Many people around the world have read “The Book of Five Rings” (Go Rin no Sho) by the great Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Even though the book is about swordsmanship, it is one of the greatest works on tactics ever written. Musashi’s book is to tactics what Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War” is to strategy. It is practically required reading for any Japanese businessperson and anyone that wants to do business with them. The ideas expressed in the book can be applied to virtually every interaction between individuals or groups. Of course as a martial arts practitioner, I am most interested in the philosophies as they can be applied to the art that I teach, Aikido (in addition to Wing Chun, of which I am a student).
In the “Earth Scroll” section of his book, Musashi lists the rules for those intending to pursue his martial art:
1.Think of what is right and true.
2.Practice and cultivate the science.
3.Become acquainted with the arts.
4.Know the principles of the crafts.
5.Understand the harm and benefit in everything.
6.Learn to see everything accurately.
7.Become aware of what is not obvious.
8.Be careful even in small matters.
9.Do not do anything useless.
In my search for a name for my Aikido school, I recently re-read portions of The Book of Five Rings (TBOFR), including these “dojo rules” from the Earth Scroll. I remember reading them the first time and being struck by the principles outlined in them. My training as an engineer and work teaching physics and mathematics had shaped my thinking already into rough alignment with these 9 “rules” without my being aware of it. As I examine them in more detail, it became clear that they were already an integral part of how I pursue my life and they should also be part of how my Aikido dojo operates. Each of these nine rules contribute to the climate of my dojo in a specific way. I will examine each of them in turn.
1.“Think of what is right and true.” At first this might seem like a statement of “my martial art is correct, and yours is wrong.” That is not how I view this statement. For me, this means that only those techniques/movements that are effective while maintaining safety for uke should be part of what we practice. There are many different Aikido techniques, and many ways that individuals chose to practice them. However, a brief search on the Internet will provide good and bad video examples of any given technique. My “measuring stick” is whether uke’s balance is taken immediately and is never given back during the course of the technique (all the way to the ground.) Also, during the technique, is nage safe from any strikes or counterattacks from uke? If the movement fails either of these tests, it is not “right and true” and should be discarded or modified until it can pass them.
2.“Practice and cultivate the science.” To me this means that sound physical principles should govern what we practice. There is an amazing amount of physics involved in practicing Aikido, too much to outline here, but some of the basics that people should know include: moment of inertia, rotational statics and dynamics, torque, conservation of angular momentum, kinematics and Newton’s three laws. If one has a basic grasp on these ideas, there is no need to appeal to mystical forces of “ki” to explain how something works (or fails to.) Ki is still a useful concept/tool as it helps to focus the mind on the direction of your attention during a technique. However, if your technique fails, it’s not because you didn’t “extend ki”, it’s because you got the physics wrong (in addition to possibly having improper focus/intent/ki).
3.“Become acquainted with the arts.” Art here could mean many things. In my opinion, this refers to the fine arts: painting, sculpture, photography, acting, music, ect. This “rule” is there to try to ensure that the people practicing with you are well rounded and not just thugs looking for a better way to fight. If one learns to appreciate beauty, it gives you a better idea of things in life that should be valued. It also serves to provide the individual with an idea of the dividing line between light/dark, useful/useless, good/evil, etc.
4.“Know the principles of the crafts.” This one is fairly straightforward. If you know how things are made, you gain a better appreciation for their value, and the value of a craftsman. On a practical level, the craft of woodworking allows the martial artist to craft their own practice weapons, or evaluate weapons brought into the dojo for practice.
5.“Understand the harm and benefit in everything.” This is crucial for a martial artist in today’s society. As we train to protect ourselves and our loved ones, we gain tools that can cause great damage or death to an attacker. It is our responsibility to make ourselves aware of the long term consequences of the techniques we learn. If a drunk friend gets obnoxious at a party and takes a swing at you, do you engage them with the most brutal techniques and leave them broken and crippled, or control them without damage except to their ego? The former may get you in jail or sued, the latter may just spoil an evening. This is not to say that you won’t ever have to use a brutal technique and break some of the attacker’s bones. If your or someone else’s life is in danger, you need to do what is necessary to survive and protect those with you. You just need to have thought about it ahead of time (in the dojo) as to how far you are willing to go in this type of situation.
6.“Learn to see everything accurately.” This one is very similar to Rule #1 in terms of how I apply it to my Aikido practice. If a technique only works with an uke that is extremely cooperative, then you are doing it wrong. You should look at every part of it as objectively as possible and figure out what part is not correct. Uke should apply appropriate levels of resistance to provide feedback to nage in terms of checking for kuzushi and connection to center throughout the technique.
7.“Become aware of what is not obvious.” When observing someone execute technique, you need to look beyond the gross movements. You need to see the subtle shifts in balance, foot/knee/hip/elbow alignment, orientation of shoulders and hips, etc. This is like the traditional way of teaching I have seen in many dojos/seminars I have attended. The student is expected to absorb the details through many observations and repeated practice over the course of their training. This is a crucial skill that needs to be acquired by the martial arts student.
8.“Be careful even in small matters.” In practice, sometimes we get used to doing certain movements or techniques a certain way. We don’t think about the details of it anymore because of how many times we have practiced them. This is a mistake. Even the most basic exercises should be done with a complete focus on the details. Only in this way will you still benefit from doing them. Once you become an unthinking robot on the mat, you have stopped learning.
9.“Do not do anything useless.” To an outsider, there are many things in traditional Aikido practice that appear useless or not “street effective”. It would be too easy to just jettison those things and only focus on concepts/techniques that will work on the “street”. The way I interpret Musashi’s statement is that you should always look for and focus on the underlying principle that a particular drill/kata/technique explores. There is a fine line between just going through the motions and engaging in excessive “what if’s” in our practice. When beginning a particular practice sequence, uke and nage should understand each of their roles in the drill and what each of them should be getting out of it. Only when uke and nage get nothing out of a particular drill should it be discarded.
In a nutshell, Musashi’s Rules amount to the statement: “Be a Renaissance Man/Woman”. Be a student of all things and pay attention to everything you do, no matter what it is.
I hope my take on The Book of Five Rings has given the reader something to think about. I’m sure others will have different ideas, but these are mine and reflect my current place along my martial path.