I am not a philosopher. I am not a wise man. I have done some martial arts over the years and have studied Aikido probably most extensively.
In those years I have been exposed to asian philosophies, such as Zen, Tao and its application in martial arts, resulting in the asian code of chivalry, called Bushido. As my own path in learning the Way has taken me away from wearing a Gi to wearing armor and jupons, many things have changed, but my wish to grow and to become a more accomplished fighter has not. I have found several books, written by ancient warriors and generals, to be of great inspiration and help in my attempt to become a better fighter.
I would like to start today, with this article, a column, a series of short articles about thought and principles discussed in these books that I found interesting and helpful. My knight, Sir Geoffrey of Griffinhold, once told me that I should read “The Book of Five Rings”, by Miyamoto Musashi. I didn’t know the book and didn’t pick it up for long time. Upon reading it, at first, I thought that it was a bit of an odd book, very removed, in parts, from what we do, but after thinking about it, I realized just how much knowledge about sword fighting and the Way is contained in it and how it applies very much to what we do.
Let me, today, tell you about Myiamoto Musashi, one of the greatest swordsmen that ever lived. Musashi grew up in feudal Japan in the late 16th and early 17th century. He was born 1584 and wrote his book The Five Rings, at the age of 59 in 1643.
Musashi was a ronin, a samurai without a lord whom he could serve and who could employ him. Japan was in turmoil as feudal lords battled each other for supremacy and the role of Shogun, the military dictator. Just before Musashi was born, the Shogun managed to get a bit of control over the situation, in part by imposing strict rules concerning the wearing of swords. The short sword anybody was allowed to wear, but the long sword was a sign of the samurai. As a result, a system of strongly divided social classes developed in Japan, that would prove highly important to Musashi’s thinking. There is the warrior class, composed basically of the samurai, the peasants, the artisans and the merchants.
As a ronin he and all others had a difficult life, because nobody was there to support them, the world around them changed and they attempted uphold a life of chivalry and honor. As a result many ronin roamed the country and challenged other ronin or the many teachers in sword fighting schools that had sprung up all over the place, in the hope that some lord would notice their prowess and hire them.
In this world, Musashi excelled. He fought his first duell at thirteen. By the time he had reached twenty-eight or twenty-nine , he had fought about 60 fights and not lost a single bout. These were fights to the death, fought with anything he could get his hands on. The long sword, the short sword, wooden swords, boat oars, fence posts, spears, anything, he used it. In one story, he was challenged to a fight on an island. On the way over with a boat, he took the spare oar and carved a rough sword out of it. He tied back the sleeves of his kimono, grabbed the oar as the reached the shore and stormed out of the water at his opponent. Without stopping he engaged him, killed him with a strike to the head, bowed to the attendants and left. Musashi was a fierce man.
Musashi was not, what we would call a paragon of outwardly appearance. Apparently he didn’t care much for what he looked like, didn’t shower much and basically looked unkempt. But he also was an artist, a painter, sculptor and calligrapher.
In that sense, he did in fact practice much of we speak of in the SCA. Just being a good fighter is not enough. He says that by learning others skills, one also learns about the Way. In the first chapter he says that the warrior’s way is the way of the sword and the brush, or pen, as we would say. A warrior must do his best to accomplish what he can in both.
In his own prolog, Musashi tells of how, roughly at the age of thirty, after having won all those fights, he was looking for a deeper meaning of it all around fifty years of age, he found what he calls Heiho, which could be translated as the Way or Path to Enlightement.
In his sixties, he retired to a cave, where he wrote “The Book of Five Rings”. It is a small book, because he doesn’t need many words to explain. The book is divided into five chapters: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Emptiness.
I would like to finish this article with a quote of something Musashi said in his first book, the Book of Earth: “It is generally accepted that the warrior’s path is the resolute acceptance of death.” This is a sentiment deeply rooted in Japanese culture and somewhat foreign to us, yet there is much truth in it, even if one steps into the list field of an SCA tournament. As Musashi would say “Think on this deeply” and in the next Wobbly Wheel we’ll discuss this statement and see what else Musashi has stored up for us.
Maximilian, a warrior, perhaps
Continue to part 2
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