.
Imagine being able to take criticism without being defensive, instead knowing the truth is your defense.
Musashi later on quotes a poem of which I do not know the author:
“Watching in stolen glances, the dragonfly evades the shrike.”
This is Musashi explaining the concept of “over-focus.” Of being so driven, so fixated on one thing, you are entirely unaware of everything else.
Reminds of this famous movie scene…
Knowledge is not the way. Books offer knowledge.
Wisdom is the way, and it is only gained in the action of knowledge.
Musashi often says “reflect on this” after an important passage. And I wish he had included that phrase here.
This concept is the essence of wisdom. It goes hand in hand with the above quote of detaching from a principle after understanding it.
With mastery of swordlessness, you are never without a sword…because you are the sword.
This is tribalism at its worst.
If you live in America you can feel this attitude in every aspect of our politics, and it reeks of wrongness.
Everyone should read this book
To be honest, everyone should read the Tao Te Ching first.
But The Book of Five Rings is an absolute masterpiece. It’s a more detailed version of Lao Tzu’s “Way”, but applied specifically to the life of a samurai.
The, perhaps intended, consequence is that Miyamoto Musashi’s words on the art of war are so seamlessly applied to many aspects of life.